November 19, 2007

Portrait: ZaReason founder Cathy Malmrose

Author: Thomas Holbrook II

Rather than choose her current career, it almost seems as if Cathy Malmrose's career chose her. Malmrose is CEO of ZaReason, an OEM that manufactures and sells desktop and notebook systems with Ubuntu, where she deals with everything from talking with the US Department of Commerce concerning export issues to inspecting the hardware for quality assurance purposes.

Malmrose says she wasn't always a FOSS enthusiast. "As a kid, I was discouraged from anything technical or scientific even though that was where my interests were strongest." However, in college, she took out her first loan to buy a computer. Things changed more when she became a wife. "I married a computer guru who had deep knowledge of both hardware and software. He grew up working alongside his dad as a techie at Idaho State University and had been programming games in his free time since he was young. He made sure we always had the best hardware. Despite his support, it took years worth of cumulative intervention for me to self-identify as a Linuxchick."

That process intensified when her son Kory got her addicted to MMOGs. "I found them enticing, and even educational. I began exploring how games had become the intellectual playground for so many people. We played as a family, and it created a type of primitive unifying experience that solidified our relationships."

Then there was the incident with her son's computer, when she started seeing wobbling windows, a 3-D cube, and animations from Beryl, which Kory had installed on his Ubuntu system. "I was dead-tired and I tried to dismiss the images as being mere hallucinations of a tired mom." Upon discovering FOSS, a whole new world was opened up to her.

"After my initial acceptance of Ubuntu, FOSS, and all it entailed, there was a flood of learning. I watched the Nelson Mandela video, watched Eben Moglen and Richard Stallman interviews on YouTube." She also read Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, listened to related podcasts, and joined Linuxchix and Systers. "I learned quickly because I finally wanted to learn -- I realized just how closed-minded I had been about my software and I began to own that choice every day that I turned on my desktop or laptop."

A fire is ignited

She also discovered another important aspect: community. It began with her first trip to the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, an organization that refurbishes older computer systems to give away to those less fortunate.

"I brought my own laptop and stayed in the background, too shy to do any good. I had 20+ years being shown the 'no girls allowed' sign on this particular tree fort. The owner, James Burgett, was explicitly approachable, and I liked him on sight. I knew he would cut me all the leeway I needed to integrate into his corner of the tech market."

Burgett helped Malmrose break out of her shell. Whether it was observing in amazement the way the group could create order out of chaos from all the donations, to popping off the Windows super key to replace with a custom Tux key, Malmrose came into her own. "I found that every time I visited ACCRC, the people on duty were accepting and kind. They were always busy, always moving, and the rhythm surprised me."

ACCRC played a vital role in the formation of ZaReason. "We saw James addressing the low end, shipping now more than 17,000 FOSS systems. We like the newest, fastest hardware, and we saw few reasonably priced options for the high end."

ZaReason's name comes from Za, the country code for South Africa, and Reason, a word that translates well in many languages and has many meanings. ZaReason opened for business in February of this year.

"I work on the front line as the go-to person shipping out systems that just work." The company sells a variety of systems, in addition to custom keyboards in which the Windows super key is replaced with an Ubuntu logo.

Malmrose came up with the idea to include a screwdriver with all ZaReason systems to send an important message. "That little screwdriver is supposed to communicate that we respect people's ownership of their new laptop or desktop and we respect their intelligence to be able to modify it."

Malmrose has gone from being a shy geek who wasn't allowed to enjoy computers to a position of responsibility. "If you met me face to face you would probably be struck with how utterly normal I look. In jeans and a T-shirt, you would think I belonged at my kid's soccer game." Funny she should mention that: at family events, she spends time converting other parents to Linux systems such as Ubuntu.

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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