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Emmett Plant -- The Welcome Wagon

Nov 09, 1999, 06:45 (36 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Emmett Plant)

By Emmett Plant
Staff Editor, Linux Today

When I was much younger, and my mother was in college, she introduced me to one of her classmates, Rob Small. Rob shared my infatuation for computers, and we used to exchange software constantly. Rob and I became pretty good friends, and he pretty much mentored me through fourth and fifth grade. I was nervous about starting at a new elementary school, and Rob told me this really great story.

It was my first day at a new school, and I was completely overwhelmed. I was sitting in the lunchroom, and I was looking at what was on my plate. It was a weird, breaded fish thing that was actually shaped like a fish so you had a basic idea of what you were eating. It looked disgusting. I was sitting by myself at the table, feeling completely depressed, when some kid in the school quickly came over and sat down next to me, and said "Hey there! I'm the welcome wagon! What's your name?" I felt so much better right then because someone took the initiative and introduced himself. I knew that everything was going to be okay.

The Linux community (although I'm sure Eric Raymond would call it "the tribe") is a really great group of talented individuals. One of the things I admire most about the community is the sense of diplomacy. They know that it's not enough to have the best operating system on the planet. They know that for Linux to succeed, it will take a strong sense of community and a helpful attitude from its users.

Learn from the leaders. Richard Stallman may be a maniac, but I know if he were standing next to you, he'd give you a hand with disk partitioning if you needed it (while telling you that everything you know about software is wrong). Eric Raymond would definitely show you an arcane emacs keystroke. If you could hear him through the beard and accent, you'd find that Alan Cox noticed your problem, and was already halfway through telling you the solution before you realized he was speaking. The chances that you would be working anywhere near Linus are very small, but I know he'd help you if he had the time.

There's something magical about the Linux community in general. During the last San Jose IDG LinuxWorld Expo, I was in a bar with Mark Johnson and Clyde Williamson, two of the Time City staff members. (Time City is an open-source game project which Emmett founded -- lt ed) We all had nice big glasses of free beer, and Linus walked in the door, and was trying as hard as possible to remain as understated as possible. Mark, Clyde and I were on a landing above Linus, and we all raised our glasses to him. Someone poked him on the shoulder and pointed towards us. He turned around and lifted his glass of free beer back at us. Clyde started going nuts and said to me, "What are the chances you'll be able to drink beer with Steve Ballmer anytime soon, Emmett?"

I told him I wasn't sure, because my luck had been running really nicely that day, including an extremely chance meeting with Steve Wozniak on the streets of San Jose.

The Linux community is friendly, interesting and helpful. I don't have Steve Ballmer's E-mail address. I could get it if I want it, but I don't. Why don't I want Steve Ballmer's E-mail address? Because I don't want to talk to him. The chances that he would actually respond are approximately one to googolplex. On the other hand, Tom Christensen usually responds to my E-mail within the nanosecond.

As a community, it is super-important that we keep this going. We need to be helpful, even when we don't want to be. We need to attend conferences and Linux User Group meetings. We need to arrange install-fests, and follow the example of people like Rick Moen. We need to be able to pick up the phone at three in the morning and talk someone through an installation. We need to be as polite as humanly possible. (If you need a few pointers here, watch an episode of Due South and emulate Constable Benton Fraser.) If someone comes to us with a question we can't answer, we need the humility to say that we don't know, and suggest a good place to find the information they're looking for.

We can only make the world a better place if we work together and do things the right way. There are millions of Windows users on the planet, looking at their desktop as though it's a piece of breaded, reconstituted fish that sits on a platter in the school cafeteria. As Linux users and enthusiasts, we need to sit down next to that person, hand them a CD and say, "Hey there! We're the welcome wagon! What's your name?"

Emmett Plant is an editor for Linux Today and heads up the Voice Of Linux Today (V.O.L.T.) Linux radio. His previous writings have appeared on OpenSourceIT and BleedingEdge Magazine. Emmett is the founder of Time City, an open-source game project. Before joining Linux Today, Emmett worked as a Linux network administrator for a New York City high school.