In Praise of the Lone Contributor

The O'Reilly Open Source Awards 2013

Over the years, OSCON has become a big conference. With over 3900 registered this year, it was hard not to look at the packed hallways and sessions and think what a huge crowd it is. The number of big-name companies participating–Microsoft, Google, Dell, and even General Motors–reinforce the popular refrain that open source has come a long way; it’s all mainstream now.

Which is as it should be. And it’s been a long haul. But thinking of open source in terms of numbers and size puts us in danger of forgetting the very thing that makes open source special, and that’s the individual contributor. So while open source software has indeed found a place in almost every organization that exists, it was made possible by the hard work of real people who saw the need for it, most of them volunteering in their spare time.

The O’Reilly Open Source Awards were created to recognize and thank these individuals. It’s a community-driven effort: nominations come in from the open source community (this year there were around 50) and then are judged by the previous year’s winners. It’s not intended to be political or a popularity contest, but honest appreciation for hard work that matters. Let’s look at this year’s winners.

Behdad Esfahbod (HarfBuzz). Harfbuzz is an OpenType text shaping engine. With the HarfBuzz project, Behdad works tirelessly to get all of the world’s languages supported in Free Software operating systems, word processors, devices, and browsers, no matter how complex their scripts are. His work is often unnoticed by people in Europe and America, because the Latin script is easy to use, but supporting the languages of the Middle East, Ethiopia, India, and China–spoken by billions of people,–is equally important. That’s what Behdad makes possible.

Jessica McKellar (Python Software Foundation). Jessica describes herself as an entrepreneur, software engineer, and open source developer, when in fact she’s an amazing fount of energy and inspiration in the open source community. She’s a huge contributor to many open source projects, has keynoted multiple PyCons, runs a large women’s outreach group, and contributes code to major projects both as a professional and a volunteer. She’s an OpenHatch board member, contributes significant volunteer time to the Python Software Foundation and was a mentor in the Outreach Program for Women.

Limor Fried (Adafruit Industries). Limor was one of the earliest and most important advocates for bringing open source principles to hardware. Through building and growing Adafruit–unique and fun DIY projects–Limor makes the world a better place through sharing and good engineering. By making Adafruit s open source, Limor has inspired a large community of hackers and makers that follow her lead. She leads by example, is incredibly creative, and collaborative in everything she builds.

Valerie Aurora (Ada Initiative). Valerie has had an enormous impact in the way women participate in the open source community. She’s the founder of the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization that works to increase women’s involvement in the free culture movement, open source technology, and open source culture. She’s well known for her work within the Linux community, advocating new developments in filesystems in Linux, including ChunkFS and the Union file system. Valerie has also been instrumental in developing anti-harassment policies for conferences. With co-host Mary Gardiner, she hosts the Ada Camp, the largest gathering of women in open stuff.

Paul Fenwick (Perl). Paul is a familiar figure at OSCON, having been an excellent ambassador for both open source in general and OSCON in particular over the years. His talks, such as All Your Brains Suck–Known Bugs and Exploits in Wetware and this year’s Fear, Uncertainty, and Dopamine, are uniformly imaginative, interesting, and captivating. He’s welcoming to newcomers and experienced programmers alike; has no gender, ethnic, or language bias, and demonstrates by example how to be ethical, witty, compassionate, and generally The Most Interesting Man In Open Source (you’ll know him by his hat).

Martin Michlmayr (Debian Project). Martin is in the “unsung heroes” category—the people who devote themselves to the important but not always glorious jobs that keep open source healthy. Among other things to his credit, Martin always takes the time to get bug reports upstream. One time, he tested GCC by compiling the entire Debian archive, which resulted in around 230 bug reports to GCC. Martin has been an active Debian Developer for over 10 years, serving as Debian Project Leader for two of them (2003-2005). Karl Fogel (a previous O’Reilly Open Source Award Winner) said, “Martin is one of those people who have made it their mission to go to bed every night leaving the open source ecosystem a little bit healthier… but I think even among that group, Martin stands out for his work and for the humble and collaborative attitude with which he does it.”

Karl’s remark about Martin could easily be applied to any of this year’s award winners.
We hope you’ll join us in offering thanks and appreciation to the lot of them. In the grand scheme of things, and especially technology, open source matters a lot, and it’s the selfless contributors who make it so.

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