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 apache.org. By any measure, the Apache Software Foundation (apache.org) 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.