Sriram Ramkrishna

App ecosystem engineer at ITRenew

February 2021

Sriram makes FOSS and takes our Twitter mic from February 3rd to 10th. Thank you, Sriram!

Please tell us about yourself

Let’s see - My name is Sriram Ramkrishna - I’m an old timer open source community related person. I started on Free Software in 1997 or so when I joined the GNOME Project and have been working on community related things there. I also have experience in professional open source with being the release manager for the Tizen project when I was at Intel. I’ve played community manager, marketing and sales roles, and I worked in enterprise IT for 15 years as a storage engineer and Unix systems administrator. I’ve been doing a tour of roles :-)

I love and enjoy the aspects of building new ecosystems, building up existing ones - and working on, and scheming up ambitious projects.

What are you working on right now?

Professionally, I work as a principal ecosystems engineer for ITRenew - and work in professional open source organizations like the Open Compute Project, Cloud Native Foundation, Linux Foundation etc. My employer is part of the circular datacenter, a market segment that takes datacenter equipment from first tier companies like Dropbox, Facebook, Google, and so on and recertifies them and then re-sell to 2nd tier markets. The great thing about that is you create this wonderful supply chain that can be local - plus you’ve already paid the carbon footprint cost - so by buying this equipment you not only pay less, you are being earth friendly - while getting top grade equipment. But to support this kind of hardware in the long term requires having your firmware and drivers to be open and community supported. I play a lot of roles - advocacy, documentation, support engineer, relationship manager, event planner, program manager and small-scale open source program office.

The great thing about all this is that I can use that wide set of diverse skills I’ve picked up in my career and use each and every one of them - switching to any of them to as I see fit to meet the goals I’ve set for myself. To be clear, I’m not a master of any of them - as a jack of all trades, you know enough to be an effective partner who have mastered the art of each of those skills.

I also work in community Free Software primarily in GNOME - but very interested in building a data driven organization - and so I’ve been working with the CHAOSS project on some aspects of this. I’m also working in partnership with GNOME and KDE on Linux App Summit - a conference that seeks to build an ecosystem around app development and app promotion.

What is most interesting about that?

I think what’s interesting is how much all of that is cross-pollination. I’m working at every layer - from near metal to application space and all those pursuits I pick up contacts, ideas, or things that are happening that I can help pollinate in other areas. For instance, the GNOME Project has been switching to ‘meson’ as a build system to replace the aging autoconf/libtool Free Software toolchain that we’ve been using for over 30 years. Meson is many factors faster than that - but many projects are still using the old method. Getting these other ecosystems to switch to meson means (hopefully) a more robust build system that is much more suportable than autoconf. But the point is, that exposure is important - that sharing of ideas or technology and building connections.

How did you first discover FOSS?

Well, I think at some point or other I was always kind of involved in Free Software for a while. My first code contribution was on GNU Emacs in the early 90s when I modified the source code such that it outputs audio tones so that blind users could use it. Before that I did some code modifications on an old BSD tool called colcrt. So that ability to hack on source code was quite a while back. But I didn’t formally become part of a Free Software project until I joined GNOME in 1998. Those were thrilling times.

What prompted you to start contributing to FOSS?

With GNOME, I was just fascinated by the work these young people were working on. Technically brilliant and full of passion and a vision on building a desktop. Which is not an easy lift. But my exposure to them actually helped my own career because I was being exposed to all these cool ideas that I would use at work. I ended up being 2 or more years ahead of what the rest of my team was doing.

Why should others get involved with FOSS?

I think one of the great things about being involved in FOSS is that - it’s a great place to learn and make mistakes. If you are a developer, you learn how to communicate your ideas through code and through discussion. That’s not something that you can easily learn from school which tends to have a rigid curriculum that misses the human component.

If you are a non-developer, you learn how to work with developers - also through discussion and understanding - but also a great place to experiment and develop your skills further. One thing I find interesting is that FOSS provides a place for the folks who are interested in tech and non-tech - meaning they are folks who can speak the language of the engineer, but also can do event planning, project planning, fundraising and a host of other things.

How should they get started?

I think it depends on what your interests are - but a great place to start and I’m probably being very biased - but I believe that GNOME or KDE are great projects because they are community oriented and the work is aspirational, but also they building a product and that requires a wide range of skill sets. Just like if you were in a company.

That said, most projects have a contribution guide or an onboarding procedure.

What difficulties and limitations do you see with FOSS?

There are a lot of challenges that we are facing - let’s talk about two of them. One is that FOSS is primarily for the privileged and very few have the leisure to contribute to FOSS. We need to create incentives where contribution leads to a good financial outcome. If we want to appeal to the widest audience possible. This will also build better diversity in FOSS since folks from all walks of life and background will be able to participate.

The second challenge is sustainable FOSS - this problem is probably not a big surprise for those of us who live and breathe open source. For those of us who want to build a living around the software we create - whether it is an application, a service, or even hardware - we want to be able to have some compensation for the time we spend. We have moved out of “hobbyist” and now some pieces of the software we write are powering businesses, infrastructure and government. Some models work really well and can be profited like for example, Red Hat. However those who are writing applications targeted at the Linux platform - a solution has yet to be viable that would provide the kind of compensation to thrive. The system has to be changed - but changing a system is difficult especially when we are trying to put financial incentive on a model that is about sharing.

How can they be solved?

The two challenges I’ve talked about are interlinked. I don’t have a solution to be frank. This is something that we need to bring communities together and work on - trying different models. But what we have right now is not sustainable and leaves us burning out trying to sustain ecosystems that support software.

We can make things better - donate either your time or money. In many ways, your time is valuable - and it doesn’t necessarily mean contributing code. A project manager, bug triager, developer relations and others help take a lot of pressure off a maintainer(s) of software. By alleviating that burden and building a healthy infrastructure of support personnel - it will lead to less burn out.

Prioritize open source software experience as part of the hiring process, have policies that allow FOSS contributors the freedom to work part time on their open source project - could also be entertained.

But we can’t solve it unless we work with all the industries that consume our software and help make it sustainable.

Where do you see difficulties in contributing?

I see difficulties in contributing if a project is not a safe space. A code of conduct is an absolute necessity. Unclear guides on how to contribute. For instance, in GNOME it’s difficult to contribute code or design contributions without understanding what it takes to get something accepted.

What does a perfect day off look like?

A perfect day for me is a day without drama. :-) If I’m working at work, a good day is being able to get my goals accomplished from a technical perspective. If it is my community work - it is the ability to work with the community and be able take someone who was previously unhappy but be able to guide them to a place where they can appreciate the work that is being done.

Do you want to tell us something else we didn’t ask?

I just want to say that having been part of FOSS for over 20 years - I realize what a privilege it is to be able to have a career in it. Many do not have that and every day is a perfect day knowing that I get to work with some of the smartest and most passionate people in the world on a daily basis.