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July 21st, 2015

Profile of an Everyday FOSS Developer

Software. It’s been a thing that has fascinated me for decades. As a layman, the fact that lines of gibberish can be aligned to make a computer do the things wanted or needed is almost miraculous and resides in the shadows between magic and science. I am almost childlike when being shown how that gibberish makes devices do their stuff…stuff I want to do.

Isaac CarterWhat drives a person to do this? That whole “making my computer do what I want it to do” thing; how does a person even get their head around that in the first place? What was the specific moment in time when a person says, “I want to write software to make my computer do what I want it to do”?

But then, someone awakens you to the fact:

“Say what? I can get paid really good money…a lot of money…to write software to make someone else’s computer do what they want it to do? Really? Oh hell, it’s on now.”

But as if that wasn’t enough, you discover there is a global community that writes software, and not always for profit. Sometimes the software is written for the betterment of mankind. No financial reward, no mailbox money for their creations…simply software authors who want to help others around the world.

And most assuredly, at least for you, it is, “on now.”

In 2005 I stood at my crossroad, without dark magic spells requiring blood in a bowl and ancient babble to evoke an un-human being. We aren’t talking about that kind of crossroad, but a crossroad that changes lives, a symbolic place in life where life-changing decisions are made. At such a crossroads, the thing that should stand out is that you are not the only life changed and that your life may be changed only minimally. For software developers, it’s the lives that reach out to use your software, the people who use ‘that gibberish” to better themselves, and in turn, helps others…those are the lives that are changed.

I chose the road that led me to use your software, your creation, to help others.

My absolute hatred for mathematics led me to that other choice in the crossroad. I would use your work to improve the lives of others. All I do is repackage your spells and put them into the hands that will form our future…and theirs.

When I lost my voice to cancer, it became clear to me that I could not sit around and feel sorry for myself. There was work yet to do and something so trivial as losing my voice wasn’t going to change that. But here’s the part where Teh Suk knocks at the door: The open source software I assumed would be there for me wasn’t there, at least not in the form and functionality that most of the world needed it to be. That software did exist, but in components and chunks that are truly scattered around the globe. Finding what I need became more of a scavenger hunt than a simple search for the text to speech software I could use to live my life the way I wanted to live it.

It was after the obligatory five stages of grief for the software that wasn’t there that I decided to search for a voice, or for the software that would provide me that voice. I searched for weeks, until I discovered the open source Java app named MaryTTS. It was almost magnificent in scope and others tell me it’s probably one of the finest crafted pieces of software they’ve seen. The problem was there wasn’t a good vehicle to drive the program. It was lines of terminal gibberish that you needed to type in order to make the software do your bidding. And for 90 percent of the people who use a computer, that just plain, flat out, wasn’t going to work.

I began a search for people who might want to help build a front end for MaryTTS, and it didn’t take long for software engineers to emerge to the fore and offer their services. At the beginning of this search, I had offered a bounty of sorts, a bounty of a measly $500.00 as an ante, to sweeten the pot. I didn’t know it at the time, but that amount of money is laughable to get a piece of software written. But four people stepped forward to offer their services, and if I am understanding correctly, these guys would rather work at their own pace, using the time available to them, instead of accepting monetary compensation for their work.

That’s the open source community at work and at their best. People who answer the call for help. People who would just as soon do the work required and then move along. I am more than happy to protect their anonymity, but I was able to talk one of these people into talking with me on FOSS Force:

I would like to introduce you to Isaac Carter.

Isaac emailed me a few weeks ago, and introduced himself as someone who was extremely interested in the work we do at Reglue. He told me that he had already rebuilt a Lenovo laptop and placed it in the home of a local kid who needed it. Isaac lives and works in the Washington, DC area, by way of Virginia. We developed a friendship as we passed emails back and forth.

Isaac is an “off duty” Marine. I say “off duty” instead of “ex,” because he suits the expression, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” He served in the Marine Corps from 2002 until 2006, and in that time, he served two tours in Iraq. He is a driven, goal-oriented guy, someone who will not quit until what he is doing is completely finished.

As we kicked around things about Reglue and how Reglue operates, Isaac mentioned that he was more than interested in working with us to build a EDCU front end for MaryTTS. And I will repeat this a few times over the next few articles: EDCU is an acronym for “everyday computer user.” It makes my carpal tunnel happy when I can shorten any typing task, regardless of how large or small the savings.

I told Isaac that MaryTTS was an open source Java program, and that I believed the front end we are building was probably better off being written in Java as well. To my surprise, he informed me that he had “picked up” Java in the past few years and would be glad to help with the project. He will join the group already working on this front end in the next week.

How do you do that? How do you “pick up” Java? Or any computer language for that matter? To me, that’s like saying, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to swing by Cern and see if I can get that pesky Hadron Collider working for those folks.”

After being discharged from the Marines, Isaac needed to make some choices. He hung out a lot with his cousin, who seemed to be doing exceedingly well working as a software engineer. Isaac decided that a career in the computer and software sciences was where he wanted to be. He enrolled in Murray State University and gained his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2010. He realized that he would probably need to move from his hometown in Kentucky in order to gain full time, good-paying employment. He was correct in his assumption.

The following July, he was offered a job at ManTech International in Chantilly, Va., and made the move to Virginia.

“I stayed on at ManTech for a little over two years and then took a job offer with SAIC,” he said. “The SAIC position had me move back to Kentucky to work at Fort Knox, helping update some of the United States Army’s promotion system. Funny thing is, once I moved back to Kentucky, I realized why I moved away in the first place. So after about two years, I was able to land my current job at 5AM Solutions. I have been at 5AM for a little over a year now and couldn’t be any happier.”

Happy. That’s a word that is larger than some marginal black pixels against a white background. Many of us work for half a lifetime and are not happy in our work. However, that work pays the bills and quite possibly provides an abundant lifestyle for us and our families.

But this is not our father’s job market or economy. In my dad’s day, it was the norm to get hired on at a factory, foundry or other place of manufacturing and remain there for a 30 year career. For most, it ended with the traditional gold watch and gathering at a local watering hole; then it was “goodbye and good luck.” That’s not the way it is any more. Today, and especially in the computer or mobile device field, many work from contract to contract in highly skilled positions that often pay astoundingly well. But when it’s over, it’s over, and the last six months of a contract is spent trying to line up the next contract. Lather, rinse and repeat.

While working in the traditional manner is no longer the norm, neither are the people that become software engineers. They are, indeed, a group of their own; a group that has a combined IQ of “Holy Friggin’ Cow.” It’s these guys who for the most part make up the FOSS global community. It’s guys like Isaac Carter who make up the network of those writing software that matters.

If that wasn’t enough, if writing software that matters doesn’t satisfy Isaac’s Geek Core, there is his other passion: hardware tinkering and creation. I asked him about where that might take him in years to come:

“Where do I see myself in the next several years? I hope to still be building software. I would love one day for my work to completely revolve around Linux or the Raspberry Pi or some form of FOSS. Recently, I have started two projects that I’m hoping really takes off. My first project is imitating the efforts of project Reglue in Washington, DC. Working through a church in one of the rougher areas of DC, I have been trying to give out refurbished laptops with Linux Mint on them to families in need. To date, I have only given out one computer, but have several more lined up to hand-out, and the family with the one computer is super pleased with it. So even if I never hand out another computer, I can be pleased with the fact that at least one family is doing better.

“The second project is the Raspberry Pi meetup I have created for the DC area. I bought a Raspberry Pi recently and completely love the thing. Since organizing the meetup, I have been pushing to do more for the Raspberry Pi community. I’m currently working with a couple of other individuals to set up a much larger Pi event for the area and talking with the Raspberry Pi Org folks to further this along.”

Is this what the “normal” Linux software guy looks like? Is Isaac Carter typical in his peer group? Isaac brushes such questions off as if brushing lint from a sweater. As I have discovered in my years in the FOSS community, the guys and girls who make Linux and open source work are almost always humble. They are self-deprecating by nature and don’t much like talking about themselves. Not everyone breathing this rarefied air will fit this model, but enough to allow the stereotypes to endure.

Oatmeal and User Friendly would be out of work if they didn’t.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

5 comments to Profile of an Everyday FOSS Developer

  • Randal

    “He realized that he would probably need to move from his hometown in Kentucky in order to gain full time, good-paying employment. He was correct in his assumption.”

    Really? Then you don’t remember this story:http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/17/business/la-fi-mo-man-outsourced-job-to-china-20130117

  • I can’t find it now, but there was a follow-up some time after this occurred, talking about how finding a way to criminally charge this guy had failed. Apparently, if done right, it’s not against the law. Also, civil actions were considered before their counsel advised against it so as not to appear with a mouthful of sour grapes and turning this guy into an Internet hero. Actually, ethics seem to be Isaac’s strong suit. But good point Randal. I had completely forgotten about that story.

  • Mike

    I don’t see anything wrong with the guy who outsourced his own job to China. If the work got done and was of high quality, as seems to have been the case, then what’s the problem? Not being truthful with his employer? How many of them are fully forthcoming with their employees? None.

    Our society has become so screwed up where we put corporations’ needs above peoples’ that we can’t even reward ingenuity when it is found. Instead we have to find a way to criminalize it because…why exactly? Heaven forbid someone get one over on a company. We need to all just learn our place and just take what scraps the corporations offer us because trickle down economics totally works…you just have to be patient…you’ll get what you deserve after the executives get their new yachts.

  • CFWhitman

    It sounds like “Bob” from that story was made for a management position to me 😉

    More seriously, if working as a contractor what he did was completely ethical. In that position, it’s not important how you accomplish the work as long as you do accomplish it to the company’s satisfaction. Working as an employee, though, that type of thing is rather deceptive and thus not really ethical. Of course, some have no problem being unethical in their dealings with unethical people/companies, but that doesn’t make deceptive behavior ethical.

  • Darrell L

    “Is this what the “normal” Linux software guy looks like?”

    Why Linux? I’ve worked since the ’70s with guys (and gals) on FOSS projects (we just called it public domain way back then). And up until last year, I did all of that work for every platform but Linux. Now I’m happily coding on and for Linux, and Windows, and Unix, …

    It’s the people that make it a good thing, not the platform, and certainly not something as ephemeral as a software licensing concept.

    That’s what fanboys often don’t or can’t grasp.