At the Manchester Free Software society meeting on Tuesday 17th January I am going to be talking about the value to using and working on free software both for and as a business.
I am, however, deeply indebted to a talk given by Stevan Little at the Perl Oasis in 2011. Stevan had the keynote and he used it to present a talk called Code for Free which was not only a great inspiration but was a good basis for what I wanted to talk about so was formative and highly influential on everything in my talk.
It is also great to be invited to speak at such an event. As a business we are always happy to be involved with the community but this feels extra special as we are asked to talk about the subject of Free Software and Shadowcat Systems and after that we have pretty much full reign. I could have just made a 40 minute advert for why we are so great. I haven't, however, in fact I have devoted the time to speaking about, involving yourself, and committing to the community that your software and your business are a part of.
It was, however, really great of Michael Dorrington to invite Matt and I to talk to the group.
When I first thought about my presentation I did consider speaking more about our clients and some of the work we do with them and how we interact with them, but I realised this was going to handicap my talk. I would, naturally, have to restrict myself from any sensitive data and direct usage of names, ideas, business models or any core parts of their work. This leaves only a small framework to discuss within so I dismissed that.
But, I could discuss the way we work on Open Source and Free Software projects, how we encourage the use of open data and transparent applications. The more I thought about this the more I realised that I had some understanding of the benefits of that approach and I have experience of the community. So our clients are only spoken about in an abstract manner in relation to FLOSS as a product we use and libre as an ideal that we follow.
When I think about 'libre' I like to understand it in a sort of philosophical way, in that it isn't getting something for free but "the state of being free" or "with little or no restriction".
So think on that, this is not 'gratis', I am not giving you something for free but that what we -all- have is in a state of being free, and that's free to use to whatever purpose we like as long as it is with 'little or no restriction'. Those restrictions are generally related to the talents, abilities, time or resources of the individual who exercises them. We are at liberty to provide services in this system for those who wish to reduce their own personal burdens and give up some of those freedoms in exchange for securities or duties that they do not wish to take responsibility for.
So you can get a piece of software, for example, and use it, look at the source, change it and intsall it or provide a service to install it for others who don't want to take the time to learn how to do that, or you can pay someone to do it for you, or exchange your skills with theirs or whatever else you want. You are mastering your own experience, you are in the 'state of being free' not being fed a freedom.
As Nicholas Clark has said this item is "free as in puppies".
In the Precis for my talk which was distributed to the wider world I used a specific line in which I stated that one way of looking at an Open Source and Free Software community of programmers is a "culture of collaborative one-upmanship".
Taken out of context to my personal feelings about programmers this might seem more than a tad disingenuous. But I can assure you that it is not meant to be that way. I have nothing but the greatest respect for programmers, not just those on my staff, or in the communities I mix in but in the wider world as well.
The task of coding, especially of creating new libraries, modules and complex systems is a creative one and the very best people in this field are more like artists than scientists. They work and see things in an abstract space where problems can sometimes be solved by applying a rigorous dance following strict rules and a pre-defined structure, or only countered with a free flowing ballet responding instinctively to a complex rhythm. This is a space where the rules are often mutable as is the manner in which you overcome a problem.
A project might be created, led, shaped or defined by an individual by force of coercion or by strength of purpose. There are truly collaborative projects but they are mostly formed for a common purpose or in the aftermath of a successful individual enterprise.
The individual often leads a complex solo dance as well as being a part of the chorus line which creates the whole performance.
This naturally attracts prima donnas, and tantrums are sometimes the result of this as are conflicts and resolutions.
These complex dances with their individual responses led by -some- people seeking centre stage will naturally lead to one-upmanship, brinkmanship, belligerence and egregiousness. But that is not always a bad thing. We need a little passion and fire so that we can melt out a solution, complex elements in a crucible will sometimes be the catalyst for destruction or the creation of something unique.
The important point of this is this state is collaborative, it is the 'melting pot of creation' and like a biblical tale we have a Tower of Babel, a collaboratively built, great structure, that reaches to the heavens. A building in which everyone brings their own tools and materials, where someone takes a lead on a particular part.
Most of the collaboration is in fact healthy competition and good natured banter. There is also a lot of education and sharing of information in a free space that allows personal opinion and evolution of ideas.
 Now which industry giant who uses proprietary software do I cast as the angry God? Though if I continue the allusion, the God would be the project founder, and they are often the ones spurring on the building not trying to destroy it (well mostly not). So this allusion should have been killed at creation - I should have crowd sourced an answer.
 Which is a very long-winded way of saying it was a throw-away line that was meant to be alluring but not insulting, I could have just said that.
If anyone has feedback (and until we have a commenting system) please don't hesitate to email me at: m.keating [at] shadowcat.co.uk, if your comments are useful, fun, or just plain interest to me, or if I think will be useful to others, then I will add them to the end of this post, let me know how you would like to be named (anon, nick etc.).
Mark Keating is: Managing Director of Shadowcat Systems Limited
Director and Secretary of Enlightened Perl Organisation
Chair of the Marketing Committee for The Perl Foundation
Co-Founder/Co-Leader of North-West England Perl Mongers
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Mark Keating is the organiser of the London Perl Workshop (since 2008), has joined the organising team for the QA Hackathon in 2011, the TPF GSoC Mentors/organisers 2011, the Dynamic Languages Conference 2011.