I am an artist, an actor, by trade, who has a day job as a writer. I was asked to write this piece about The Apache Software Foundation, and my first thought was, well, daddy’s gotta eat so, off we go.
To me, software developers have been those quiet geniuses working in secret in the backs of offices, huddle over hot computers, writing in “languages” that have no nouns, verbs, predicates, or beauty that I can detect. Not like the mighty written word. Software developers are the people my mother said I should try to be. They make good money. Some parents want their kids to be doctors or lawyers; mine just wanted me out of the house and not doing what it looked like I would be doing. They saw me writing on a computer now and then, so they figured I could be a software engineer.
So, going into this adventure, I had low hopes and high fears as to what few facts about software developers and their work I could weave into a few hundred words. I know nothing about software, how it is created, who creates it, and, frankly, what the hell it does. I know even less about open-source software, so my hopes were slowly diminishing by the second. And then, I looked at the Apache Software Foundation and, I must say, my little, poorly informed world, was rocked.
What is ASF?
So, let’s start here. The Apache Software Foundation is a 501(c) 3 public charity organization. I’m going to stop there because when I was researching this piece, I stopped there. A public charity? How is that possible? How can writing lines of code, serving giant corporations that make scads of money be a public charity? After all, charity is defined as the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of cash, to those in need. I cannot remember the last time a guy on the street held out an empty cup to me and asked for a few lines of code. Nor could I recall one of the leaders of a tech giant gathering empty bottles to recycle for some change so they could buy tube meat that’s been on a roller in the local 7-11 since Carter was in office. There was a disconnect here for me.
But we move on.
ASF was formed in 1999 primarily to do things such as: provide a foundation for open, collaborative software development projects by supplying hardware, communication, and business infrastructure. And; create an independent legal entity to which companies and individuals can donate resources and be assured that those resources will be used for the public benefit.
There it was; “donate resources” and “used for public benefit.” It truly is a charity. Not a gather on Saturday at the church and give out used clothes or baked goods kind of charity. But a charity on another level. One that people like myself could not even comprehend. Now, I was really intrigued. I wanted to know how this charity began.
A Little History
As the story goes, way back in 1999, a group of folks had come together to continue to support and maintain the HTTPD web server written by the NCSA, National Center for Supercomputing Application, which sounds like something from a Marvel Comic. This was a web server released in 1993. The NCSA server was initially developed at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign by Robert McCool and others, and it was one of the earliest web servers developed.
That server was freely available, came with source code, and was licensed under a license that allowed open modification and redistribution. It was a good set up. Then, the original developers just lost interest. Meh, they said, moving on. They abandoned this server they had been working on, turned their attention to something else, not 100% sure, but it may have been something to do with the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland. The point is, they left all the people who had been using and working with this server with no support.
Instead of folding like an origami swan, these intrepid users started to exchange “patches,” which are fixes, and other information on preventing problems and making the existing software better. This mighty little group of users started something big.
Along comes Brian Behlendorf. He created a mailing list on his computer for those users to collaborate to fix, maintain and improve that NCSA software. This mailing list eventually coalesced into a thing, a group, that called itself “Apache.”
Why the name Apache
Some say the name ‘Apache’ was chosen due to a respect for the Native American Apache Nation. This tribe is well-known for their superior skills in warfare strategy and their almost superhuman endurance. That’s a nice anecdote, and I’m sure it plays well with the corporate bosses; however, the real reason for the name is much more pedestrian and, in my opinion, far better. The real reason for the name is that this whole thing started with users sharing fixes or “patches.” When all was said and done, you could say it is a bit of a patchy server. See it? See it—a Patchy server. And so the name was born.
So, the Apache Group was named, and its ranks began to fill. They continued working on this open-source idea and they did pretty well. Between 1995 and 1999, the Apache HTTPD Web Server, the one created by the Apache Group, became the leader of the market. It’s still the leader of the market. More than 65% of all websites in the world are powered by it.
Like most things that people find good, they feel it needs to be more good, so the web grew, people saw an economic advantage in that growth, and the Apache website started hosting new sister projects like Apache OFBiz. Out of this came a need for structured organizations. Organizations that would protect individual contributors from bureaucratic proprietary software hurdles common for legal attacks and red tape.
Why is it Different?
It’s different because it’s open-source; however, there are other open-source servers, so why is Apache different?
First, let’s define open-source. This is more for me and the people I know who will read this because I’ll tell them to. Those in the business already know what this means, but be patient; there’s plenty of nerd stuff in here for you. Open source means: software is released through a specific kind of license that makes its source code legally available to end-users. The source code can be repurposed into other new software, meaning anyone can take the source code and distribute their own program from it.
One way to put it, it’s a communal stew. Anyone can add to the stew or even take the stew’s base and make a whole different kind of stew without fear of legal repercussions, or someone saying, you stole my stew, Stew. And then Stew has to go to court to defend his right to create his stew.
Or the analogy that is so often used at Apache, the sandbox. If you think of the code as a giant sandbox, Many smart people play in that box. However, with open source, instead of everyone claiming a corner and making their own castle, they come together and build a huge, impressive, really cool castle as one group.
What makes the Apache stew or sandbox so unique is that it wasn’t created by one chef who lords his recipe over others. The Apache web server was started by a diverse group of people who shared a common interest; they wanted to make the server better. These were the people on the mailing list, and they got to know each other, and they exchanged patches, now called fixes, and information and suggestions.
What makes Apache different from other open-source software is that it was built by and is still centered around a community.
Here’s what really hooked me and caused me to look at Apache in a new way. The idea of community work and the group being better than the sum of its parts, here is much here that is exciting. Again, I had the idea that developers worked in singular, alone, and that they hoarded every line of code they produced because of its money-making potential. That notion is completely shattered, reformed, turned on its head, and sent out into the world with new life, energy, and purpose by Apache.
In the remarkable documentary Trillions and Trillions Served, Greg Stein, former ASF chairman, speaks about developers, people writing code, as artists. I didn’t understand that until I watched this documentary. Artists thrive in a community. A place where ideas, images, performances, emotions are shared and made better by the collaborative process. As an actor, there is nothing more exciting than the first day of rehearsal. The table read, hearing people’s choices about characters, the director sharing their vision, and the designers showing their work. All of the parts coming together in the service of one goal, to tell a great story and tell it well.
The Apache community struck me as being so similar to the acting community. All of us sharing our work. No one is hiding their work in a rehearsal room. It’s open, and it’s created for the better of the whole community. The same goes for Apache. Here are some brilliant folks who could certainly make a boatload of money if they kept their work to themselves and sold it to a high bidder. But, they don’t. And they don’t because part of the Apache way, more on that soon, is community first.
This community comes together voluntarily and offers advice, fixes, and changes to open-source code to work across a variety of platforms. They take time out of their life, forgo huge paydays, and give freely of their hard-earned knowledge for the good of the project, the betterment of the community, and the advancement of open-source software.
Now, as was pointed out earlier, over 65% of websites worldwide are powered by Apache software. This community continually gives their time and effort to keep it running smoothly, adding fixes to make it better and helping people use the source code to spin-off and develop their own companies, services, and websites. The businesses that are powered by Apache make life better, easier, and, yes, profitable for so many people. All of this is done to better the world, and it’s done for free. It’s a volunteer organization thriving on community.
They are indeed a remarkable charity organization.
Why Community is Important
ASF co-founder, Brian Behlendorf, shares his thoughts on community in the documentary. When talking about the original NCSA software, he puts it simply: why keep a bug fix to yourself? There are a couple of ways to answer that question; because I could turn my fix into cash. Because it’s MINE. Or, you wouldn’t. That is the bottom line with the Apache Group, why keep it to yourself when your answer, your fix could help hundreds, if not thousands of people?
The Apache open source community allows these developers to stay in touch and experience the kind of innovation that comes from many great minds working together. For these folks, it just makes sense that if you know how to fix a source code or improve upon it, you do it. You put the betterment of the community ahead of the individual. A community of minds, working together will always bring about more discovery, more usable change than one person working alone.
In this community, developers also talk about working side by side with those they are continually learning from. As a developer, working shoulder to shoulder with developers from places like Google, Facebook, NASA offers endless opportunities to grow and be better. They get back by giving. That is the wonder and the importance of a community. Growth, unity, focus of purpose that yields such amazing results.
The Apache Way
If you say it out loud, The Apache way, it trespasses perilously close to some kind of cult mindset. But, when you listen to the Apache community members, despite some describing it as a zen-like situation that you have to feel more than understand, it is actually genuine, very grounded, and surprisingly simple.
However, despite its relative simplicity, if you ask a dozen Apache community members what the Apache way is, you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. But boiling it down, there seems to be agreement that a significant portion of the Apache way is; Community over code.
“If you build a vibrant, self-governing, self-sustaining community, your code will come. It doesn’t work the other way around.”– Roman Shaposhnik, ASF Member.
Another facet of the Apache way is asynchronous communication. Most communication in the Apache community is done via mailing lists. As they did at the beginning of its time, mailing lists are still the way to keep the group connected. This is done for a reason. It’s not because the Apache community are Luddites and have stormed the walls of things like SLACK. In the community, asynchronous communication allows for equality. No one is disenfranchised because everyone involved, even peripherally, is part of the communication and has equality among the group.
It’s simple, really. When you send an asynchronous message, you’re not expecting an immediate response. You’re allowing the receivers time to digest, think, and then give their very best information. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that it is not uncommon for workers to spend 80% of their time communicating with co-workers, usually via email or some other form of synchronous communication. Asynchronous communication is less disruptive to a worker’s day and more productive in terms of answers and information given.
A third aspect of the Apache way is working in a meritocracy. Power, so to speak, at Apache is bestowed on individuals based on talent, effort, and achievement, not on the basis of money or social class. This means the seat of power is constantly changing, no one occupies it for an endless amount of time, and it is earned. In short, it isn’t about who you are; it is very much about what you do.
And you never lose your status. If you do something extraordinary, are recognized and rewarded for your outstanding contribution, that memory doesn’t go away. Even if you leave the community for a year to pursue other interests, you still have that merit attached to your name when you return. There is no statute of limitations to your contributions to the community. No one has a louder voice than anyone else in the community and, no one’s voice ever grows dim.
It Goes Beyond Software
The way the Apache community operates and the group’s values can be applied to other projects and endeavors outside of writing code. The idea of community, working together, being unified under one clear goal applies to all manner of professions and work.
As an actor, this style of work is not foreign or even a revelation to me. We work as a community; every member of “a company” is working for its greater good and the current production. The idea of rehearsing alone and then trying to slip that work into the whole would be a nightmare of inconsistency and poor communication. Community and collaboration are the standards in the theater.
What Apache brings to light and strengthens is a social way of getting things done. It’s an age-old idea; many hands make for easier work. But, it goes beyond easy; it speaks to quality and progress. When many bright minds are bent toward one goal, the possibilities are endless. That’s what makes Apache so unique, even in an extraordinary world like open-source. The idea of functioning as a community for a larger community is applicable in construction, marketing, farming, or any other business. When the definition of success is not about “making money” but rather “making better,” the opportunities for success present themselves every single day. And, believe it or not, the money still comes.
All of this makes Apache such a remarkable, inspiring community of people. And it shows us how important community is in business and all walks of life.
Hotwax, OFBiz & Apache
In the heart of Salt Lake City, in a brick building, lives Hotwax Systems, inc. They are a company that offers the best Apache OFBiz solutions aligned to the best technologies that accentuate all stakeholders’ best interests. They are also the folks for whom I’m writing this article.
For Hotwax, the Apache community is vital because the ASF is the governing body of OFBiz, an open-source ERP system.
Hotwax echoes much of the ASF’s Apache way ideas. Hotwax views its clients not as customers but as partners. People working hand in hand with Hotwax to achieve a specific goal. When a customer achieves success, Hotwax is then successful as well. They very much share the ideals of community and the group as a whole being more successful and influential than the individual.
Hotwax also does a lot of cross-promotion for Apache since OFBiz is a “top-level project at the ASF. In fact, the CEO of Hotwax systems, Mike Bates, shows up in the documentary Trillions and Trillions Served. He has a nice suit. He also shares some excellent thoughts about the world of business operating the Apache way, community over code, or purpose, practical help being a judge of success over remunerative goals.
Beyond that, several Hotwax employees are OFBiz Project Management Committee (PMC) members. Hotwax’s CTO, Jacopo Cappaleto, a nice Irish boy, is the VP of the OFBiz project.
Hotwax’s business revolves around Apache OFBiz, so naturally, they have a kinship with the community. Volunteering hours back to the OFBiz project is not just a good idea for Hotwax; it’s part of their business. One Saturday a month, they have a community OFBiz day where several employees spend the day volunteering their immense software development skills to make the project better. They work Fixing bugs, completing tickets, etc. Hotwax does this, not for money, not for recognition, but to make the open-source project better. They’ve done this for many years, and you can see their contribution in the metric on their homepage.
Like many businesses that have sprung from or are closely aligned with The Apache Group, Hotwax views giving back as being vital to a community. Talented, usually very busy developers, giving their free time to make the open-source better just because they can and want to. Hotwax clearly understands the value and the power of a thriving community. Helping that community, in turn, helps Hotwax.
Hotwax supports and promotes the Apache community, and then, ASF can promote OFBiz and promote Hotwax as the world’s best service provider. ASF doesn’t have to make that fact up, nor do they have to promote Hotwax in the hopes of something in return. The community, of which Hotwax is a vital part, serves the community. By giving back to the community, the community gives back to those who support and work with it. It’s quite a graceful way to look at business and life.
Hotwax also continues to be a top sponsor of Apachecon.
Wait, there’s a “con” connected to open-source? Yes. Yes, there is.
Apachecon is one of the very first open-source conferences.
Back in October of 1998, for three days at the Hilton in San Francisco, the first Apachecon took place. The first-ever conference dedicated to Apache. As the report goes, just under 500 people signed up for the conference. Most came from the U.S. and Canada; however, there was a significant showing of people from Europe. In addition to the general conventioneers, most of the core 18 Apache developers were on hand as well.
The author, Bruce Sterling, was the keynote speaker on day one. This is significant because his talk was not directly related to Apache; however, it did contain thoughts about a networked society. So, people got a taste of how Apache was already being thought of beyond software development. Even at this very first conference, Apache’s ideals and the community it created, was being seen for what it could generate in society as a whole.
At this first conference, John Gilmore of EFF spoke, as did John Patrick of IBM and David Filio from Yahoo. The final session of the conference was a chance to talk with the core developers of Apache. They spoke of the things that were interesting to them in the world of open-source and then they fielded questions from the floor. All who attended were pleased, and the conference was considered a rousing success.
Apachenon continues to this very day. Although last year, due to the pandemic, the conference was held virtually. All sessions from this year’s conference are available to view on the Apachecon YouTube channel, and conversations about the conference continue on SLACK.
One of the unique features of Apachecon is that it has been designed to be deliberately intimate. This is done because one of the biggest draws of this event is having access to participants at all levels, from presenters to attendees to sponsors to Apache Members and Apache Project Management Committee members, ASF leadership, and more, in a collaborative, vendor-neutral environment. Again, the idea of community reigns even in a conference venue.
Hotwax is a top sponsor of this event, not merely to promote itself but to make people more aware of what is possible when working in and for a community. The idea of open-source isn’t just good for software development; Apache sees the potential for the open-source model to permeate and improve a variety of business and social settings. Hotwax does all it can to promote and support this way of seeing the world.
Ars Gratia Artis
These words are engraved on the cartouche around the lion in the MGM slogan, art for art’s sake. It’s a simple idea, make art for the sake of art. Art makes the world better, smarter, more connected, and it tells the world we were here. Art is a communal happening.
When I began this piece, I couldn’t imagine including that quote. There’s no art here, I thought. There’s no community of coders doing what they do just to improve and further the work. Developers do what they do for money and notoriety, simple as that.
I was wrong. I often am; however, this time, I freely admit it. There is art here. There is art in coding; there is art in a community of people doing what has to be done just because it has to be done.
The Apache project and companies like Hotwax see further than most of us. They understand something that, hopefully, we can all get on board with as time goes by. How we measure success, how we share our work, and how we create and sustain communities that work to better the world we live in. All of that is what makes the ASF so powerful and so important.
I am so thankful that I was sent on this journey. To have my mind changed and my view of the “computer world” adjusted. To see the connection between open-source software and the world of an actor was surprising and wonderful. Being shown by a company like Hotwax the need for community. As I have said, I have always functioned, in my art, as a community, a group working toward one goal. I didn’t take the time or open my eyes to the truth, community is everywhere, and it is vital in every aspect of our lives.
The ASF, Codice super Community, Community Over Code. There’s much to be learned.