by Nick Couchman

Like other recent contributors to this blog, I am not a developer by trade. My day job is as a Linux Systems Engineer and team manager, and, truth be told, my programming skills are not something I would rely on to make a living. Despite these facts, I've found something beyond acceptance in being a part of the Apache Guacamole project: mentoring.

Most of my experience with The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) has been with retrieving the Apache Web Server (httpd) http://httpd.apache.org/ from the download page, and getting involved with the ASF was more accidental than anything else. I've brushed arms with the Guacamole project http://guacamole.apache.org/ at several times over the past decade. As a systems administrator/engineer, and one who prefers Linux to some of the commercial alternatives, I'm always happy to see software produced that is truly cross-platform, and, as many current trends are demonstrating, Web browser applications are the pinnacle of cross-platform applications. I used Guacamole in various applications in my place of employment, but always saw opportunities to improve it – add a feature here or there, make it more administrator or user friendly, etc.

After a recent job change, I found myself with a little more free time than I had previously had, and a desire to do something productive with that time. I started thinking about how I could give back to the Open Source community – I've long been a user of many software packages made freely-available to the world, and my appreciation for the developers and companies that produce and support these efforts had, for a while, made me want to do something to return the favor and give back to that community. I also needed to challenge myself and fill some of my free time, and growing my programming skills seemed like a good way to accomplish these goals.

When I settled on Guacamole, I found that it had entered into the Apache Incubator http://incubator.apache.org/ programming in an effort to get the project accepted by The Apache Software Foundation. I thought that was cool, but didn’t think much else of it at the time, and I knew little about the organization. The Incubator program helps potential ASF projects learn how to create a certain culture and community that encourages development and interaction.

This culture is created, in large part, by the Apache Way, a set of guiding principles and behaviors for projects within the ASF. One of the biggest keys to my success, thus far, in contributing to the Guacamole project is the concept of mentoring – not a behavior or principle officially outlined in Apache Way documents, but rather a byproduct of those principles. It seems that it is very human to be dismissive of people that don't measure up to our standard in some way or another, and my programming skills are, by far, the weakest of any of the current contributors to the Guacamole project. However, instead of ridicule or dismissal or discouragement, the other developers within the project have been accepting, helpful, and provided guidance.

And, as with any good education opportunity, they don't do this by giving me the answers or telling me how to do something, they do it by providing examples, references, and pointers that help me to think through the why and make my way to the how to write better code. The result? I still wouldn't rely on my programming skills for my day job, but I've come a long way in the 18 months that I've been a part of the project, and the code I write today is better than when I started.

Finally, this involvement actually makes me better at my day job. Not only does it give me a stronger appreciation for the effort that goes into writing the software that I use on a regular basis, but, more practically, it gives me a stronger set of skills for debugging problems and tracking down bugs that occur. I'm better able to locate the actual cause of problems, provide useful descriptions of those problems, and interact with the software engineers and developers in various places responsible for writing, improving, and supporting those applications.

At this point, my involvement with The Apache Software Foundation is limited to the Guacamole project, and will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future, but it's great to be involved with an organization and community that has a very diverse community of developers and projects, and know that, should I choose to add another challenge to my life, there are other projects out there that would welcome the involvement and would provide similarly positive experiences in helping me grow in my ability to give back to the open source community. If you're itching to dust off or learn some programming skills then I encourage you to look at the many available Apache Software Foundation projects available and jump into one of the communities. You'll almost certainly want to join one of the mailing lists for the project and your involvement can grow from there.

Nick Couchman is a Senior Linux Systems Engineer and Technical Team Lead for a major cosmetics conglomerate, and spends his days trying to convince everyone that they should run more Linux and less...other stuff.  He spends his evenings with his family and increasingly small amounts of free time contributing to the Apache Guacamole project, learning how to write C, Java, and JavaScript.

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"Success at Apache" is a monthly blog series that focuses on the processes behind why the ASF "just works" https://blogs.apache.org/foundation/category/SuccessAtApache

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