Sitting next to me at this high-topped table at Google's Mountain View campus, a German, sitting across from me, a Pole, and to his left, a hacker from Portugal. With my usual flagrant disregard for the adage "not to discuss politics nor religion in polite company," I ask some pointed questions about the crises and challenges facing the European Union. It's October of 2016 and the discussion is about to become heated.
The German is quiet. The Pole proclaims that Poland is sufficiently broken to where he does not concern himself with the problems outside the country. The man from Portugal's nostrils flare, his arms wave with a passion one might expect, as he rails against Germany. He rails against the Euro. He rails against the European Union. My curiosity acts as a foil for my lunch companion's fury for the remainder of the meal.
I do not understand. I don't ask questions to be incendiary, I just don't understand, but I want to.
Some time later in the hall, I run into my fellow hacker from Portugal and he sheepishly apologizes for letting himself get so worked up. I explain that I took no offense at his ire; I just want to understand. He recommends a book, and we part ways, never actually exchanging names, only political theory and opinion.
I went into that weekend, the Google Summer of Code Mentors Summit, expecting to learn about how other projects operate, how they mentor students, and what interesting technologies they're using. During the various "unconference" style sessions, I certainly learned plenty on those subjects. The long-lasting benefit of the weekend however, was the exposure to people "just like me" from different countries and continents.
I have since read the book he recommended, which was itself enlightening, but what I am most struck by, is how the benefits of participating in free and open source communities is so much more than free code. It's that bringing of people together, across nations, cultures, and opinions.
Had I not been part of an open source project, and had I not been fortunate enough to participate in a program with global reach like the Google Summer of Code, I would have never been exposed to different, sometimes radically so, viewpoints.
Long ago, I cannot quite place when, a debate occurred in an open source project as to whether the project's website should include a planet, and if so, should all blog posts be aggregated or ones only tagged as relevant to the project.
A compelling argument in favor of including all blog posts from the project's participants, I attribute to Mikeal Rogers, and went something like this:
Including all of a contributor's blog posts, whether related to the project or simply personal updates, helps build cohesion and empathy among the members of the project.
Put another way, sharing pictures and stories from your family, your new house, or your unrelated hobby projects helps me, some stranger at the other end of the internet, think of you as a full human being. Instead of some nick on a pull request critiquing my code.
The shared purpose of building a piece of free or open source software is a noble one, but without the cultivation of friendships and camaraderie it is unlikely to be successful in the long term. If you're not hacking with your friends, why bother?
In 2005 or 2006, I went to my first FOSDEM. Never before had I met so many other free and open source hackers in real life. In fact, I don't think I had ever met one! I had started hacking on open source projects a couple years prior, and rarely left my safe little enclave of the BSD community. At FOSDEM, I was exposed to adamant proponents of the GPL, adamant proponents of the BSD, and everything in between. I was exposed to people from across the European continent and beyond. I was exposed to Club-Mate. The passion for free and open source at FOSDEM was palpable, but from a myriad of different perspectives and with many different motivations.
To me, participation in free and open source projects has been the primary means through which I have become a better developer. But it has been through my travels, and interactions, with members of the global free and open source community, I have become a more informed, more open-minded, and better person.
Therein, I believe, lies the most important power of free and open source projects.