March 10, 2015

KDE President Lydia Pintscher on the Role of a Nonprofit in Open Source Development

Lydia Pintscher KDE president

KDE is among the biggest open source projects which continues to innovate and evolve with the changing times. Often we have seen this particular community create technologies ahead of its time which were later adopted by other projects.

What makes KDE (K Desktop Environment) different, is that it is not directly related to any major company by 'blood'. KDE is driven by community which, unlike many similar projects, has a very strong presence in the European market. It also continues to prove that community alone can create sustainable and innovative products.

We talked to Lydia Pintscher, the president of the KDE e.V., the nonprofit organization that oversees the legal and financial aspects of the KDE project, to understand the relationship between the community and the organization. We also discussed the challenge of recruiting more women to open source projects and women in the KDE community.

A Brief history of Lydia

Pintscher started contributing to KDE way back in 2006 when she was studying computer science. She was a KDE software user and felt like it was made for her. In her words, "I was hooked."

The KDE community is among the most friendly and inclusive communities. Pintscher recalls, "When I started contributing, I met amazing people and was hooked again. I am at home here. These are my people. Since then, I've been able to do so many things inside KDE - community management, marketing, user support, release management, product management, running mentoring programs and now leading a non-profit. I don't think this would have been possible for me anywhere else.

"This is the most amazing thing for me about KDE: you can come here and learn and grow to do things you didn't think you were capable of," she said. "And of course we are doing great free software that empowers millions of people along the way."

What's KDE e.V?

KDE is a huge, and extremely prolific community. Much like the Linux Foundation provides support to the Linux community and other open source projects, a structured organization is needed to manage KDE's huge community which is spread across the globe and driven by thousands of developers.

This extremely diverse community is governed by KDE e.V. which was co-founded by Matthias Ettrich, the founder of the KDE project, back in 1997.

KDE e.V. has a board of five people that is leading the organization. Pintscher said, "They are elected from and by a group of active members. They have voting rights and meet at our annual general assembly. If you are an active contributor to KDE go and talk to someone who is a member. They can suggest you as a new member. In addition, KDE e.V. has a number of working groups on various topics like community, finances and system administration."

KDE e.V plays a very important role in the KDE community. "Its main role is to support KDE in legal, administrative and financial matters. It provides a framework and point of contact for other projects and companies who want to interact with KDE," said Pintscher.

An organization like KDE e.V offers the consistency and stability needed for a huge project like KDE. People will join, and people will move on. This natural movement of talent should not affect the project. That's exactly what KDE e.V does - ensures the project remains intact. The project continues on its path, like a caravan with people joining and leaving it.

Lydia explains, "We do things like fundraising for KDE, run Akademy, make sure people can attend sprints by reimbursing their travel and accommodation, keep KDE's infrastructure in shape as well as providing legal support. One example for that is the Fiduciary Licensing Agreement that every contributor can sign. KDE e.V. also makes sure Qt stays free and open via the KDE Free Qt Foundation. You can sum it up as making sure KDE stays healthy and can do what it wants to do - bring great free software to end users."

As president Pintscher focuses on representing KDE and KDE e.V., networking with other organizations, projects and companies, figuring out KDE e.V.'s strategic direction and a lot of paperwork and email writing. "At the moment I am also part of the team that is hiring our first executive director," she added.

Money matters

To run a huge project like KDE (or even a smaller project), financial support, and more importantly, the proper management of those resources, is very important. KDE gets money through two main sources: individuals and companies. Pintscher said, "Some of them become supporting members or patrons to support us long-term. This money is used mostly to make Akademy and sprints happen, finance our infrastructure and run our office."

Separation of the cathedral and the bazaar

One of the most popular, and I would say successful, models within the free software community is that companies build support around open source projects. This ensures that the community gets access to the same projects as the paying enterprise customers - sans commercial support and maybe some certain features.

There are many projects which don't have any blood relationship with any company; that are not the community version of an enterprise software. KDE is one such project. Are there any fundamental differences between community-run projects versus company-run projects? Pintscher may be the right person to throw some light on the matter from KDE's perspective.

She said, "That's a tricky question. It really depends on the way the project is run by the company. It can have benefits and drawbacks. A Free Software project that is backed largely by one company is always at risk of that company dictating priorities and making decisions based on monetary criteria - ultimately it is accountable to its shareholders and not the contributors or users of its project."

That's absolutely true and we have seen many projects which changed their course, despite user outcries, because ROI overweights contributor's interests. The good, and not so good news, is that due to the open source nature of the project, leading contributors can fork the project to address what the larger community needed and not necessarily what the parent company wanted.

In most cases the forked project forms a non-profit organization to manage the project - we have seen numerous such cases including The Document Foundation and MariaDB Foundation.

"A non-profit has different criteria for decision making. However, that isn't a black and white thing. There are many possibilities in between those two extremes like a project that several companies contribute to. If done right that can work very well and be beneficial for the project," added Lydia.

On women in open source

Gender equality is a pressing issue in STEM careers and open source is no exception. Pintscher opines, "When women are socialized to not like tinkering in technology from the day they are born into our society, that is a fundamental issue we have to fight against every day. We are trying to bring more women into Free Software and STEM in general. And then they face sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle social issues in our communities."

We have often seen such incidents which require a very thick skin to survive. As a journalist I have grown a thick skin, but not everyone wants that. We risk losing talented people because of the social nature of some communities. And that's where community members can make a huge difference. One bad apple should not rot the entire community.

Pintscher says, "When you see someone being a jerk, say something because this is not just about the two people directly involved - it is also about everyone else who is watching that conversation and making up their mind about contributing to the project or not. There are so many little things you can do that make things better overall."

She then recalls an incident from her past where someone's little act made a huge difference to her. "The most enlightening moment for me was years ago at a conference: I was standing with a group of guys and another guy joined. Someone introduced everyone. Everyone except me. I am sure they didn't mean any harm, but in a movement that so heavily relies on personal connections to get anything done this is a huge bummer. Someone else then quickly introduced me as well and all was good. You can be that someone. These little things make a huge difference."

When asked about how women have fared in the KDE community Pintscher said, "In general, KDE is one of the best Free Software communities one can contribute to as a woman in my opinion. The fact that we have two women on the board is a telling sign. That being said: We always want more: Come join us. There is so much to learn and do."

Click Here!