February 26, 2008

New Fedora Chair plans to remove obstacles for volunteers

Author: Bruce Byfield

"The job is to remove obstacles in the way of the community," says Paul W. Frields, speaking about his new position as Fedora Chair. After only a few weeks in the position, Frields is still learning his way around and getting to know his colleagues, but already this vision is a common refrain in his comments, underlying all his comments about what he hopes the Fedora project will achieve while he is coordinating its efforts.

Frields is the second person to chair the project, replacing Max Spevack, who recently stepped down to focus on other interests in Fedora. The chair is also automatically the Fedora Project Leader. The chair is appointed by Red Hat, the Fedora distro's sponsor, and is a Red Hat employee, but the selection process "is also informed by the board," Frields says. He says that it would be next to impossible for someone who did not believe in the free and open source (FOSS) ethos or had an autocratic style of leadership to enjoy the support of either the Fedora board or community.

Paul W. Frields, Fedora ChairIn many ways, Frields is well-suited for the position. A computer hobbyist since he was eight, Frields has been using Fedora and Red Hat Linux, its predecessor, for years in scientific and forensic work. Seeing "an opportunity to give something back," he joined the Fedora project in November 2003 -- only two months after the project's start -- and has been active ever since as a package maintainer, and working with the documentation, release notes, art work, and marketing teams. He has also been a Fedora ambassador, evangelizing for Fedora in particular and FOSS in general in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Since 2006 he has been a Fedora Board member as well, rounding off an unusually thorough view of the entire project.

Frields feels that Fedora has come into its own in the last few years. "When Fedora first started in 2004," he says, "a lot of people looked at it as a successor to Red Hat Linux, as following in its footsteps, and very much with the company in the driver seat. But it has become clear that the distribution now is really run as a partnership." In particular, he credits Spevack with overseeing the merger of the Core and Extra repositories, which removed the distinction between packages maintained by Red Hat employees and those maintained by community volunteers, and with promoting the growth of FUDCon, Fedora's community conference, for each new release.

In fact, Fedora has so clearly come into its own that, according to Frields, Fedora 8, the current release, was known among Red Hat employees as "the community distro. That was their very loving way of referring to the fact that we had built a community around the distribution, and that it had really blossomed."

Full speed ahead

Now that Fedora has established itself as a community, Frields says, his main strategy for the community is "to carry that spirit forward, and make sure that we are pushing the boundaries by making the community in charge of every part of Fedora."

Considering Frields' varied experience in the project, it is unsurprising that one of his main goals is "lowering barriers for contributors" -- in particular, for non-programmers. "I want to try to grow those communities and scale them up with the number of developers," Frields says. Finding non-programmers and keeping them involved is a problem that he sees affecting most FOSS projects, but "I want to see Fedora leading the way."

The problem, as Frields sees it, is not that the steps to become a community member are not well-documented in the project wiki. He sees the problem as too many technical steps that have to be undertaken manually. He would like to see the process automated, so that less technically-oriented people could volunteer more easily.

"Someone should be able to walk up to the Fedora booth at a conference anywhere in the world," he says, "and, using the Internet connection there, join the Fedora project, get a wiki space for themselves, an email address, and a Web page, and all of those things that we would normally associate with a presence online, and bring them into our world gently, without them having to perform a lot of onerous command-line tasks."

In addition, Frields notes that "The idea that there ought to be an official mentorship program is growing." However, Frields' is concerned that the project may not have the necessary core of experienced members for a mentorship program to succeed yet. While he is still making up his mind on the subject, he seems inclined to put off such a program.

Another area that Frields hopes to see an improvement during his tenure is in "the global face of Fedora." Despite the fact that Fedora has worldwide contributors, Frields believes that, "Right now, we tend to have a somewhat North American-centric view overall." He especially hopes to increase participation in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asian-Pacific regions, all of which statistics show as having high concentrations of Fedora users.

So far as language is a problem, he hopes that Transifex, a new Web system to streamline localization, may help provide an answer. However, Frields suggests that the problem is not primarily one of language. He notes that Fedora already has many contributors for whom English is a second language, but who have few difficulties in active participation.

Instead, he would like to see a renewed effort to expand the Fedora Ambassadors program in those regions where the distribution is already popular. "The details are still being worked out as we speak," Frields says, "but that's going to be happening very strongly this year. A lot [of the effort] is simply messaging about what people and companies can do with Fedora."

Still drinking from the fire hose

Frields does not rule out other priorities. He stresses, though, that he is still setting into the job.

"A lot of people will tell you that coming to a company like Red Hat is a little like drinking from a fire hose," he says. "And it's definitely been that way for me. And I've enjoyed every minute of it."

So far, the main surprise for Frields in his new role is "the deep passion that everyone has about open source, including the management types. This is something that is really built into the culture of Red Hat. I've been told about it before, but I think I wasn't really prepared to see it at work and to see how it informs all the decision-making. And I've also seen people's dedication to ethical behavior. I think that, when you have that attitude at the very top, it finds its way down to everyone in the company."

With this attitude, Frields concludes, "I think there's a heck of a lot that Red Hat is going to achieve in the next couple of years -- and that won't hurt Fedora, either. Our place is the community and it always will be -- it's not about one company donating resources, but what a community can do together. But I think that when our community has a partner like Red Hat, the horizons are very wide for us."

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