Dash Open 17: A chat with Neil McGovern, Executive Director, GNOME Foundation

Rosalie Bartlett: Hi Everyone and Welcome to the Dash Open Podcast. Dash Open is your source for interesting conversations about open source and other technologies from the Open Source Program Office at Verizon Media, home to many leading brands including Yahoo, AOL, Tumblr, TechCrunch and many more. My name is Rosalie and I'm on the open source team at Verizon Media. Today on the show I'm so excited to chat with Neil McGovern. Neil is the Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation. Rosalie Bartlett: Welcome to the podcast, Neil. Neil McGovern: Thanks for having me. Rosalie Bartlett: So great to have you. We are currently in Portland, Oregon at OSCON. Neil McGovern: Yeah, I've been to a couple of talks, which have been good, but mostly we have a booth in the Expo Hall, so we're there meeting people and showing off GNOME and what we're doing as a project. Rosalie Bartlett: Very cool. So before we get to GNOME, I want to chat a bit about you, and your involvement in open source, because you've been involved in a lot of different initiatives for many years. Neil McGovern: Absolutely. I guess I initially started with the Debian Project. So around the time I went to University and then discovered free software and open source software there. Then had various roles throughout free software and open source, so in Debian for many years. I was the release manager for about six years, I believe, so doing three of those releases. Then I was the Debian project leader. I was a press secretary for awhile. But I've been involved in other things, like I've been on the board of Software in the Public Interest and things like that. So a wide variety of things all over free software and open source movements. Rosalie Bartlett: Do you remember what you first thought when you were in college and discovering this thing called open source? Neil McGovern: Yeah, so the first thing I actually did is I packaged a client for LiveJournal, which was the journaling software before everyone started calling them blogs. So I started doing that, and it was really interesting to watch and to be able to essentially have, I found a bug in there and then I was able to fix it, and so the ability for someone to essentially control their own computing and being able to influence things themselves is really attractive to me. Rosalie Bartlett: And how have you seen the open source landscape change over all these years? Neil McGovern: Yeah, I remember some of my first DebConfs, which was the annual Debian Conference. I think some of the early ones, they'd have everyone essentially sleeping on a gym floor in sleeping bags and over the years, it's kind of caught on in a lot more professional way. There are a lot companie now actually engaging actively in free software and in open source, whereas before it was a case that people would kind of see there's something over here and maybe, in some ways, try and have a person who deals with open source stuff, but they didn't really get it and know it, but we have seen this embracing of open source software more widely, and that's a good thing, but also it comes with challenges and we're still, I think, kind of learning how to interact with each other in terms of communities and organizations using things. Rosalie Bartlett: How do you grow a community? What are some things that you think folks need to do in order to have a very healthy community? Neil McGovern: So for us, I think, we have certainly seen a move recently to ensure that we have a really good diverse community as well, so traditionally it has been very male-dominated, very western-dominated, and so, for example, one of the things we founded at GNOME is the outreach program for women, which is now outreaching, so that's a huge thing to try and ensure that we get minority groups involved with free software and open source software and trying to make that a very friendly place that people can come. Neil McGovern: We're also seeing a lot of new tools that are coming in. So things like, before we used to have essentially mailing lists and people had to make patches and it became very hard to build software and we're seeing things like we use GitLab internally at GNOME, or GitHub and these are starting to come in Debian, just to make it easier for people to contribute. So the developer experience, and making it easy for people to come and help you is something that's improved a lot, I think, certainly recently. Rosalie Bartlett: And for folks listening in who might not be familiar with GNOME, but they're hearing all these great things that you're doing, what is GNOME? Neil McGovern: GNOME is a modern desktop environment that is easy to use, simple and kind of just gets out of your way and lets you do things. So if you're running Linux on the desktop, the chances are that the desktop that you're using is GNOME and that's what we do. So we're kind of the main default there. And there's others around as well that people can use, but even those use a lot of our technologies and lots of things we develop to try and get a really good, simple, powerful desktop environment. Neil McGovern: So I'm now employed as the executive director of the foundation and we're here to support the GNOME Project and the projects that come under the foundation to make sure that they have the right level of support and can get people together to work on the project and move it forward. It is a fantastic community of people contributing. It's really warm, it's really welcoming, and that's been a really impressive thing to see. Rosalie Bartlett: And as the executive director, what are some goals that you have for the foundation? Neil McGovern: We have various initiatives we're working on and trying to increase. We have a new version of GTK coming out, which is the graphical toolkit which a lot of native applications are built in, and that has some really interesting things, so we have a concept of responsive apps, so the same as on a webpage, if you're viewing it on your desktop, it flows the layout differently to when you have it on a phone, and we have people like Purism who are producing a free software, Open Phone, which is going to be running GNOME software. So there will actually be a GNOME phone again, which is exciting. Neil McGovern: But we have other things like Flatpak and Flathub, which is a way of containerizing apps. For the desktop, that means that they run more securely and that also they run across all distributions, so producing a single target so application developers can target an actual run time and something that will work across all Linux distributions, then build up the ecosystem and the adoption of free software on the desktop. Rosalie Bartlett: And for folks listening in who are saying, "Okay, this is very interesting," where can they learn more? How can they get involved? Neil McGovern: Yeah, so if you go to, then we have a newcomers initiative, so we have a load of documentation, there's a team of volunteers who look after newcomers as well. You try and get people to get involved and contribute. It's not just code and things like that. As well we're really, really interested in anyone who likes writing documentation or is awesome at graphics or translation, so we'll have designers, people who can translate, code, or just interested in things like engagement teams who run our social media accounts or things like that. Or doing things like if you want to start up and do a podcast or report on stuff that's happening in the GNOME community, then anyone is always welcome to come and get involved with the project. Rosalie Bartlett: And if someone's listening to this podcast and the concept of open source is still very new to them, what advice do you have for folks that just want to get more involved in open source? Neil McGovern: Pick a project that interests you. Find something that you're passionate about, something that you think, "I want to get involved." I know it can be intimidating, certainly to start with. There's all this thing going on, this huge massive thing, but it's really not. I mean, we all kind of just started almost accidentally getting involved with free software. So just doing a little thing and then just carrying on and on. Rosalie Bartlett: Thinking back to when you got started in open source all those years ago, which is a fun trip to take, what is something you know now that you wish you knew then? Neil McGovern: I think that I never really quite, well, I don't think anyone who is involved really realized how much it would take off, to be this mainstream thing. Certainly at the time, we were all, most of us were just a bunch of students, basically, who were just hacking on this stuff in their spare time and overnight and getting involved. One of the things I think we're still struggling with and that we need to realize is, is how organizations and companies interact with free software and open source communities and their interactions and the tensions there can be there. Neil McGovern: That's something that's kind of happened, but I don't think anyone really realized that this was going to be a thing that people got involved, rather than just a small, niche project over here. So I think in hindsight, a greater idea of trying to work out earlier how these interactions happen and sort of the norms of what we expect from organizations and from communities and how they're able to create something great together is something that I think it'd would've been nice to know that there was going to be this huge eruption, so we could work that out earlier. Neil McGovern: Yeah, and that people can now be paid to work on free software, which was certainly in my wildest of dreams early on was never going to be a thing. It was just this hobby we did while we did other work, which was our real job, that traditionally there wouldn't ever be any money in, so to speak, is something that kind of supports this huge, huge industry now, with people getting involved with open source and being able to drive it forward. Rosalie Bartlett: Well, Neil, I just wanted to say that it has been so nice to chat with you today. Neil McGovern: Thanks for having me. It's been really good fun. Gil Yehuda: If you enjoyed this episode and you wanted to learn more about our open source pogrom at Verizon Media or other technologies that we have available, please visit us at You can also find us on Twitter @YDN.

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