Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Podcast: Open source past, present, and future with the Linux Foundation's Jim Zemlin

Zemlin

Jim Zemlin carved some time out of his busy schedule to sit down with me at the Open Source Leadership Summit in early March 2018. I’ve known Jim since he took this role when the Linux Foundation was formed by the merger of the Free Standards Group and the Open Source Development Labs in 2000, right around the time that I became an industry analyst. 

In this podcast, Jim reflects back on how Linux and open source have evolved, the lessons he and the Linux Foundation (where he is the executive director) have learned, and why open source has become so pervasive. He talks about “the defeatism of free-riding” and how over time, the recognition that there’s business value in collectively-developed software has become increasingly widespread.

Listen to the podcast MP3 [00:18:10]

Listen to the podcast OGG [00:18:10]

[Transcript]

Gordon Haff:  I'm very pleased to be here at the Open Source Leadership Summit with Jim Zemlin who has taken time out of his very, very, very packed schedule here. He's the Executive Director of the Linux Foundation.

Jim, you headed the Free Standards Group until it merged with the Open Source Development Labs to become the Linux Foundation. That was clearly a very different time for open source, generally, and Linux, in particular. I'm probably showing my age as well that I probably met Jim right when he took this position.

Can you describe your involvement early on, how you thought about open source at the time, and how things have changed since then?

Jim:  I grew up in the computing industry, to some degree. My father was a computer programmer growing up. My grandfather was a programmer, oddly. He was also one of the founders of the company called Cray Research, and that's just been part of my blood.

The funny thing is that this job combines something that's technical with something that was a big influence on my grandmother's side. She was a single mom of my father and my uncle. My uncle, who's mentally disabled, and in 1953 she started the first vocational education nonprofit for adults with developmental disabilities.

When you see someone working at, maybe, a restaurant or somewhere that have these developmental disabilities, my grandmother started this organizational opportunity workshop to help them find opportunities and live their lives in a meaningful way.

It was this combination of two huge influences, the nonprofit work and technology. For me, that's what was the appeal of getting into this. Now having said that, I do recall at the same time meeting my ‑‑ now ‑‑ wife for the first time, and having her ask me what I did for a living and say, "Well, I work at this nonprofit and it's technology. It's all open source. Everyone shares everything." The look of disappointment on her face was just palpable.

Since then, our organization, which I consider this supporting cast in open source and Linux and the projects we work on, has certainly grown. Much more importantly, open source as a way of collectively innovating and creating incredible technology has grown exponentially.

It's now part and parcel to how almost every technology, product, and service is built.

Gordon:  You started out in Linux. Really, what we've seen over the last number of years has been this morphing from everything's about Linux. Of course, there have been other projects, like Apache, and so forth for a long time.

Still, there was this centrality of Linux to everything. It's obviously still very important. You employ Linus, and so forth. The Linux Foundation and the industry more broadly has come to be about so many other forms of open source.

What was the point, as executive director of the Linux Foundation, did you come to realize or to start making a real effort to broaden the Linux Foundation to encompass all these other things?

Jim:  Yeah, it happened. Good timing and luck beats any grand strategy every time. It started when open source as, again, a more mainstream innovation platform, started taking off in the tech sector. I would have organization after organization come to me.

They didn't want to talk about Linux, they wanted to talk about the process about how open source works or what the legal frameworks were. They were no longer wondering whether or not Linux itself, as a technology, was good, or secure, or reliable, or scalable.

They were no longer concerned about whether or not open source was an important thing or of high value as a way to innovate. They wanted the specific playbook. They wanted the detailed instructions on "How do I take code, co‑develop it with, maybe, my competitors or my peers.

"What licenses should I choose? What do those legal licenses mean so that I can share effectively? How do I build an engineering organization that can work both internally and externally to my particular firm? How do I build an open source project with thousands of people? How do I make that scalable?"

They wanted that. Of course, Linux was the quintessential existence proof of good open source projects. Because of that, we started to say, "Hey, if we can take some of the best things around Linux, and the processes, and the methodologies and lend them to other technologies that would of super high value."

To some degree, we got dragged into it. Then over a number of years, we've just been improving how we help grow open source projects, whether it's Kubernetes, or Hyperledger, or Node.js, or others to create massive ecosystems around them.

In retrospect, Linux proves to be one of the more exceptional unique projects [laughs] in terms of how it's organized and how it's run, and so forth. We started, in terms of lending the best practices of Linux, to create these big ecosystems around different technologies.

Different open source projects have proven to be less and less of those practices and more of just borrowing from the great comments of the open source community in terms of how to run these.

Gordon:  What's, maybe, the biggest couple of lessons you think you've learned in the last 10 years or however many years, things that have surprised you, things that you didn't expect, things that caused you to revisit your assumptions?

Jim:  I mean, humility is something that you certainly have to have in this particular role myself. That's the personal lesson that I've learned over 10 years or more than that, I guess, about 15 years now. Is that being in the background leading through influence, being the supporting cast, letting people rise to the greatness that's in them through these great projects, and not taking credit for any that work, showcasing those people, whether it's a developer or an attorney who's moved the needle on convincing their firm to participate in open source in a big meaningful way.

It's the most important part of what I have learned is that at the foundation we have this saying, and it's part of our culture, of being humble, hopeful, and helpful. It's what we need to do. The humility is we're not the rock stars, or the folks who create all the value. It's developers and folks who invest in these communities and create incredible technology products and services from them.

The hopeful part is, I'll tell you, almost every project we start, many people tell me that it will never work and that we're doing everything wrong. [laughs] If you're not optimistic, it certainly can be very, very difficult.

Then the helpful part is just what we do. We're facilitators in bringing together now over a thousand organizations from all over the world and tens of thousands of developers to work on modernizing the world's mobile networks.

Or using open source technology to manage the Walmart's food supply chain, or creating an automotive system for 20 million production vehicles. We're not going to actually do that. Developers and companies, like Toyota, who make automobiles and roll them out by the millions are the ones who are responsible for that.

That lesson of humility, and optimism, and helpfulness is what I think is the most important one for me, at least.

Gordon:  Let's look forward. I've been going to these events for a long time. My impression is that for quite a few of those years you and others in the Linux Foundation almost felt a need to celebrate open source and Linux and send the message that, "Look, this stuff's really important, and these are all these great stats about it."

Your keynote yesterday was interesting because it was like, "We don't need to do that any longer, but we're not perfect. We're not there. We need to keep improving." You talked to the audience about where some of the areas you think open source still has work to do."

Jim:  Again, no one needs to be convinced these days that open source is doing great, although I will say I do like to indulge in talking about how great it is every now and then. It's part of the job.

What I showed yesterday, I mentioned that these are intentionally detailed slides that I'm showing. There's a lot of very detailed methodology behind the interplay of building a community that is a great upstream to a downstream industry that is taking this code and using it.

It doesn't necessarily have to be for‑profit, it can be governments. We saw the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, today talking about how they're using open source to share big data to help with climate change and help with our oceans.

At the same time, we saw a commercial company Change Healthcare which manages two‑thirds of the medical claims in the United States using open source Hyperledger to make that process work.

We need a detailed way to say, "Upstream to create an ecosystem of knowledgeable developers from many diverse backgrounds solving a meaningful problem, sharing intellectual property, providing some form of consistency and conformance of those projects so that they can be downstream consumed in these wonderful ways. It's something that's detailed.

"We can improve upon in terms of the speed in which those ecosystems can grow. Then the pace at which they can be consumed and reinvested back in."

I was intentionally detailed because we can always get better at, for example, how do we create more secure code in upstream projects? How do we take the responsibility of this code being used in important systems that impact the privacy or the health of millions of individuals? These are always areas that we can improve in.

This event where you have the actual people who make the decisions about what code goes into what particular projects and the community leaders who are maintainers at these huge open source projects to get together and collaborate on how we can improve those things.

Again, whether it's cybersecurity, whether it's new licenses for sharing large data sets, whether it's ways to automate the sharing of AI models that have been trained for various purposes and can be reused effectively across different competitors or peers.

Those are all the things we can improve in. That was the detail that matters. All the rest is typical Zemlin hyperbole about how great open source is. People have seen that movie before.

Gordon:  Open source is interesting today. You have this loose confederation of companies that are working together, contributing to the commons individually, any of these companies could pull back and free ride on what others are doing. Arguably, some do more than they should.

How do you see this going forward? Is this a new type of business relationship, or has it always existed?

Jim:  I'll tell you over 10 years ago, a lot of my personal time, and a lot of time of our organization, was spent convincing organizations of the defeatism of free riding in open source projects.

We had written white papers on why it would be important to open source your device drivers for Linux, and showed the actual business value of having collectively maintained in open drivers as opposed to trying to maintain some random proprietary driver, and so forth.

We would explain the futility of just forking an open source project and not sharing your changes back so much to the degree to which you've defeated the whole purpose in terms of collective value. You're now, basically, supporting your own proprietary fork, whether or not it's open source. It doesn't matter at that point. No one understands it but you.

The epiphany that many companies have had over the last three to four years, in particular, has been, "Wow. If I have processes where I can bring code in, modify it for my purposes, and then, most importantly, share those changes back, those changes will be maintained over time.

"When I build my next project or a product, I should say, that project will be in line with, in a much more effective way, the products that I'm building.

"To get the value, it's not just consumed, it is to share back and that there's not some moral obligation, although I would argue that that's also important. There's an actual incredibly large business benefit to that as well." The industry has gotten that, and that's a big change.

Gordon:  Over a relatively short period of time, I would argue, at least, in the broad landscape this recognition that open source is not this hippy thing, but that it does deliver business value for companies.

Jim:  This morning it was such a fun session where we had Mark Russinovich, the CTO of Microsoft Azure, talking about how important open source is to the AI platforms they're building and how they're using open source to diagnose pneumonia in children.

You heard the least hippy, at least, from my perspective, company in the United States, Home Depot, talking about how important open source is, not just to building their tools to help automate the systems that help run Home Depot. But to hire developers that want to come work at Home Depot, if they're seen as an open source company.

NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is just a very old and non‑hippy, very conservative organization. You hear them talking about how important open source is for them and how important it is for allowing them to share the petabytes of data that they have with the world.

We've thoroughly crossed over into the non‑hippy part, although I will say there is a special place in my heart that will live forever for the antiestablishment sensibility that is represented in the open source movement ‑‑ the questioning of people's assumptions, the demand for sharing.

All of those things, those iconoclastic and what some people would consider antiestablishment sensibilities are now mainstream. Maybe, the world's a little better off with some of that hippiness in the mainstream now.

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