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Fedora Project Leader: Hello and Goodbye

For the last two years Max Spevack has led the Fedora Project through many changes. Now, he has decided it's time for him to move on to other areas and so a new leader has been found: Paul Frields. Paul, coming into the role from the position of a community contributor, is already well known and has some exciting new ideas resulting from his previous experiences. In this interview we catch up with both Max and Paul as they discuss their experiences of the Fedora Project Leader job, the project's past and its future.

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Interview

Max, what was it like coming into the Fedora Project Leader [FPL] job two years ago?

Max: My path to the FPL job was a bit of a twisting one, and I consider myself very fortunate to have been offered the opportunity to have such a major role within Fedora.

The tale starts when I showed up at Red Hat in August 2004 as a Quality Assurance Engineer for Red Hat Network. My boss was Greg DeKoenigsberg -- though only for about two weeks, because I started up in RHN right at the same time that he moved into the Marketing department and began working full-time on Fedora. But, I think that my early work on RHN made a good first impression on him, and we always kind of kept in touch.

A while later, I was asked to be a part of Red Hat's leadership development program, and through that I had the opportunity to meet folks like Matthew Szulik and Michael Tiemann.

It was always very clear to me that Fedora was accomplishing good stuff, and that Fedora had a tremendous amount of potential. I think that two years ago what Fedora needed was simply more people who could devote 100% of their time to organizing various parts of the community, and to fighting for the independence and autonomy of the Fedora community. When I was given the opportunity to do that, I jumped right at it.

My initial goals were pretty simple, because I knew that I was coming in as something of an outsider. First, I wanted to make sure I didn't disappoint Matthew or Greg, the two guys who put a lot of faith in me. Second, I vowed that if I were ever forced to choose between the community and Red Hat, my choice would always be the community.

Given that basis, I tried to map an 18-24 month course for Fedora, that centered around a few things:

  • Work with the community and Fedora's current leadership to figure out a technical roadmap.
  • Be Fedora's champion inside of Red Hat, and make sure that everyone in the company understands the incredible value proposition that Fedora is.
  • Be one of the public faces of Fedora externally, and tell a consistent message of community and open innovation to the media, at shows, etc.
  • Always look for and encourage new leadership development.

Paul, you were around in the community when Max first got started with the job. What were your impressions at the time?

Paul: To be honest, like most Fedora contributors outside Red Hat, I didn't know Max. However, I did know that Matthew Szulik had asked Max specifically to do this job. I also knew Matthew was totally committed to an open culture that promoted work like that of Fedora, so I knew that his choice would be informed by those principles. If he was putting his faith in Max, I was pretty certain we could expect someone carrying those principles into practice. When I met Max at the Fedora Core 5 FUDCon in 2006 I knew he was definitely one of us! And the last two years have been a real testament to that good judgment on Matthew's part.

And now, two years later, what's the experience of starting as the FPL been like for you? How have things changed over the last few years?

Paul: As most people who join Red Hat will tell you, coming on board here is a little like trying to drink from a firehose! There's a huge amount of information you have to just learn as you go. That's very much like open source in general, though, so my Fedora experience has helped a lot with it. But I have two extra things going for me that are a bit unique, in the sense that they're very much intertwined with Fedora and its contributors.

First, a lot of Fedorans know me, or at least know *of* me, from my prior work. I wouldn't say my contributions have been staggering, but they've been wide-ranging, so I've been able to meet a lot of key contributors, from translators to artists to engineers, brilliant people like Dimitris Glezos, our Fedora Localization "ninja," who's making it possible for our translators to form a bridge between the Fedora Project and unlimited upstream projects. Some folks I've been in a position to help learn the ropes in Fedora, and some I just stand back and marvel at while they run rings around me. I hope that one of the skills I've brought is to know when to do each, and hopefully that puts people at ease with my succeeding Max! Knowing those folks already makes my job somewhat easier than it would be for someone who hadn't had those experiences.

Second, I'm lucky to be in a job that's primarily community-focused. Red Hat is heavily invested in Fedora as an incubator for innovation, so they want to see our community succeed, and that includes me in my role as FPL. They've made this job revolve primarily around communication, and making sure that all the pieces of the project are working in harmony, both with each other and the internal groups in Red Hat that participate.

If there's one thing that I've seen change, it's the overall change in attitude about Fedora. Back around 2005, we really had to fight to distinguish ourselves from being an outgrowth of a commercial product. Now, with the unified Fedora repositories, the open infrastructure and buildsystems, the fact that our community has the majority hand in software maintenance, our volunteer driven artwork and ambassador teams, and the many other pieces of Fedora that have proven to be sustainable, we don't have to do that anymore. And we've done all that while producing the leading-edge innovative Linux distribution, and a platform that anyone can build on to make their own communities of use.

But we still have a way to go in furthering our global reach -- we have big plans for Fedora worldwide that are going to make 2008 the best year yet for this project.

Max, are you happy with the state of things as you hand over to Paul? Is there anything you're particularly proud of achieving, or anything you wish you'd achieved in your time as FPL?

Max: I'm really happy with the state of Fedora, and as always the credit for Fedora's successes in the past two years has to go to our hard working community.

There are several achievements in the past two years that I am very proud of.

The first is the technical work that we've achieved -- combining Core and Extras into a single public build system (Koji) and compose tools (Pungi) is certainly a major technical achievement, which is highlighted the fact that our build and compose tools are able to serve as a basis for other groups. Additionally, the Live CD and Live USB features are complete and in very good shape. Furthermore, I am incredibly proud of Fedora's Infrastructure team, and the incredible record of achievement they have had over the past few years.

Inside of Red Hat, I feel like we have also been very successful. The Fedora "team" -- and I put that in quotes because the Fedora folks are spread all throughout Red Hat's organizational chart -- enjoys a reputation for "getting stuff done" and for always being the most vocal defenders of free software and of the "spirit" that makes Red Hat special.

Our good work has also been rewarded -- Red Hat hired a pretty decent number of folks from the Fedora community over the past year or so, and has hired those people into positions in which they can continue to focus their work exclusively on Fedora.

Perhaps most importantly, I am proud of the people that make up Fedora's community. Even though I am no longer the FPL, I consider myself extremely fortunate that my job will continue to be 100% focused on Fedora, because it will let me keep working with the smartest people that I know.

I think the FPL job has something of a natural lifecycle to it. We'll see -- maybe Paul will keep it for life! But somewhere in the Fedora 8 release cycle, it was clear to me that a lot of the "big ideas" that I had been working towards since I started the FPL job were all pretty much coming to a conclusion, and it was time for Fedora to map out its next multi-year vision. I wanted to be a part of that, but in a different way than before. I wanted to be able to pick a few areas of Fedora and work very hard on them, rather than being in the general management and oversight role of keeping tabs on everything that is going on all at once.

I led the process of determining my successor, and I obviously am incredibly happy with Paul getting the job. The truth is, if I wasn't happy with the person who was going to be the next FPL, I simply wouldn't have stepped aside.

Paul: I wish Max had been able to put up a Fedora robotic telescope, because Board member Jeff Spaleta is dead set on it, and I'm *way* too clumsy to handle anything with expensive optics.

Max: Robotic telescope? DENIED (lack of budget). Get used to saying that, Paul.

What's the current atmosphere within Red Hat with respect to Fedora? As has been said already, Red Hat have hired a number of Fedora community members this past year, and also there seems to be an influx of interest from existing Red Hat employees towards Fedora.

Paul: I've met a lot of people on the enterprise side of the house, people whose job it is to make sure Red Hat Enterprise Linux is the absolute best in class across the board. Without exception, *all* of them have talked about how important Fedora is to Red Hat. Take for instance CEO Jim Whitehurst, who not only proudly (and loudly!) runs Fedora at home, but made the extra effort despite his very hectic schedule to come out to FUDCon F9 in Raleigh just a couple weeks after coming on board with Red Hat. I think you can see by the commitment Red Hat is making to Fedora this year in terms of funding both personnel and community outreach around the world, that the company is very much putting its money where its mouth is.

Max: As I alluded to earlier, Fedora is in a great spot within Red Hat right now. We're in the process of finalizing budgets for the next 12 months right now, and Fedora overall is in a position to receive several times the budget and commitment from Red Hat that it has in past years.

This is incredibly exciting for us, but it also guarantees that the pressure to perform remains squarely on our shoulders. Our task is to be responsible with that money, and always think about how we can use community to force multiply that investment, in a way that generates Ridiculous Return on Investment (RROI) (TM). Personally, I am very excited. I had options, and I decided that there was no part of Red Hat that I would rather work for than Fedora.

Max, as you've said earlier, you're continuing with Red Hat as part of the Fedora project. Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about your new role? You're going to be working closely with Jack Aboutboul and Greg DeKonigsberg, right?

Max: In conjunction with bringing in Paul as the new FPL, Greg and I did a lot of work on crafting a vision for global expansion of Fedora's community.

Greg, Jack, and I have formed what we call the CommunityArchitecture team. Inside of Red Hat, we are part of the Corporate Marketing department, reporting to the VP of that group and ultimately to the CEO, and our goal is to define and execute Red Hat's global community development strategy.

The best way to achieve that is by spending most of our time in the Fedora community, continuing to be catalysts and helpers to all of the already-existing Fedora projects and Special Interest Groups.

We are going to take FUDCon global this year, with large FUDCons not just in the USA, but also in Europe and APAC. We are going to make a much stronger commitment to South America as well, both with personal travel to the region and with more budget to help with shows like FISL. Anyone who looks at the maps of mirrorlist access or changes to the wiki will also see that Fedora's community in Europe is bursting at the seams with contributors, users, and potential to do great things. We want to establish someone as a full-time leader of the Fedora community in Europe, and it seems pretty likely right now that I will have the opportunity to spend some time in Europe directly building our comunity over there.

And perhaps you two could tell us a bit about what it means to be FPL? I'm guessing due to Fedora's community nature it's not a simple job of benevolent dictator?

Paul: Absolutely right, Jon, that the FPL's job is not dictatorial; that's what makes Fedora a TRULY community oriented project. Fedora cannot exist without the energy of the community built around it, and my job -- and the job of all Fedora leaders -- is to empower that community, to enable them to innovate using the social and technological tools of open source. The best way for the FPL to help Fedora succeed is to identify strategic opportunities, and then get the obstacles out of the way of the community so they can take them.

The secret of this job is that there isn't one. I don't think the FPL should go off in a back room, single-handedly invent an amazing new vision for Fedora, and then go around convincing everyone to follow it. I think the FPL is supposed to listen to the contributors who are already leading Fedora in new directions, and figure out how to better build community around those efforts. And of course the FPL should always be doing this in the context of maintaining Fedora's commitment to free and open source software, for everyone, now and always.

Max: Be the community's biggest champion. Give all the credit away to the folks who deserve it, but accept the blame for the screw ups. It sounds trite, but if you make those things the foundation of everything else, you're likely to be successful.

And finally, Paul, what are your hopes and plans for Fedora over the next two years?

Paul: Right now I am setting my sights on improving contributor access. While many technical contributors don't have a problem making a transition from end-user to contributor, that's not necessarily true for everyone else. There's a tremendous amount of energy out there to be unleashed in terms of non-technical contributors, like translators, artists, ambassadors, writers, and so on. From my time working in the Documentation project and other parts of Fedora, I've seen first-hand how this gap affects our ability to keep the attention of community talent. We've always talked in Fedora about lowering barriers to entry, but we need to take that principle and put into action more directly.

While I still believe that Fedora has the most robust and vigorous community of people actively contributing to free and open source software, we can do a lot better at attracting new talent. I believe we could have a contributor base maybe an order of magnitude higher than we currently have. These new participants wouldn't only be producing code, but also working on our infrastructure, representing Fedora at events worldwide, producing artwork and documentation, and so on. Individual contributors aren't the only way we can gain energy, either. Michael Tiemann talked at FUDCon about the fact that there are companies all over the world who are chomping at the bit to get involved in open source beyond just buying commercial products.

Max: I completely agree. Finding new contributors and leaders is the most important thing that Fedora can do to grow. Converting our users into active participants is one fantastic way to find those new contributors and leaders, and therefore making the barrier to entry as a contributor as low as possible is key. If we achieve this, it creates a positive feedback loop in which more and more of Fedora's userbase takes an active hand in the creation of the "product".

Paul: I'd like Fedora to take advantage of these opportunities over the next year, and I've already seen that achieving that goal leads back to the same issues. Since I'm only a couple weeks into the job at this point, I'm not going to try to give you an all-encompassing vision yet, but lowering barriers to entry in a real, tangible way will be a major part of my focus for the foreseeable future.