[Fsf-friends] FOSS.IN: A report (LWN)

Frederick Noronha (FN) fred@antispam.org
Sat Dec 10 02:45:03 IST 2005


                           FOSS.IN: A report
                  [Posted December 7, 2005 by corbet] 

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FOSS.IN 2005 has run its course. Your editor, having returned (sans
luggage and with a seriously confused body clock) to a Colorado cold
snap, will now set out to summarize this impressive event. This article
is a companion to the first-day report already published. 

[FOSS.IN venue] FOSS.IN attracted something over 2700 attendees to a set
of steel-and-canvas temporary buildings set up on the grounds of the
Bangalore Palace. Speakers - mostly from India, but also coming from
Australia, Brazil, Germany, Malaysia, the US, and beyond - led sessions
on a wide variety of topics. The audience was interested and engaged in
a way not often seen at other events. FOSS.IN was a fun place to be.

This report will not attempt to summarize the individual sessions. Those
who are interested in further information should have a look at the
numerous reports being posted on planet.foss.in. There are also quite a
few photos available.

On the last day of the conference, your editor delivered a brutally
technical kernel programming talk to a crowd which nearly filled the
750-seat "Intel Hall." That is several times the number of people which
normally turn up for that sort of session. These people were not just
filling the seats; they asked no end of detailed questions during the
session and after as well. Alan Cox's technical device driver talk drew
an even larger crowd. An immediate conclusion which might be drawn is
that Bangalore contains hundreds of programmers who are interested in -
and capable of - hacking on the kernel.

Even if only 10% of those attendees were truly active in kernel
development, one would expect to see a significant amount of code from
Bangalore working its way into the mainline kernel. And there are some
Bangalore-based kernel hackers who are active on the mailing lists and
who are contributing code. But their numbers are far smaller than one
would expect after seeing how many people are interested and
knowledgeable in this area. India is, as one developer put it, "the
world's biggest consumer of free software," but it is not a huge
contributor. Trying to reconcile this difference became one of your
editor's primary objectives at FOSS.IN.

It is not possible to claim that this objective was realized in any
complete way. It has become clear, however, that a few forces are at
play here. One of them become evident early on: of the numerous
questions asked privately by attendees, quite a few had to do with
binary-only kernel modules. It seems that the challenges involved in
maintaining proprietary modules - the changing kernel API, GPL-only
exports, etc. - are proving frustrating to deal with. But more to the
point: it seems that a significant percentage of these kernel developers
are engaged in the writing of proprietary code. Your editor was far from
the only speaker to sermonize about the problems inherent in proprietary
code and the importance of contributing back to the community, but, if
Indian companies are demanding the creation of proprietary code, that's
what their employees will write.

[Neeti] Another important factor was revealed in a talk given by
Neetibodh Agarwal, and in various discussions which followed. Neeti was
called upon to set up a development team for Novell in Bangalore, and he
was struck by just how difficult that was to do. There are, it seems, a
number of reasons why Indian developers have a difficult time engaging
with the free software development community.

By several accounts, the problem starts with the university system. The
Indian universities are strongly oriented toward the creation of
employable graduates in large numbers; a number of FOSS.IN attendees
described them as "assembly line" operations. There is a strong emphasis
on passing tests and getting through the system on schedule, and, it
seems, little interest in encouraging creativity and curiosity in the
students. The universities were described as a conformist environment
with little love of those who have their own ideas of how things should
be done. The end result, as expressed to your editor, is that most
students have had any love of hacking beaten out of them by the time
they graduate.

The fact that the universities are, for the most part, hostile to Linux
and free software does not help either.

Neeti's talk described Indian developers as needing to have their jobs
laid out to them in great detail. They want to know where their
boundaries are, and are uncomfortable if left to determine their own
priorities and approaches. Your editor's initial reaction was that this
claim sounded like classic talk from a pointy-haired boss who does not
trust his employees to make decisions. Subsequent discussions backed up
Neeti's claims, however. A few Indians told me that Indian employees
require a high degree of supervision; perhaps that is why the pizza
stand at the site required two-levels of necktie-wearing bosses who
apparently did little to actually get pizza into the hands of conference
attendees. It is not that Indians lack the intelligence to function
without a boss breathing down their neck - that is clearly not the case
- but all of their training tells them to work in that way.

So if one were to construct a stereotypical picture of an Indian
software developer, it would depict a person who sees programming very
much as a job, and not as an activity which can be interesting or
rewarding in its own right. This developer is most interested in getting
- and keeping - a stable job in a country where an engineering career
can be a ticket to a relatively comfortable middle-class existence.
Keeping that job requires keeping management - and coworkers - happy,
and not rocking the boat.

For such a developer, the free software community is not a particularly
attractive or welcoming place. A developer who contributes to a free
software project may earn a strong reputation in the community, but that
reputation is not appreciated by that developer's employer or
co-workers, and is not helpful for his or her career. Criticism from the
community - even routine criticism of a patch by people who appreciate
the developer's contributions in general - can be hurtful to a career in
a culture where open criticism is not the normal way of doing things.
Developers who expect to have their job parameters laid out to them in
detail may feel lost in a project where they are expected to find
something useful to do, and push it forward themselves. And these
developers, while being possibly quite skilled in what they do, often
have no real passion for programming, and leave it all behind when they
leave the office each day.

It also does not help that, at this point, would-be contributors have
few role models in India. 

In the long term, many of these problems may go away. For now, however,
getting Indian programmers into the community will require some extra
care. Often, it will be necessary to engage (respectfully) with their
supervisors: in most cases, if an Indian is working with the community,
it is because his or her boss is making it happen. Being careful with
criticism and avoiding creating trouble for Indian developers in their
work hierarchies can only help.

And, obviously, an important step will be the creation of a vibrant free
software community in India. This community can provide inspiration,
mentoring, and support for [Gentoo booth] aspiring contributors; it
could also provide a pool of free software programmers from which
employers could hire. The seeds of this community were clearly visible
at FOSS.IN - in fact, many FOSS.IN attendees are poorly described by
(and probably somewhat offended by) the caricature presented above
(please accept your editor's apologies). Dozens of Indian free software
hackers got up on stage and presented their work at this event.
Interestingly, the distribution most in evidence at FOSS.IN was Gentoo,
rather than one of the products of the commercial distributors who are
steadily employing more developers in Bangalore. The Ruby hackers -
unlikely to be working at the behest of their employer at this stage -
essentially had their own one-day track at the event. Harald Welte's
session on hacking the Linux-based Motorola a780 phone attracted a very
high level of interest. There is, clearly, a lot going on in India even
now; it will be most interesting to watch the level of activity explode
as the local community develops.

Events like FOSS.IN are crucial for the development of this community.
So it is unfortunate that this event is currently dealing with some
serious financial problems. A sponsorship shortfall led to a reduction
in the conference program, and it leaves the organizers with a financial
gap that they are struggling to close. Given this situation, it is worth
noting that the list of conference sponsors (which includes Intel,
Google, Sun, and HP) is missing the names of a few companies which work
with free software, and which have a presence in Bangalore. In
particular, IBM, Novell, and Red Hat all declined to sponsor FOSS.IN
this year, even though many of their employees were using their vacation
time to attend. Local companies, such as Wipro and InfoSys, were
represented in the audience and among the speakers, but did not sponsor
the event. If these companies see any benefit in having a thriving
community to support their developers, sponsoring an event like FOSS.IN
should look like an inexpensive way to help bring that community about.

Your editor thanks FOSS.IN (and its sponsors) for making it possible for
him to be there. It was a fun and informative event in an interesting
and changing part of the world.

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