August 1, 2001

East meets West with FreeOS.com's Apurva Shah

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -

His name is Apu, like the convenient store owner on the Simpsons,
not
Abu, like the kid in Aladdin. It's Apu, short for Apurva, and Apurva Shah is not
a cartoon character or a prince, he's chief technical officer of FreeOS.com, a Bombay, India-based news and resource site serving the free operating
system community.It's based in Bombay, because that is where Shah has lived
for about half of his 30 years, although he's able to legitimately call
Boston and New York city home just as often as Bombay and Bangalore. Shah, who grew up
in Newton, Mass., wanting to be a fireman until relocating to Bombay at
age 12, is at least half all-American boy. He sowed his professional oats at one
of America's big corporations, loves the outdoors, lived for a stint in
Manhattan and eventually went into business with his father. All the
signs of a healthy blue-blood.

He even spent a lot of his pre-teen time watching cowboys, though
that was a bit odd. His first job ever was to look up every night at a
neon billboard and make sure all the lights were on. The billboard was
owned by a friend of his father who paid the then 12-year-old Shah 50 rupees
a month, about $5, to monitor the health of said billboard, which boasted
the image of a cowboy prepping to lasso the billboard viewer into the western
hemisphere. Roughly 10 years later, Shah was hired by AT&T New Media Services to
compile, debug, fix and release build of their now defunct software product,
AT&T Interchange. Owning a billboard in Bombay must have
been no common matter, so the former job was no doubt a responsibility comparable
to that of the latter. Let's just say Shah has been working in the
electronics industry since he was a boy.

It was hardware that fascinated Shah for years, and hardware that he
studied at RVCE in Bangalore, where
he earned an undergraduate degree in Electronics Engineering. In those
days he hated software and writing code, but a job in circuit design was not
forthcoming ,and he didn't want to go into sales or support.

"I wanted to create, design and architect things. There was very
little scope doing what I wanted to do and very high levels of competition.
So I started teaching things like DOS, Lotus 123, Office suites and
progressed to the C programming language. I learned C while teaching it. Teaching
it forced me to gain deep understanding of the language.

"Once given a taste of C, there was no looking back. I fell in love
with coding."

Through his last year at RVCE, he taught at a computer training
institute. He would prepare and learn just enough C to last a couple of days of
class. Once he was completely hooked, he set off to Boston University, where he
earned a masters in computer science. During his second year he started the
"build czar" job at AT&T. After AT&T, he moved to Manhattan where he
worked for a couple of smaller corporations.

In Manhattan he moved into an apartment full of techies and a T1
line, so it was only a matter of time before he met Linux. It was the mid-1990s,
and they were all hosting Web sites from their home-based servers. Shah
was already a Unix guy (Solaris, HP/UX), and he'd heard of Linux, but hadn't
gotten around to trying it. The day he brought home a new hard drive, Linux
simply filled in the available space, absorbing yet another young
coding fanatic.

He was so taken with it, in fact, that he offered to join Prakash Advani and procure the
funds necessary to enhance Advani's burgeoning site, FreeOS.com. In the fall
of 1998, Advani had written Getting Started
with Linux
for the Linux
Gazette
. Its popularity inspired the creation of FreeOS.com, a site dedicated
to propagating related knowledge and know-how.

In February of 2000, Shah got his father, Dr. Arvind Shah, on
board. Landing his father, author of one of the first books on Basic programming and a Ph.D. in operations research from Case Western, as "angel investor" wasn't a matter of convenience for Shah, it was a business decision.

"I love working with Dad since there is just tremendous amounts to
learn and absorb from him. With all the knowledge and experience he has, I
feel lucky to be associated with him in business. He is my hero. His role
is pure mentorship and guidance."

OK, so maybe the lack of family neurosis is not so New England.
What's unusual, too, is that Shah returned to India to work at all. Though many
of his countrymen may remain loyal to their homeland, it is common for
Indian doctors and engineers to move west to study and practice, returning to
India only to visit and provide for extended family.

"It is quite tough to find good engineers here, since all the good
ones tend to leave for the States. Even if we do find good ones, it is becoming increasingly tough to retain them since they get offers to go abroad all the time. (Germany, Australia and England are other popular destinations.)"

If the simple existence of programmers is an issue, what kind of
obstacles must Open Source face in India?

"India is a poor country. People need money here so people tend to
work extra to rake in the dough. There is little or no time for many of us
to volunteer and do some Open Source coding. Also the business mindset is,
'How can you charge for something that's free?' or, 'How can you make money
using free software?'"

None of this, however, jars Shah's resolve. When asked, "Why
Open Source?" he whips off a concise list of reasons that include
efficiency, the propagation of knowledge and therefore quality, stability, integration
and frugality. All of which contradicts the standing reputation of
traditional Indian bureaucracy which, like any system governed by a loose
collection of whim and reason, can be convoluted and often times mysterious.

But that, besides the few Hindi words that I speak, is why all
things Indian fascinate me. It is an endlessly intriguing country marked by
paradox and contradiction -- colorful cottons set against the ashen
landscape of poverty, remains of the medieval amidst the bustle of modernity,
catcalls and a raffle in the middle of a Harrison Ford film. No doubt, if a
business model-less product can make it in any capitalist market, it can make it
in India's. And if it doesn't, well then Shah would be perfectly happy
running a reggae lounge and designing this year's fall fashion collection. But
until then, he'll continue to live and breath Linux and its liberated
brethren.

More about Apurva Shah

Mail reader: Sylpheed

Text editor: emacs

Linux distribution: Red Hat

Favorite snack food: Chakris, an Indian snack that looks like a spiral.

Favorite band/album/song: Bob Marley/Survival/Zimbabwe, Crazy Baldheads,
Exodus, War, Murder She Wrote (Chaka Demus &
Pliers
)

Book: Hitchhiker's Guide to The Universe (all parts)

Movie: Star Wars (all of them)

Video game: Doesn't play video games

Television show: Whose Line is it Anyway?

Vacation: For fun and sun, Zanzibar;
for mountains and rivers, the Himalayas.

Favorite person: my
dad

Category:

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