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Interview With O’Reilly Open Source Award Winner Elizabeth Krumbach

During LinuxCon this year one of the lead Linux kernel developers, Alan Cox, pointed at the challenge the community is facing in terms of gender gap. Unlike other areas where women are in leadership positions open source is an exception. So, we are starting an interview series on Muktware ‘Woman Force In Open Source’ where we will feature one female developer/executive every week. We are starting this series with Elizabeth Krumbach, the winner of the O’Reilly Open Source Award.

Elizabeth Krumbach

Swapnil: Can you tell use more about you, who you are, where you are from and what do you currently do (your role and responsibilities at Canonical/Ubuntu)?

Elizabeth: My name is Elizabeth Krumbach, I live in San Francisco and work as a Debian Linux Systems Administrator for a technology services provider,  which manes I maintain Debian servers functioning as firewalls, web servers, mail servers and most recently some virtualized clusters. I also maintain some Debian packages internally at work and have been the maintainer of a few packages in Debian itself over the years.

In the Ubuntu Community I am one of the leaders of the Ubuntu Women project where we work to get more women feeling comfortable using and  contributing to Ubuntu. Locally I’m one of the leaders of the Ubuntu California team, we have Ubuntu Hours where we meet up in coffee shops in several locations across the state, manage booths at conferences and events and run “Global Jam” events where a bunch of us get together to work on a defined project (one of our recent ones was testing Xubuntu ISOs). I’m also one of the primary editors for the Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter and help manage sessions in Ubuntu Classroom, which features text chat (IRC) based classes on a variety of Ubuntu-related topics taught by experts across the Ubuntu community.

Swapnil: Can you tell us more about your role at Xubuntu?

Elizabeth: My titles are Marketing Lead and Website Lead. My role as Marketing Lead means I’ve headed up creating or collaborating with existing admins to maintain official social media outlets for the project (Twitter, G+, etc), have gotten custom stickers printed which I then shipped to enthusiasts all over the world and am now trying out other goodies we can have printed with our logo (note: all of this is out of pocket, the Xubuntu project does not handle money). As website lead I hosted the demo site for the new Xubuntu website and worked with Canonical IS to move from Drupal to WordPress in 2011, encourage project members to blog about their projects and continue to work with our web developer to make improvements to the site as we get feedback from the community. Lately I’ve also been helping with ISO testing.

Swapnil: How are you associated with open source and Linux beyond X/ubuntu? Can you tell us about your projects?

Elizabeth: Before moving to San Francisco I was the coordinator of the Philadelphia area Linux Users Group and today I coordinate a Debian Dinner every other month after our monthly Ubuntu Hour, which I invite both Ubuntu and Debian contributors to. I also still contribute documentation to the Bitlbee project from time to time.

I’m on the Board of Directors for the open source in education focused non-profit Partimus.org which has been putting Linux into publicly funded schools for several years. The work I do with this organization is something I’m really proud of and gives probably the most satisfaction. We get to go into these schools and set up their labs and then see the direct benefits our work has for the kids using them.

Swapnil: You just won the O’Reilly Open Source Award. How does it feel to win this award? Can you tell us more about the award and your win?

Elizabeth: I have to admit that my first reaction was surprise! Winning this award for my work in the Ubuntu community was an incredible honor and it caused me to reflect a lot on what has made me spend such a considerable amount of time working on it. The Ubuntu community is exceptional in being one where I’ve felt more comfortable than any other and I believe that the Ubuntu Code of Conduct has been pivotal to fostering this environment. I really owe a great deal to the community for being one I’ve wanted to spend a lot of time with.

I also owe thanks to the Linux Chix and Ubuntu Women projects. Regardless of how welcoming a community becomes, it can still be difficult to be a minority and having a support structure during some of the more difficult times has been vital to keeping me involved in the long run.

Swapnil: What was your first computer? Which OS do you use and which DE? A word about your choice of OS and DE?

Elizabeth: My family got our first computer in 1991 when I was 10 years old, it was an “IBM PC” with an 8086 processor and couple 5.25″ floppy drives and ran DOS. In 1994 we got our first computer with a graphical interface (Windows 3.11)  and over the next few years I collected and tinkered with 386s and other old systems I bought from classified ads in newspapers using money I saved up from summer jobs around the neighborhood. I got online in late 1998 and I used Windows full time until early 2002 when I switched to Linux, first with Red Hat and quickly moving to Debian.

Today I use Xubuntu 12.04 on my primary desktop and netbook, Debian with fluxbox on my secondary desktop. I have an inexpensive laptop that I primarily use for testing which is currently booting 6 or so operating systems, including Debian, Fedora 17 and a couple development versions of Ubuntu and Xubuntu. Most of my servers run Debian stable just like at work.

When it comes to a DE I tend to go for light-weight and easy to manage, so Xfce4 really hits the spot for me, I’ve been using it as my primary DE since 2004. When it comes to OS I really prefer the .deb based ones simply because that’s what I’ve used for so many years both at work and at home.

Swapnil: When was the first time you came in contact with Free Software/Open Source?

Elizabeth: I’d have to say it was 1999 when my boyfriend at the time showed me Linux on his computer, he then helped me get set up with LiteStep (an open source shell for Windows) on my desktop. It wasn’t until 2002 that I actually had Linux running on one of my systems. In 2002 I also started attending my first Linux User Group meetings, which really was my first exposure to the community and culture around open source.

Swapnil: Do you think Linux on desktop is ready for the prime time?

Elizabeth: As a pre-installed alternative in a web-focused environment, absolutely.

I see the two primary places where Linux continues to struggle are the constant game of catch-up that needs to be played with hardware manufacturers who don’t find benefit in releasing drivers for Linux in a timely manner and when it comes to software being written specifically for Windows. The hardware issue may only be solved by the work of companies like Red Hat and Canonical directly liaising with the manufacturers to improve support. I see the software issue becoming less and less relevant as we move away from desktop applications and to a more web-focused world. Most of my family members use webmail and spend most of their time on their computer in the web browser, whether it’s shopping online or catching up on Facebook. In my work deploying Ubuntu in schools we’ve recently found a significant amount of our time being spent making sure flash and java work well because teachers are no longer pulling software off the shelf, they’re using online resources that use flash and java.

Swapnil: During the LinuxCon Europe this year during a Q&A session Alan Cox also admitted that gender gap is a big challenge for the Linux community. Linux mailings lists and forums are known for bad language and can even be harsh for a males. How do you, as a female, think of this environment?

Elizabeth: In spite of a decade of working in open source, I still am pretty thin-skinned. Aggressive behavior and language in a community is usually enough to drive me away, and I won’t participate in communities where it is left unchecked and no one cares to fix it.

One of the first things I did when I started using Linux was join LinuxChix mailing lists, whose rules were simply “Be polite. Be helpful.” and that alone served to keep the environment productive and friendly. I mentioned the benefit of the Code of Conduct in Ubuntu and it absolutely helps. I also spent some time working on Debian packaging for the LedgerSMB community which also adopted a Code of Conduct and always found them to be a productive and helpful community.

Swapnil: How friendly is the Linux and Open Source environment?

Elizabeth: It depends on where you go. There are many projects made up with friendly, inspiring people who are happy to have help, and also many that are not. I tend to join mailing lists and IRC channels in “lurk mode” before committing myself to a project so I know what to expect.

Swapnil: Unlike scientific world where women have impressive presence we never hear of a project founded/created by a woman, what do you think is the reason?

Elizabeth: The biggest project I can think of which was co-founded by a woman is Dreamwidth.org, set up by Denise Paolucci and Mark Smith. It’s interesting to note that they also have one of the highest percentage of women contributing of any open source project I’ve ever seen (at one point in time they 40 developers, 75% of whom were female).

The non-profit I work with, Partimus.org, was founded by two women, Cathy Malmrose (who is also the Founder and CEO of ZaReason) and Maile Urbancic (who owns BoutiqueAcademia.com which sells the Ubuntu earrings, along with other “smart-and-beautiful accessories for women in science & technology”). They have since moved on from the project, but Beth Lynn Eicher of the Ohio Linux fest also sits with me on our four person Board of Directors, making the board half female-populated.

That said, there aren’t a lot of examples out there, and I think part of the problem is simply that the pool to draw from is so small: depending on the statistics and communities you look at most open source projects have between 0 and 5% women, and the last thorough study put the number at a mere 1.5%. So you have 1 in 100 contributors who are female <em>and</em> of them you have to have one who has the inclination and capacity to found a major project.

Swapnil: Did you ever feel uncomfortable on the mailing lists or within the Linux community, if yes what were the reasons? How did you overcome these challenges?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. In addition to leaving environments that make me uncomfortable, always having a strong network of friends and allies I could talk to and go to for support has been important. This is why I so strongly believe in what Ubuntu Women and LinuxChix are about, we’re really seeking to provide that support network for newcomers to the community so they can ask questions and get opinions of others. I’ve also had a considerable amount of encouragement from these networks, I am terribly shy in person and for many years I was quite reluctant to apply for any kind of leadership position, without that encouragement I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Swapnil: What is your advice for those women who want to contribute to the progress of open source and Linux?

Elizabeth: First, follow your passion, do what you love!

Second, have a support network. It doesn’t have to be an Ubuntu Women or LinuxChix, it doesn’t even have to be a friend who knows what you’re doing with open source. Just people you trust to confide in when you need to talk.

And finally, try to stay optimistic and sympathetic. It can be tiring when everyone assumes you’re a male online or thinks you’re someone’s girlfriend who doesn’t use Linux when you attend a LUG meeting, but these things are rarely malicious. We’re all humans doing the best we can, and sometimes just a reminder that there are brilliant women among them is enough to get them to think twice about greeting an mailing list with “Hello gentlemen!”

Swapnil: Can you name those women who are your role models?

Elizabeth: There are many! But some of whom have had the greatest impact…Carla Schroder, sysadmin and technical author extraordinaire. Valerie Aurora, Linux kernel developer and co-founder of the Ada Initiative, a non-profit to promote women in open technology and culture.  Cathy Malmrose, Founder and CEO of ZaReason and co-founder of Partimus.org.

We are looking for aspiring bloggers and journalists for The Mukt. If you are interested, apply now!

Note: Suggest which female developer/developer should we interview next.

Slideshow Image:
Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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