• Mike Boich
  • Jeff Barr
  • Steve Balmer
  • Steve Jobs
  • Richard Stallman
  • Jon “Maddog” Hall
  • Tim O’Reilly
  • Linus Torvalds
  • Al Lowe*

*Al Lowe? Who is Al Lowe? Did you know at Microsoft they have a job title called “Developer Evangelist”? What do they do? They work with the public to gain developer feedback and organize developer days.

What the people in the above list all have in common is they are all evangelists for one form of tech or another. And why am I writing about them? In my last column, (Ubuntu 9.04: Wow) I was ripped to shreds as being nothing more than a glorified cheerleader. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those columns where I defend my words and my background. What I thought I wanted to do was take a look at how tech evangelism really affects the IT industry  — especially open source.

We have all been evangelists at one point or another. Whether it be trying to sell corporate headquarters on a new piece of software or hardware or even convince an end user that what they now have in front of them is, in fact, better than what they used to have.

But for some of us, especially in the open source world, being an evangelist is looked upon poorly. Richard Stallman is the poster boy for open source and is viewed by many as nothing more than a nuisance. Why is this? He’s a bright man. Hired by IBM at an early age, he wound up creating one of the first pre-processors for the IBM System/360. At some point, however, he discovered open source and began extolling its benefits. He even created the Copyleft and was the main writer of the GPL. With such a background, why is he considered nothing more than a raving mad man at times?

Not that I compare myself to RMS, but he and I have something in common. We are both very passionate about Linux and/or open source. So much so that we begin to see the hurdles and challenges of open source software as “features” or “part of the fun”. It’s easy to forget, when challenges are part of what make life a joy, that most people do not want challenges. Challenges make work harder and, therefore, less productive. But evangelists, nay, cheerleaders, are blinded to this.

It’s really easy to forget that the average user doen’t know how to “mount” a drive or partition. To geeks an analytical challenge is food for the brain. To non-geeks these challenges are an annoyance.

And this, I think, is where the disconnect is. I know it is where mine is. My day-to-day life is filled with Linux. It has been for a long time. Linux is second nature to me, so knowing where things are and what to do with them comes very easily. To Windows IT-types, the structure of that operating system, and how it works, is their bread and butter and they preach its benefits. But because we geeks and IT pros know technology with all its ins and outs, we forget that others do not. So when a Linux advocate espouses the benefits of using open source, a Microsoft advocate will see that as someone who has done nothing more than “drink the Kool-Aid.” Vice versa applies.

The difference between evangelizing Linux and Microsoft is that Linux has always been the underdog. Fans of Linux have forever had to dig their way out of the trenches just to be seen. So when they spoke their voices had to be loud and proud or else they wouldn’t be heard.

I think ultimately what we must do is remember that what we are preaching has to be practiced by others before they can see what we see. The only problem with this model is that it doesn’t always work in our day-to-day lives. As a member of an IT staff, you can’t hand over software and say, play with it for a while and then I will show you how good it is. Instead you have to roll out software with manuals, meetings, and how-to seminars, so the end-users know what they are doing. You have to evangelize the roll-outs.

We all cheer lead something every day. And it’s a good thing we do or else nothing would get done and nothing would ever catch on. Think about it this way: If it were not for the evangelists and cheerleaders, where would Linux and open source be today? Can you imagine where Linux would be today if it weren’t for the likes of Richard Stallman or Maddog? Where would Microsoft be without Ballmer? Or where would Apple be without Jobs? Nowhere, or at least no where near where they are today.

Linux and open source, in particular, would be in far worse shape without its evangelists than would either Microsoft or Apple. Why? Because in most cases evangelism is the only PR Linux has. Over the years, I have written tons of articles about Linux and open source. The vast majority of them have been how-to documents. But peppered in between the how-tos have been a generous helping of evangelizing. I did this because I knew Linux needed it.

And beyond the need Linux has for such cheerleading, I actually do enjoy working with the operating system. It makes doing my work fun. It’s sometimes a challenge, yes, but it’s always a joy. I have been very thankful over the years to have readers read my work. The negative comments have always pushed me to try to be better than I was before. The positive comments have been just reward.

I would like to think every Techrepublic reader who does their share of evangelizing, regardless of what OS camp you belong to. Microsoft, Linux, Apple…whatever works for you. The important thing is that you are working to make the lives of your users simple and productive (And if you are using Linux for that purpose I applaud you.)

Right. Now I can get back to our regularly scheduled article. Next week I will have that real review of Ubuntu 9.04. The chinks in the armor have started to appear, and I will gladly report them. Until then…I have some more Kool-Aid to drink. 😉