The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Monday May 01, 2017

Success at Apache: Meritocracy and Me.

by Tom Barber

When Sally asked for volunteers to help with a blog post series "Success at Apache" I realised there was a very human story to tell about how the ASF helped me get to where I am today and hopefully where I'll go tomorrow. Over the years I have worked on and run a number of Open Source projects whilst working with an awful lot of Open Source software. One day I was browsing Slashdot as you do, yeah I know a lot of people disparage it, but it's an awfully hard habit to kick, and without it I wouldn't have got involved in the ASF so I owe it a lot. Anyway, one day when browsing Slashdot I saw this article (, I had been working in the Open Source business intelligence industry for a few years at that point and I spent a lot of time hacking around and managing data systems, so I wondered how I could get some help out of OODT ( Also as a kid I had always loved everything about space, I was a huge Apollo fan, had a small telescope, went to the total eclipse in the UK in 1999 and so on. I thought this OODT project would be a fun way for me to chat nonsense to a few NASA employees, find out how they did stuff and do a bit of Open Source hacking on the side, which would at least let me participate in some NASA related development work, and so it began.

For those of you who haven't heard of Apache OODT it is a middleware layer for building data systems. Originally written by NASA JPL and then Open Sourced to The Apache Software Foundation it provides data ingest capabilities, metadata extraction, data workflows and resource management. I started by asking pretty dumb questions on the IRC channel, posting stuff on the mailing lists and trying to figure out how this reasonably expansive stack of software even operated. Chris Mattmann and Sean Kelly guided me through the opening foray into OODT development and education. Eventually, having submitted a few bug fixes, I volunteered to be a release manager for an OODT release and that got me more involved. Not too long after Sean asked if I fancied having a go at being the project chair, which I duly accepted. Behind the scenes cogs were turning and in a matter of a few weeks, I'd gone from a committer and PMC member to Chair to ASF member, it was certainly a hectic time, trying to keep up with all the new things I had to do, mailing lists to follow and so on, but what a period in my ASF experience, lots of fun!

That was just over 2 years ago and I'm still happily stewarding the OODT folks and keeping the cogs turning, releases happening and Jira tickets triaged. Alongside that it is truly an honour to be involved with the ASF as a member and although the politics can get tedious, the foundation is an amazing place for people to learn to work on great software as part of a distributed team. 18 months ago I was getting a little jaded with the monotony of the BI work I was doing, there are only so many sales databases and budget reports one guy can take and after being in BI 8 or so years I felt like it was time for a change of scenery, I just didn't know what. So I blasted out an email to 10 or so people I knew or had had some contact with over the years who might be able to give me a job, or know someone who was looking for a Java developer, BI guy, Open Source advocate, that type of thing. I'd included some OODT folks on my email, not because I thought there was a chance of a job using it, but just in case they happened to know someone out in California needing some remote help. Everyone said no, except Chris Mattmann who said if I could hold on a few months he might have something for me at NASA! That response floored me, I'd never even considered that as an option and knew that with a young family it would be highly unlikely I'd be able to move to California, so I played along assuming it would fall through. But the as the process dragged on and contracts got drawn up we got closer and closer to it becoming real and the excitement grew, there was the tangible possibility of me fulfilling at least a bit of a life long dream, no I wouldn't be an astronaut, but there was the chance of employment by NASA.

Eventually 6 months or so later, the paperwork was signed and I joined the ranks at NASA JPL, working as an Apache OODT and devops guy. What is great is that having 10 years of business and development experience, I feel like I can very much make a positive contribution to the team, and in part that is down to what I have learnt developing and coding at the ASF. It has been an amazing experience  and a wonderful 12 months. I never dreamt an opportunity like that would arise and it is 100% down to the great work the ASF does in stewarding new projects through the incubation process and into mainstream adoption. Without the ASF I would likely still be a BI guy dealing with run of the mill data warehouses, instead I work on Genomics Search Engines, help hunt criminals on the dark web and a host of other stuff. Life sometimes throws you an opportunity that you don't expect and the ASF certainly facilitated that.

Last week I was in Pasadena, visiting the JPL facility and getting the guided tour, and doing a bit of work. It was amazing talking to such a dedicated group of people who clearly have a big passion for what they do. Getting to see their mission control, the mars rovers and various satellite mock ups was awe inspiring but what excited me the most was getting to sit down and pick the brains of people with whom I have worked with at the ASF for years yet not met in the flesh. Finally making that human connection means a lot.

What the ASF offers here is the ability to learn to work as a distributed team without the pressures of the "real world". Everyone at the ASF, pretty much, is a volunteer and other volunteers recognise that, and so it reduces the pressure, but whilst reducing the pressure it teaches you how to make binding decisions as a disparate group, how to keep records and how to ship good quality code whilst living in different timezones. At the ASF some of us might meet once or twice a year at ApacheCon, Fosdem or elsewhere, but largely all communications is done via mailing list. This can cause issues when people "just want to get it done" but it also provides an immutable record of what is going on in a project and who said what. This proves equally useful out in the "real world" where you want to track business decisions or look up historical records of why a certain choice was made. Also dealing with people who you don't work with on a daily basis also helps you think more about your communication style, what is fine to say and what isn't and also how you structure your communications, which is also very important in a business setting. Do you know the person? Do they understand your nuances? Is English their native language? etc

The other thing I find the ASF offers is understanding. Last year I was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of 33, which is pretty late. What is nice is that generally, people like to listen, and if you have something that affects your personal or professional life, people who you've met at the ASF will often lend an understanding ear to allow you to off load or discuss something completely unrelated to the project you might be working on. Or like me, you can just stand up at the front of an ApacheCon lightning talk and tell everyone! Either way, you can generally find someone in the Apache family who will provide a sounding board for anything you want to discuss.

These days I spend my spare time still working on OODT stuff, but also doing a lot of public speaking and mentoring and whenever I do I make sure I talk up the Apache Software Foundation because it has given me the chance of a life time and one that I'll be forever grateful for. If you aren't involved in development here at the ASF, get involved, you don't have to be a coder, you just need to like helping out in a fun, Open Source community.

As I mentioned at the start, this blog series is about success at Apache, hopefully this proves that success can come in a number of ways, the ASF was selected by NASA as the home for its data middleware platform, that proves that the NASA deemed the incubation process, the license and ecosystem acceptable, that is success the the Apache Foundation. Similarly the foundation has proved very successful in placing people into employment from a range of different walks of life into new lines of work, and that is exactly what happened to me and the reason I wanted to share my story about success at Apache.

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"Success at Apache" is a new monthly blog series that focuses on the processes behind why the ASF "just works". 1) Project Independence 2) All Carrot and No Stick 3) Asynchronous Decision Making 4) Rule of the Makers 5) JFDI --the unconditional love of contributors


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