July 2, 2008

Portrait: Louis Landry of Joomla! finds direction in FOSS

Author: Bruce Byfield

For Louis Landry, a member of the core team for the Joomla! management system, free and open source software (FOSS) is not just a hobby, nor just the technology behind Jxtended, the consulting business in which he is a partner. For Landry, FOSS is also the movement that gave him direction in life, and provides both the rationale and the outlet for his diverse interests. In fact, he is so enthusiastic about FOSS that he sounds like an evangelist for the community whenever it is mentioned.

Portraits

Landry's discovery of Joomla! came at a critical time in his life. In 2004, Landry graduated with a computer science degree from Louisiana Tech, and, like many graduates, faced the problem of what to do next.

"I was relatively lost in the job search," he admits. "I was at the end of an interview process with NASA, and I had worked in many different places, but I really didn't know what to do. It was getting to the point that I was just going to accept whatever I got."

Louis Landry

Then, in the middle of this personal crisis, Hurricane Katrina hit Landry's home city of New Orleans. Overwhelmed and directionless, he says that "I just decided that I was going to spend as much time as I could on something I could change. I'd been working with Joomla! way before when it was Mambo, and I just kept focusing and focusing and focusing as a way of dealing with everything. It was really to keep my mind on something positive, where I could make effective changes."

Landry began submitting patches throughout Joomla! Before long, he realized that he was not only keeping occupied, but "doing more and meeting more people, and having a blast. The next thing I know, I'm on the core team."

Landry found a strong enthusiasm for FOSS. "I love the people, the relationships that you make. I do love coding, but it's not my principal love. I didn't really start programming until I got to college, so it's not something I've been doing my whole life. I really enjoy the interaction, and all the new people you meet. I mean, I talk to people from all over the world, on four different continents, every day. It's amazing to be able to do that, and all the things that make open source so much fun."

So far as Landry is concerned, even Jxtended, the company he founded with other members of the Joomla! and PHP community, is an extension of his Joomla! activity. "It's a way of spending as much time as I can with the project I love and getting paid for it," Landry says. "I feel incredibly fortunate for me to be able to do what I've been doing. I'm certainly not a wealthy man, but I've made enough to be able to support myself and to keep doing what I love, and there's not a whole of people out there that get to say that they're doing exactly what they want to do. I'm really grateful."

Community and flexibility

One of the reasons that Landry is such a FOSS enthusiast is that Joomla! is such a large project that it has given him the chance to work in a number of different areas. "My education was very well-rounded," he says. Besides computer science, "I also had concentrations in history and lots of other things. And my mother was an art teacher, so I come from a very creative background. I'm not a typical programmer in that sense."

Given this love of diversity, it is not surprising that, although Landry's contributions started with programming, they soon branched out. "I'm involved in so many pieces of the puzzle," he says, including building infrastructure for the project, as well as Web pages and his current role as the coordinator of communications on the core team.

Last year, Landry had the chance to broad his horizons further when he became project manager for the core team -- "the very center of the hub," as he describes it. "It was a centralization role. I filled in the gaps and made sure that everybody had what they needed. If somebody had issues with something not getting done, or there was a problem somewhere, I was the center of operations, so it came to me. I was basically acting as a facilitator and mediator.

"Here I am, 28 years old," he marvels, "and I get the opportunity to do all that in a corporate structure. I mean, it's not a corporation, for sure, but we've got this huge, massive community with layers and layers to the thing. It was a totally humbling experience, and an honor to be at the center of things. I certainly made my share of mistakes, but it was a lot of fun."

From these personal experiences, Landry has extrapolated the theory that the ability of FOSS projects to build a strong community rests in their ability to involve as many people as possible in as many aspects of the project as possible. "It's like, if I was still in development, I would get burned out and disinterested," he says. "So we move around, and that helps us because we all understand each other's jobs. One of the things we try to do is make sure that everybody is capable of stepping in and playing a role in whatever part of the project that needs help."

This approach also has the advantage of giving a project what Landry, borrowing a term from Google, calls a high bus factor -- "that is, how many people have to be hit by a bus before things won't get done. We try to keep that number as high as possible," Landry says.

To that end, Joomla! has not only encouraged people to contribute in a number of areas but also developed structures like its cookie jar for documentation, which lists a number of small, discrete tasks that one person can do without investing a lot of effort. "That's a concept that we try to use in a lot of areas," Landry says, adding that it tends to reduce the anxiety that people have when trying a new tasks. "The cookie jar is a way for us to say, 'Here are things that we know we'd like to see done, and anyone can pick them up.'" It is largely because of this attitude, Landry suggests, that Joomla! is "one of the best projects I've seen about opening up to non-developers."

Communication and planning

When I talked to Landry at the recent Vancouver Joomla!Day, he had just returned from the annual core team meeting in Germany. While many of the details of the decisions made on the summit still have to be worked out, Landry says that the purpose of the summit was planning for the continued growth of the project.

"We've got to regroup a lot of our structures so that we can better manager the group, and we need to add some new people at the leadership level," says Landry. "But it was really about making sure that everybody continues to have the ability to do their job the best they can without getting inhibited by structure, and lowering the barrier to get things done."

As for Landry himself, communications and organization are satisfying for the time being. "I don't know how I'll feel about things in the future. But I will do the best I can to ensure that when I get sick of everything, there'll be somebody else to step in."

He does not even rule out the possibility of moving on from Joomla! "I do have other ambitions," he admits. "I think that, for the foreseeable future, Joomla! works for me. But we'll see."

Speaking both for himself and the project, Landry concludes, "Our greatest success has been to enable people. That's something that really excites me about this project: Our ability to bring people in and grow the project organically from the ground up. I think that's one of the reasons I love open source so much."

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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