J003-Content-An-ode-to-open-source-developers_SQOver the last couple of decades, the computer industry has made giant leaps forward. Better technology, better applications as well as more and more people embracing the industry were just some of the most important factors that drove the IT industry forward. But how do you advance in such an industry and become successful? So many people ask me this question and my answer is always the same. It is simply not enough to focus on academia and to really stand out you need to embrace the subject and make it part of your life. But how would someone embrace such a subject if it wasn’t for open source and freeware developers?

When I started my own journey in the wonderful world of IT, I was too young to even legally hold a job. For all my hardware and software I depended entirely on my parents since I had no source of income. To make matters worse computers were pretty expensive back then and my parents spent around $3000 to get me my first PC (which wasn’t even a top of the range one either). I can only imagine what their reaction would have been if I asked them to fork out yet another $3000 so I could get started on the more technical aspects of the profession. There was no way that was going to happen, and in all fairness they had no guarantee it was going to lead anywhere.

What was easy however, was to convince them to give me a little more money to buy a magazine. A magazine that was bundled with a bunch of floppy disks that contained the very first free open source software applications I would use. It was an old distribution of GNU/Linux.

With only a few dollars, which essentially went for the magazine and not the software, I opened a window onto server operating systems, server applications and all the other beautiful complexities of technology. I have no problem looking back to that and saying it was a defining moment in my life, the one moment that got me where I am today. And it is all thanks to selfless developers who decided to spend their time writing excellent code and sharing their programs with everyone else for free.

If the sharing of software wasn’t enough, many of these developers also share their source code. It’s worth mentioning that if you’re not a developer you cannot properly appreciate what a feat this is. Developers do not like to share their code. It is not just because it is akin to a magician sharing his secrets,  but it is also because you need to make sure it looks good both in structure and in appearance. You need to leave annotations and make sure it is easy to follow. It will undoubtedly take far longer to code something if you intend to share it, rather than when you know it being hidden away and no one will ever see what goes on under the hood.

It is thanks to these developers that we have unparalleled opportunities. Not only do these open source developers give us the opportunity to learn how to set up servers and how to configure them for free, we also get to see how they work and thus how to code them. Through open source code, we have the opportunity to thinker and experiment, getting first hand experience on how certain changes might affect the system. That’s like the little child in all of us who always wondered what would happen if a rocket was strapped to a car, only here the little kid can actually put his thoughts into practice and see what happens first hand in their very own setup.

These awesome developers gave us otherwise expensive software free, as well as shared with us the secret sauce. Surely, that’s enough? Of course it is, yet some of these developers go a step further. They also document their work in great detail.

Getting hold of a GNU/Linux installation might have been easy but this was a time when there was no internet access anywhere in my country (in Malta the advent of the internet took a while). If I had trouble installing or getting something to work I had no Google to turn to.

Back then GNU/Linux installations had a reputation of being hard to install and configure; from my experience that was a fair reputation as things just didn’t work right out of the box back then.  There was the need for some tinkering to make things works. It took me a couple of weeks to get the whole thing to even install.

Yet a child with no experience whatsoever, on a new computer, with no internet access, successfully debugged issues, installed and configured a server operating system running every server bundled with it. All this was possible thanks to the excellent documentation that was included with the system. What was amazing is that the developers who wrote the documentation not only went into great detail on how to configure their software but also took the time to write how things worked and the theory behind them. It was truly a work of love.

This is my personal experience on how open source and free software helped me grow. And nowadays, no matter what your chosen profession is, chances are there is open source and free software that can help you get started. It is not just operating systems and server software that is open source. There is open source software for nearly everything. From graphical design to medical science.

Truth is, learning is not the only driver for the open source movement.  People write open source software so that other developers can use what they have created and develop more applications using that as foundation. This is the avalanche that propelled the whole industry forward in leaps and bounds. These people do not even ask for money, they let you use their code and the only stipulation is you have to make your code freely available for others to use just like you had the freedom of using it yourself.

The sad thing is some people do not appreciate what open source has done for our industry. You hear people refer to GNU/Linux as a toy operating system or how Open Source software just does not live up to their close source counterparts. Yet open source software is everywhere. Do you have a smart phone? Chances are it is running on open source software. Smart TVs, microwave ovens, washing machines? There’s a good chance these are all running on open source software.  And it is not just the little things either. Linux powers the Large Hadron Collider, NASA and SpaceX ground stations as well as the new self-driving cars.

I don’t want to imply that none of this would have been possible today without open source but I am sure it would have taken the creators of these technologies far longer to get to a certain point, thus making the devices we use and enjoy every day far more expensive to buy. Open source developers gave us great opportunities and made our lives far better without asking anything in return. The least we can do is say thank you.

So here goes: Thank you open source developers. You are all modern day heroes to me.