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Learning through adversity

Today is Pioneer Day in Utah, a day that Utahns celebrate the sacrifices made by its pioneer forbears. Today is also the day that I do the same for software pioneers.

Today is Pioneer Day in Utah, a day when Utahns reflect on the sacrifice that brought 70,000 people 1,300 miles across the United States into present-day Utah. My own family was part of this group. In fact, there's a wonderful quote from Brigham Young about the Asays when he bumped into them while traveling in Southern Utah. He critiqued their sloth in still living out of their wagons, but said they made him the best fish dinner he'd had. Some things never change.... :-)

As I look back on what my family and others did, I'm impressed by how hardship focused and shaped the thoughts and feelings of a people. While some of the pioneers suffered greatly in making the trek, for others it was more hearty inconvenience and discomfort. But for all, it was a formative time.

Years later, a group that hadn't been through the ordeal criticized those who had for foolishly leaving late in the year, such that the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies were caught in a terrible winter. Here's the response from one who had lived through it:

Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes! But I was in that company and my wife was in it....We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism?...

I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other....Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No! Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.

Today, I honor my pioneer ancestors for their fortitude.

I also honor, albeit to a lesser degree and in a very different way, the software pioneers. Last night I was reading about Marc Benioff and his crusade to end software as we know it. I believe that he and other SaaS pioneers are doing just that.

But I believe open source pioneers like Red Hat, JBoss, and MySQL deserve even more acclaim. I remember once thinking of how unfortunate it was that Red Hat didn't own Linux, such that it would have more leeway in the licensing models it could employ. I remember talking about this same thing with MySQL, suggesting that the company would be better off with a mixed source license. I spent years thinking that the open source world would be better off if it could just act more like the closed-source world it left behind.

I was wrong. There is strength, resolve, and creativity forged from adversity. I am positive that these open source leaders had many times when they would have preferred to return to an easier model, one that had already been paved by others. But they lacked that luxury, and they (and we) are the better for it.

I don't want to suggest that access to source code and freedom of religion (the principle that drove the Mormon pioneers to leave their homes and travel to the wasteland that was Utah) are on par. Similarly, I don't want to equate the "suffering" of the two on the road. They are not even remotely equal.

But I do believe that MySQL, JBoss, and Red Hat are pioneers. The industry is better for their efforts. They are strong companies not in spite of their hardships on the road to profitability, but precisely because of them. We, and their customers, are the beneficiaries.