January 25, 2007

Portrait: Rosegarden's D. Michael McIntyre

Author: Joe Barr

If there is anything like a "typical" member of the free/open source community,
that template is probably nothing like D. Michael McIntyre. By profession a truck driver, McIntyre holds a bachelor's degree in Foreign Languages, and he's used his facility with words to document the popular Rosegarden project. He's since gone on to do whatever he sees that needs to be done on the project, and has become an integral part of the Rosegarden team.

We asked McIntyre how he first became involved with Linux and free/open source software.

I was on the Ultima Dragons Internet Club mailing list or newsgroup. There were a number of Linux people there, and I kept making disparaging FUDdy comments about what a "hacked together pile of slapware" it all was, based on my brief experience with Linux in the early '90s, when it was a curiosity a few geeks were passing around on a single floppy disk.

One of the other Dragons told me, in effect, he was sick to death of listening to me whine about something I had not actually seen with my own eyes. He ordered me a set of Mandrake CDs from Cheapbytes, and encouraged me to try the thing, inviting me to continue complaining all I wanted after I had developed a solid foundation upon which to base my disparaging comments.

Mandrake 8.1 had a known bug with the display drivers for my particular hardware. The
graphical install impressed and surprised me, but then I booted to gibberish, and then somehow wound up at a bash prompt. Somehow that woke my slumbering inner DOS hacker from his long hibernation. I grew up on a TRS-80 Color Computer, and I stayed with DOS on the PC platform until just before Windows 95. I ran Windows 3.1 under OS/2 Warp. Windows 95 put me to sleep, and I did not wake up from that slumber for six years. I suppose that bear was really hungry when it emerged from its cave, and Linux offered plenty of hacky challenges to feed its belly.

Along the way, I did such things as installing Debian from scratch in a chroot environment from a running Mandrake. It booted. I ran Debian for the remainder of the time, until just recently switching to Kubuntu.

McIntyre spent a lot of time during his first year of Linux usage participating in newsgroups, learning more about Linux, and sharing what he learned with others. "I came out of nowhere, asked a number of the usual stupid questions, and quickly turned into something of a phenomenon on alt.os.linux.mandrake as one of the go-to guys for the answers to hard questions. In truth, I had refined the skill of translating the knowledge of real gurus into Newbie Speak, and I saw myself as an interface layer between the clueless n00bs and the people with real answers. I suppose my real skill has always been my ability to take a little bit of something I just learned five minutes ago, and speak about it as though I were an expert; to learn through teaching, as it were. Or to fake it deftly, and BS my way through anything, less politely stated."

Then came the fateful day in 2002 when he posted a message on the Linux Audio Users List with the provocative subject of "Any MIDI apps for Linux that don't suck?"

McIntyre says that two critical things happened as a result of his post to the LAU list. First, the de facto Rosegarden project lead, Chris Cannan, responded with a suggestion, saying, "What might be more handy would be a tutorial from someone other than the developers ('this is how I achieved task X that I set out to do'), particularly if reviewed by one or more developers so we could point out places where things might have been done more easily another way." Second, Graham Percival, a friend and Linux mentor, challenged him by saying he was "an ungrateful, unappreciative sot."

McIntyre says, "Chris's suggestion about a tutorial plus Graham's admonition to get off my duff and do something useful instead of complaining led to the Rosegarden Tutorial. I posted an initial tarball to the rosegarden-devel list, and within moments Guillaume [Laurent, one of the project's leaders] had asked for a copy to throw into CVS, giving me access to the project's repository in order to continue to develop it. Thus I bought my way onto the list of Rosegarden developers through the back door, without submitting any patches."

Since then, McIntyre has done "a little bit of almost everything" on the Rosegarden project. He says, "There isn't much I haven't tried, and there isn't much I haven't failed at. A real project would fire me for my lack of skill (I don't really know C++, for example), but Rosegarden is far too desperate to turn anyone away who can actually produce anything useful, no matter how infrequently or how trivial."

The tutorial has blossomed into a book called Rosegarden Companion. That process got him involved in writing code as well as documenting it for users.

"I kept getting stuck on something I couldn't get anyone else to fix, so I put down the writer hat and put on the programmer hat. I'd spend a few months doing primarily
documentation, and another few months working on trying to clean up the problems I wanted to avoid writing about, or even better, convincing people with more skill to clean up those problems through the process of showing them how bad it all looked in print."

Career path: professor or truck driver?

How does a man with a degree Spanish, in French, and Latin end up driving a truck? McIntyre says, "I was originally planning to become a professor. I was on a Ph.D. track as an undergrad. I doubled and tripled my language courses, taking Spanish, French, and Latin to the exclusion of everything else. I had enough credit hours to graduate by my junior year -- but in my senior year, everything changed. The EPT came back with two purple dots, and it was time to get a job. I married my girlfriend, moved out of my
parents' home into her apartment, and went on welfare for awhile. I spent the next few years struggling to make ends meet and feed and take care of our baby, and any thoughts of grad school went sailing out the window. I was also disgusted with the whole higher education phenomenon at that point as well, upon finding myself out in the real world on my ear with no marketable skills whatsoever, and worse off than people who had taken trades in high school.

"I wound up at Wal-Mart for about four years. I tried to get various jobs along the way -- computer buyer, programmer, tech support, software retail -- but I had no paper credentials in any computer-related field, and I evidently don't handle job interviews well. I tried the translator scene, and earned a few peanuts, but nothing to live on. I tried offering private foreign language instruction for more peanuts. I tried dreaming up dozens of inventions. In the third year, my wife turned up unexpectedly preggers a second time, so I really had to redouble my effort to find more money somehow.

"Along the way, someone put the idea in my head I should go apply for a job driving for a linen company. They laughed at me, because I didn't have a Commercial Driver's License (CDL), but the seed was planted. I started doing homework, and discovered there were a lot of jobs, the pay looked good, and the time and money spent on training were both low compared with going back to grad school or going to a technical IT school for some paper credentials. It looked like a class A CDL was my ticket out of poverty, plus trucks were big and cool looking, and what the hell.

"I quit my job, spent six weeks in driving school, and then I was lucky enough to find the one job in America I could actually survive without going insane. I fell in with a small local company that didn't pay much, but didn't keep me out on the road much either. I never could have done what I did at Rosegarden if not for the driving job I lucked into finding straight out of school."

Sadly, earlier this month, McIntyre was laid off from his job as a truck driver. Anybody want to hire a proven open source software contributor with a gift of gab, obvious smarts, and demonstrated ability to land on his feet? Considering those last two traits, maybe McIntyre is not so different from the norm in our community as his credentials might suggest.

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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