In defense of Apache

Apache is great for many things, not so for others. Its proponents misunderstand its weaknesses, and its detractors misunderstand its strengths

In the early part of the last decade I donated a piece of software to Apache because I was afraid that Microsoft would sue me. Nearly a decade later, Microsoft would become a major contributor to that software. I started POI with the hopes of landing local business during the dot bomb, which was a much worse recession than the latest one for those in technology. As it turned out, my first customer was in South Africa.

My vision for POI was to grow beyond a spreadsheet-file-format API, cover the full gamut of Microsoft's Office file formats, and plug this into a reporting engine that I would develop later. Unfortunately for me, other people further along on reporting engines were able to plug POI into them and make them more successful. That was a big success for Apache, but something of a miss for me. I'd made the hard part happen but missed out on the primary benefit.

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Apache for individuals

I remember Marc Fleury at JBoss used to characterize Apache as being a bunch of guys who stood around waiting for IBM to "take them." I don't think it was quite that simple. At one point, IBM approached us and wanted to use POI in some part of WebSphere. I was happy to have Big Blue, but I wasn't willing to meet the company's timelines for free. IBM decided to do something with OpenOffice instead.

While others may have benefited more from POI than I did personally, I did make a few hundred thousand dollars off it. That was the smallest benefit I received. Because of POI, I was able to get a (not very good) job to wait out the rest of the recession. My co-founder went to SAS even earlier. Because I'd already started an Apache project, I was able to talk Marc Fleury into hiring me at JBoss, and I made a lot more after the acquisition.

Apache wasn't a rosy time for me. I was in my early 20s. My brain cells were firing thousands of times per millisecond in hundreds of different directions, my teenage hormones had not completely abated, and all this was mixed with an Irish temper. Communicating with somewhat bureaucratic people by email is an incredibly anger-inducing and frustrating way to spend your time. I had plenty to be frustrated about, but I handled it rather poorly.

Community, meritocracy, and seniority at Apache

Apache is about community on the surface, but more closely resembles a meritocracy. Unfortunately, you build merit quickly and it wanes slowly, so seniority seems to be an unspoken component of merit. This is natural -- who am I next to Brian Behlendorf (one of the founders of Apache used merely for example)? Why should anyone care if I disagree with him? I mean, virtually everyone in the organization knew who Brian was, and virtually everyone knew I had a big virtual mouth.

When actions are public, the issues tend to be decided on their merit. When matters are private (Apache has over time moved a lot more to private lists), decisions are made sometimes that don't make much sense if you believe Apache stands for what it purports.

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