Like many, I started my involvement in the GNOME community as an end-user. Eventually, I wanted to give back to this project I loved. I wanted to see both the project and the community strive. We already had and still have many excellent developers who work hard to implement the vision of our talented design team. Those are not areas where my contribution would make a difference. I started helping with translations. For this activity I have regularily been chasing maintainers for string freezes, or to ask for explanations when strings didn’t make sense for me.
This helped me to blend in, meet the more general community, and finally take interest in higher level issues such as our infamous chat platforms split. I have a very strong interest in people, groups of them, ethics, how software impacts them all and how proper governance can help to achieve goals.
This year, the GNOME Foundation is going to renew 3 out of the 7 seats of the board of directors and I am applying for one of them. I would like to walk you through my vision of the relevance of the GNOME Project and why my focus as member of the GNOME Foundation board would be on balancing attractiveness for new contributors and existing ones.
Human rights when computers are everywhere
I was born in the early 90s. When I started going online and explore the world wide web, people used IRC to talk to ech other. I made internet friends, strangers I didn’t really know. Sometimes we told others that we were
/away, but most of the time we completely disconnected from the Internet and shut down our computers. There was a strong segregation between “online” and “In Real Life”.
Our devices used to be extensions of ourselves. Computers were tools we could use, or could choose not to use. Everything could be done on paper, and not being online wouldn’t make you a strange person. This is no longer the case for many people and the trend seem to accelerate: most services, including the public services, are now digital-first. It is convenient for many, and disastrous for the less technically versed, for the computer illiterates. Computers and smartphones have become first necessity tools, almost organs for the modern world we live in.
Regulators seem to take a lot of time not only to adapt to the radical shift happening during the era of “everything digital”, but also to enforce policies. The European Union’s GDPR is a very good step forward, which should be encourage. But we didn’t see a dramatic change since it was deployed. We also saw those annoying cookies consent banners on every website. Simple checks in the browser are enough to show the user choice is very often not respected.
The vast majority of people are using devices and services powered by software they don’t have control over, and that they cannot trust fully. Opt-in defaults for telemetry, privacy-invasive surveilance “to make ads more relevant”, data harvesting, public opinion manipulation based on their tastes: most of the software and services the general public use comes from large corporations, and we see regular scandals about those abusing their position.
Corporations do not have a moral but are very efficient to organise people in a same direction. This allows them to make appealing products people are willing to pay for.
For-profit organisations are for profit
The first goal of for profit organisations is pretty obvious: it is to make profit. This is not necessarily bad per-se. It is a system that systematically derails when left unattended. Corporations cannot be trusted to do the right thing for the general public, because this concept is completely alien to them. Some are doing the right thing and deserve the trust some people put in them, but it is not strictly mandatory for them to strive.
They can only be either incentivised to do the right thing by making it the most profitable one, or regulated into doing it. In practice, this is extremely complicated to do. Developers are struggling trying to herd bits. Law makers are trying to herd groups of people who are actively trying to circumvent them.
In the case of computers and the underlying software, one of the necessary conditions to ensure the software can be trusted is for the device to use open source software. This allows people or groups of people who are suspicious to audit what is running on their device and make their mind about whether it is right or not.
The very nature of open source software for the general public makes it difficult to monetise. Making profit out of a general public open source software is a very difficult problem that has not been sorted out. In general, corporations are not interested in created open source software for end users: they mostly target it at other enterprises, and if end-users can benefit from it too then that’s free advertisement.
Non-profit organisations are messy
Non-profits usually have a moral but in most regulations they cannot make profit from sales without being turned into a company. This means that non-profits rely on donations. So pragmatically speaking they often need to rely on volunteer work to do the heavy lifting. This requires a lot of invisible overhead.
Most of this overhead consists of good communication. Good internal communication is crucial to help current volunteers to work together in the same direction. Good external communication is critical for non profits to reach out to their target, get new contributors, help them achieving their goals, and collect more donations: transparency is key!
Communication is the tip of the iceberg: it is only possible to communicate clearly what was clearly defined. I want to run for a seat in the board of directors to help refining the priorities of the Foundation in its goal to foster interest in the GNOME project and making them happen.
Helping the Foundation
As a member of the board, I would focus on our internal and external communication, where we have a lot of room for improvement. Attracting new contributors is essential: our public face and the messages we send must resonate with their values. Once they are here, the bottleneck for their contributions must be removed: what they can do and where to do it must be clear, how to do it as well. While getting new recruits is extremely important for a project to stay in good shape, sustainability cannot be achieved without taking care of long time contributors.
I am strongly biased towards think for a bit but start doing quickly, ask around how it impacted others, and adapt rather than overthinking and not doing. I believe KPIs are necessarily biased and get circumvented all the time. Human interactions is how you measure success.
As the head of digital identity of a large organisation, I am used to communicating clear directions to keep teams motivated. I am also experienced in projects aiming to lower the friction for customer onboarding. Quite counter-intuitively, many parallels can be drawn between corporate customers and non-profit contributors.
Open-source software communities used to despise designers and thought they knew better. Now we welcome them and see the positive impact they have. A second mentality change needs happen: we must allow the persons who are good at hyping others to help.