August 7, 2008

Portrait: Michelle Murrain lives the open source lifestyle

Author: Tina Gasperson

Michelle Murrain is a great example of what the FOSS community is all about. She's complicated: she calls herself a "scientist turned technologist turned theologian turned writer," all blended into one person. She's also an active supporter of and contributor to open source software projects. She's not a developer, however, and Murrain would really like to see more space for people like her, with different gifts to share, in the open source community.

Michelle Murrain

Ten years ago Murrain was teaching biology and public health at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, when she was recruited to help a small nonprofit get a server up on the Internet. It didn't have enough money to afford host-provided email and a Web site, so Murrain helped the organization out with Linux. "We installed Slackware on this old computer I had in my office. That was my introduction to open source. A student I'd work with knew about Linux and he helped set it up. I learned how to admin the box. Then he graduated and went off, so I was the person holding the bag. It was a great experience to find out there's this easier and cheaper way an organization could get online."

Even before that, when Murrain was herself a college student, she was considering a career in programming. "I had been doing C programming for some research folks. When I graduated I was either going to become a programmer or go to graduate school." Even though she chose the latter, Murrain says she never left behind her interest in technology. So when it came to Linux, "it was not a huge jump for me."

Today, Murrain is active in many different arenas. She's a science fiction writer, blogs about technology, opines about spirituality, is an active member of LinuxChix, and in her day job, works as a consultant. She calls herself a Web and Internet strategist. "I work with my clients to help them figure out the best way to implement technology. I help them write bid requests, hire Web design vendors, do project management." She helps her clients "understand technology" by "translating techno-ese" between them and the vendor. Besides using Ubuntu on her own desktop, "I work with clients who are using various types of open source software."

Murrain works part time with the OpenMRS project as a document coordinator, using her writing and editing skills to help the project get its documentation in "better shape." The coordinators of the project approached Murrain to help. "It was quite serendipitous. Some colleagues of mine had mentioned me as a possible person to help them out." Murrain says she sees her "half paid, half volunteer" gig with OpenMRS as her contribution to the open source community.

"I got into [open source] primarily because I saw it as a way to level the playing field," Murrain says. "I had been working with nonprofit organizations for a very long time and one of the things that's been a real issue for me is that many of these organizations don't have a lot of resources, and they want to spend their resources on helping people as opposed to spending them on IT. It's been troubling that in order to get good software they're forced to spend a lot of money that should be spent on helping people. So for me, it's a lot about putting software in the hands of everybody."

Murrain says that as the open source community grows, everyone benefits. "For me, that's the primary benefit of open source. I don't have anything against proprietary software. It's fine if you want to pay for it. But for me it's a crime that organizations that really need good software and do amazing work in the world are often constrained in their ability to get it. I value very much the other ideals of open source: that you can get at the code and modify and change it if you want to, but the way in for me was the 'level the playing field' thing."

Murrain is not without her wish list for improvements in open source. Her number one hope is simply that Linux and open source applications would get even easier to use. "This is true over the long term and for all types of different software. It's usability -- for me personally, as well as for my clients. One of the things about the development of open source software is that there are stages where it is not very usable. Luckily, most software graduates from this stage eventually. But the stage before that, that's been the biggest challenge. Some software I just cannot recommend to my clients. It's not there yet. I understand that some open source software packages are niche-developed by someone for whom this is their particular itch. And once they've scratched it, they're done with it. I get that.

"It ebbs and flows. I was using Drupal and it was atrocious, and now it's great. WordPress was really hard to use and now it's like amazing. All of this stuff goes through those phases. The Linux desktop? I end up always giving up. There's a lot of reasons why that happens. But it's gotten much better compared to what it was even three years ago."

Besides usability, Murrain hopes that more people like her will feel welcome in software communities. "I would like to see more people of various types and varied levels of expertise involved. I'd like it to be less totally geek-driven, and more reflective of the wide range of people in the world. I'm not sure how that would happen. It's not necessarily the open source community's fault, but I think that there would be a lot of interesting benefits if there were more people like designers involved, and users who could actually find ways to contribute that are not programming."

Even with Murrain's concerns, she stresses her commitment to the cause. "I really value the open source community. I value the Linux community and the incredible amount of work that has gone into making it. It takes a lot to make an operating system, and to make all the tools. In the end, when things all shake out down the road, I think that Linux and other open source operating systems in general will actually triumph. I remember that huge pile of floppies in 1995 and how much work it took to get Slackware up, and now it takes five minutes to get a server up. It's sort of trivial. Having watched that, it's been really amazing. Even though I've had my own struggles with it, I still understand how amazing it has been. In the end, it's going to be Linux, and that's really cool to me."

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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