October 17, 2000

Estrogen at play in the fields of Open Source

Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist
Open Source people

A woman! And over the age of 28 to boot. This is an exciting
edition of Open Source people. So what if she's actually not a programmer
and she gets a lot of mail for Mr. "Eddie" Freedman? Edie
(pronounced E.D.) Freedman is a
significant component of the Open Source community. She is creative
director at O'Reilly Publishing. She's the one who decides what
animal will decorate the cover of each book in O'Reilly's Nutshell line.
(Actually, she now manages designers who do most of the deciding, but she is
the creative mind that started it.)

A little over 12 years ago, Edie shared a two-family house with Linda Lamb, who
worked for O'Reilly at the time (and still does). As many at O'Reilly are
still prone to do, Linda brought her work home with her and presented a
problem to Edie, who then worked in video graphics and animation at Digital
Equipment Corp. O'Reilly was taking its books to the retail market
and nobody on the then-tiny team was not satisfied with the current designer's
work. She wanted to know if Edie had any better ideas.

Edie says, "Linda told me a little bit what Unix people were like and they sounded
like the types of people that play Dungeons and Dragons." It was a
personality, she figured, that fit in with the look and feel of the
engravings she had learned to love while in graduate school. She had begun
collecting books then and pulled one off her shelf to show to Linda.

Everybody else took a bit of convincing, but once they accepted the effect,
Edie settled on a tarsier for the
cover of the tutorial on learning the vi editor.

"It is an animal with the world's biggest eyes and since the vi editor is
a visual editor that seemed pretty straightforward," Edie says.

It would be the first of a long and continuing theme that continues to
keep O'Reilly among the most recognizable brands in the computer book
publishing industry.

Edie recalls candidly selecting the tersier, but over the years she has
maintained a certain mystery around her choices. Many authors attempt to
select their own animal but the drill doesn't allow for it. Instead,
authors are requested to submit a list of adjectives and metaphors
describing the subject of their book, and Edie takes it from there.

Each book includes a "colophon" describing briefly the nature of the
animal on its cover but there is never an explicit explanation of the
relationship between the animal on the book and its subject or author.

"The process is what I would call poetic," says Edie. She looks at lots of pictures
and sometimes it comes to her right away, and other times inspiration wakes
her up in the middle of the night.

Does the problem of limits inherent in this branding strategy keep her up
at night now?

"When I first devised this strategy O'Reilly only had about four, maybe
six books in print," she says. "I never expected the whole concept to have the kind of
legs that it has. We are developing strategies. The animals will not be
going away. People love them."

Well, usually. There have been some complaints. Take for instance the
guy whose wife has a spider phobia. The book he authored features one at
the beginning of every chapter so he was forced to put white tape over each
one. And the author with pigeons picking away at the eves of his house.
Guess what Edie had chosen, by chance, for the cover of his book? Yeah, and
he didn't want any primates either.

Off-cover, the animal that Edie enjoys most is the horse. At the age
that most programming wizards first discovered computing, Edie started
riding. Growing up next to a large farm in southwestern Ohio, Edie first
got on a horse at 4 years old, rode continuously until college, and is
finally back in the saddle after a twenty year hiatus.

It wasn't until graduate school that she gained her first experience with
a computer.

"Not until graduate school?" I asked perplexed.

"Well, c'mon I'm like 46; what do you expect?" she exclaimed in
reply.

After completing an undergraduate degree program in visual and
environmental studies at Harvard and then a few years working as a graphic
designer in Minneapolis, she headed for the Rochester Institute of
Technology to earn two master's degrees; one in communication design and the
other in fine art photography. It was at RIT that she was introduced to a
Genagraphics machine. Since then, like so many graphic designers, she's
been dedicated to Apple.

No Linux, not even GIMP, because it's not the technology that brings her
to Open Source, it's the structure. From the moment she first read Eric
Raymond's essay, The Cathedral
and the Bazaar
, she was hooked.

"Separate but together is such a great picture and it really does mean
that things work better. It's the way we do things here really. We all
work parallel and then come together. Even the way Linda came over and
asked me what I thought, it's all very Open Source.

"There's this gee-whiz factor that I think is fabulous and if I didn't
work here I never would have known anything about it."

She's not a geek but she is a confessed intellectual type (with a bit of
the psychological from her mother) and lives a lot in her head. She enjoys
the same stimulation and combative repartee today's developer community
offers. Intellectual satisfaction is as, if not more, rewarding than money.
This is the respect that makes the whole Open Source paradigm possible. The
real payment comes in the form of spiritual and mental fulfillment.

"I have strong opinions. It helps around here. It's how you can have
conversations. We're all opinionated and we all think we're wicked smart,"
she says sarcastically, utilizing the lingo local to O'Reilly's Cambridge,
Mass., office where she works, "and a lot of people around here are
very smart. There are a lot of fun and lively minds."

She goes on to recite some of the Ivy League degrees and impressive
academic posts held by her colleagues and, indeed, it sounds like a heady
crowd, a tough crowd, a crowd that gets overwhelming sometimes.

"There are days when it is the most irritating place in the universe to
be, when you just think you're going to scream and you do. But it is the
most interesting continually changing place, like an ongoing business school
case study.

"Technology is sort of the nexus where everything comes together but
everybody has come at it from such different places. I am blessed with
wonderful colleagues."

She looks forward to work every day but the stark high-contrast design
she instigated at O'Reilly is very much a reflection of her personality at
work. The photography she indulges in on her own time is softer, more
personal, reflective of the work of photographers she enjoys, like Minor White, Harry
Callahan
, and Edward Weston. And when she was little what she
really wanted to be when she grew up was a folk singer. You don't get much
softer than that.

So what kind of animal does this dichotomy make her? Independent but a
team player, able to hold her own in a battle of wits yet intrigued by
curved lines and a good folk melody. Cuddly but with claws, like a koala
maybe.

Be nice to Edie and she's playful. Don't be, and legend has it she'll put a
maggot on the cover of your book. It's nice to see a little estrogen at
play in the Open Source fields.

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