SXSWi: Non-developers to Open Source Acolytes: Tell me why I care

Elisa Camahort is moderating. Annalee Newitz, Dawn Foster, Erica Rios.

Annalee Newitz explains the entire complicated insane definition and history of the Open Source movement in less than 3 minutes. Free redistribution, available source, derivative works okay, no restrictions on tech or users (http;//www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php) Licenses: gpl, MOzilla public license, BSD License. Commonly used open source software (oss): Firefox (MPL), OpenOffice (LesserGPL), GNU/Linux (GPL), BSD (BSD), WordPress (GPL), Apache (Apache License), Rails (MIT License), PHP (PHP License). The GPL is viral and powerful. Anytime you use software that uses GPL that you intend for redistribution, you have to release under GPL.

Elisa: I know some of the names of this software. But Rails? Apache? Okay, well, really I know what Apache is. But why does this matter to me?

Dawn Foster talks about OSS structure and leadership. It looks chaotic from the outside. Random people contributing code. How in the world can you end up with anything reasonable? But that’s not how it is. You’d be surprised how hierarchical it is. OSS community structure.
Users.
Bug Reports: Community members submitting bugs to improve the project.
Contributors: Community members contributing to committers for review.
Committers: Trusted community members with access to modify code.
Maintainers: Direction and decisions for a portion of the project.
Leaderships: Strategic decisions, project direction.

Elisa: So, I’m not the only one who had no idea that all this existed behind the idea of open source. Erica is going to talk from the point of view of a company using open source software.

Erica Rios: My role at the Anita Borg Institute is to maintain the technical aspects of the organization. We use WordPress, for example. I see myself as a customer for these tools. I want help with installation, configuration. Is it going to have an impact on my server maintenance, what cron jobs I should run, what about backups, patches. When I hire people I need to know what kind of time and money I need to invest to maintain the software. What kind of customer service support do I get from a tool? The staff, my users, who are also the customers for this software. Does the tool do what they need it to do? Is it easy to use? Are they going to be able to figure it out, with or without support? There’s a self-sufficiency question. Will everyone be coming to me for that help? I think of it like hardware. We’re lucky enough to have HP Labs donate space to us. Our machines are still on warrantee and I can get service. Do I always need to know the details behind why something’s not working? Is the community “friendly”? Am I going to go looking for help and be told RTFM? Because I’ve already tried.

Elisa: When you were looking at open source tools, was that part of your due diligence, did you look at the friendliness of that tool’s open source community?

Erica: Absolutely. And it doesn’t have to be a hierarchical traditional manual or documentation scenario. The community is so robust that I can type my question into Google and get an answer right away.

Guy in audience gets up and takes a mic. A lot of people don’t realize some open source tools and projects offer paid support. Ubuntu, etc.

Dawn Foster talks more about open source and paid support.

Erica Rios. Developing friendships with other users and developers. If you have a personal relationship then people are much nicer in their explanations. With documentation, when it’s written in plain language, it’s more helpful. I have a degree in computer science, but I appreciate documentation in plain language, and it helps me communicate to my less technical users. Quality community can demonstrate their intelligence through the quality of a product but not feel ego-driven to demonstrate it in their documentation.

Elisa invites questions from the audience.

Same guy from audience: Questions about where the open source software came from. Fear of patent suits from big huge companies, etc.

Annalee Newitz: I’ve heard people talk about their management saying “You can’t use an open source code because it’ll creep into our code and we’ll be sued.” People need to be educated about the legal ins and outs of open source licenses. For example the GPL is one of the most radical ones… A company lawyer is good to go through the license and explain to management. There’s a lot of online explanantions written by lawyers, for example through the EFF or some from Creative Commons. It’s sad that people move away from the GPL but from a business perspective it makes a lot of sense.

Dawn Foster: It’s less of a risk, because if there’s proprietary code in there, someone’s going to have noticed it. Or they can notice it. It’s not really that different.

Annalee: I would strongly agree with that. The fact that you can look at the code means you can tell if there’s a problem.

Audience member: Myth of putting it al out there and it being exploited.

Dawn Foster: I tend to worry less about being exploited by open source Eric Raymond “with enough eyeballs… all … are shallow” I worry about backdoors and things in proprietary code, that I’ll never know is there. The empowerment of being able to look at the code

Annalee: That’s why you hire security auditors, etc. BSD, used by the miliatry, you can lock it down.

Liza: I’m going to be the downer here. THere is a cost for making it useable for people with no technology background. For example WordPress, it’s so beautiful! But it’s hard for people to use and to understand. So, users assume that level of customer service is free and that it’s going to be free and that there’s no cost to maintain it. And this makes it hard for developers and consultants to monetize what we do. Upgrading, security issues, etc. People coming into open source, think that it’s going to be free .

Dawn quotes Richard Stallman, Free as in freedom, not free as in free beer. There are costs, time and money.

Annalee: When you’re looking for a return on investment, long term will it be more costeffective to have this invest in maintaining this rather than paying Microsoft for a new license every couple of years? So yes, the long term costs are way better.

Erica Rios: We look at it that way at Anita Borg Institute. That’s one of the key philosophical reasons I put to management, the flexibility we get.

Kimberly (from audience): Speaking as soneone who once upon a time had all sorts of Microsoft certifications and has now gone more into open source, there is more flexibility, there is very little barrier to entry, it’s really a meritocracy. They can contribute and there’s opportunities for them, they can build stuff for non-profits. To get Microsoft certified you pay a lot of money and yes there’s support and community but open source has way more opportunity.

Elisa: Is there a way in open source to validate what level they are in an open source community?

Kimberly: I’ve had people use me as a reference

Woman in back: It depends on the community.

Erica: Now that I’ve gone through this process I look at how much a person has contributed and how much of it has been accepted in to the main trunk fo the software.

Dawn Foster: It’s good for companies and hiring and companies can see people’s code and status in a community before hiring them.

Frank (from audience): Reliability and continuity. You can always get someone to maintain it because it’s not proprietary. Voting machines and cryptography. If the source isn’t out there there’s always someone out there who is so clever they can’t see their own mistakes. But a community can see it and can find the broken places. As American people we need to get the source out there so we can rely on our voting machines.

Elisa: Thank you so much for bringing that up and articulating it. Let’s talk about the philosophy and the reasons for supporting it. HOw many of you buy organic food, and free trade coffee? (Show of hands) We make economic decisions based on philosophical, emotional, ethical reasons. How many of you make technological decisions based on that? (Show of hands, a fair amount)

Guy in grey hoodie: (question)

Elisa: Kaliya Hamlin, getting non developers involved with open source communities. It’s extremely intimidating, I can tell you. I’m a wannabe, but there’s an idea that it would contribute to the greater good. Anyway, what’s the ethical reasons to use open source?

Annalee: Oviously there’s a lot of technical reason to choose it. And that’s an ethical choice too, to make the technical choice that would benefit the most peopl.e But when yo have a product made by people donating their time, or a company is giving 20% of their time to give back to open source, you simply get a higher quality. People are working together. They own it. When people own the stuff they produce, it will be better. When you produce software that is proprietary and your company owns it, you are alienated from it. But with open source you put your love into it. You can play with it, deploy it, use it with your friends, fix its security holes…

Erica Rios: analogy of the free library. If we can’t contribute and have free access to intellectual knowledge, we undermine democracy. Women and systemic reasons why girls and women often drop out of technical fields. Access. Open source is a unique opportunity for all women to have access to knowledge. If all software code was proprietary, I would never have looked at a pice of code in my life. I couldn’t have afforded it. Period.

WOW

Erica: Dr. Fran Allen, just announced as a Turing Award winner, first woman to be granted this award. It’s highly likely that a girl at the high school level right now, who has access to open source code, may achieve something as great as Fran. It gives other people access and opportunity and to contribute at higher levels. It’s a key consideration in us achieving equality between genders in technical fields, and as we increase participation, we’ll increase innovation.

Jory Des Jardines (audience): The Wisdom of Crowds. Ran an open source business project, because people didn’t ahve the motivation, aka, pay. Does money mean motivation? Money makes it easy to commit, people are flowing in and out of this project. The explanation you’re giving explains the structure, but what is the motivation for an engineer to bother?

Annalee Newitz: There are other rewards that people work for. We’re at a conference where there are artists. They’re hoping to make money, but they want people to appreciate their work. They want to create something beautiful and be acknowledged for it. Why do people want to have a higher reputation on Digg? They’re not getting money for it. Well, some of them are. (laughter … re. crowdhacking prank.) But there’s a point, Hey, I’ve spent 4 years doing this kickass thing, now pay me.

Dawn Foster: Contributors to the Linux kernel. They pay people fulltime to do nothing to contribute to those projects. Those companies are motivated for that software to be good.

Guy: Dispel that there’s anything anticapitalist about open source. More of them are libertarian than anti-capitalist. And about self interest and profit, my company went to open source, time, energy, money chasing clients on IP issues, waste of time. We got a better rate for our time to offer consulting services around it and provide the software as open source.

Erica: Who is mostly willing to work for free? Women. the motivation to work is there. There’s a lot of stereotypes that we default to when we look at what it is that isn’t working. There’s probably a lack of supportive culture. Asked by Mozilla to tell what could help keep women developers. My answer was I don’t know, ask the ones who are there and ask the ones who are leaving.

Woman with short black hair in audience: Ideals, but as a business manager, of a sucessful open source consulting and educaiton company, we charge a fair amount. It’s a myth that keeps developers away from open source. Like it kind of smells like patchouli a little bit…

Elisa: You will not find musicians in an orchestra playing for free. Actors will do it for free. Bloggers used to do it for free but that’s changing. Now we have blog consulting. People had passion that seemed to translate into not getting paid, Oh if I love doing it i shouldn’t get paid. Open source has that too, if I’m passionate about it I shouldn’t charge.

Annalee: You don’t have to do it for free, just get your boss to let you spend 50% of your time doing it because it helps improve the product.

Guy in audience: I’m not understanding, please explain, what is the distinction between building proprietary products on top of open source software.

(Well, it depends on the license! )

Annalee: that’s a good question and it gets debated a lot in open source communities. They are spelled out in the licenses. For example what will happen with Google and the GPL license. People need to be a little bit geeky about legal language and licensing.

Audience: How geeky do you need to be to say you’re into open source?

Erica: For example our crm system….Not important for us to customize that part. But to customize web solutions is very important. If we don’t need to hack it, let’s not do it.

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