A Toast to Aaron Swartz

To be clear, Aaron never knew my name. We only ever spoke briefly (and virtually). And in terms of our project work, Aaron and I didn’t have too much common ground.

What we did have in common, however, was that we were both born in 1986. We both started programming as children. We both were into Lisp and Python. We even look similar. And, when we were both in about eighth grade, we aspired to make our mark on the technological landscape we loved so much. It was at this point that I started to “follow” Aaron and his activities. And when Reddit came to be, Aaron became a tech icon for me.

I was an early user of Reddit — which at the time became my new Slashdot replacement — as well as web.py. But  my respect for Aaron really started to grow after his liquidity event — when some troubles started to hit.

I remember reading the interview everyone links to where he talks about his troubles with Reddit management. The truth is, Aaron was a person of integrity. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He stood up for what he believed in, even to the detriment of his own career. And ultimately, it seems he has given his life for his cause, in some tragic blend of martyrdom and short-sightedness.

It’s a special movement, this free software movement, and more generally, the free information movement. It is, in my opinion, one of the only true credits to my generation. We fought no wars, and built no governments. But at least we did this. And this is important.

Some might see it as a tragedy — a person like Aaron, blessed with success so soon in his career, risking it all for activism. It takes guts to do that. It takes conviction and an almost foolhardy disregard for the structures society has put in place. 

At the time, I took a simple lesson from all this — that’s the kind of guy who wins. The spoils aren’t to the meek, or to the political, in this world — but rather to the strong, the outspoken, the driven. And perhaps most importantly, the principled.

A sidenote — when I worked at Citigroup, Robert Rubin (Clinton’s Secretary of Treasury) gave my intern class a speech. He said that in order to succeed in your career, the best thing you can do is forget your sense of self and invest yourself entirely in the good of the firm. This is basically Wall Street talk for exactly what Aaron has done since Day 1 — and what few people I have ever met on Wall Street have ever practiced.

Cloudmetrx lives at a crossroads of industries — technology and financial services. And financial services, currently, finds itself at a crossroads of another sort. I hope both industries can respond to Aaron’s death by trying to live up to his own expectations for himself. A little more altruism; a little less bottom line.


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