Last week-end I attended FOSDEM for the 7th time. It's kinda strange to say and think - if someone tells me they've been going to this or that open-source conference for 7 years I tend to assume they're hardcore and totally know what they're doing. I go to hang out with cool folks and learn new things. This year's FOSDEM didn't disappoint in that regard!
As usual, the conference was packed and most rooms filled up quickly, but I was happily surprised to see it was still possible to squeeze in some of the more popular rooms regardless. I think many devrooms organisers are well aware of the frustration with not being able to get in and they did a great job at encouraging/demanding folks use all seats rather than leave spaces in the middle, which really helped (special kudos to the Legal devroom, which was in a smaller room in H). Also the main conference organisers appear quite good at trying to adjust the room size based on popularity year to year (e.g. the Mozilla room used to be utterly impossible to get into).
Some of the conference highlights from my perspective:
Identity Crisis: Are we who we say we are?
This was the first keynote on Saturday morning, which I think did a good job of bringing up many possible ambiguities hidden in the "we" we use when contributing to a project. One of the strengths of open-source is that we're quick to say "we" and include everyone, but sometimes it bears more thinking or clarification of who we actually mean with "we" - sometimes two "we" can describe different subgroups of contributors even in the same sentence. Taking the time to think explicitly about who we mean, and avoid unintended conflicts of interests is important.
Fog of War - The GNOME Trademark Battle
The story of what was happening in the background during the Gnome battle for their trademark with Groupon last year, told by a Gnome board member and the lawyer that helped them on the case. Interesting insights thanks to the lawyer's perspective particularly, who also took a guess at what possibly happened in the Groupon lawyers' mind during their risk analysis and the consequences (e.g. "Groupon was dealing with an animal they'd never seen before." A charitable org not willing to be silenced or take a big donation.) Not a kind reflection on Groupon.
Why Samba moved to GPLv3: Why we moved, what we gained, what we lost.
Emboldened by having managed to get a seat in the Legal devroom, I decided to also stick around for the next talk. I hadn't attended a talk on GPLv3 in a few years and I wasn't to be disappointed. It was a very honest and funny talk - I knew of Jeremy Allison aka the Samba guy, but I didn't know he was such an entertaining speaker. Overall Samba seems very happy with the move to GPLv3, it simplified a lot of things for them especially in terms of copyright managenent (some companies are just nasty), and most of the contributors and users they initially lost ended up returning (multiple closed-source vendors being bought out and leaving their customers in the cold likely helped). They felt really let down that the FSF didn't force their own projects to move as well (though I understand that is not the case anymore) and of course the Linux kernel being GPLv2-only is hurtful too. The speaker is convinced that all the scary stuff around GPLv3 is FUD and everyone should switch to using GPLv3+ right now if they don't have to link to v2 stuff. An audience member did raise an issue/unclear point with the v3 licence, for when a company rents a device to a customer (that the user doesn't actually own and thus perhaps? shouldn't be allowed to modify).
Participation metrics at Mozilla: A story of systems and data
For projects that depend so heavily on volunteer contributions as Mozilla does, understanding who the community is made of and where/when people are being lost or leave is really important. The speaker started by showing us some of the ways they tried and failed to measure participation and what they ended up with. They defined what "participation" means by formalising paths a contributor might take across their systems (e.g. file a bug, comment on a bug, translate a string, etc) and they extract and map the data they have to these paths. This enables them to also deduplicate contributor information: for instance it's not because you have 100 translators and 300 developers that you have 400 contributors, people can do more than one thing, and it also lets them identify more clearly whether someone is leaving the project altogether or simply moving to another area. Very interesting stuff!
This is work in progress but their current results and reports are available at Are we a million yet.
Maintaining & growing a technical community: Mozilla Developer Network
The other Mozilla talk I attended explored the meaning of community and the motivations behind why people start contributing, why they continue to contribute and how to help folks feel involved and want to contribute. The speaker made some really good points, one that really stuck with me being that contributors ≠ community. It's really important to connect contributors to your community or they will not stick around! The example she used was getting people to contribute at hackathons-like events, but then disappear - as someone who's run such events that certainly rang true, simply showing folks they can make a positive impact easily is not enough to make them come back or feel part of the community.
Retooling Fedora: A Retrospective on Fedora 21 (and looking to 22)
I knew Fedora had been changing their model since the past release but I hadn't been following closely. This clarified the goals and the why, and I was very impressed with the beginning of the talk where the speaker (Matthew Miller, the current Fedora Project Leader) took a really hard look at where distributions are today and why they appear to be becoming less relevant - for instance looking at the contrast between the number of open-source projects available on platforms like Github compared to what is actually packaged in the distro. People used to care about getting their software into the major distributions but it doesn't seem to matter as much nowadays. In that light the "ring" graph showed toward the end, explaining that perhaps the apps at the outer layer don't need as strict and stringent criterias for inclusion than the more core OS components, totally makes sense and the future looks interesting.
I continue to be hugely impressed by how much Mozilla cares about improving the experience for new and existing contributors (impressed but not surprised! Their "Get Involved" page remains excellent, letting you get in touch with real people while showing at one glance all the different ways you can help, and having a mentored bugs process for new contributors is an awesome step-up from simply tagging easy bugs. Keep rocking and showing us all how it's done Mozilla!)
Videos of the talks should be available in time on the FOSDEM website.