FOSDEM 2020 event report

FOSDEM 2020, pt. 1: Play by play

FOSDEM 2020 took place from Saturday, 1 February, 2020 to Sunday, 2 February, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium (shortly after Sustain OSS 2020 and CHAOSScon EU 2020):

FOSDEM is a free and non-commercial event organized by the community for the community. The goal is to provide free and open source software developers and communities a place to meet to:

– Get in touch with other developers and projects;

– Be informed about the latest developments in the free software world;

– Be informed about the latest developments in the open source world;

– Attend interesting talks and presentations on various topics by project leaders and committers;

– To promote the development and benefits of free software and open source solutions.

This is my third time attending FOSDEM. I attended on behalf of RIT LibreCorps to represent our engagement with the UNICEF Office of Innovation and the Innovation Fund. For FOSDEM 2020, I arrived ready to give my talk (coming in pt. 2) and honestly to see where the weekend took me.

Planning out FOSDEM is hard. So, my strategy is to figure it out as I go, since most of what I get out of FOSDEM comes from casual conversations and “hallway track.”

Sessions: Play-by-play

Event reports take many forms. My form is an expanded version of my session notes along with key takeaways. Said another way, my event report is biased towards what is interesting to me. You can also skim the headings to find what interests you.

Also, I live-tweeted several sessions of FOSDEM 2020, so some sections include tweet excerpts with pictures.

Building ethical software under capitalism

The software that is the easiest to build — the software that is the easiest to fund the development of — tends to serve those who are already extremely well-served. So, how do we bridge the gap between what society needs and what many people with money want to fund? Free and open source software platforms can get us part of the way there, but without some big changes, it won’t be enough. Let’s talk structure!

Deb Nicholson

Deb is making a regular appearance on my blog.

A foundational piece of Deb’s FOSDEM 2020 talk is something I started calling the “buck factor.” In 20 minutes, she gave context for the challenges of fundraising and achieving financial sustainability for open source projects with ethical missions. She also commented on the divides between “community” and “enterprise,” and how they are frequently on opposing ends of a spectrum.

Deb offered suggestions on how the Free Software movement can stand up and protect our shared values. Some are practical and others are aspirational, but I believe Deb aimed to get the audience thinking in different angles on this challenge:

  • Encourage self-reporting within organizations
    • Build an ethical strategy inside an organization
  • Labor organizing
  • Build alternatives:
    • Community-driven non-profits
    • Worker-controlled options (e.g. worker co-ops)
  • Advocate for policy changes (e.g. public utilities)

I also learned new vocabulary from Deb: rainbow/pink capitalism.

Growing sustainable contributions through ambassador programs

Open Source Program Offices are utilizing ambassador programs more and more. We’ll talk about why we decided to implement ambassador programs, how we implemented them, got buy-in (from a time and budget standpoint), and more.

Additionally, we’ll both talk about how we use this program to scale and reach thousands of developers internally. Also, we’ll throw in a few case studies and lessons learned throughout our (ongoing) journeys.

During this talk we’ll go over what an ambassador program is, how we decided to use them in our organizations, the path to buy-in and budget approval, how they were implemented, results we saw, and lessons learned. We’ll present specific case studies of how our Ambassador Programs helped with specific campaigns and how that fosters open source sustainability.

Shilla Saebi & Alison Yu

Shilla and Alison shared their experiences and advice in building open source ambassador programs at the Indeed and Comcast open source program offices (OSPOs). In the Community devroom at FOSDEM 2020, they introduced their ambassador programs, what goals and responsibilities of ambassadors were, and lessons learned from building their ambassador programs.

What is an ambassador program?

Ambassador programs were created in response to a growing need for decentralization in the OSPO. An OSPO team is a finite group of people with finite resources and time. To be successful in internally promoting open source, an ambassador program empowers others and builds open source allies across an organization. Similar to how technology must scale in order to grow, consider the “people” factor as something that must scale in order to grow.

When launching ambassador programs, both Indeed and Comcast planned multiple phases. In the beginning, it started with an exploratory pilot program phase. The OSPOs identified success metrics and transparently set a date to reevaluate program efforts. A small number of open source leaders inside each organization were invited to participate.

Then, over time, early success led to a gradual expansion phase. More people were recruited with an internal kick-off and training week. Each quarter, ambassadors received an events stipend to represent projects and the organization at local conferences and community events.

Who and what are ambassadors?

Ambassadors are like a “working group” of volunteers. They are champions and advocates of open source inside an organization or community. Ambassadors can be both internal and external: internal to a company or organization, but also external members of a community outside of a single organization.

But what kind of person makes a good fit for an ambassador role? There is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, Indeed and Comcast shared strategies they used to identify strong candidates for their ambassador programs:

  • Prior experience contributing to an upstream project
  • Already an advocate for open source (internally or externally)
  • Willingness of managers to support participation
  • Ability to pass an online learning assignment on open source

What do ambassadors do?

Responsibilities are different at different organization. Ambassador programs at Indeed and Comcast share three common ways to participate:

  • Evangelize open source
  • Participate in internal policy review
  • Advise in license reviews

Additionally, a culture goal was to shift the perspective of open source away from “one and done.” Or rather, the OSPOs aspired to promote long-term contributions and partnerships with open source projects and their communities.

How to incentivize ambassadors?

Some people may fulfill ambassador responsibilities as part of their paid work. However, most people adopt a volunteer ethos. Ambassadors are not just colleagues representing open source inside an organization. They are also people with their own aspirations and goals too.

Personal development opportunities are effective incentives for participating. For example, an in-person training week teaches new skills to ambassadors based on areas of identified growth. Getting mentorship is also key to enable participation. Mentorship opportunities lower the “bus factor” of an OSPO. It also recruits ambassadors to identify colleagues doing unrecognized open source work. Instead of leaving them out on the fringe, bring them in as co-conspirators!

Additionally, organization-supported travel is one way to validate an ambassador’s time and effort. This furthers an ambassador’s careers by connecting them to more opportunities in the industry. They get the chance to build their network across other organizations, projects, and communities to facilitate inter-organizational collaboration.

Finally, ambassadors were incentivized through their ability to influence program direction. Ambassadors are empowered by contributing to the direction and strategy of the ambassador program itself. Inclusion is key, so ideas, suggestions, and criticisms from ambassadors are actually reflected in program policy. After all, they are the ones who are directly impacted by future program policy. As key stakeholders in the program, their voices are important to include.

Lessons learned

Shilla and Alison listed off some “lessons learned” and ideas on where to take their ambassador programs next:

  • Ambassadors appreciated structure and knowing transparently how they are measured
  • Needed more support from OSPO than originally expected
  • More opportunities for feedback
    • Specifically, more 1×1 conversations
  • Check for manager support at the beginning
    • Example: Employee gets manager approval to spend 10% of their paid time as an ambassador
  • Schedule more ambassador community calls for access to OSPO and mentors
  • Share more swag with ambassadors!
  • Set clear expectations (or as clear as possible) in advance
  • Provide more training opportunities for ambassadors
    • Open source is broad; many people have experience in some areas but could use mentorship/guidance in other areas
  • Create stretch goals for ambitious folks to reach for

Future goals

  • Provide internal resources to build allies in organization
  • Create digital badges to identify organization/project ambassadors across the web and also internally
  • Highlight/recognize ambassadors in visible ways
  • Schedule mandatory 1×1 check-ins between ambassadors and OSPO mentors

Open source won, but Software Freedom hasn’t yet

Karen and Bradley, building on the substantial feedback from last year’s keynote, follow up their 2019 FOSDEM keynote with real-world suggestions, ideas, and discussion about how we, as software freedom activists, can live in a world with so much proprietary software. Software freedom is hard to find, but we can find it together, and we can support each other when we must face the proprietary software world and make hard decisions. Let’s figure it out together and support each other!

Bradley M. Kuhn & Karen Sandler

This was the most powerful talk I attended at FOSDEM 2020.

Kuhn and Sandler asked how we decide what is right for Software Freedom and how to increase the impact of our advocacy. Being a Free Software “purist” is increasingly difficult in our world. The Free Software movement must recognize the privilege of access. If the most underprivileged people are not included in our movement, we collectively lose the metaphorical “battle” of Free vs. Proprietary.

Resisting in 2020 is not the same as in 2000

Kuhn and Sandler state in no uncertain terms that resisting proprietary software is increasingly difficult. Sandler’s pacemaker is one of the most compelling examples. But from another perspective, the advent of “digital-only deals” is also common. Digital deals for a smartphone may not be essential, but what about grocery coupons on food? It is easy to avoid these deals if you’re well off. But it is less of an option if you live paycheck to paycheck. The savings have a bigger impact relative to you. Choosing data privacy means choosing a financial disadvantage. Choosing data privacy means losing out on saving money on essential goods. To protect personal privacy means to lose access to savings not available on any platform except proprietary software.

A follow-up question might ask why we cave to proprietary software where we do have some power as consumers. But not having access is embarrassing. There is social pressure designed into parts of our society that makes saying “no thank you” difficult. Sandler gave an example of Disney’s theme parks, where “Fast Pass” access is made available as a proprietary phone app that requires access to personal data in order to work. “Fast Pass” allows you to skip lines for rides and attractions. Explaining the principles of Software Freedom to children while waiting in longer queues is not a powerful appeal. While the Disney example is from a place of higher privilege, it is one perspective of many that shows power of social pressures that stigmatize choices that better protect us an individuals and consumers.

Stop shaming

Kuhn and Sandler made a powerful appeal. Stop shaming for using proprietary software. Start educating respectfully about software ethics. Free Software conferences sometimes trend towards being a proprietary dumping ground. However the Free Software community sometimes exists in a small bubble. In broader, societal terms, we are losing the freedom to choose Free Software. We need to put pressure on our companies and organizations to create the right kind of Free Software; that is, sustainable software that respects our freedoms by design. Our software is not sustainable unless it respects our Freedoms.

Design contributions to OSS: Learnings from the Open Design project at Ushahidi

Ushahidi builds OSS humanitarian tools, remotely for some of the most marginalized people across the globe. To tackle these systemic problems with how to ‘open source’ a design effort and bring the community along with the ‘on-staff’ Ushahidi designers, we’ve been piloting a series of design events on our OSS crisis communication tool TenFour with our partners Designit and Adobe. Together, we’re looking to solve the problems with how open source design can work by engaging through meaningful technology that makes a difference in the world.

In this session, we’ll briefly cover the history of the project and the main problems we attempted to solve and we’ll present the learning and adaptions to our workshop framework and methodology that aims to engage design teams and individuals that are not yet ‘on-board’ with OSS as an ethos or movement.

Eriol Fox

I had two useful takeaways from Eriol’s FOSDEM 2020 talk in the Design devroom:

  1. Perception of “open source” in design world is largely undefined and unknown (because of systemic challenges)
  2. Open source folks can learn more about what design work looks like when encouraging designers to participate

Open source perception

Eriol noted that most designers are in the dark about what open source is or what it can be. Open source is not included in design education. Also it is not incentivized in hiring for designers. If open source is poorly understood as a strength in the design community, how can designers use open source to build their CVs/resumes?

While they noted the root cause of this perception is systemic and difficult to change, it is helpful to weigh this perspective as an open source contributor. Developers and community managers should consider the systemic challenges when encouraging design contributions to an open source project.

For developers, open source is going mainstream. Without being prompted, you might be asked about open source in an engineering job interview. But it is different for designers. So you might have to “design” a different approach to effectively engage designers in our communities. (pardon the pun)

Learn what design work looks like

Open source developers, program managers, and community managers may have an uninformed view of what design work is. Eriol’s work in the Open Design project at Ushahidi included workshops with topics about how to construct tasks for designers and developers together.

Listening to their talk, I became conscious of my poor understanding of design work. I realize I have some areas to grow and improve my understanding of open design. Eriol gave some specific examples of design work I want to explore further:

  • Empathy mapping
  • Defining problems
  • Ideation
  • Storyboarding
  • Sketching and prototyping

Also they gave a humanitarian-centered example of inviting a “witness” into the software design process. Or in other words, inviting someone part of the group that primarily “needs” the software. In the developer world, we are familiar with user testing or conducting focus groups and interviews. But those steps typically come after we have a product or design to get feedback on. Inviting a witness happens early, before much or any code is written. They bring a unique perspective of someone impacted by a particular problem or issue that the software will address.

I want to explore this one deeper. It takes more effort to practice active inclusion for someone who is a non-engineer to feel their opinions and perspective are useful and important in a room of engineers and product managers.

Twitter thread!

Did I live-tweet this one? You bet.

What makes people come and what makes them stay

Over the years the tech industry has been trying to change its diversity and inclusion statistics but that seems to have been a hard nut to crack. This is a talk about what makes people come, but then also what makes people stay. Because diversity is inviting people to the dance, but inclusion is enabling them to join it. Let’s figure out how you can make people come and want to stay in your organizations, and teams, and let’s see one use-case where Mozilla did the same.

Gloria Dwomoh

I meticulously live-tweeted this one. Check out the tweet thread below! There are lots of pictures too.

Beyond FOSDEM 2020

Of course, there is much more to FOSDEM than just a conference. Some highlights outside of the conference were my daily reflective breakfasts with Mike, a ramen lunch with him and Gloria Dwomoh, and evening dinners with Remy DeCausemaker, Georg Link, and Justin Dorfman.

Also, originally I intended to give myself the Monday after FOSDEM off to recover and work from home. However, I heard about this other little conference called Copyleft Conf happening the next day. So, I ended up buying a last-minute ticket for this one too! Read the details in my full event report!

Thanks folx!

To wrap up this FOSDEM 2020 report, a few thank-yous are in order:

  • Stephen Jacobs: For always being supportive for yet another trip abroad and helping me push my career forward in a number of ways (and footing the bill!)
  • Mike Nolan: My co-conspirator, partner in FOSS, and comrade in arms (HELL NO, MANIAC!)

I saw many familiar faces and also met many people I previously only knew from Twitter. FOSDEM 2020 takes a lot out of me, but it is always fulfilling to get a healthy dose of the Software Freedom perspective to fill me up on why I do what I do.

Until next time!

%d bloggers like this: