Interview with Hilary Carter, VP of Linux Foundation Research

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Jason Perlow, Director of Project Insights and Editorial Content at the Linux Foundation, spoke with Hilary Carter about Linux Foundation Research and how it will create better awareness of the work being done by open source projects and their communities.

JP: It’s great to have you here today, and also, welcome to the Linux Foundation. First, can you tell me a bit about yourself, where do you live, what your interests are outside work?

HC: Thank you! I’m a Toronto native, but I now live in a little suburban town called Aurora, just north of the city. Mike Meyers — a fellow Canadian — chose “Aurora, IL” for his setting of Wayne’s World, but he really named the town after Aurora, ON. I also spend a lot of time about 3 hours north of Aurora in the Haliburton Highlands, a region noted for its beautiful landscape of rocks, trees, and lakes — and it’s here where my husband and I have a log cabin. We ski, hike and paddle, with our kids, depending on the season. It’s an interesting location because we’re just a few kilometers north of the 45th parallel — and at the spring and fall equinox, the sun sets precisely in the west right off of our dock. At the winter and summer solstice, it’s 45 degrees to the south and north, respectively. It’s neat. As much as I have always been a bit obsessed with geolocation, I had never realized we were smack in the middle of the northern hemisphere until our kids’ use of Snapchat location filters brought it to our attention. Thank you, mobile apps!

JP: And what organization are you joining us from?

HC: My previous role was Managing Director at the Blockchain Research Institute, where I helped launch and administer their research program in 2017. Over nearly four years, we produced more than 100 research projects that explored how blockchain technology — as the so-called Internet of value — was transforming all facets of society — at the government and enterprise-level as well as at the peer-to-peer level. We also explored how blockchain converged with other technologies like IoT, AI, additive manufacturing and how these developments would change traditional business models. It’s a program that is as broad as it is deep into a particular subject matter without being overly technical, and it was an absolutely fascinating and rewarding experience to be part of building that.

JP: Tell me a bit more about your academic background; what disciplines do you feel most influence your research approach?

HC: I was a Political Studies major as an undergrad, which set the stage for my ongoing interest in geopolitical issues and how they influence the economy and society. I loved studying global political systems, international political economy, and supranational organizations and looking at the frameworks built for global collaboration to enable international peace and security under the Bretton Woods system. That program made me feel incredibly fortunate to have been born into a time of relative peace and prosperity, unlike generations before me.

I did my graduate studies in Management at the London School of Economics (LSE), and it was here that I came to learn about the role of technology in business. The technologies we were studying at the time were those that enabled real-time inventory. Advanced manufacturing was “the” hot technology of the mid-1990s, or so it seemed in class. I find it so interesting that the curriculum at the time did not quite reflect the technology that would profoundly and most immediately shape our world, and of course, that was the Web. In fairness, the digital economy was emerging slowly, then. Tasks like loading web pages still took a lot of time, so in a way, it’s understandable that the full extent of the web’s power did not make it into many of my academic lectures and texts. I believe academia is different today — and I’m thrilled to see the LSE at the forefront of new technology research, including blockchain, AI, robotics, big data, preparing students for a digital world.

JP: I did do some stalking of your LinkedIn profile; I see that you also have quite a bit of journalistic experience as well.

HC: I wish I could have had more! I was humbled when my first piece was published in Canada’s national newspaper. I had no formal training or portfolio of past writing to lend credibility to my authorship. Still, fortunately, after much persistence, the editor gave me a shot, and I’m forever grateful to her for that. I was inspired to write opinion pieces on the value of digital tools because I saw a gap that needed filling — and I was really determined to fill it. And the subject that inspired me was leadership around new technologies. I try to be a good storyteller and create something that educates and inspires all in one go. I suppose I come by a bit of that naturally. My father was an award-winning author in Canada, but his day job was Chief of Surgery at a hospital in downtown Toronto. He had a gift to take complex subject matter about diseases, such as cancer, and humanize the content by making it personal. I think that’s what makes writing about complex concepts “sticky.” When you believe that the author is, at some level, personally committed to their work and successful in setting the context for their subject matter to the world at large and do so in a way that creates action or additional thinking, then they’ve done a successful job.

JP: Let’s try a tough existential question. Why do you feel that the Linux Foundation now needs a dedicated research and publications division? Is it an organizational maturity issue? Has open source gotten so widespread and pervasive that we need better metrics to understand these projects’ overall impact?

HC: Well, let me start by saying that I’m delighted that the LF has prioritized research as a new business unit. In my past role at the Blockchain Research Institute, it was clear that there was and still is a huge demand for research — the program kept growing because technologies continued to evolve, and there was no shortage of issues to cover. So I think the LF is tapping into a deep need for knowledge in the market at large and specific insights on open source ecosystems, in particular, to create greater awareness of incredible open source projects and inspire greater participation in them. There are also threats that we as a society — as human beings — need to deal with urgently. So the timing couldn’t be better to broaden the understanding of what is happening in open source communities, new tools to share knowledge, and encourage greater collaboration levels in open source projects. If we accomplish one thing, it will be to illustrate the global context for open source software development and why getting involved in these activities can create positive global change on so many levels. We want more brains in the game.

JP: So let’s dive right into the research itself. You mentioned your blockchain background and your previous role — I take it that this will have some influence on upcoming surveys and analysis? What is coming down the pike on the front?

HC: Blockchain as a technology has undoubtedly influenced my thinking about systems architecture and how research is conducted — both technological frameworks and the human communities that organize around them. Decentralization. Coordination. Transparency. Immutability. Privacy. These are all issues that have been front and center for me these past many years. Part of what I have learned about what makes good blockchain systems work comes from the right combination of great dependability and security with leadership, governance, and high mass collaboration levels. I believe those values transfer over readily to the work of the Linux Foundation and its community. I’m very much looking forward to learning about the many technology ecosystems beyond blockchain currently under the LF umbrella. I’m excited to discover what I imagine will be a new suite of technologies that are not yet part of our consciousness.

JP: What other LF projects and initiatives do you feel need to have deeper dives in understanding their impact besides blockchain? Last year, we published a contributor survey with Harvard. It reached many interesting conclusions about overall motivations for participation and potential areas for remediation or improvement in various organizations. Where do we go further in understanding supply chain security issues — are you working with the Harvard team on any of those things?

HC: The FOSS Contributor Survey was amazing, and there are more good things to come through our collaboration with the Laboratory of Innovation Science at Harvard. Security is a high-priority research issue, and yes, ongoing contributions to this effort from that team will be critical. You can definitely expect a project that dives deep into security issues in software supply chains in the wake of SolarWinds.

I’ve had excellent preliminary discussions with some executive team members about their wish-lists for projects that could become part of the LF Research program in terms of other content. We’ll hope to be as inclusive as we can, based on what our capacity allows. We look forward to exploring topics along industry verticals and technology horizontals, as well as looking at issues that don’t fall neatly into this framework, such as strategies to increase diversity in open source communities, or the role of governance and leadership as a factor in successful adoption of open source projects.

Ultimately, LF Research will have an agenda shaped not only from feedback from within the LF community but by the LF Research Advisory Board, a committee of LF members and other stakeholders who will help shape the agenda and provide support and feedback throughout the program. Through this collaborative effort, I’m confident that LF Research will add new value to our ecosystem and serve as a valuable resource for anyone wanting to learn more about open source software and the communities building it and help them make decisions accordingly. I’m looking forward to our first publications, which we expect out by mid-summer. And I’m most excited to lean on, learn from, and work with such an incredible team as I have found within the LF. Let’s do this!!!

JP: Awesome, Hilary. It was great having you for this talk, and I look forward to the first publications you have in store for us.

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