Open source teaches people how to fish

One of the things I love most about the open source communities I’m a part of is that when I ask a question, I just don’t get the answer, I get taught how to find the answer.

A few weeks after I started as executive director of the GNOME Foundation, I asked Dave Neary for someone’s contact information. Actually, it might have been the third or fourth time I asked him for someone’s contact information. He sent me back an email with the contact info I wanted. And a detailed explanation of how he found it. So the next time, I was able to find info like that myself.

I love that when you ask someone in open source a question, they not only answer it, but explain how they found the answer. (I realize some people find that annoying. I really appreciate “learning how to fish.”)

It’s the same empowering attitude that drives people to blog about a problem and how they solved it or found the answer. They are teaching others how to fish.

It’s scary to join an open source project

Photo by DennisSylvesterHurd

Think of the last time you walked up to a complete stranger, stuck out your hand and said, “Hi, my name is …” Depending on how often you do that, it was probably a scary moment. Before you walked up to the person, you had to steel your nerves, decide what you were going to say, and then approach them.

Joining an open source software project is a bit like that. You have to send a mail to a huge list of random people. Or file a bugzilla bug that goes to a ton of random people.

And then imagine the immediate response is “WONTFIX” with no comments. That’s like if the person you got up the nerve to introduce yourself to said, “Not interested.”

I once spent weeks convincing a friend she should help out on an open source software project. She did. And she sent in her work to the mailing list and the first response was full of harsh critique. None of the follow up messages made up for that first message. I never did convince her to push her work forward. Nor to participate in open source again. (She does know exactly what she’d say to that first critic if she ever met him in person!)

What can we do to make sure people trying to shake our hands get a better reception?

How to foster productive online conversations: Mozilla Conductors

When I first started using email, I had a part time job in the computer science department at Rice University. A new grad student joined the department and a few days after he started, I noticed it was his birthday. Knowing he was unlikely to know many people in town, I sent him an email that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” all spelled out in big letters made out of asterisks. He wrote me back “Thanks a lot”. Now in my world, “Thanks a lot” was always said “Thanks a *lot*” with a slightly sarcastic twist to it. I emailed him right back to ask him if he really liked it or if he was being sarcastic. He said no, of course, he really liked it.

So if one happy birthday email can be that confusing, imagine what can go wrong with a complicated email about project directions and motivations … Especially when it’s going out to a mailing list that has hundreds of people on it. That’s what most of us in the open source space deal with every day. Some of us do it better than others. Some days we do it better than others. But we all work at it every day. It’s the way we communicate with our friends, peers and co-workers.

Please meet the Mozilla Conductors

A few months ago, several of us at Mozilla had a conversation about how we could best help people learn how to communicate well online. We have new people joining the project all the time and they have to learn how to communicate on mailing lists, IRC and bugzilla. Those of us helping them realize daily what a challenge it can be. As much as we don’t think about it, cc’ing the right people, quoting previous mail messages and keeping the conversation from getting argumentative are not easy things.

We were looking for a way to help everyone communicate better, exploring all sorts of crazy options like classes and consultants, and realized we had the best resources right inside our project. We have people that are really good at fostering online conversations. They’ve been doing it for years; quietly (and not so quietly) leading and directing the conversations and projects they are part of.

So we sent out a bunch of emails, came to a consensus and created the Mozilla Conductors!

Mozilla Conductors help Mozillians with difficult online conversations. We offer advice, suggestions, a listening ear, moral support and, in the case where the discussion is public, occasionally direct intervention. But the goal is to help everyone communicate effectively, not to be enforcers.  If you end up in a difficult online situation, you can reach out to Conductors via the mailing list or to any individual in the group to ask for help. Maybe you just need a sounding board or  help figuring out how to phrase a particular idea or how to make someone particularly difficult go away. The Conductors will help brainstorm, ask questions,  provide ideas and help. And where we are on mailing lists, we commit to helping  keep the conversations constructive.

We are not an officially appointed group. We are a peer nominated group. We are a group of people from across the Mozilla project. We are a Mozilla Module.

Please help us make online conversations productive and Mozilla a success!

Does open source exclude high context cultures?

High context cultures value personal relationships over process. You have to know someone before you can trust them and work with them. They also tend to be less explicit and rely more on tone of voice, gestures and even status to communicate. Typically Asian countries are more high context than Western countries. Think Korea and Japan.

Low context cultures are process driven. They rely on facts and processes. Their communication style is much more direct and action-orientated. They are orientated towards the individual rather than the group. Western cultures like the US and Germany are considered low context.

So if you start a project and send email to a bunch of folks and ask them to just jump in and contribute, which group do you think will get going more quickly? The low context culture folks. As long as you define the process and procedures, they are willing to work alone and with people they don’t know very well. That’s how open source works. So our projects are optimized for low context cultures.

What happens to the high context folks when invited to participate on a mailing list? They have a hard time sending emails and contributions to people they’ve never met and have no relationship with. (Imagine walking up to a random person on the street and critiquing their dress style. It’s that kind of awkward.) Would they make good contributors? Absolutely! Do we need to find other ways other than “join the mailing list” to get them involved? Absolutely! For an example of what’s worked well, see the great work that Emily Chen, Pockey Lam and Fred Muller and others have done with GNOME Asia.

As I think about developer engagement at Mozilla, I realize we need to have different plans for different cultures. It’s even more important to be present in person for high context cultures. To establish a personal relationship before you invite them to join your project. (Or ask them to use open technologies or spread the word.) We should be following up in different ways, setting up different programs for different countries. Luckily the Mozilla Reps program will help provide the infrastructure for this.

How do you think we should encourage high context cultures to get involved with open source? If you are from a high context culture, how did you get started?

 

RPI students create some cool things

At the Rensselaer Center for Open Source Software students develop open source software solutions to solve societal problems.

For example, at the HFOSS Symposium today I talked to Graylin Kim who is working on the New York Senate Open Legislation Service where people can look up any bill that is being discussed in the New York Senate, get a permanent url to share and discuss on their own websites or grab all the data via REST. The idea is to encourage more citizens to get involved in legislature. Developers can get involved at http://nysenate.gov/developers or #nyss_openlegislation @ Freenode.net for OpenLegislation

I also discovered that Ease, a slide share program for GNOME, that is currently being developed by Nate Stedman. (An earlier version, Glide, was created by an RPI student, Rob Carr.)

You can check out the RPI Center for Open Source and the other projects students are working on. The program was started by a grant from an RPI alum, Sean O’ Sullivan. He started MapInfo (now PBInsight) and JumpStart International (article).

They were at the HFOSS Symposium sharing how their program worked with other educators.

[Post edited for accuracy on March 9, 2011.]

Denver Museum promotes Linux

Today we went to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

They had this very cool exhibit where this huge sphere would light up as different planets and moons:

And they could add text to point out locations:

But even cooler yet was they explained how they did it and they used “Linux”. Usually when they list an operating system, I assume it’s a paid advertisement, but in this case it just said “Linux”.

They did not say what software they used to control the images and rotation …

Universal Subtitles

I found the coolest tool, Universal Subtitles. With Universal Subtitles you can easily transcribe a talk, add subtitles or captions or translate any video on the web.

I’ve been trying to transcribe my Would you do it again for free? talk forever and I always give up – I can’t type fast enough to keep up and manually pausing required more hands than I have. Universal Subtitles let me type and automatically paused and let me catch up whenever the video got ahead of me. Then I could go back and edit, adjust the timing, etc. Now I could also go back and translate the subtitles into other languages.

Universal Subtitles is an awesome tool to help people share videos and presentations in other languages. Not only does it give you the tools you need to do the job, but it makes it very easy to cooperate. So for example, I could transcribe a GNOME video and then someone from the GNOME Hispano community could translate the subtitles into Spanish and then someone else from the GNOME localization team could translate them into their language. Others can go back and make corrections and adjust timing.

(Note that while the Universal Subtitles tool is awesome, transcription is still hard! I was transcribing myself and I still had trouble at times!)

Universal Subtitles is open source software and funded in part by Mozilla through Mozilla Drumbeat.

Disclaimer: I work for Mozilla.

Stormy’s GNOME update: November 12, 2010

This is for my work done as a volunteer.

Reviewed the 9 slidesets that InitMarketing is putting together probono for GNOME. These are slidesets that anyone speaking about GNOME will be able to use and they cover things like applications, history, accessibility, etc. They are starting to look pretty good.

Forwarded emails to the right people. Talked to a few people about the status of projects and gave my opinion and ideas on things I’d been working on (and some that I am still working on.) Among other things this included reviewing the budget, making some introductions with LWN, forwarding the mail about a new Friends of GNOME subscriber, an a11y conversation, etc.

Gave some feedback on Dave Neary’s slides. He’ll be representing GNOME at an event in Korea in a few days.

Missed being on the board list. Now I will have to wait for the board meeting minutes to hear about the stuff that is going on. :)

Followed all the great posts about all that happened at the Boston Summit!

Stormy’s GNOME Update: November 7, 2010

This is my update for work done for the GNOME Foundation. For a higher level overview for what I do as the Executive Director, see What do I do as Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation?

F123.org and Mozilla both gave us grants for GNOME accessibility! We are opening contracts for good work with the funding. Thanks to Joanie Diggs for putting together the proposals and plans for the money. Joanie has been posting the opportunities.

Made a list of all the things I work on. I categorized them into things that could wait a while for a new executive director, things that need a board contact and things I thought the board should try to continue to work on in the short term. The board really stepped up to the plate to cover things. I am impressed by the work they are doing and willing to do.

Followed the Desktop Summit mailing list, had several chats with people about different topics, especially Dave Neary who has been following the progress closely and helping out. Reviewed the website and the press release. Helped Claudia Rauch with the text for the sponsorship brochure and proof reading it. Andreas Nilsson made it into a beautiful looking brochure. Claudia and I divvied up the companies we want to contact and I sent out the first request for Desktop Summit 2011 sponsorships to the companies on my list. Germán Póo-Caamaño and Claudia will continue the work.

Along with Paul Cutler met with Litl about the things they are working on related to GNOME. Litl is sponsoring the Boston Summit this weekend.

Worked on a standard document for terms and conditions for GNOME event sponsorship. It’s often a step that’s skipped as it’s work to put it together for each event. My hope is to make it easy. That said, we’ve had very few misunderstandings over the years.

Worked with James Vasile to write some standard letters for logo infringement. Actually, he wrote it, and then with feedback from the board I turned it into a couple of version to be used depending on the situation.

Wrote up a job description for the new executive director. Discussed the hiring process with the board.

Made a quick inquiry about health insurance in case that’s important to the new executive director. The way it works in the United States, it would be expensive. If we have a candidate from another country, we’ll have to research their employment laws.

Was very excited that we announced the interns for the GNOME Outreach Program for Women.  We had a couple of marketing applicants – which was exciting to me – but they faced tough competition from the other projects. They did submit, as part of their applications, a very nicely and uniquely designed brochure and a website of screenshots among other things. Marina Zhurakhinskaya did an awesome job putting the whole Outreach Program together from encouraging applicants to working with all of the potential mentors to putting out the press release. Thanks to to Google and Collabora for enabling us to accept so many awesome candidates!

Published a wiki page of the advisory board member responsibilities. It’s something every new advisory board member asks but something I had always done verbally so it was good to get it in writing.

Followed up with some of the advisory board members that have missed a few meetings. Most of them have just been very busy – some with great GNOME work!

Worked with Egencia, an online travel reservation system, to see if they could help the travel committee and the GNOME community with travel. We believe they can but we are working out the costs now.

Reviewed the annual report. It is ready to be published!

Gave my feedback about the Grace Hopper Conference Open Source track. I hope they do it again!

Wrote my rough draft of CiviCRM requirements. Passed the task off to Rosanna. She will work with the sys admin team and a consultant to get them implemented.

Attended the GNOME Foundation IRC meetings. Two this month! Was impressed by the attendance and the discussion.

Talked to Canonical about Unity. They plan to continue to work with and support GNOME.

Got the LWN agreement officially signed. They gave us an awesome offer and all Friends of GNOME subscribers will get an LWN subscription.

Attended the Boston Summit. Great job by John Palmieri on organizing it again! Got to meet a see a lot of people in person. Had a lot of conversations about potential candidates for the executive director job. Attended the board meeting which was very productive. Led the Friends of GNOME planning session. Lots of great plans with a great team working on it! Jason Clinton, Joey Ferwerda, Og Maciel, Vincent Untz and Jeff Fortin. Many others participated and gave feedback like Heidi Ellis and Brian Cameron and Vinny. And obviously there are others on the team that weren’t here who will help out as well!

GNOME was invited to a Samsung open source conference in Korea. Dave Neary will be representing us and speaking. Others are welcome to attend.

Pinged teams about the quarterly report. Set up a new process where people submit their reports to the wiki.

Made some substantial edits to the hackfest wiki pages to include other events and to clarify the parts of the process where we’ve gotten the most questions.

Floated the idea that the Foundation hire a part time event manager to help with hackfests and other events. Had several discussions about what that person might do and be funded and most importantly how the position might interact with the travel committee. No decision made.

Excited that the GNOME Event Box has a new home for a while while Christer Edwards gives it some tender loving care. He’s used it a few times and has some ideas for improving it.

Worked with InitMarketing on some slide presentations they are making for GNOME advocates to be able to use. They are looking good.

Followed up with Friends of GNOME “adopt a hacker” hackers and the post cards they’ve been sending out. Everyone wants to continue even if the numbers are going to ramp up soon!

Had some conversations about the GNOME Ambassadors. Plan to invite mentors to join as well.

Talked to Jim Herbsleb from Carnegie Mellon about work they are doing to research how communities work and how we can learn from them and make them more effective. One idea was to do a joint survey to help set Foundation goals. Germán Póo-Caamaño will be following up.

Held the GNOME Advisory Board Meeting. We discussed moduleset reorgnization, GNOME Asia and the Boston Summit.

Attended board meetings, met with Rosanna, met with Brian.

Took some vacation to visit my parents.

What’s next in GNOME’s future?

The thoughts and ideas in this post are mine and not necessarily representative of what the GNOME Foundation thinks or plans to do.

Canonical will be shipping Unity as the default desktop for Ubuntu 11.04. It’ll still be GNOME technologies underneath, GNOME applications will run on it and it’s still optimized for GNOME, but it won’t be the GNOME shell. Not the traditional GNOME shell that we all know and love nor the new GNOME Shell coming out in GNOME 3.0.

Disappointing News

Many developers were really disappointed to hear that Unity will be the default shell on Ubuntu. Some are disappointed because they don’t like Unity. Others are disappointed because they feel like Canonical is doing its own thing instead of working with the greater GNOME community to reach a compromise that works for all.

I understand. We’ve put a lot of work into GNOME Shell, our next big thing, and Canonical is saying that it’s not the best thing for their users. It’s disappointing because we are excited about our new plans and expect lots of users to enjoy them. And we rely on our distribution partners to get GNOME into the hands of users, so we were expecting Canonical to help us in that. We also expected Canonical to push for any different user interfaces they wanted within our community, not to design them and announce them independently. In a sense it feels like a child who’s decided to move out of the house. We thought they were going to stay with us forever and listen to our wisdom and instead they’ve told us they’ve learned from us, they like some of what we are doing and they have grand plans for the future. They plan to use some of what we work on (like kids come home for some holidays) but they plan to do their own thing too. Perhaps they’ll make mistakes that have been made before or perhaps they’ll do something grand.

Trying New Alternatives

The beauty of open source software is that they can decide to try something new, without convincing all of us to do it too. And they aren’t forking the project. They’ll still be using a lot of GNOME technologies – the same ones we are using – with just a different shell on top.

In a way, it’s not all that different from what Moblin and Maemo did. They used GNOME technologies with a different shell. We were ok with that because they were expanding into new markets – netbooks and tablets – and because it didn’t seem like a step away from GNOME but a step forward with GNOME. Canonical’s move with Unity is similar. Except that they aren’t starting from scratch, they are moving from a traditional GNOME desktop to Unity. So we feel the change more.

Changing Open Source Ecosystem

I’d also say we are seeing a change in the open source ecosystem here.

On one hand, we are getting more companies joining us that know very little about open source or who have interacted very little with open source communities – device manufacturers for example. We have been actively working on how best to get them involved in the our community in order to improve our project and in order to ensure that they have a good experience with open source software. We want to be sure that they use it in a way that doesn’t require them to do lots of rework every time we update our product.

On the other hand, we have companies that have been using open source for a long time and are developing their own ideas for what works. We aren’t always going to agree with them. For example, Canonical believes copyright assignments will benefit open source software. The GNOME community feels copyright assignments are potentially detrimental to free software projects. But while we don’t agree, we need to find a way to best work together.

What’s next?

Canonical has a lot of work to do, but I assume they know that and I won’t presume to tell them how to do it other than to encourage them to continue to work with us on the GNOME technologies they use. I do wish them the best of luck. As one of GNOME’s partners and as a company that gets open source software into the hands of users, I hope they succeed.

In GNOME’s case, I think we need to understand what companies are looking for from us and how we want to position and brand ourselves.

What do we call projects that use GNOME technologies but aren’t a GNOME desktop? What if it’s a device that has no screen? Or a small device like a smartphone? Or a full desktop distribution? Do we want them to be GNOME branded? If so, how do we want them to be GNOME branded?

What do we want to focus on? Awesome technologies that can be used and pieced together independently? Or an awesome desktop that solves a particular problem? Or a set of user interfaces that solves a set of problems? Right now I think we are working on one awesome desktop that we hope solves lots of problems. But it’s unlikely that one desktop is going to work for a huge set of diverse people. For example you might have a developer with two 24″ screens or a student with an 8″ netbook or a mom with her smartphone. Either GNOME needs to develop solutions for all of those or they need to enable others to do so. And we need to figure out what that means for the project and how we want to brand ourselves.

We also need to continue to work on better integration between the desktop and the web. While both GNOME Shell and Unity say they are addressing the way people work today with the web, there’s still a huge gap between the applications I run on the web and the ones I run on my desktop. They don’t seemlessly integrate. Email is the best example of how things could work. Most web email services and most desktop email clients integrate very well these days. But calendars, contacts, banking systems, recipe management systems, etc. all have a ways to go.

We are doing the groundwork to enable that integration between the desktop and the web in projects like GNOME Shell and WebKitGTK+ and many other projects. There’s still work to be done to maximize the entire user flow including the 7 applications they have open on their desktop and the 15 tabs the currently have open in their browser. Fortunately we have many smart people working on it.

Over 106 companies have contributed to GNOME and over 3500 individuals have made contributions. While we may have lost a distribution channel for GNOME Shell, Canonical will still be using and building with many GNOME technologies and working with the GNOME Foundation. And we still have all of our substantial technical resources working on GNOME Shell and other GNOME technologies.

Time, and our strategy, will determine what the free and open source software user interfaces of the future look like.