When I was a kid, I admit, Christmas was mostly about the presents. This changed over time as I grew older. Now that I have kids, I admit, Christmas – again – is mostly about the presents. Not the ones I receive or expect, but the ones the Christkind will bring for my kids – if you know what I mean. (In Germany, the Christkind brings the presents on the eventing of December 24th, with the help of some angels of course, because how could a newborn possibly move around all those presents?)
A few years back, when I did not have children yet, a friend of mine said: “Now that I have children, days like Easter and Christmas starts to be more meaningful to me again”. I can relate to this statement, today. But still, Christmas seems to be too much about the presents, and everybody, especially this year, seemed to be really stressed out. We all know that the Christmas we celebrate is not what it should be, yet still we fail to fundamentally change something about it, or at least about the way we deal with it. Admittedly, fundamental change is really, really hard to achive. So why not try some little changes?
At my company, we stopped sending out Christmas presents along with our season’s greetings. Instead, we donate the amount of money we would have spent on the presents. In recent years, we have donated to an orphange, to child care, and to an institution taking care of homeless mothers with their children. It feels good to do something charitable, at least once year. And, let’s face it, there are so many people, young and old, that are more in need than the average IT expert.
This year, my family and I found out that our city accepts presents and hands them to those in need. Apparently, even in the middle of Europe, in rich Germany, close to Munich, where we generally have a pretty decent standard of living, even in the small town where I live, there are people who cannot afford any Christmas presents. We should never forget how privileged we are.
I know I am privileged not only because I made a career in IT, but also because the PHP community helped me get to where I am. Around 2001, I got into writing articles about PHP, then started speaking at PHP conferences and subsequently got into writing books about software development with PHP. Ten years ago, I co-founded The PHP Consulting Company and started to focus my professional efforts on PHP and related technologies.
Over the years, I have been called a “rock star”, a “part of the A-list”, a “luminous figure”, the “Uncle Bob of PHP”, and an idiot, for that matter. The latter characterization was part of a comment somebody had posted below a conference presentation of mine where I had suggested to avoid commenting source code, but instead write the code in a way that no additonal comments are needed. Well, everybody is free to agree or disagree with me on pretty much every technical topic. I know I have some strong opinions and I a publicly state them with a strong voice. It is okay to disagree with somebody. Calling them an idiot just because you disagree is another thing. It hurts. People may not realize, but just because someone is a more or less prominent figure because they are publishing books or online content and speak at conferences, they are still humans, and they do have feelings. And the problem with that one bad comment out of ten is that this one tends to stick.
Giving feedback is difficult, and giving constructive negative feedback is even harder. I know there are people out there who tried public speaking, writing, or publishing an Open Source project, but got discouraged at some point by negative feedback, so they gave up. Creators of Open Source software (or content) donate the most precious thing they have to us: their time. Our time on earth is limited, after all, and there are so many things to do. Still there are people that choose to invest a substantial amount of their time into us, the users of Open Source software. That is like a permament state of Christmas. We get presents all year round. But are we thankful enough?
I do not really believe that anybody creating an Open Source software does it for the fame. Fame sometimes comes as the consequence of years of hard work, but certainly not quickly. They clearly don’t do it for the money. Nobody can live on that odd donation they receive every once in a while, or that little gift from their whishlist. Github has set up a Sponsors program that helps to get some money to the creators. While this may sound like a brilliant idea, I am extremely biased, because I do not like the idea that Github = Microsoft is in control of most existing Open Source software, by making the creators financially dependent on the platform they are developing it on. I know some people use Patreon, but when you give money to Patreon, a good part gets sucked up by fees, plus you cannot get a receipt, so it’s not a real option for companies.
So if it is not about the money, and we assume that it is not about the fame, what remains? The good feeling to donate (their time to us). The good feeling to do the right thing (by creating free software, or knowledge). And we react by no feedback at all (which is bad), or negative feedback (which is worse). Remember, the one negative out of ten positive comments will always stand out.
I am clearly not suggesting to never say anything negative. Progress would be much harder if everybody would always just say nice things. But we should pay close attention to be constructive and not insulting when giving negative feedback. “Please help me understand why …” sounds completely different than “You failed to make clear …”. “You are an idiot” is a different message than “I do not agree with your opinion”. Saying “I see where you are coming from, but in my experience, things are different” will make it even easier to get a constructive conversation going.
When I got into the PHP community, I made it a habit of approaching project maintainers and contributors and thanking them for their contribution to PHP and Open Source. I am still doing this, and even though it may be just a small gesture, it seems to have an impact. Everybody working in or for charity is probably not recognized enough, so: thank you all. And: contributing to Open Source is charitable, even though the tax office does not recognize this (yet).
There is a lot of ongoing discussion about the fact that only a small fraction of Open Source users give back, and a vast majority just takes benefit from other people’s work. I can see where that argument is coming from, but I do not agree with that point. Even the fact that you are using sofware is already a statement. You invest your valuable time into building a solution based on something, that is a statement of your trust into that something.
Of course, we can argue that giving back more actively would be preferable. That could be patches, bug reports, documentation, education for others (for example by writing a blog post, or giving a presentation). How about giving back by more constructive, positive feedback and cutting back on negative comments, on words that could potentially hurt somebody on a personal level.
So regardless of whether you feel that you are already giving back, or if you feel that you have not given back enough to the Open Source community (yet): Let us be nicer persons. This is your entry level way of giving back. It’s free, and it does not even hurt ourselves. In fact, it even feels good.
I think doing this would not only help the various Open Source communities, but also the world at large. And it is so easy to do, yet so very, very difficult to start, because it may require a shift of our views, and a change in behaviour. In comparison, just throwing money at something is so much easier.
Merry Christmas you all.