A Rising Tide

12.10.2012

For some reason, I've been reflecting some lately on my life and vocation. For those that have known me for awhile, you know that I stumbled accidentally into this field of web development.  A twist of fate really.  I guess with the intensity of uncovering that passion and the rollercoaster of diving in (and possibly the birth of two children), I haven't paused much in the midst for reflection. So I'm not sure if it's my recent job transition or what,  but lately I've had intense moments of reflection - of awe and gratitude really - that have nearly stopped me in my tracks.  This entry is my attempt to take a moment away from work, from coding, from researching to speak to this.

I have stumbled into what I firmly believe to be one of the greatest fields on the planet. It's a field built on an ideal so quiet and unassuming, it's pretty easy to miss. Below the hum of the internet we're all too familiar with - the social feeds, the product sales, the news coverage - is an idea that is revolutionary.  I'm talking about the concept that information can be freely available to all. Now I'm not naive - there is a business side to most things, but what I am speaking to is the foundation of the internet itself. No matter who you are, if you have access to the internet, you can now teach yourself anything.

And my field embodies this better than any.  I didn't need to spend a single cent to learn my job. And I'm not talking about taking up a new hobby - this is my profession and I get to do it serving high profile clients, some of which are recognized around the world.  But don't hear this as bragging. I say it because it's staggering to realize my debt in this relationship. I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants, none of which asked for anything in return. These people gave and continue to give their time and energy to inform, share and train folks just like me every day simply because they love to and they believe it is the right thing to do. Does it come back to them, monetarily or otherwise? Sometimes, I believe it does, and I'm glad that it does. But I am convinced, because I've met a great many of them, that is not why they do it. At the very core, it is a gesture of faith. A belief in the idea that if we share resources and knowledge, we will all become stronger together. No matter your background, choices, religion, ethnicity, or [insert barrier here] - we are bound together by this common thread in our field. In fact, this is one of the fundamental beliefs behind open-source. And for those of us who acknowledge and embrace it - it really is deeply inspiring to behold.

Speaking of open-source, one of the moments that caused me to pause happened recently in a client meeting. I was sitting there discussing a solution with them - a solution that is not trivial to undertake by any stretch of the imagination but that would meet a need of theirs directly. At the heart of this solution is a community-contributed Drupal module - a project by someone I not only respect but have had the privilege to meet. Neither his contributed module nor the foundational software cost me anything. It is open-source and free. Certainly, I have given back a lot to this community over the years - in time and money. And it takes a solid level of knowledge on my part just to successfully put this solution into action. But the principle stands - I am selling a very sophisticated product someone gave to me - gave to the community. Not only is this cause for pause, it made me reflect on my choices, my motives.  It's the kind of thing that makes you consider what kinds of clients you want to support and what kind of work you want to align yourself with. It makes you WANT to give back in every way possible to these communities that sustain you and your family. Frankly, if you think long enough about it, it leaves you in awe.   

There's a great scene in the movie, Good Will Hunting, where the main character, Will, a genius Boston townie, gets into an argument with a smug Harvard student who's trying to flaunt his "book-smarts" to pick up a girl by putting down Will's friend. Turns out, Will's not only read the same books as the Harvard student, he argues him into the ground and then suggests better books for him to read. Then he says something priceless to him:

"You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library."

It's so rewarding to see Will put this guy in his place that it's easy to miss the significance of this statement. Education is public domain. Organizations don't own it, universities can't control it. And now, the ubiquity of the internet makes this reality more apparent than ever. But it's not just the technology community that has embraced this. Universities, organizations and individuals in completely separate fields have as well. The internet has already become the greatest library known to humankind and there's no charges or late fees for those with access.

I'm not even sure what I'm trying to accomplish in writing this. I guess mostly, I just want to offer public gratitude to the people who built, embraced and encouraged this revolution. I want to take the time to reflect on what it means for myself and my work and challenge others to do the same. I want to reflect on what I can do or continue to do to give back, both to the technology community and the surrounding world. Because this isn't just inspirational theory to me. This reality pays my bills. It provides a life for me and my family. It gives me the freedom to work from anywhere at anytime with some of the most fun and bright people I've ever met. It's not the kind of thing to take for granted. It's the kind of thing worth reflecting on.