amanda casari: Hi, my name is amanda casari. My pronouns are she/her, and today is October 5th, 2023, and I’m speaking with Clare Dillon. We are recording this conversation for Open Source Stories. I’m currently in what New Englanders in Vermont call “peak foliage season”, so all the deciduous trees around me are in full autumn colors and shedding their leaves as quickly as they possibly can. Clare, would you like to introduce yourself?
Clare Dillon: Yes, indeed. My name is Clare Dillon, and my pronouns are she/her. I’m, unfortunately, not in that part of the world where there’s peak foliage season, and I am in Dublin, Ireland, where it is alternatively miserable and sunny and cold and warm, all in the period of hours. We don’t know what to do over this part of the world, but that’s part of autumn or fall in this part of the world. We live with it.
amanda casari: I do not take for granted that the part of the world I live in right now is also this weekend’s peak tourist season. People come from all over the world to visit which…it’s nice to be here when you’re not having to travel to it, and sometimes also helps you experience and appreciate the seasons elsewhere, too.
Clare Dillon: That’s true.
amanda casari: To kick things off, Clare, we do like to start with non-technology questions. I’m just curious, is there anything bringing you joy lately?
Clare Dillon: Oh, bringing me joy. Interestingly, the weather, when it is nice, is absolutely bringing me joy. I do love a crisp autumn day. We don’t get enough of them here in Dublin in the way I like them, but a walk in a wooded park on a crisp autumn day is probably my best nature experience going. I do love that. I’ve had a few lately, so that’s pretty good.
amanda casari: Oh, fantastic. Is there anything special that you do with the walk that makes it extra fantastic besides the weather?
Clare Dillon: Can I say kick the leaves?
amanda casari: Yes, absolutely.
Clare Dillon: I don’t think that joy from that ever goes away. A good old rummage in the leaves chasing my dog is probably what we’re talking about here. [laughs]
amanda casari: I do the same. I especially like it when they’re so high, because I have a low dog. She’s a Corgi with short legs. Sometimes, it’s like watching a little submarine go through piles which is my absolute favorite. It’s awesome. I hope you get more of that, especially before the weather changes completely.
Clare Dillon: Me too. The problem here is when we get the rain, then they all turn soggy. That’s not quite so joyful. [laughs]
amanda casari: No, that’s more of like the leaf sludge than it is the leaf-like romp, right?
Clare Dillon: Yes.
Innersource leading to open source
amanda casari: Awesome. So, when you’re not romping in the leaves with your dog, you are quite prolific in some of the areas that we work in in open source together. I’m just curious, how would you describe and how do you describe your work in open source both to folks who are very familiar and also folks who are not so familiar?
Clare Dillon: Thank you for describing it as prolific. I call it dabbling here, there, and everywhere, but we’ll go with prolific. That sounds great to me. I suppose, in the open source world, my work actually in this sphere covers both the open source world and the innersource world, and I see them both as being very interlinked. For those of you who may not be familiar with the innersource concept, it’s the idea of using open source methods and practices, but within organizations, to create proprietary code.
That’s actually how I came about joining, I suppose, the open source community, because the community for innersource practitioners, InnerSource Commons, that was my first introduction to open source, because, to be part of that community and to contribute to the InnerSource Commons, you have to do it in the open. It’s an open source project itself, and that, in fact, was my very first PR commit in the open source world was for InnerSource Commons. That was my introduction to doing open source.
It was, interestingly, through that community, that I became involved or more interested in the work that was happening in open source program offices because a lot of the folks who had been involved in InnerSource Commons worked in open source program offices. They were rolling out education programs around open source practices and things like that within their organizations. That involvement introduced me to this concept of open source program offices.
I became involved in some of the communities that were looking at how you encourage the creation of open source program offices in public sector, so I worked in that area for a while. Through that work, I became much more involved in understanding a little bit more about, I suppose, the social and economic potential of open source beyond the open source practices, which I was already a fan of.
How we collaborate and evolve
Innersource is all about how you collaborate, how that makes it a wonderful experience for software developers. I had already bought into all of that. That was brilliant. Loved that. Want to do more of that, think the world should be doing more of that. When I got more involved then with the open source program offices in public sector in particular, I began to become more aware of the potential for open source as a whole to have a really good positive both social and economic impact for everyone involved in its creation, use, just the fact that it’s there in the world is a better thing for many people in various different economies.
That was my pathway then to get more involved with open source program offices. As a result of this journey, I ended up co-founding Open Ireland Network, which is a community in Ireland specifically, which is about trying to promote and advocate for open source at a national level in Ireland. It’s a group of organizations and individuals who are interested in that in Ireland. Like I said, I dabble in many areas, but all of them incredibly rewarding, and really love the area.
amanda casari: I will say, as someone else who I feel like has a very nonlinear experience in progression, I love how you’re able to describe it too. It’s this one piece leads to the next, which is very much the way that I think the community, the technology, and things have grown, in general.
Clare Dillon: Yes. I think it’s a factor and an attribute of the whole ecosystem. Focus on open source and innersource actually (talk about being able to scratch your own itch!) part of the whole thing is the agency it gives you. Everyone in these areas are able to follow their passions in as much as they follow whatever they’re being told to do maybe in their role or their job. Open source and innersource gives you that freedom to a certain degree to be able to explore what your interests are. I love that about it.
In fact, more recently, from my experiences with InnerSource Commons, I actually became the inaugural executive director there for two years. Recently I stepped down from that role to move into an academic role. I’m actually now doing even more exploration and research around the topic of innersource. Again, that was another step on the journey. I would never have found out about that opportunity had I not been involved in InnerSource Commons and the open source community in Ireland. One thing leads to another. It’s a fantastic journey and experience.
Perspectives on ownership and the importance of shared understanding
amanda casari: Oh, congratulations on the next step as well. Are there any research questions, in particular, that you are fascinated by or that you would be happy to share that you’re working on right now?
Clare Dillon: I have to put a proviso at the start of this to say that my biggest learning in the whole PhD experience and research experience is that this is subject to change. In fact, I’ve already had one major pivot already in my first year, and apparently, that’s okay. Don’t panic, Clare. I keep saying that every morning. Currently one of the main areas that I’m particularly fascinated about is the idea of ownership concepts in innersource or collaborative co-development in general.
The idea of how people consider ownership. Even if two groups talk about co-ownership, do they mean the same thing? Often they don’t, it turns out. I’ve talked to one organization who had six different definitions of what ownership meant and they couldn’t actually agree that it might be a good idea to have one definition. They were like, “Oh, no, no, we’re all fine having six different definitions.”
You’re like, “That could cause confusion and perhaps conflict when people are trying to collaborate on things and we have two different definitions of who owns what.” I love that whole area of exploration because I think it involves both organizational constraints, but it also involves psychology to some degree as well. It’s an interesting area to explore.
amanda casari: I completely empathize and sympathize with the researcher aspect of, wouldn’t it be nice if we had one definition to rule them all, and the rest of reality telling you, “That sounds nice. That’s not the way it’s going to work.”
Clare Dillon: It keeps us busy. That’s what I say. That’s exactly what we’re here for. [laughs]
amanda casari: You’d mentioned the pivot and the reason for the– and because as someone else who likes to discuss things don’t work out the way you expected them to, is there anything else about that experience where you had to make a shift of assumptions you were making and the direction you were going that you’d be willing to share with us today?
Clare Dillon: Part of the pivot I didn’t actually share right now. One of the realizations that I had in my first year is that– Again, I hear this is a common complaint among early-age PhD candidates. I was trying to boil the ocean. I was looking at a much too broad a set of areas, and I think I even just described them there. My interest areas do spread right from the whole idea of how organizations and how their constructives can constrain and limit collaboration opportunities right through to the bit that I love, which is that psychology piece, which is, “Don’t touch my code. It’s my baby.”
I might say I want you to contribute to this, but I don’t really think you’re worthy, that kind of thing. That perception can sometimes come into limiting collaboration within organizations or certainly that’s the feedback we hear from our community in InnerSource Commons.
I love all that but it’s far too broad. The biggest realization is that I really need to limit what I’m looking at in the early stages. Maybe I’ll go further into the psychology areas later, but that’s such a broad area to actually visit that I think I might be better off with something that’s a little bit more well-defined earlier and maybe I’ll move there in later years.
Fear and trust in open collaboration models
amanda casari: I’m sincerely hoping that you do have the opportunity to do that. I have talked with folks before, especially contributors. I think that concept around contribution models where people fit in where we ask and invite, I don’t know that we– I see enough conversation around also how, not ego, but fear plays a role in how folks decide to share things, or what happens when they do share their work.
If that work becomes popular or used to a level that they either did not anticipate or maybe they’re now concerned about, “If I no longer want to work on this,” or, “If I move away from this, what does that do for me? Not just reputationally but what does that do for my opportunity to get a job? What does that do for my opportunity to have future professional career?”
There is actually a lot of fear that exists, I think, for folks that we tend to attribute towards maybe other aspects, but at its heart, it comes down to a separate set of questions or intentions.
Clare Dillon: I love that. Actually, that idea of fear and the triggers for a psychological fear and our physiological reaction to that, I find that fascinating. I actually did a talk on that in FOSS Backstage last year. It was around this whole idea of triggers and the SCARF model by David Rock, which is actually an entire psychological framework for describing how we inadvertently trigger people’s basically lizard brain, and cause this panic reaction, and why and how that can actually come up all the time when we’re having these conversations about, “But sure, why wouldn’t you open your code,” and, “Why wouldn’t you collaborate openly?”
We just assume that that’s the right thing to do but we don’t realize that we’re sometimes attacking people’s feelings of security, or their feelings of certainty, or even their understanding of connectivity and how they interact with other people. There’s so many different of these psychological frameworks that, if we look at them, you can immediately see how they actually do impact people’s–
Whether it’s even consciously or subconsciously it’s impacting people’s reactions and the way that they collaborate with others. Fundamentally, it comes down to this idea of trust, and trusting relationships, and how do we build that? Because that’s where it not only gives you– where it reduces any of the conflict areas, but it actually can actually, believe it or not, drive you to have feelings where all the positive hormones are released, and all this serotonin. All these things like if you’re eating chocolate or falling in love, and there’s all sorts of research that would say that when we do it right, it can be a really, really wonderful positive experience.
That’s why everyone says that developer satisfaction goes up when you start working in an open collaborative way. Partially because all of these really good feelings come about from when we feel like we’re working well with other people. That’s all coming from the psychology side of things, and that whole– that interaction between our physiology and psychology, I think it’s fascinating. Look, I didn’t even mention that in the first list, you see I go on forever with this research.
Differences in innersource versus open source
amanda casari: Oh yes, no, no, this is fantastic because now I also I’m super curious if you have not found this yet or if you are suspect around where that differences may also lie with the difference between innersource and open source. Initially, I was like, well maybe the innersource is a trusted group but then, at the same time, maybe it’s actually higher risk because these are folks who are much closer to you, and have a very immediate ability to have an impact on your organizational success, on your professional success in a way that has different constraint models, and even though it’s like a different kind of scale and maybe has higher weight. Now I’m super curious about that as well.
Clare Dillon: I think there are pros and cons to that, because it’s definitely a different environment. I think there are also– what I usually think about is the fact that there are different levers to pull when you’re in a consistent environment. For example, if you are trying to create or reward collaborative behavior, you probably have more ways to do that within an organization than you perhaps do in an open source project, because you don’t know or you don’t have even the legal means by which to reward people. Or it may be a much more diverse community that you’re trying to work with.
When you’re inside an organization, you’ve got things like bonuses, you’ve got things like well-established ways to call people out in a good way and reward their behavior. There are different levers to pull. Some of the scenarios that we would talk about seem very similar to the kind of context and scenarios that you hear about the open source community. Conflicts between people who just are different types of people, and interact in different ways or communicate in different ways will happen whether you’re in an organization or whether you’re in an open source community where you don’t know where people are coming from.
There’s some fundamentals to, I suppose, great communication, how you communicate with people, how you would acknowledge their contributions. All of those things are consistent principles. As I said, maybe different levers that you can pull within organizations that you may not be able to pull in the open source community. Vice versa, there are some things that happen in the open source community that perhaps are constrained within a corporation.
I’ve met folks in corporations, who are doing both innersource and perhaps even open source, where they are so scared. We talked about this fear earlier. They’re so scared of triggering some corporate bureaucratic process or slap on the wrist, that they’re afraid to do things in the open or say something that they might otherwise say. Whereas there’s much less of a fear of that in the open source community. Pros and cons, I think, that are things that are better and some are worse.
The excitement of your first PR
amanda casari: Speaking of pros and cons, what do you think is open source’s greatest remaining potential? The thing that keeps you involved and keeps you moving forward?
Clare Dillon: Yes, the greatest potential is getting it out from just developers in my mind, and I say this—I’m biased. I’m not really a techie in that respect. I’m not a developer. My first pull request involved a lot of, “What button do I press here now?”
amanda casari: Yes, everybody says, right?
Clare Dillon: Yes, fair enough. Maybe that’s not just that type of people, but I did come from that world. I’ve always worked with developers but I would never necessarily wouldn’t be let alone with building anything by myself or anything like that. I would say that I think that there is a huge potential to introduce more people who do not have a technical background to both innersource and open source, because it is a wonderful way to collaborate. I remember the joy I got on when my first contribution was accepted. My first PR was merged.
I literally went on a high. I was, like, “This is amazing. I went to make a change and then I went and figured out how to do it and I did it with help and look at this, I can see my change there.” I was going around going– and I remember people saying it’s not always this pleasant. I was, like, “But this is just– Everyone should be doing this. Why doesn’t everyone know the power of collaboration?”
I have to be reminded that perhaps it’s not always such a pleasant experience, and sometimes it’s a long, hard, lonely road. At the same time, when you find the right community where people are there willing to help, and mentor, and just encourage each other, for me, I feel lucky enough to have my first experience be in InnerSource Commons, where I feel that was the community it is.
There’s so much potential to bring in people so far beyond I think where we even think now that people can be evolved. Certainly, my work more recently in the academic space where most of the folks who are thinking about open source in the academic space, are dealing with people who are not developers at all. They do software development maybe as a secondary, maybe even a third-level competency beyond their first major area of concern. It’s just something that has to be done to maybe get their research out in the world.
I think about that and I think about how the open source world and the innersource world need to be aware of the fact and cognizant of the fact that a lot of our language and communication assumes the knowledge of technology maybe, or assumes a software development background. How can we open that up so that more people get that joy and the value of that collaborative creation and sharing? It’s so powerful and it’s just so the way things should be done. I think more people should get it.
Hopes for open source’s future
amanda casari: I’m so sorry because I realize we are actually running really up on time. I have very many more questions to ask you but I want to make sure we get two in at the end. The last– one of them is so where do you see– more people get involved, things are happening, Commons exist. What do you hope to see in open source for the next 5 to 10 years? Which is a shorter timeline than we actually, I think, all take for granted.
Clare Dillon: What do I hope to see? There’s a lot of things changing in open source at the moment. There’s a lot of– everything from how do we define open source AI to regulatory changes in places like Europe, which was a very big topic most recently around the Cyber Resiliency Act. People don’t understand how that’s going to impact open source. My hope for the next five years is two-fold. One, that more people understand the value and the potential of the social and economic impact of open source as well that great psychological benefit that can come with. That would’ve always been my hope.
It’s even more challenging in the current complex scenario. I would also hope that we get through this area of ambiguity to maybe get clarity about the impact and how we can deal with that in the open source community as well.
amanda casari: No, I think it’s spot on for where we are now and where we need to address things immediately, and where we’re also concerned for long term. Thank you. Last one, unfortunately, because I could talk to you– we’ll have to do this again. Do you have any parting thoughts or words of advice for listeners today?
Clare Dillon: Ooh, parting words of advice. I would say, I’m hoping that everyone listening to this has had a marvelous experience of being part of an open source community. If you haven’t, and this is your, “I’m just considering it,” please do try and find a great community and have a go because it’s just so rewarding. If you have, tell someone about it. Tell someone who’s not a techie who you would not imagine might appreciate it but perhaps should try it. Maybe that’s my parting advice or ask to people.
amanda casari: No, I love that. Don’t just open the door, but open the door and invite people in. If you haven’t found the right door, there’s other ones…
Clare Dillon: Try another one.
amanda casari: …and they would love you to be there. Well, wonderful. Thank you, Clare, so much for joining us today. I’m sorry this was such a short time, but it was a delight and hopefully, we can speak again soon.
Clare: Thank you, amanda casari. I look forward to that. Thanks so much.
The story was facilated by amanda casari
and edited by julia ferraioli.