Welcome to our series of interviews with the people behind the OpenChain Project. While open source is mostly about software, and governance is mostly about licenses, it is also the story of thousands of individuals collaborating. We hope these interviews with inform and inspire our readers, and encourage more people to participate in open source and OpenChain.
Our tenth interview is with Alexandra Boehm
You have been involved with technology for a while and you now have a leadership position in open source. Can you tell us a little about how you joined OpenChain and how you first discovered open source?
I first got involved by participating in the KDE Community around 2002 where I helped with accounting and preparing the annual assembly. Since then I was always in touch with open source. As part of my work I helped organize community workshops and sprints as well as Qt conferences.
Your involvement in open source is very interesting. Software is behind most of our technology and open source is behind most of our software. However, in relative terms there are few coordinators, managers or lawyers with significant experience of this approach to technology. How do you think more people with a non-technical background could be interested in open source?
I am mostly a coordinator and sometimes community manager. I find it fascinating to be a part of the community because of how people work together and how passionate they are. You do not need to be a developer to participate and doing so can be very rewarding. People in the community are often grateful for getting help in areas that are not their field of expertise.
OpenChain is all about open source compliance in the supply chain. Our industry standard builds trust and our reference material helps companies build processes to meet the standard. Approaching this discussion for the first time can be a little intimidating. Most people are modest about their understanding of licenses or choosing the “best” approach to solve a business challenge. It may be a strong word to use, but often a certain sense of fear makes people hesitate. How did you learn to approach this issue with a positive and open mind?
Even though I have been involved for a long time, I for myself still find legal and compliance aspects challenging. That is one of the reasons why I like being involved in OpenChain so much. I think it guides the community and businesses and helps them to do the right things in the right way.
One thing the OpenChain Project is concerned with is diversity. Our project is developing a long-term industry standard and our strategic perspective is measured in many years or even decades. To access the potential in our community we need to make sure gender or personal choices never make people feel unwelcome or excluded. In some markets like China and Korea around half of the people we work with are female. In other markets, such as Japan and the United States, the percentage of women is far less. Have you faced challenges because of gender and how did you overcome them?
I would like to copy Indira’s first words in her answer to this question, because it speaks out of my heart: “I have zero tolerance for situations where there is disrespect”. I myself have been lucky in this regard, but this may be because my area of expertise is not one so male dominated.
The next question is directly related to the last one. Because the OpenChain Project is concerned with diversity, we must acknowledge that every part of our project needs to continually improve. Our social structures, our meeting formats, our processes to create or improve material. Everything needs to be considered to find any challenge to making people welcome and empowered. Can you assist us in this process with some suggestions for improvement?
The OpenChain project already connects different cultures across multiple continents. It sets a positive example with that. Values of diversity and engagement differ between cultures. It would be helpful to formulate more of these values explicitly, for example in a code of conduct. OpenChain already leads in this aspect but the work is never done.
All around the developing world age is a topic. Our populations are getting older and the social distance between young and old people seems to be growing. People in their early twenties seem to have very little in common with people in their forties or fifties. Of course this is understandable and of course it has always existed between generations. However, in the context of open source, our population is aging too, with the average age of participants around 30~55. Maybe we have more older people than young people. Do you have any suggestions for how we can make young people interested and welcome in projects like OpenChain
Younger people may find is easier to participate directly in exciting open source projects, especially the community-focused ones where they can experiment and learn from the best. With time and as their careers develop, they will become potential OpenChain contributors. It takes a bit of expertise and experience to join OpenChain. We can help them get there with materials and training.
Maybe the social distance between the generations is not that wide. I have seen many situations where contributors across different ages work well together. Maybe we should start thinking how to engage retirees in open source communities. It may be a wonderful opportunity to spend old age in touch with the community and contributing to something good.
There is a big difference between tactical activities that solve day-to-day problems and strategic activities that solve bigger challenges. OpenChain is basically focused on strategy. This means our participants think about the future and it means we also have to think about how many tactical actions can serve a strategic mission. People often ask how to do this and they often mention that it is hard to think strategically when many business metrics are based on quarterly activities. Do you have any suggestions based on your own experience?
Contributing to open source at the code level is more of a day to day, change to change activity. It is a bit removed from strategic thinking about the business. This may be one reason why OpenChain attracts more experienced contributors since they get to be in positions where they think strategically. Since OpenChain is intended for the whole industry, I think it is important for it to, in a sense, get out of the way of the regular developer. It should be easy and normal for a developer and a business to work in an OpenChain compliant way. Making complex things work well is difficult, which is why we need experienced people to do it.
We have asked many serious questions in this interview. Each of your answers is extremely valuable for our current and our future community. OpenChain is all about sharing knowledge and helping everyone do better. However, we are not only a dry, factual community. We also have many positive social relationships and there is a hope or a goal that OpenChain can be fun too. We are all together collaborating to solve interesting challenges. Do you have any tips for how people can come into a project like OpenChain and find the experience rewarding personally as well as in a business sense?
For what I have seen so far in OpenChain, people already are welcomed very warmly. Considering the complicated topic, it is a welcoming community. We should keep doing our monthly calls and all the amazing work group meetings that bring people together. Of course, over time as more and more content or even an ISO standard develops, it becomes more difficult for newcomers to join. We should make sure it stays manageable for newcomers to join and help them with materials and guidelines.
Finally, you have been so kind to answer these questions in English. However, the future of open source and OpenChain is not in English, but instead in communication from Mandarin to Hindi to German. The future is making sure people in each nation can work together freely. We already hold the local work group meetings in the local language but is there a way we can reduce language barriers even more?
Honestly when working on the amazing interviews before this one, this never crossed my mind. English for me is just the working language. Now I see that not only language, but also different habits and expectations are difficult barriers to cross. They can separate communities and complicate supply chains. I think it is really important to continue the work group meetings in the local language, but also to build bridges between them with translations and working together so that their results do not diverge as this would just create new barriers.
Thank you Alex for your time and thoughts!