Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Where have all the legends gone?

Back in the early days of the Linux industry, it was pretty easy to know everybody who was everybody. I remember going to the Linux Expo in North Carolina in May 1998, the last year it was run by Red Hat. It was in a small upstairs part of the Student Union of one of the local universities, if I recall correctly, and there were a small handful of vendors selling software and science fiction books. Ted Tso and Linus and Alan Cox and a few others were sitting on a hassock in the lobby outside the conference rooms talking about the ext3 filesystem and how to improve the block cache for the Linux 2.2 kernel, which was scheduled for release shortly, and Richard Stallman... ah, Richard Stallman. He was... RMS. Complete with his saint outfit -- sandals, robe, and halo. Everybody avoided him as if he had fleas in his beard or something. For all I know, he may very well have. Then there was the final keynote, in an auditorium-style classroom (or is that a classroom-style auditorium?), where Linus walks out onto the stage and announced, "I am Linus Torvalds, and I am your god." The audience applauded wildly. Because we were all geeks there, and we got the joke. Today... today, I suspect Linus would get boos from humorless boobs if he tried something like that. Things change, and sometimes not for the better.

Of the vendors who were there -- The Linux Mall (I have one of the very first plush penguins!), Linux Hardware Solutions, Enhanced Software Technologies, VA Linux, DEC, etc. -- very few are still around. That fall Linux was discovered by the big guys -- IBM, Oracle, and so forth -- and everything changed forever. The Atlanta Linux Showcase in October 1998 was a zoo. Comdex in November 1998 was even more of a zoo. The big guys were moving in, and the small cottage industry that was the Linux industry was about to change forever. A few of the little guys survived, but most didn't -- they didn't have the mentality to do what it took to go big, and going big -- going for venture capital, going for IPO, going for a big business model that would have competed with the big guys -- was the only way they could survive without running into a cashflow crunch or into a hard ceiling on what they could do. It simply was not in the skill set of the small cottage industry guys, that wasn't what they did, they ran a conservatively managed business out of a small office-warehouse somewhere, they didn't try to build a huge empire. Unfortunately, cottage industry could not compete. By the end of 2001, most of them were gone, memories the only thing left.

I know what happened to a lot of the people, they have largely moved into other industries or are serving as consultants, marketing managers, or similar for other businesses -- but of the technical people, it's interesting that most of us are still around somewhere hacking on Linux. As for me, I talked to the owner of Linux Hardware Solutions there at Linux Expo and decided to move to North Carolina to work for them. It was a gamble, but it was a gamble that produced enough connections that when LHS folded I could move on elsewhere in the Linux industry into a software engineering role that eventually resulted in my first team leadership role. I spent some time as a nomadic Linux penguin. Now I'm not so nomadic -- I've lived in the same apartment for close to six years, for cryin' out loud -- but sometimes I think back to those early days of the Linux industry, and wonder if we haven't lost something since then, some excitement, some energy, some sheer exuberance that made it a joy to get it up in the morning to create something new and unheard of that had never before existed in the world. Today we're all stuffy professionals, spending our time writing design documents and doing design reviews and managing engineering teams. Then... then we were changing the world. And we did.


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