Open Source with a Human Touch


As part of the NimbleUser 1:1:1 program, I’d like to share my experience volunteering with the Apache Software Foundation.

One age-old tradition at the ASF is to have a “information desk” mailbox, where anyone can ask a general question about the ASF. We’re not Zappos, and the box is hidden behind an autoresponder or two, but, every month, a few persistent souls make their way to human-response at By any measure, the Apache Software Foundation ( is one of the most successful open source software organizations of all time. Founded in 1999, the foundation now has hundreds of members and thousands of committers working on over a hundred projects following the “Apache Way”n all on a volunteer basis. Of course, some folks work on ASF projects as part of their day job, but to the ASF, every coder is a volunteer.

I’ve been handling the human-response email since 2008. I had been an active ASF member from 2001 to 2008, working on the Apache Struts and Jakarta Commons projects, but then stepped back since my career had taken me in a different direction. In appreciation of the great work being done by the active members, I’ve stayed on as the voice of human response.

Most of the inquiries are on-the-nose questions about licensing. Not being a lawyer, I can’t answer licensing questions, but I can refer folks to the legal list. Likewise, we have so many projects, that I can’t possibly answer most of the technical questions, which get referred on to the user and development mailing list.

Other typical inquiries are requests to remove a post from a mailing list, or to clarify an export classification. Often, folks will send us purchase orders for Apache products, and in response it’s my pleasure to tell people: no worries, it’s free!

Another, sadder, request is from someone with a server that disappeared, and reach out to us simply because it was running the Apache HTTP server software. While I can’t help directly, I am able to give a lot of folks a nudge in the right direction by looking up the public InterNIC record and passing along the contact information. A surprising number of people have no idea who to call when a server is down.
Once in awhile, I get some very interesting questions about the “Apache Way”, which has subtle traditions around the rules of engagement within a project. If you are interested in more about how the ASF works, check out Shane Curcuru’s primer on the Apache Way.

I don’t know if other large open source organizations have a human-response box, but I’m glad that the ASF still has a place where a confused visitor at wit’s-end can still get a personalized response.

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