I've been a Linux fan for almost 30 years, yet in all of that time, I never actually attended a Linux event (ignoring a handful of local Linux User Group (LUG) events here and there). That is, until this past weekend when I attended SouthEast LinuxFest (SELF) 2023 in Charlotte, NC. So what took so long? Well frankly, traditionally I have avoided socializing with others. COVID and age have both helped to shift my position on this a bit.
So let's get this out of the way up front: I loved it and I will absolutely be attending SELF each year, barring scheduling problems and life in general, going forward. I absolutely regret that it took COVID to inspire me to go to one of these. It was such a refreshing experience to meet and talk with so many other people who were enthusiastic about Linux. Even in situations where there were hints dropped that we disagreed on a wide variety of other topics, the core of shared enthusiasm for Linux won out every time. We all had something in common that brought us together and it was awesome to experience that. The reality is that in my relatively small social circle, I'm basically the only Penguin (my chosen term for referring to myself as a Linux enthusiast). This means that my non-Penguin friends and co-workers have to suffer through bouts of hearing me gush about Linux.
So is SELF some elitist gathering of Penguins? Hardly. In fact a lot of the presenters and attendees were using Macs and even Windows. There were sessions aimed at helping existing users of Windows who were Linux curious begin their Linux journey by offering them a variety of relevant tips and tricks. Heck the first guy I met, a Linux supercomputer sysadmin from some university (sorry can't recall which one) spent 15 minutes making the argument that Windows is a pretty solid choice for a client OS if you are in the business of administering Linux servers. I'm not going to lie, he made some good arguments. And frankly if he's happy with his OS choice and his productivity is enhanced, then I'm a fan.
That's because Linux isn't the important thing here. The most important thing is that users are empowered to make the choice. That is a theme that came up time and time again over the course of the three days of SELF. The lack of choice that Microsoft created back when they were monopolizing the PC OS market through a variety of unsavory tactics back in the 90s is what led to the anti-Microsoft sentiment that for decades has been so pervasive in the community.
But those days are behind us now. While Microsoft Windows still occupies a lions share of the PC market, the importance of that market has waned. A lot of people don't actually need a PC nowadays thanks to smart phones and to a lessor extent, tablets. And that market isn't being monopolized as it is essentially a duopoly split between Android and iOS. Buying a PC is a choice. One can choose to buy a PC with Windows, MacOS or Linux pre-installed. One can choose to replace the preinstalled operating system with another operating system that better suits their needs.
So lets get back on track: What was my favorite part about SELF? Was it the SWAG? Was it the sessions? Was it the people? None of the above although short of the SWAG (I don't believe in SWAG acquisition) I was a fan of all of those things. My favorite part of it was the climate of intellectual curiosity that persisted throughout the entire event. I didn't consciously realize this until the last session I went to, hosted by the venerable and at times controversial Eric S. Raymond, which was entitled "The Five Gates".
In that session Eric informed us that for an upcoming book he's working on, he had defined what he referred to as "The Five Gates". Each gate is basically a concept a working programmer would need to master before they could consider themselves a master of their craft. After going over them, he wanted our thoughts on the matter. Needless to say after a healthy back and forth with the audience, I suspect its going to turn into "The Six Gates". The audience made the case and those points appeared to resonate with Eric. That was more than a little awesome.
As an aside, although I'm not politically aligned with Eric, he is a forefather of the open source and Linux movement. In Penguin terms, he is a bona fide celebrity. After attending an earlier session hosted by Eric entitled, "A Geek's Guide to the Down the Rabbit Hole of Russo-Ukraine War 2.0" I came away impressed with what he had to say. Whatever the disagreements were, there was no doubt that he was putting a lot of thought into these things and reaching conclusions through what any reasonable observer would characterize as a logical thought process. At the end of the day, that's all that really matters.
After that session I passed up a few opportunities to go up and say hello because I was a afraid I would come off as some weird fanboy. This was just fine until him and I coincidentally ended up sharing an elevator together whereupon I summoned up some courage and took it upon myself to say hello and tell him how honored I was to meet a forefather of the FOSS movement. He responded in kind and it was an awesome experience. Hopefully I didn't make a fool of myself, but even if I did, he was totally cool about it. What an awesome guy.
Anyway, the dates for next years SELF have already been set and I have already booked it in my calendar. I'm going and that's all there is to it. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating and refreshing experiences of my life and maybe even helped to restore a bit of my faith in humanity as a whole. While that seems like a lot of value to attach to some mere gathering of geeks at the hotel near the Charlotte airport, I gotta call it like it is.
SELF is awesome. If you have even a passing interest in Linux, you should definitely give it a go. If you don't agree, feel free to check out some of the YouTube videos of my favorite sessions (videos are still being uploaded here, direct links provided if available at time of publication / later edits):
"Stakeholder Management in a Crisis: Lessons from a Crisis Communicator" - Susan Sons
I'm not really sure what my expectations were for this session, but I knew that I didn't want to focus solely on the technical topics coming into SELF. The social side of open source is just as interesting to me as the technical side. That being said, this session ended up being such an unexpected treat. Susan gave a remarkable presentation which really caused me to start rethinking the ways in which I communicate (summarily: terribly and chaotically) during a crisis. Another attendee told me that I should go back and watch Susan's sessions from previous years as they were just as insightful and informative and I have absolutely every intention of doing that.
"Did you really bring a Windows Laptop to a Linux Conference?" - Mark Ulmer
What I was expecting and what I got were terribly different things here and that was for the better. I expected a tongue and cheek session in which the presenter tried to get audience members to switch to Linux, but it was much more educational and forgiving than that. Ultimately this made for a much better session as one tends to go a lot further with honey than with vinegar. Mark gave some very useful tips for current and would-be Linux users at all levels. Hell, even I learned a thing or two about Windows because of this one.
"Managing Technical Organizations in a Post COVID World" - Mark R. White
It was interesting hearing from the CTO perspective how technical organizations should be run in a world where the concept of Remote Work is clearly not going to disappear anytime soon. Mark had a lot of interesting insights, most of which personally resonated with me as a remote worker for the last eight years and he made a strong case for his viewpoint.
In any event, I hope to see some of my readers and compatriots at SELF with me next year because you can bet your ass that I'm going to be there!