It was library quiet. Middle-aged men were dressed like college students. There was serious work being done, but smiles were common. The most popular badge add-on said "plays well with others."
Are these mad monks, I thought? Are they wizards?
I believe great programming is an art, that the ability to turn logical constructs into functioning reality is something like magic. I've tried, I can't do it, and I admire anyone who can do it well.
But there was a kind of virtual reality thing I wasn't getting. It was something about how Apache people see themselves. Is this a College of Cardinals? Are these cowboys? Are they musicians? Are they just playing games?
Then after an afternoon session most of the group came back into the main hall. Over coffee, they opened their laptops, and began quietly working together around round tables. Which is when it hit me.
Don't laugh, please. I have a serious, important point to make.
We live in a cynical age. The values of society seem to run counter to what is good for the whole. These days we glorify the most ruthless entrepreneurs and bankers who manipulate money through computers in order to keep most of it for themselves.
Into this world comes Apache. They are programmers, they have jobs, but within Apache they also have a moral code, a sense of belonging, a common purpose, and important work that feeds the common good. They spin what in our time looks like wealth, then give it away free to anyone who wants it.
Too often we discount this sense of morality, the desire to do right, to look in the mirror some days and see not a worker, or an engineer, but a hero. It's so much easier to be cynical, to discount others' motives, but anyone can be a hero. They just need to act heroically.
What Apache has accomplished is, in a 21st century sense, pretty heroic. Here are hundreds of important programming projects, which combined represent billions of dollars in value, free for the taking. And here are people (mostly men but some women) who give of themselves to keep it growing, bound by a moral code that doesn't have to be written down to be understood.
Usually this is done in secret, behind closed doors, at odd hours and alone. Apache, as Jim Jagielski says, is "just a mailing list."
But sometimes, you get to go somewhere and walk among others who share your values, and your talents, attach faces to names you know only on a screen, and be known yourself. Not for your job title or your bank balance but for what you do, and what you can do for others, your peers as well as the world beyond.
It was a very strange vision I had then. It looked like a bunch of middle age guys drinking coffee, laptops open, sitting and talking in a hotel ballroom.