A few hours ago, I learned that I am now (at least in theory)
I was at my machine, hacking, when I got email congratulating me
on the success of the VA Linux Systems IPO. I was working on my
latest small project -- a compiler for a special-purpose language
I've designed called Scriptable Network Graphics, or SNG. SNG is an
editable representation of the chunk data in a PNG. What I'm
writing is a compiler/decompiler pair, so you can dump PNGs in SNG,
edit the SNG, then recompile to a PNG image.
"Congratulations? That's interesting," said I to myself. "I
didn't think we were going out till tomorrow." And I oughtta know;
I'm on VA's Board of Directors, recruited by Larry Augustin himself
to be VA's official corporate conscience, and it's a matter of
public record that I hold a substantial share in the company. I
tooled on over to Linux Today, chased a link -- and discovered that
Larry Augustin had taken the fast option we discussed during the
last Board conference call. VA had indeed gone out on NASDAQ -- and
I had become worth approximately forty-one million dollars while I
Well, that didn't last long. In the next two hours, VA dropped
from $274 a share to close at $239, leaving me with a stake of only
thirty-six million dollars. Which is still a preposterously large
amount of money.
You may wonder why I am talking about this in public. The first
piece of advice your friends and family will give you, if it looks
like you're about to become really wealthy, is: keep it quiet. It's
nobody else's business -- you don't want to look like you're
gloating, and you don't want to be deluged with an endless
succession of charity appeals, business propositions, long-lost
best friends, and plain bald-faced mooching.
Trouble with the "keep it quiet" theory is that I've made my
bucks in a very public way. When you're already a media figure, and
your name is on the S-1 of a hot IPO, and email from friends and
journalists starts coming in like crazy as the stock breaks
first-day-gain records, playing it coy swiftly ceases to look like
a viable option.
Besides, it wouldn't be fair to dissemble. I serve a community.
I'm wealthy today because my efforts to spread the idea of open
source on behalf of that community helped galvanize the business
world, and earned the respect and the trust of a lot of hackers.
Larry thought that respect was an asset worth shelling out 150,000
shares of VA for. Fairness to the hackers who made me bankable
demands that I publicly acknowledge this result -- and publicly
face the question of how it's going to affect my life and what I'll
do with the money.
This is a question that a lot of us will be facing as open
source sweeps the technology landscape. Money follows where value
leads, and the mainstream business and finance world is seeing
increasing value in our tribe of scruffy hackers. Red Hat and VA
have created a precedent now, with their directed-shares programs
designed to reward as many individual contributors as they can
identify; future players aiming for community backing and a seat at
the high table will have to follow suit. In this and other ways
(including, for example, task markets) the wealth is going to be
So while there aren't likely to be a lot more
multimillion-dollar bonanzas like mine, lots of hackers are going
to have to evolve answers to this question for smaller amounts that
will nevertheless make a big difference to individuals; tens or
hundreds of thousands of dollars, enough to change your life -- or
(Gee. Remember when the big question was "How do we make money
The first part of my answer is "I'll do nothing, until next
June". Because I'm a VA board member, under SEC regulations there's
a six-month lockout on the shares (a regulation designed to keep
people from floating bogus offerings, cashing out, and skipping to
Argentina before the share price crashes). So it's not strictly
true that I'm wealthy right now. I will be wealthy in six months,
unless VA or the U.S. economy craters before then. I'll bet on VA;
I'm not so sure about the U.S. economy :-).
Assuming the economy does not in fact crater, how is wealth
going to affect my life in six months? Honestly, I think the answer
is "not much". I haven't spent the last fifteen years doing the
open-source thing for the money. I'm already living pretty much
exactly the way I want to, doing the work that matters to me. The
biggest difference the money will make to me personally is that now
I should be able to keep doing what I love for the rest of my life
without worrying about money ever again.
So I expect I'll just keep on as I've been doing. Hacking code.
Thinking and spreading subversive thoughts. Traveling and giving
talks. Writing papers. Poking various evil empires a good one in
the eye whenever I get a chance. Working for freedom.
I expect most other hackers confronted with sudden wealth will
make similar choices. Reporters often ask me these days if I think
the open-source community will be corrupted by the influx of big
money. I tell them what I believe, which is this: commercial demand
for programmers has been so intense for so long that anyone who can
be seriously distracted by money is already gone. Our community has
been self-selected for caring about other things -- accomplishment,
pride, artistic passion, and each other.
OK, so maybe I'll break down and finally get a cell phone. And
cable broadband so I can surf at smokin' speed. And a new flute.
And maybe a nice hotrodded match-grade .45 semi for tactical
shooting. But really, I don't want or need a lot of stuff. I'm kind
of Buddhist that way; I like to minimize my material attachments.
(My family gripes that this makes me hell to buy Christmas presents
I'm not going to minimize my attachments by giving it all away,
though, so you evangelists for a zillion worthy causes can just
calm down out there and forget about hitting me up for megabucks. I
am *not* going to be a soft touch, and will rudely refuse all
I'm not copping this harsh attitude to protect my money, but
rather to protect the far more precious asset of my time. Because I
don't want to have to become a full-time specialist in deciding
whose urgent pitch to buy, I'm going to turn everybody down flat in
advance. Anyone who bugs me for a handout, no matter how noble the
cause and how much I agree with it, will go on my permanent shit
list. If I want to give or lend or invest money, *I'll* call *you*.
And yes, there are causes I'll give money to. Worthy hacker
projects. Free-speech activism. Firearms-rights campaigns. Tibet,
maybe. I might buy a hunk of rainforest for conservation somewhere.
Megabucks are power, and with power comes an obligation to use it
wisely. I'll give carefully, and in my own time, and only after
doing my homework -- too much charity often kills what it means to
nurture. And enough about that.
Ironically enough, one result of my getting rich is that I will
probably start charging for speaking appearances, now that nobody
can plausibly accuse me of doing it for the money. I won't charge
open-source user groups or schools, but I will cheerfully extract a
per diem from all the business conferences that keep wanting me to
to boost their box office. Charging a price for my time will
separate the expensive conferences that attract powerful people
from the marginal events where the hacker community would get less
leverage from my presence.
For the same reason, I'm still going to insist that anybody who
wants me to give a talk has to cover my expenses and eliminate
hassles. But I also expect I'll still carry my own luggage. And
I'll never get too proud to crash on somebody's daybed when the
local user group is too broke to cover a hotel.
But enough trivialities; I'm going to get back to work. I've got
the SNG compiler stage almost done. Next up, I need to refactor the
pngcheck code so I can give it a report-format option that
generates SNG syntax. Then, I need to think about supporting
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