Even if you're not a programmer, you still can make yourself useful.
My parents were old-school. Literally. My mother (born 1913) started teaching at age 19 in a one-room schoolhouse in rural North Dakota, where she grew up. My father (born 1908) learned carpentry from his father (born 1863) and taught me as well. I also absorbed a value both my parents shared. “Make yourself useful”, they said, as often as they saw my sister or me failing to do that.
Respect for usefulness gave me a special appreciation for Linux, as well as for free and open-source code. Usefulness is why most free and open-source code gets written in the first place. It's also what makes that code valuable. “The use value of a program is its economic value as a tool, a productivity multiplier”, Eric Raymond writes (catb.org/esr/writings/homesteading/magic-cauldron/ar01s03.htm). Elsewhere (catb.org/esr/writings/homesteading/cathedral-bazaar/ar01s02.html), he adds, “Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.” And, “Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).”
I've never made myself useful as a programmer. As fate has it, the only code I know is Morse. (Well, there's HTML, which I don't think counts much more than Morse does.) My skills with electronics, such as they are, were developed in my days as a ham radio operator, in the earliest 1960s. I was a kid then, building radio things and cultivating a lifelong obsession with devices that transmit, receive or both. For a while in my early adult life, that obsession got me work manning radio station transmitters and doing site studies for new FM stations. But I went on to other careers, and almost none of what I knew about broadcasting many decades ago is of practical use now, even in what's left of the broadcast field.
The other practical science I learned while young was darkroom chemistry. That came out of my work as a newspaper photographer, around the turn of the 1970s. Today, none of my old darkroom skills (pushing, burning, dodging and so on) have much leverage. My skills as a photographer, however, have only improved since I first picked up a digital camera about six years ago. At first, I mostly shot candid photos of people, since that was my specialty back when I did newspaper work. Then, after Flickr came along, I found I could do something much more useful. I could put up pictures that others could reuse.
That wasn't the main idea behind Flickr, but it was the idea behind Flickr's base code infrastructure, which was built from the ground up on Linux. It was also the idea behind giving users a choice of Creative Commons licenses for each of their pictures. I was familiar with Creative Commons before I started posting photos on Flickr, but I hadn't had personal experience with Creative Commons' effects. Flickr gave me that, in spades. What I discovered was that many of my pictures were proving useful, mostly as visuals in Wikipedia articles. That mattered far more to me than popularity or remuneration.
As of today (mid-August 2010), I have more than 36,000 photos on Flickr. All carry Creative Commons licenses that permit reuse and remixing. Most of them are captioned or tagged, making them easy to find when searching for one of their subjects. In last June's EOF, I told the story of how some of my winter shots ended up serving as wallpaper for NBC's 2010 Winter Olympics coverage. That was cool, but far cooler is seeing 153 of my photos show up in Wikimedia Commons (commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Search&search=doc+searls), through no additional effort of my own. Some shots are of people (including Eric. S. Raymond, Nat Friedman and Guido van Rossum). But most shots are of places I've seen out the windows of airplanes. These include a town in Nebraska, a lake in Norway, an island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, a lava field in the Grand Canyon, salt ponds in San Francisco Bay and a glacier in Greenland. Nearly all of them illustrate at least one Wikipedia article. Some illustrate many. For example, a shot of the spiky white fabric roof of Denver International Airport shows up in 17 different articles across 13 language versions.
I think of each photo as a potential code patch to our body of common knowledge, not as a work of art. If they make themselves useful, then I've done the same.