[ A version of this blog post was crossposted on Conservancy's blog. ]
I'm quite delighted with my career choice. As an undergraduate and even in graduate school, I still expected my career extend my earlier careers in the software industry: a mixture of software developer and sysadmin. I'd probably be a DevOps person now, had I stuck with that career path.
Instead, I picked the charity route: which (not financially, but work-satisfaction-wise) is like winning a lottery. There are very few charities related to software freedom, and frankly, if (like me) you believe in universal software freedom and reject proprietary software entirely, there are two charities for you: the Free Software Foundation, where I used to work, and Software Freedom Conservancy, where I work now.
But software freedom is not merely an ideology for me. I believe the ideology matters because I see the lives of developers and users are better when they have software freedom. I first got a taste of this IRL when I attended the earliest Perl conferences in the late 1990s. My friend James and I stayed in dive motels and even slept in a rental car one night to be able to attend. There was excitement in the Perl community (my first Free Software community). I was exhilarated to meet in person the people I'd seen only as god-like hackers posting on perl5-porters. James was so excited he asked me to take a picture of him jumping as high as he could with his fist in the air in front of the main conference banner. At the time, I complained; I was mortified and felt like a tourist taking that picture. But looking back, I remember that James and I felt that same excitement and just were expressing it differently.
I channeled that thrill into finding a way that my day job would focus on software freedom. As an activist since my teenage years, I concentrated specifically on how I could preserve, protect and promote this valuable culture and ideology in a manner that would assure the rights of developers and users to improve and share the software they write and use.
I've enjoyed the work; I attend more great conferences than I ever imagined I would, where now people occasionally walk up to me with the same kind of fanboy reverence that I reserved for Larry Wall, RMS and the heroes of my Free Software generation. I like my work. I've been careful, however, to avoid a sense of entitlement. Since I read it in 1991, I have never forgotten RMS' point in the GNU Manifesto: Most of us cannot manage to get any money for standing on the street and making faces. But we are not, as a result, condemned to spend our lives standing on the street making faces, and starving. We do something else., a point he continues in his regular speeches, by adding: I [could] just … give up those principles and start … writing proprietary software. I looked for another alternative, and there was an obvious one. I could leave the software field and do something else. Now I had no other special noteworthy skills, but I'm sure I could have become a waiter. Not at a fancy restaurant; they wouldn’t hire me; but I could be a waiter somewhere. And many programmers, they say to me, “the people who hire programmers demand [that I write proprietary software] and if I don’t do [it], I’ll starve”. It’s literally the word they use. Well, as a waiter, you’re not going to starve.
RMS' point is not merely to expose the false dilemma inherent in I have to program, even it's proprietary, because that's what companies pay me to do, but also to expose the sense of entitlement in assuming a fundamental right to do the work you want. This applies not just to software authorship (the work I originally trained for) but also the political activism and non-profit organizational work that I do now.
I've spent most of my career at charities because I believe deeply that I should take actions that advance the public good, and because I have a strategic vision for the best methods to advance software freedom. My strategic goals to advance software freedom include two basic tenets: (a) provide structure for Free Software projects in a charitable home (so that developers can focus on writing software, not administration, and so that the projects aren't unduly influenced by for-profit corporations) and (b) uphold and defend Free Software licensing, such as copyleft, to ensure software freedom.
I don't, however, arrogantly believe that these two priorities are inherently right. Strategic plans work toward a larger goal, and pursing success of a larger ideological mission requires open-mindedness regarding strategies. Nevertheless, any strategy, once decided, requires zealous pursuit. It's with this mindset that I teamed up with my colleague, Karen Sandler, to form Software Freedom Conservancy.
Conservancy, like most tiny charities, survives on the determination of its small management staff. Karen Sandler, Conservancy's Executive Director, and I have a unique professional collaboration. She and I share a commitment to promoting and defending moral principles in the context of software freedom, along with an unrelenting work ethic to match. I believe fundamentally that she and I have the skills, ability, and commitment to meet these two key strategic goals for software freedom.
Yet, I don't think we're entitled to do this work. And, herein there's another great feature of a charity. A charity not only serves the public good; the USA IRS also requires that a charity be funded primarily by donations from the public.
I like this feature for various reasons. Particularly, in the context of the fundraiser that Conservancy announced this week, I think about it terms of seeking a mandate from the public. As Conservancy poises to begin its tenth year, Karen and I as its leaders stand at a crossroads. For financial reasons of the organization's budget, we've been thrust to test this question: Does the public of Free Software users and developers actually want the work that we do?.
While I'm nervous that perhaps the answer is no, I'm nevertheless not afraid to ask the question. So, we've asked. We asked all of you to show us that you want our work to continue. We set two levels, matching the two strategic goals I mentioned. (The second is harder and more expensive to do than the first, so we've asked many more of you to support us if you want it.)
It's become difficult in recent years to launch a non-profit fundraiser (which have existed for generations) and not think of the relatively recent advent of gofundme, Kickstarter, and the like. These new systems provide a (sadly, usually proprietary software) platform for people to ask the public: Is my business idea and/or personal goal worth your money?. While I'm dubious about those sites, I do believe in democracy enough to build my career on a structure that requires an election (of sorts). Karen and I don't need you to go to the polls and cast your ballot, but we do ask you consider if what we do for a living at Conservancy is worth US$10 per month to you. If it is, I hope you'll “cast a vote” for Conservancy and become a Conservancy supporter now.
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