The Strength of Community
I’m sitting in a hotel room in California at a technical conference called EclipseCon. The attendees of the conference, the organizers and the speakers are all here to talk about an open source software project called Eclipse. Open source is a subject that is difficult to describe to people who aren’t in the software industry, but the spirit of the project goes like this:
We come from many countries and work for many companies; countries that occasionally make war with each other and companies that compete directly against each other in the marketplace. Yet, we feel it is in our best interests to work together and share what we’ve created with others.
I am here because my employer is a part of the Eclipse Foundation. I have a team of developers who write software and contribute it to Eclipse; we take what others have done for our products. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.
My team had a tutorial session yesterday where they were showing a group of people how to use the technology they had created. By the end of the session, a friend from an old company (Michael Scharf) had already thought of some new and interesting ways to use our work. He showed us what he did and he offered to spend time making data for me to use in my presentation today. He didn’t have to do these things, but it’s in his nature to give something back.
You Can Go Back Home
My wife and I both grew up in small towns in Oklahoma. It’s a quiet place and there’s not much excitement for young people. After college and graduate school, we left to make our mark on the world. We saw a lot of the world and met a lot of nice people along the way.
We were living in Austin, Texas when our son was born. We had a nice house and lived in a beautiful neighborhood, but we felt were missing something that we used to know. When our son became old enough to enter kindergarten, we decided that we would like to move back to my home town in Oklahoma. My manager at the time encouraged me to follow my own path and supported us in our efforts. I continued to work for him for several more years and I’ve been fortunate to work from our home since. My manager today at Motorola allows me to continue working from Oklahoma and I'm extremely grateful for her support.
Some times there are difficulties–I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms and airports, but the benefits for us outweigh the burdens and we are an active part of our small community. I serve on the local Board of Education, work at our annual ag fair, and take photos at Christmas of all the kids with Santa. My wife started the local public library and volunteers at the school. We give to our community because it is the right thing to do. When my wife was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, our community supported us with food, babysitting, and their prayers. While my wife had to deal with the chemotherapy and surgeries using her own strength, the community gave us part of theirs.
Two summers ago, my son came rushing into the house one evening as the sun was setting. He yelled, “Dad! Jeannie’s house is on fire!” I ran outside to see smoke coming from my neighbor’s house. The neighbors did what they could to keep the flames at bay until the volunteer firefighters arrived and put the fire out. These firefighters, while volunteers, are professionals–they take the same training that big city firemen do, but they have day jobs. The community I live in supports the firemen in many ways because we are a better place for their presence. The woman who owned the house has three brothers who are on the fire department and they comforted her after the fire was extinguished. These men are on the fire department because their father was on the fire department and his father before him. It’s all part of being in a community.
The next day, after the fire marshal determined the cause of the blaze, Jeannie’s church members showed up and began dismantling her home. They brought the clothes and furniture outside that were still usable and hauled off the things that were burned too bad. The men pulled out the drywall and insulation and began putting up new walls. The women and children began washing the furniture to pull the smell of smoke out of the fabric. They worked every night and weekend for a month and Jeannie had a home again. Jeannie never had insurance and neither do any of the people in her church. If someone there has a need, their community rallies together and provides for one another.
Here and Now
Last night, I sat in the auditorium at the convention center and watched some of my friends on stage deliver an impromptu karaoke session using slide decks instead of music. The audience drank beer and applauded their antics. The Eclipse Foundation handed awards to those people who best embody the spirit of Open Source. We applauded the honorees, because we all benefit from their efforts and we want to show our appreciation for each other.
While we celebrated, my cell phone was in my bag with the ringer muted. I didn’t realize until later that my wife and friends in Oklahoma were trying to contact me to tell me some news. Bad news.
About the time that my team started their tutorial yesterday afternoon, a fire started in a grain silo back home. Four of our volunteer firefighters were overcome by smoke while inside the silo. One of the men, the fire chief, had died. Another has a broken back. The other two have badly damaged lungs. Two of the injured men are Jeannie’s brothers, as was the man who had died. He leaves behind a wife and two little girls.
We’ve had accidents before and people have died untimely deaths, but we’ve never lost a fireman before. Even as I type, the ladies are preparing meals and helping each other cope with the loss. The men are still fighting the fire and they will begin honoring their fallen colleague in a few days. We will certainly raise a monument to the sacrifice he made, but I don’t think that act will comfort his daughters very much. They can be proud of their father some day, but for now, they just want their daddy.
The Real Strength of Community
In the open source software world, we talk at length about “creating a community”. Before a project can be considered mature, we must build a community of users around it. As projects, we strive to gather people in the hope they will contribute something for the greater good. Often these discussions are fruitless as many people take and very few give. To those who give, like Michael, Doug, Scott, Wayne, Mik, Martin, and countless others, I’m grateful and I wish to tell each and every one them that I appreciate what they do. All too often, we don’t stop to celebrate each others efforts and we should. Not just at EclipseCon, but every time we talk on the phone or send an email.
That's where community begins. We don't join communities, we create them. The result is a reflection of our efforts and we imprint them with our individual contributions.
As for my community back home, I will be there at the end of this week after I make my presentations. I may take an early flight home to say goodbye to my friend, whom I hadn’t thanked for his efforts in quite some time. I hope, in his final moments, he knew how much his friends and family admired him for his devotion to our community and how much we will miss him.
If you wish to honor my friends’ sacrifice, please consider making a contribution to support our firefighters and their families.
Nolan Schmidt Memorial Fund
c/o Hydro Volunteer Fire Dept.
Hydro, OK USA 73048