A few days ago I got an interesting email from a young chap:
my name is David and I am a fan of your website and your work in ubuntu and lugradio (my chin!!!!). i know you are a well known open source guy and community hero, and one day I want to do the same. i am 14 and want to leave school and do the same thing. i just wanted to ask how you got into free software and how you got to where you are today.
i know are a busy guy so don’t worry if you are too busy to reply to me. thanks a lot.
It is an interesting question, and something I often wonder about people who I follow too; possibly explaining why I like reading biographies. Well, I figured I would provide a quick history, and I would like to encourage other bloggers to do the same. Erk, it seems I might be starting one of those rather annoying Internet memes. At least it is not a What are your top 5 science fiction films involving tentacles? meme. 😛
I will warn you now though, this is a long post, and one I started writing on a train and then finished off on the train back. If it bores you, please move along.
In the beginning, there was hair
OK, I am going to spin back to when I was about 17 years old. I was young, had long straggly hair, and was doing my A-Levels at school. I had worked hard in my GCSE exams and done pretty well, but in-between my GCSEs and A-Levels, I joined my first band, Conspiracy, and was launched into an exciting world of band practises and gigging. Conspiracy were a band with an already established reputation in my area and much older members than me, so to get the job in the band felt like a huge opportunity. Consequently, despite my best efforts, more guitar playing than revision happened, and I completely screwed up my A-Levels and failed to get enough requisite points for my chosen university. Despite the dismal situation, the university (of Wolverhampton) offered me a place anyway (they cited an impressive interview as the reason for letting me in; I suspect they were just lowering the bar for numpties like me, mind). Despite my acceptance, I was not quite ready to give up my cushdie home-life and deferred University for a year, planning a year of working in the day and playing music in the evenings.
Being the supportive types my parents are, they rather bizarrely asked if I would like to run my own business in my year out, and offered to help fund it; it would be a means of me learning business skills, and doing my own thing. They are odd like that, they think of particular opportunities and dangle them in the face of their youngest born, when back then there was a likelyhood of it being wasted. It reminds me of when I was in hospital once having my wisdom teeth removed and they visited me, informing me that an insurance policy that they took out when I was born had matured, and I was the proud owner of Â£1050. As soon as I got out of hospital, I immediately ran out and bought a full Laney stack (a massive guitar amp) – it had 12 speakers, was bloody loud, and towered above me. I remember cranking that baby up, positioning it to my window and going outside in the back garden with my wireless system and the amp switched up to 8 – it was so loud everything would fall off my shelves in my room (we had very patient neighbours, as you can probably imagine). My parents should have known better. Anyway, I digress. I started my little business doing technical support (called The Mouse Man, my mums idea), and it lasted about three months. A combination of me being rubbish at technical support and not really business minded blew it, so I offered myself up for full-time work in the bookshop I worked at in Milton Keynes.
Around this time, my eldest brother, Simon, returned from the US and came to stay with us. Simon and I had a love/hate relationship back then – I hated him and he loved to taunt me. Despite our differences, we had some fun, and one day, while I was bemoaning Windows again, he mentioned something called ‘Linux’ to me, referring to Windows as a ‘Mickey Mouse Operating System’. He filled me in on how Linux was free, and you could get a free copy of it on the back of a book. Using my mighty staff discount, I nipped over to the bookshop I worked at in my rusty old Fiat Uno van and picked up Slackware Unleashed, complete with my 30% discount. We rushed back, and Simon began to install the included copy of Slackware 96 on my computer. It took him literally a week to set it up, and he was there with the case open, bits strewn everywhere, using pliers to poke around with the hard disk – I was not entirely enthused by such a sight, and slightly scared at this big ‘ol chunk of hardcore that he was installing. The only amusement I took was watching him get more and more infuriated. That made me happy.
Eventually, the “piece of hippy s**t” (his words) was installed and ready for me. Pretty much the day he finished the installation, he moved out, and I was left with a huge hardback book and this on my screen:
darkstar login: _
I sat down, stuck a Testament album on and started reading Chapter 1 of the mighty tome, and read about the community, and how every day people around the world worked together to make Linux better, using the Internet to share their work. I was utterly, utterly captivated, and the sheer potential of it all inspired me. Without actually using Linux, I read up on it, joined IRC channels, read newsgroups and mailing lists and got to know some of its rather fanatical users. Despite such excitement, the damn thing was inanely complicated, and after three weeks or so, I gave up. I was excited and enthused, but I just could not hack the pace, and I had grown bored of configuration files, compilers, and grep. I was out.
Well, it didn’t last long. Despite my best efforts, I was still captivated at the sheer prospect of this worldwide group of people making this Linux thing better every day. Surely, it was just heinously complicated right now, and it would get better? Also, despite its complexity, I had met some interesting Linux people in the dark annals of the Internet, and I found them strangely intriguing – just regular people who contributed to a system that hundreds and hundreds of people were using. These people inspired me, and I wanted to have the same kind of impact, despite having the technical ability of a rubber hammer.
One of the benefits of the bookshop that I worked in was that it had been bought by Waterstones (a large book retailer in the UK), and we basically sold off all the old stock from our other branches for Â£1 and Â£2 per book before we were re-branded as Waterstones. As such, once a month when we got a delivery, there was a mad rush as customers snapped up the new stock, and the rest of the month was pretty quiet. To fill the time I would read the computer books that came into the shop that were relevant to Linux, and when I had finished them, I would print out HOWTOs from the Linux Documentation Project and read them. The bookshop was scattered with random bits of paper with various Linux bits and pieces scrawled on them, as I scrambled to figure the Linux beast out. In addition to this, I also started writing my own little guides on the shop computer. For some time I had written a number of guitar lessons for my website, and I enjoyed writing, so I turned my sights to helping with documentation where I could.
Almost immediately I became indoctrinated with free software, and the ethos behind it. I have always been the kind of person that will try to sell a concept of something I like to others (as my friends will painfully testify about metal), and I wanted to tell the world about Linux. I realised I had a captive audience every day at work, so I found some Linux logos on the Internet, printed them out and ironed them onto some t-shirts. When someone would come in and ask about the t-shirt, they would get a pitch from me about Linux. It was amazing just how many people would ask about the t-shirt.
Around the time I realised just how few resources there were in the UK for Linux, but I saw various names from the UK on comp.os.linux.announce newsgroup and was aware of a limited handful of Linux User Groups across the country, the nearest to me being in Northampton (I was living in Bedfordshire at the time). Back then I had built my own website and an advocacy site called The Triaxis Zone about the Mesa/Boogie Triaxis guitar amp (which I didn’t actually own at the time, but hankered after…odd, I know). I built these sites using Microsoft Frontpage which my dad had bought for me, so I fired it up and produced a new site called Linux UK. Yep, Linux UK started out life being created in Microsoft Frontpage.
The page went online on some free Xoom hosting, and people started using it. It had news, opinion, links, tuition guides and other bits of interest for UK Linux users. One such section was a listing of Linux users in the UK, and as the site grew, I would get between 5 and 10 emails a day from people with their details, and I would manually update the website. Yep, it got boring quickly, very, very, boring, but I kept it up, and the site continued to grow.
A few months in, I received an email from John Dorman, a random guy who offered to purchase a linuxuk.co.uk domain name for me. He did so and the site started to feel a little more real. John worked for an ISP and had recently become a Red Hat reseller. In those days, some members of the Linux community were getting a little frustrated that Linux box sets (which had a CD, instruction book and notes) were selling for quite a lot of money and it was blocking people getting into Linux, and with such a small community back then, every user was critical to get on board. John and I devised a devious scheme to buy Red Hat sets in and sell them at virtually no profit, undercutting anyone who sold the sets – we were not in it for profit-making purposes, we just wanted to get the sets out to the users and to allow more people to get started with Linux. He dealt with the sets, and I promoted and publicised it on Linux UK. Consequently, a fair few sets were shifted.
After a little while of running Linux UK, I got an email from a chap called Rafiu Fakunle from XInit Systems. He liked the site and was keen to support it. He offered me a web server, laptop, printed t-shirts and any other support I needed. To an 18 year old kid, this was a big deal – my website was receiving some commercial attention. Rafiu drove up from London to Luton and we had a meeting. I will never forget driving over there, psyched about this important meeting I had, flying down the M1 listening to Powerslave by Iron Maiden in my rubbish van. It felt good. It felt like there was potential. Despite my inexperience making me feeling worried and anxious that this random business dude was going to screw me in some way (which incidentally, he never did) I accepted his offer of help. Linux UK started to grow bigger than ever.
September was approaching, and I left for University, with Linux UK in full flow, and in my first few weeks there I met a chap called Steve ‘sparkes’ Parkes (LugRadio fans will know him from Season 1). I showed Steve Linux UK, who was far more technical than me, and he was stunned that I had maintained the site for so long manually. He started work on a full dynamic website written in PHP with some other people in the community (one of which being my brother, Simon). With Wolverhampton as my new home, and having been to two Northampton LUG meetings, I decided to set up Wolverhampton LUG, and started encouraging more of a Linux community in the city. This is where I eventually met Matt Revell (popped along to see what a LUG was like), Aq (moved to the Midlands, wanted to join a new LUG), Adam Sweet (had never owned a PC, got Linux on cover-disc and came to the LUG), Ade Bradshaw (came over from South Birmingham LUG), Chris Proctor (also from South Birmingham LUG), the Spline (came to Wolves LUG to demo his 3D scanner), Barbie (came over for our first Xmas party) and other people who LugRadio fans might know.
When I started the LUG, I was very keen for it to be different; I wanted it to be a really social group, with lots of eating, drinking, and being merry, just with a lot of talk about Linux – I was really eager for it to not be the socially awkward, forced, monotonal, formal culture of many LUGs and technical groups. Luckily the group developed its own identity and a reputation among other groups for its more irreverent nature, and we had a great time (I passed the reigns to the current LUGMaster, Dave Moreley in late 2006 – who continues to run the group). LugRadio was in-fact conceived in the corner of The Moon Under Water pub in Wolverhampton as an idea to take our spirit in the LUG and put it in an audio show.
Despite the excellent work going into the new, dynamic Linux UK, I was growing bored of it, and wanted a new challenge. Around the time I was fascinated with the KDE desktop, and was regularly compiling the latest CVS copy of KDE and poking around with it, reporting bugs when I found them. Slowly KDE was taking over Linux UK in my life. I remember sitting in the back row of the IT lab in lectures, doing my work while compiling KDE 2 on my laptop and reading kde-devel to see what was going on. Back then there were no planets or blogs, so mailing lists is where you got your information.
At university, most of my lectures were at Wolverhampton Science Park; a rather nice business park on the outskirts of the town, which was considerably more pleasant than the cold, grey, formal computing center in the middle of town. I did have a few lectures in the computing center, and while there I met a particular professor who saw me using Debian on my laptop at the time. He came over and said “are you a Linux user?”, I said “yep, I use Debian”, and he said “have I got something to show you, come with me”. At this point I should have worried, but alas he took me to a quiet part of the computing center and showed me a locked room full of Linux computers. He offered me as much computing power as I wanted, as much disk space as I needed and anything I wanted installing, he would provide. I filled-in sparkes about this new discovery and we spent hours in that room, working there, getting pizza delivered and learning more about Linux.
At that time I kept a pretty interesting schedule, and sleep was rare. I would wake up 10am, go to the science park for 11am, have lunch in the rather nice cafeteria there at 1pm, finish Uni at 6pm, come home, go out at 7pm with friends to pubs/clubs/gigs, in at 1am, work on KDE until 4am and then go to sleep. Back then, I would go to sleep when Paramount Comedy finished at 4am – I was quite the night-owl, and in the meantime developed a real love for comedy with three hours of nightly comedy augmenting my KDE work.
With all this KDE excitement, I formally announced I was leaving Linux UK (which later changed name and then later shut down) and spent my time on KDE. Around the time I was getting interested in usability, and started the KDE Usability Study. I also started developing a few other sites such as enterprise.kde.org (a site to list businesses and case studies using KDE) and attempted to write some KDE applications (KWebStat, DevCenter, maintained Kafka for a while and wrote a few patches here and there). My attempt at learning KDE development, rather predictably, fell flat on its face – I suck at programming, so I decided to stick to what I seemingly did best, talk to people about Linux and free software.
The Linux Format Break
Around the time I had heard about a conference in London called The Linux Expo. While at university one day, I ducked out of a rather dull lecture to call the organisers to try and bag a space for KDE at the expo. Rather surprisingly, I got a free space, and work started to prepare for the show. Rafiu rather generously paid for me to stay in a hotel room with my friend and co-hort, Lee Jordan. We produced fliers, name-tags, sourced box sets, organised talks at the booth and more. Looking back, I think it was a pretty good show, and I am still proud of what we managed to achieve at that first show, considering we had no money and no experience.
At the time, Linux Format magazine had just been launched in UK, and I heard about a party going on in a pub near Olympia in London. I popped along with Lee, managed to blag our way in, and started schmoozing with the attendees, much of which involved a certain amount of ribbing of the Debian crew who didn’t look particularly amused, sipping on their half-pints of coke. That night I got fairly drunk and gathered the courage to wander over and have a chat with Nick Veitch (editor) and Richard Drummond (senior staff writer) to ask if I could write an article for them. To my surprise they said “yes, but if it is rubbish, we won’t print it“. Fair enough, I thought, and got home, agreed on a topic, and amazingly, they published it. It was one heck of a buzz to see my name in a magazine, I was hooked.
So, I wrote more. In fact, I wrote regularly for Linux Format, and as new magazines came out, I approached them too. I ended up writing for the three main magazines at the time, and all of this produced a nice addition to my student loan, which I promptly squandered on CDs, pizza, guitars and drink. Consequently, my CD collection grew larger by the day, which made me happy. University continued, I did my placement year in the third year, spending a year as a web developer, and then finished my final year. Throughout this time I had written around a hundred articles for magazines and had gained a book agent, and was looking into writing my first book.
It was a tough time finishing university, and many of my close friends were leaving and going back to their native countries or back home, and everyone was scrabbling around for work. I was deeply, deeply uninterested in finding work, so I figured why not just be a lazy sod and write more articles?. So I did. I tidied my little home studio to make an office, fixed up my website, informed the magazines that I wrote for that I was turning full-time and started writing more and more. Before long I was writing for 12 publications and was working on a few books (which is a whole story in itself, that was a wacky time). In addition to this I also developed some training courses, and started learning how to do public speaking.
Around the time, I was regularly going down to LUG meetings, every two weeks. This would basically involve us meeting in a pub, having a good time, talking about the latest goings-on and politics in the Linux world, and getting drunk. Wolves LUG meetings were great fun, and particularly entertaining, with a central hardcore of attendees who were fun, engaging and amusing. For a while I had been thinking about how it would be interesting to take some people from the group and produce an audio show. Interestingly, at the time, Matt Revell, a newcomer to the LUG, was also thinking how the central hard-core of the group could take well to an audio show. One night we discovered we had had the same idea independently and started making plans to take the pair of us, Aq and Steve ‘sparkes’ Parkes and produce a show. As usual, time passed and lethargy set-in, but around Christmas time while I was in Bedford with family, I started the ball rolling and invited everyone to a recording in my little home studio in February to recorded episode 1 of what we were nicknaming ‘lugradio’.
We recorded the first show, and we were very keen for it to retain the atmosphere and irreverence of the LUG. The only thing I did at the time when mixing the show was to cover up the swearing with animal noises, which was amusing in itself for a while (we eventually dropped the censoring later in the first season). We would record the show on a Wednesday evening (every other Wednesday when the LUG was not on), and would finish the recording at about midnight, and then I would spend three hours mixing the show and we would release it the following day. This pretty intense evening of mixing didn’t last long, as I started working more daytime hours due to increasing business relationships with my work. As such, we started to release the show the Monday following a recording.
Retrospectively, the first show was a bit rubbish, but at the time it was new and different, and went down fairly well. We worked to grow a community by producing a mirror network in which our listeners helped chip-in and host the shows, and developing forums, a planet and other community features. Although the show was doing well, it also garnered some controversy, with some people not overly amused at the swearing, anarchic recipe and grilling we gave some interviewees. But, we plodded on, confident in our formula; I am so proud we are still kicking, five seasons in, and hugely proud of the incredible LugRadio community.
After a year and a half or so of working as a journalist, I heard about a new place called OpenAdvantage opening in near-by Birmingham. It was a vendor-neutral, government funded organisation to spread Open Source to hundreds of businesses and individuals in the West Midlands (the region of the UK that I live in). I found this fascinating, so I called them up and asked if they would be interested in an interview. I was invited to their open day, and I shopped the article to Linux User & Developer. I went over and realised that one of the founders, Paul Cooper, was someone who had previously heckled me at a KDE talk that I delivered at South Birmingham LUG, but despite this appalling indiscretion on the part of my future boss-to-be, they were doing a good job. I wrote my article and got it published.
A little while later I got a call inviting me to interview as a consultant for OpenAdvantage. With journalism giving me lots of good times, I was initially not that interested, but the job did intrigue me, so I went along to interview, and got offered it. After some consideration of the offer, I decided it was the right step forward for my career, so I took it. My job there was tasked with helping organisations to move to Open Source – full-time Open Source advocacy, which was a blast. In my two years there I dealt with an incredible array of different businesses and individuals, explored many different subjects, and got to travel all over the world to talk about OpenAdvantage and Open Source. OpenAdvantage, and everyone involved really did make an impact on the West Midlands.
Ubuntu and Canonical
A few years into OpenAdvantage, I knew the project was coming to an end; as a funded project, it had a limited running time, and although there would be an effort to find further funding, I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the worst. Around the time, I read a blog entry on Mark Shuttleworth’s website saying that Canonical were looking for people, and despite being six months away from OpenAdvantage ending, I knew that one of the few companies I would want to work at was Canonical.
One of the problems with being an advocate, is that you can only really work at places that produce software or systems that you truly believe in; it is not like marketing in which the core art of marketing is being able to understand a diverse audience and sell it – advocacy is largely based on people having faith in your belief and the merit of your belief. This limits the field of potential, and the number one company I was going to target when OpenAdvantage came to an end was Canonical. So, I mailed Mark to let him know that I was available, and he mentioned a new role that was coming up called Ubuntu Community Manager. I waited for the job description to go online, and due to an insanely busy schedule, I actually wrote my CV while being driven home after work one day as we had a LugRadio recording that night and I was busy through the week. I then went through four interviews. No-one knew anything about my interviews; I am a little superstitious about jobs, so I kept it all to myself. In fact, at the second LugRadio Live in 2006, I had my final interview scheduled the Monday immediately following. I was utterly shattered after LugRadio Live, having had around 5 hours sleep all weekend, and went down to interview with Matt Zimmerman and Mark Shuttleworth. A few weeks later I got an email offering me the job.
When I received the email I calmly left my desk at OpenAdvantage, walked into the empty meeting room and (very silently) started jumping around with joy. I was a happy bunny, and have been since, and love working at Canonical and with all my friends in the incredible Ubuntu community.
…thats the story so far. So there you have it, Davis, that is a brief (well, rather long, it turns out, despite leaving out big chunks) history of how I got started. I feel incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by such an eclectic and supportive bunch of people, and there is plenty of story to be written yet. I would love to hear how other people got started too, so get writing folks.