In my line of work I get to test, try and evaluate all kinds of new open source software and the occasional new distribution flavor of the month. Sometimes it's a smooth process but other times I find myself casting a line in the lake of forums hoping to get a bite. In a lot of ways, this is how it was when I was first introduced to Linux in the late 90's. When I look back and compare my experiences then with my experiences now I see the progress we've made in a number of areas but I am left with one conclusion: we're not quite there yet.
We've all experienced the agonies of an app that just won't install or otherwise function as hoped for. When this happens, inevitably we all find ourselves grasping at the same tried and true straws we've know for years now: forum boards and IRC channels.
Using a forum board or IRC channel is a lot like trying to solve your problems by walking down a dorm room hallway. Room by room you poke your head in, say hi to everybody, and ask around quickly to see if anyone has an idea. The responses can vary depending on which door you knock on.
A lot has changed since I first started knocking on doors to solve my problems. First and foremost, there are a LOT more doors. Second, there are a lot more people to ask as open source finds itself becoming more and more mainstream. What doesn't seem to have changed much are the responses.
There will always be the self righteous neighbors. I knocked on one of these doors the other day. The first response was "why don't you just come out and tell us what you broke...". There's the newbie rooms full of happy people that are just as lost as you are and have huddled together in the kiddie pool. There's the oh-so-elite rooms (you know who you are Gentoo users!) who only have one response for any question "RTFM". Remind me to further rant on these types some other time.
Occasionally (and less and less by accident of late) you get lucky and find a room full of sympathetic techies. These rooms are filled with people who can explain your problems simply enough to enable you to actually fix something.
All of this leads to my point: those of us who are passionate about open source projects are by nature, somewhat evangelistic. We want to share them with everyone and convert the masses. Nothing is more frustrating than meeting someone who tried open source at one time and couldn't get the kind of support they needed and in anguish, scrapped the hole thing in lieu of the very matrix we're trying to unplug them from. I had the pleasure of sitting in an IRC room the other day when a complete newbie walked in. One by one, the entire room took turns walking him through a wide array of problems. In the end, he left the room excited. He'll be back soon and his questions will be a little more complex each time (a good indication that he's learning, and solving the easier stuff on his own).
You never know who's gonna pop their head in. It could be a complete newbie, it could be a professional with a tech issue his paycheck depends on (like myself). It could be the next Torvalds, in his ***formative years. Either way, how you respond will either encourage them, and swell our numbers by one, or discourage him, and everyone who will listen to him. Be nice. Be understanding. Most importantly, be patient with them. It takes a village, and you might be raising the next Linux fanatic.
*** Note: the use of the word formidable was removed for the sake of world peace.
Chase Crum is the IT Infrastructure Manager for Voicenation and a self-proclaimed Linux FANATIC.
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