I think you remember the conversation we had recently at this software conference in Dublin. You came up to me and told me how the stuff I was talking about was mostly useless, because it is closed-source, people need to pay for it and that companies charging for software are evil anyways – especially Microsoft. Unfortunately I don’t have your email, but I am sure this will reach you.
First, I would like to thank you for the interesting conversation that developed and to make sure that none of what was said just fades away, I’ll tell you here once again what I am thinking about what you do, what you think and – most importantly about your future.
When I was 21 – like you now – I was also at university and was pursing a computer science master degree. Back then, I was very enthusiastic about programming and creating stuff that mattered. And thought that I was the best programmer the field has ever seen and everyone else was mostly worthless. And I did indeed write some programs that mattered and made a difference. The program I spent some 3 years writing in Turbo Pascal from when I was 18 was for my father’s business. Because the business he’s in requires a lot of bureaucracy, he and my mother spent about 2-3 daily hours on average doing all of this stuff by hand. When I was done with my program and he started using it, that time went from 3 hours to about 15 minutes a day. That was software that absolutely improved the quality of life for the entire family! And his friends and colleagues loved it, too. I didn’t sell many licenses at that time (I think I had 3 customers), but each one was worth 1500 German Marks and that was a huge heap of money for me. I mean – I was living at my parent’s house, getting a monthly allowance of 120 German Marks and worked as a cable grip for a couple of TV stations every once in a while – maybe 2-3 times a month. And if I ever had 400 Marks per month I could really consider myself massively rich at the time and for my age, because I had very minimal additional expenses. So 4500 Marks on top of that? Fantastic. Where did the money go? I can’t really remember where it all went, but I guess “lot of partying” or “Girls, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll” would be a reasonably good explanation. Hey, I was 21 and that’s what one is supposed to do at that age, right?
That was in 1990 – let’s fast forward to 2004 and you. All software that you and your father could possibly be interested in has already been written. That’s probably not true, but it’s hard to think of something, right? Ok, the software may not run on your favorite operation system and may cost money, but what you can immediately think of is likely there. So where do you put all your energy? Into this absolutely amazing open-source project you co-coordinate. I mean, really, the stuff that you and your buddies are doing there is truly impressive. There are a couple of things I’d probably do differently in terms of design and architecture, but it works well and that’s mostly what matters. And you do make an impact as well. I know that hundreds of people and dozens of companies use your stuff. That’s great.
However, I start to wonder where your benefit is. You are – out of principle – not making any money out of this, because it is open-source and you and your buddies insist that it must be absolutely free. So you are putting all of that time and energy into this project for what? Fame? To found a career? Come on.
If someone installs your work from disc 3 of some Linux distro, they couldn’t care less who you are. The whole fame thing you are telling me only works amongst geeks. The good looking, intelligent girl over there at the bar that you’d really like to talk to doesn’t care much whether you are famous amongst a group of geeks and neither does she even remotely fathom why you’d be famous for that stuff in the first place. I mean – get real here.
So once you get your degree from school, what’s the plan?
Right now, your university education is free like in many places in Europe and you have plenty of time to work on your degree without too much financial pressure. Over here in Germany things are a bit extreme in that it is not uncommon that folks spend 6, 8 or even 10 years (!) in school until they finally get their masters degree. So you may not have to think about this much now and you probably don’t. But let’s talk about it anyways.
When you leave school, your parents will – honestly – be keen to get you out of their house. They’ve spent 25 years of their life being parents and now that they are in their early 50s, they want to enjoy their life and I am sure that your dad is keen to play with grandchildren – but just every once in a while. So you’ll have to take care of yourself.
How so? Well, you need to get a job that pays. And you’ll probably want to have your own car, your own apartment and if you really want to have a family you will have to be able to support it. All of that only works with money. Where does it come from? If you believe that the result of your own work must be free for everyone – who’s going to pay for it?
No – in the end you are going to settle for a job that pays for your house, your car and your wife and children. You’ll be a developer and, eventually, architect or project manager who produces software for money. That’s your core skill and that’s what you invested 6 years and more of your life into. That money will either come from some internal budget of the company that you work for as a “corporate developer” or it will come from the clients that license the software that your company produces. In the end, there’s got to be money in your pocket. I know that’s not very romantic and has very little to do with the “free software is love” sort of thing, but it’s inevitable. Romantic is what you can get out of that money and that’s a decent life with a house, a car and a family.
Yes, I know the argument. Software is supposed to be free and the money is made out of supporting it. Look around you. Read some industry magazines. Who exactly is making money out of “free”? IBM does, HP does and the large consulting companies do. They rake in the big bucks. But do they make the money on open-source software? No, they make that money on outsourcing deals, running data centers and selling hardware. That’s not the side of the IT business that is at all concerned about creating software that you want to be in. That is the side of the IT business that runs software.
Where money is made from creating software, software isn’t free. Either the software is paid for directly or it is cross-subsidized from budgets elsewhere in a company that also sells hardware or consulting services.
The whole thing about “free software” is a lie. It’s a dream created and made popular by people who have a keen interest in having cheap software so that they can drive down their own cost and profit more or by people who can easily demand it, because they make their money out of speaking at conferences or write books about how nice it is to have free software. At the bottom of the food chain are people like you, who are easily fooled by the “let’s make the world a better place” rhetoric and who are so enthusiastic about technology that writing open-source – or any source for that matter – is the absolutely best imaginable way to spend their time. It doesn’t matter whether you love what you are doing and consider this the hobby you want to spend 110% of your time on: It’s exploitation by companies who are not at all interested in creating stuff. They want to use your stuff for free. That’s why they trick you into doing it.
And I sure understand the whole altruistic aspect of this and the idea of helping people to have better lives through free software. There’s a saying that goes: “If you are 20 and you aren’t a communist you have no heart.”, but it continues “if you are 30 and you still are a communist, you lack rationality”.
In the end, Aiden, it’s your choice. Do you want to have a car, a house and a family when you are 30? Do you love being a software engineer at the same time? If so, you literally need to get a life. Forget the dream about stuff being free and stop advocating it. It’s idiocy. It’s bigotry. If you want to put your skills to work and you need to support a family, your work and work results can’t be free. Software is the immediate result and the manifestation of what your learned and what you know. How much is that worth? Nothing? Think again.
With best wishes for your future