Today was a milestone day for the RailsApps project. I received a $100 check in the mail from a fan, the first time someone has been moved to send money as a thank you. I’m happy to report that getting a surprise gift of cash feels great! I’m taking it as a sign I should explain why I work on this project.
I do it because I like the appreciation. Every week I see comments and tweets that inform me someone new found value in the example apps and tutorials I create. There are many reasons developers lead open source projects. To some it is ideological. Famously, Richard Stallman and others in the FOSS movement advocate software should be free for political as well as practical reasons. For others, an apparent altruism masks pragmatic motives: Like Tom Sawyer painting a fence, doing work out in the open encourages others to fix bugs and add features. I’m not an especially needy or insecure person (no more than most) but for me, it’s all about appreciation.
I discovered the value of appreciation in 1999-2000 (a time when you may recall it was more popular to discover the value of credulous investors). I was doing corporate consulting, leading teams building web applications. I’d long since dropped a number of small business clients I’d acquired in 1995-1996 who’d been paying me to serve as part-time webmaster. But I stayed with one client, a motivational speaker named Esther Hicks, because every time she sent a check she included a beautifully handwritten note thanking me for my work. No corporate client, no matter how big or important the project, ever did that. Significantly, Esther and her husband Jerry Hicks taught a message about positive thinking that centered on the value of appreciation. She walked her talk. Her message was destined to go viral; in time, Esther and Jerry Hicks became NY Times best-selling authors. To her, expressing appreciation was not a one-minute manager’s cheap trick to boost productivity or keep a highly paid consultant around for cheap (though that was a beneficial effect). Esther and Jerry Hicks recognized, as I do, that the things that elicit appreciation are the things worth doing.
That’s why I work on open source projects. I thought of Esther’s handwritten thank you’s recently when I wrapped up a short term consulting gig that suffered from a noticeable deficit of appreciation. It included cross-continent plane travel, corporate lodgings a block from Wall Street, a fat retainer, and a lot of grousing, blaming, and unhappy people. Was it a project destined for success? Not by my yardstick. In contrast, here’s the RailsApps project. $100 out of the blue for work I love doing. Satisfying, rich in appreciation, and already successful when I count the number of people who benefit.
You could ask yourself, what do you do that elicits appreciation? If you used appreciation as your metric, would it lead you to the kind of projects that go viral, change the world, and better lives?