November 5, 2008

The new openSUSE community-elected board speaks

Author: Nathan Willis

The openSUSE project has a new board, and the new board has big plans.

The distribution's first board was appointed by Novell in November 2007, tasked with the unusual job of "bootstrapping" a community-elected board that could guide the project with a balance of Novell and non-Novell influence. Less than a year later, that community-elected board is now in place, and looking forward to its new role.

Pascal Bleser was on the bootstrap board, and took part in laying the groundwork for the new, permanent board election process. "We first initiated the creation of Guiding Principles that were primarily driven by Cornelius Schumacher (who happens to also be on the current KDE e.V. board of directors) but discussed on our opensuse-project mailing list, growing with the input of community members.

"Once we had the Guiding Principles, we went on to create the "openSUSE Member" status, in order to identify individuals who have been contributing to our community in a continued and substantial way (packaging, translating, helping, developing software, etc.). The Members were the ones who voted during this first board election, with the possibility of granting one right to vote to another non-Member. With 212 openSUSE members, we managed to reach what we think was a sufficiently large number of people to have legitimate elections."

Voting was held between October 9 and 25, with a reported 75% voter turnout. Under the rules, two board members from Novell and two from outside Novell were elected, with all members eligible to vote on each ballot. The Novell seats went to Henne Vogelsang and Frederico Mena-Quintero. The non-Novell seats went to Bleser and Bryen Yunashko. Novell directly appoints the fifth member and chair, Michael Loeffler.

To provide for rotation of board members, Mena-Quintero and Yunashko's seats will come up for re-election next year, while the other two seats will serve for two years.

Defining the role of the board

As a new entity, one of the openSUSE board's largest tasks is to define its role within the project. Yunashko, Bleser, and Loeffler all agree that facilitating transparent communication between community members and between the community and Novell should be one of the board's priorities.

Yunashko says, "My goal is, and I believe this is shared by the others on the board, that we ensure an effective listening process is in place where the community feels it has a place to communicate its concerns, wishes, and goals and that it feels it is being effectively heard. There is already good collaboration and communication between the community and Novell/SUSE, but these things often occur more on an individual level (which is a good thing). It will be our job to collectively crystallize the mood of the community as a whole in our relations with Novell.

"However, we also want to be a board that isn't just a conduit to Novell but also a conduit to the community and individual members. We need to recognize the challenges that community contributors, be they packagers, developers, educators, tech-supporters, or translators, face, and find ways to empower them with the resources they may need."

Bleser considers it important that the board "does not act as a top-down 'government.' I see our role as being there to support and serve the members of our community, and definitely not to take any influence whatsoever on technical aspects -- except if we're in a deadlock situation where our opinion is asked for. Generally speaking, we are still in a situation where the community has to shape its board, through the requests that will be sent to us."

Loeffler agrees, adding that the board should provide for better community interaction, but remain a facilitator and not a decision-maker. "The board in my opinion has more the responsibility to create and maintain a good working framework for the openSUSE project. For that I think the board might focus on getting the openSUSE project to another, higher level for contribution."

Setting the first-year agenda

Increasing participation is high on the priority list of all of the new board members. Vogelsang says he wants to tackle code contribution in particular. "We already have a strong community of people who write in the wiki, support other users on the mailing list, do translations, and provide artwork. We also have a large community of code contributors. There are people contributing to key parts of the openSUSE distribution, such as YaST, the Build Service, or package maintenance, on a regular basis, but we want more. We want to make it as easy as possible to leave your footprint in openSUSE. We want to be the first distribution to really open up the development."

Loeffler says he wants to "give the community more possibilities for implementing their ideas and take over responsibilities," perhaps through local openSUSE groups, and at events such as conferences and hackfests.

Yunashko, who has been an openSUSE community member for just the past year, says he intends to focus his time on the same issues that he has as a community member, including accessibility and the user-to-developer forum known as the Helping Hands Project.

Bleser did not mention specific projects, but says he wants his term on the board to be characterized by supporting initiatives, and by the growth of the openSUSE community as an equal partner with Novell, so that the community "becomes an entity on its own, not because we want to separate from Novell, but mostly to both become a better partner for Novell and be more self-sustained and take our fate in our own hands." He adds that the community includes many Novell employees, whose hands he counts among those who will take openSUSE's fate.

The work begins

OpenSUSE's community manager Joe Brockmeier says that the success of the election and the new board are signs that the participants in openSUSE are serious about strong community guidance and input. "This is the next step in the growth of the project. The Novell-appointed board was very important in setting a foundation for community governance. The new board, I think, will be a catalyst for further community growth and self-direction.

"I think Novell chose well with the first board, but giving the community a voice in the process allows not only external input, but also external direction setting. We'll see the project going in directions that Novell may not have originally thought of, which will be great for growth over the next year."


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