Neal makes FOSS and takes our Twitter mic from January 22th to 27th. Thank you, Neal!
Please tell us about yourself
I consider myself a bit of a “professional technologist”. I’ve worked with computers since I was a kid, and I love that I can work with them for my job as a DevOps Engineer at Datto, Inc, focusing on software delivery and systems management. Outside of that, I’m a Linux systems developer working in a number of Linux distributions. If you’ve been around in the Fedora, openSUSE, CentOS, Mageia, OpenMandriva, and other similar communities, you’ll probably have seen me do a bit of something here and there. 😉
But outside of Linux systems development, I’m a bit of an amateur game developer, too. I’ve been one of the maintainers of the open source Lugaru HD game engine for a decade now. And for the past four years, the complete game has been open source! This is the project I come back to every once in a while to do something “a bit different” from my normal stuff. It’s a fun challenge. 😃
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a couple of things in parallel right now, actually. In Fedora, I’m working on switching the KDE Plasma Desktop spin to use Wayland by default. This will set up KDE Plasma users for the future where the X11 server is no longer in use for the graphics stack in Linux. In openSUSE, I’ve started my term as an elected member of the openSUSE Board, where I can help steer the future of the openSUSE project as a whole. Both of these are two very different types of efforts, and it’s very exciting to work on them!
What is most interesting about that?
The work I’m doing in Fedora is awesome because I’m building stronger relationships between Fedora and the KDE project in the process. Doing a change like this before everyone else requires a lot of work on both sides, and I’m doing my part to try to help bring one of the premier desktops for Linux into the future where we have a competitive graphics stack and can pull off the same feats as platforms known for high-quality graphics (like macOS).
And the work I’m doing in openSUSE is equally cool because it gives me an opportunity to focus more on the relationships that make open source successful. I’m a firm believer that “good business” is all about good relationships, and applying that principle to open source governance can yield tangible benefits for the project. Building stronger bonds with contemporary projects and getting organized to put our message out there can help bring the project back into the spotlight, and I hope that will bring folks interested in using and contributing to openSUSE too!
How did you first discover FOSS?
It was purely by accident! When I was a kid trying to learn how to program on my PC, I was pointed to DJGPP as a solution for software development on DOS (which is what I had for a long time). Through that, I discovered GNU Emacs and GCC, and from there, I learned of Free Software and what it offered compared to what I was used to at the time (expensive tools that didn’t work the way I wanted them to). It also appealed to me as someone who innately felt it was important to try to give everyone the same opportunities I was afforded, as FOSS was accessible to everyone in ways that everything else was not. From there, I later jumped to Red Hat Linux, then Fedora, then Ubuntu, openSUSE, Mandriva, Gentoo, Debian, and so on. Today, I’m all over the place! 😃
What prompted you to start contributing to FOSS?
Many years ago, I used to rip my DVDs and archive them for my personal viewing in my home network on a Linux media center PC. Whenever I did that, I used to struggle to convert everything properly into open video formats (at the time, VP3/Theora, later VP8/WebM). I found a simple little tool called OggConvert, which was an open source tool that used GStreamer to convert anything GStreamer could read to Ogg Theora (and later WebM). I used Fedora for my main system and the application wasn’t available for Fedora, but the source code was. So I learned how to package it up as an RPM and contributed it to Fedora Extras in 2007 (which merged into Fedora Core that year to become the Fedora Linux distribution we know today). And needless to say, I kept at it since then!
Why should others get involved with FOSS?
Because open source survives and thrives by people giving back to the projects that help them! Contributing by testing, writing documentation, doing advocacy, and of course, writing code is how open source projects are able to sustain themselves and grow. Moreover, contributing to FOSS you use gives yourself an incentive to work positively for the betterment of the project, since you depend on it too!
How should they get started?
This often varies from project to project, but the general advice I would give is to just try to find something that could be improved and try to improve it! There’s all kinds of ways to get involved in most projects, and they generally offer some basic documentation on how to contribute. For example, I often point folks interested in contributing to Fedora to the Fedora Join SIG, who are full of members who are happy to help newcomers get involved in the project.
What difficulties and limitations do you see with FOSS?
There are two I often see: sustainability and usability. Sustainability is the ability for the project to continue existing, in the sense that it continues to be developed to serve its users. This is a well-known problem that often leads to developers of open source software burning out and often abandoning open source altogether. Usability is the ability for the software produced by the project to be useful enough to be preferred. While it’s true that FOSS isn’t necessarily about being the best technical solution, being that often encourages more mindshare and distribution of that software at the expense of proprietary solutions. We need a stronger focus on building usable projects so that people want to use, contribute, and advocate for them.
How can they be solved?
I don’t know how they can be solved, but I know there are plenty of folks trying. CHAOSS, OpenCollective, and many others are trying various strategies to tackle this problem. I suspect a mixture of solutions will be needed, based on the type of project and the audience.
Where do you see difficulties in contributing?
A lot of projects tend to assume people are “self-starter” types. While maybe there are a lot of those people, it’s far from the norm and even if it was, it can be paralyzing to do this without any guidance. This is something that Fedora has recognized in the last few years, and has been working on revamping their community outreach programs in part to work around this issue. I hope more projects come around to this and try to account for it more in their own contribution advocacy.
What does a perfect day off look like?
Sitting back on my deck in the sun, listening to music and reading some stories. Or playing some video games on my Nintendo Switch. I’ll eventually finish Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Pokémon Shield! 😤