March 30, 2007

Portrait: GNOME Foundation's Dave Neary

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Many free software advocates make a name for themselves by being involved with a single project. Dave Neary casts a wider net. He is a GNOME Foundation member, community manager of the OpenWengo project, and a former contributor to the GIMP project.

Neary, the oldest of five kids, describes himself as "farm-boy redneck at heart" who caught the computer bug at an early age. "I had my first experience with computers in school -- a row of Apple IIes that had a BASIC interpreter built in. I had a teacher who loved computers and used to enjoy teaching us to peek and poke.... I got a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128K +2 at home with a cruddy monochrome monitor when I was around 13. I mostly played games on it, but I also messed about with BASIC on there too; as I got older I got a kick out of rendering Mandelbrot and Julia sets."

Neary says his introduction to free software came later, while he was working on a postgraduate research project at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland.

"The project I was working on wouldn't compile or run properly under Windows (something about the paging in the memory model) so I was doing must of my work remotely through xterms on the department's Sun workstations. Emmet Caulfield convinced me that I'd be better off with my own personal Linux workstation, so I finally gave in and bought Linux for Dummies, which included an install CD for Red Hat 5.0.... A month later, I was up and running with my new shiny FVWM 95 desktop."

After graduating from DCU with a master's degree in fractal image analysis, Neary says that he continued to be interested in free software. "I started to learn about GNOME and GTK+ programming. It was around that time that I submitted my first couple of patches to the GIMP, after helping a New Zealander called Tim Musson with gnect, now GNOME's Connect 4 game ... and also negotiated putting Velena, a Connect 4 computer player, under the GPL so that it could be integrated."

Dave Neary, taken by Nick Veitch and used with permission - click to view

As so often happens, a few patches for a project led to deeper involvement. Neary says he helped with migration of the GIMP to GTK+ 2.0, and also helped prod the project toward stable releases. "You might say I became the good conscience of the project. Whenever we went too long without a release, or CVS HEAD was unusable for long periods, I used to focus my efforts to fix that."

Neary took on the official title of GIMP release manager at the GIMP conference in Berlin in 2003, a role he held for about a year. "There were a few reasons for [moving on]. One that it wasn't a huge amount of fun anymore. Another was a lack of time -- my first son was born in 2002, and between work and family life, I was getting less time for hacking."


Despite time constraints, Neary continued to remain involved in free software projects and went from GIMP to GNOME. Neary says he helped organize GNOME's GUADEC conference, which was his first contact with GNOME and the GNOME Foundation. Neary says GNOME Foundation board member Jeff Waugh suggested that he run for the board himself in 2004.

Initially, Neary says he scoffed at the idea of running for the board, but grew to like the idea. "I liked the GNOME project, I liked the GNOME people, and I felt I'd be good at the kinds of things I felt the board should be doing. So I bit the bullet and ran, and at the end of 2004, I was elected in the eleventh position to the 11-member board of the foundation."

Neary has been on the board for three years now, and was responsible for the successful proposal to reduce the board from 11 members to seven.

"I felt the board was ineffective was because we had too much of a crowd mentality. There was a lot of 'someone else will do it' happening, and I felt reducing the board would help us trim some dead weight. I have the impression that it has been a positive change."

This year, Neary says he's concentrating on getting a plan to spend GNOME's budget. "This year, the GNOME Foundation will have a budget -- we know how much money we will have (more or less) and we know how we are going to spend it. That might not sound like much, but it's a step forward for us. It's the equivalent to the first time a software developer writes a spec -- he always knew he should do it before, but he never had time. And then once he actually got around to doing it, he couldn't figure out how he could ever live without it."

Neary says he thinks GNOME will either grow into different projects -- such as a One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) GNOME, a Home and Small Office GNOME, and Enterprise GNOME -- or the project will shrink to the GNOME development platform, "which will then be re-used by third parties to build the interfaces they're interested on top of it.

"We have already started to see this trend. Distributors cherry-pick the applications they are interested in for their own desktop projects, which are then themed and targeted for their core audience. The variety of platforms and human interfaces being built upon the GNOME platform is dazzling. These go from small-form-factor interfaces like the Nokia N800 and the Maemo application framework and OpenMoko and GPE through to innovative interfaces like Sugar from OLPC, which is totally unfamiliar to someone used to the GNOME desktop, but which is undeniably GNOME-based."

It isn't just the embedded or odd form-factor devices that are customizing GNOME, says Neary. "Even the major distributions have modified the GNOME interface to suit their needs. The openSUSE, Red Hat Enterprise, and Ubuntu desktops all behave in different ways, and have different target audiences."


Neary says he hasn't decided whether he wants to stand for a fourth term on the GNOME board, in part because of new commitments. Neary is now employed by Wengo as community manager for the OpenWengo project. Neary describes OpenWengo as "a community project in communication over IP."

"The position has two roles. The first is a communication role -- going to conferences, presenting OpenWengo and increasing the awareness of the project, and getting new developers. The second role, which takes most of my time, is making sure that the community is a nice place to be. That means working on the company/community balance within Wengo, and cultivating a free software culture in a team where not everyone is familiar with the community way of doing things."

Part of that role, says Neary, is making sure Wengo developers understand they are part of a greater community. "That means that when a new person arrives in Wengo, I believe that they should get [Subversion] commit access only after going through a community approval process. I myself have not yet got SVN commit access for the Subversion repository, because I feel that I should earn it."

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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