VM Brasseur on free and open source ecosystems and culture
VM (Vicky) Brasseur is an award-winning free/open source advocate and corporate strategist, international keynote speaker, and writer. She’s the author of Forge Your Future with Open Source, the only book detailing how to contribute to free/open source (FOSS) projects. Aside from articles in various publications, she also writes about FOSS, business, and their intersection on her blog.
julia ferraioli: Hi, everyone. My name is julia ferraioli. I am here on a lovely, as always, gray day in Seattle and recording this with Vicky for Open Source Stories. Vicky, would you like to introduce yourself?
VM Brasseur: Well, hi, everyone. I’m VM Brasseur, but we’re all friends here so you can call me Vicky.
julia ferraioli: I’m sorry, we can start over, if you like?
VM Brasseur: No, no.
People get confused all the time. VM Brasseur is kind of the online how I can make sure I can find myself, how I can be referred to by things. But, yeah, Vicky is how I am known as an actual human being and not an online character. I’m here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, in the Greater Portland area, where it is also gray today. It is lovely, although I wish it were a little warmer.
julia ferraioli: Did you get any of that unexpected snow that we saw?
VM Brasseur: I did. I was very displeased by it, but one of my cats enjoyed it a great deal, ‘cause there’s all this stuff falling past the window and that’s fascinating.
julia ferraioli: Okay, today I learned I’m a cat. Cool. Got it.
VM Brasseur: Excellent. There are many worse things to be.
julia ferraioli: [laughter] My dog might have something to say about that.
We do like to start these kinds of story telling sessions, these conversations, off with something nice and light. So, of course I’m gonna give you a very, not light question, which is, what’s been bringing you joy lately? Which can be very loaded for a lot of people. [chuckle]
VM Brasseur: It can be actually. In October, I quit my job and that brought me joy. But it also allowed me to do a lot of self-care, which is wonderful. I’ve been getting an incredible amount of sleep, and that brings me so much joy. I’ve been spending a lot of time with things that you make with your hands. I do a lot of fermentation: krauts and kimchis and things like that. I actually have a Kimchi that I’ll be bottling up this week, sometime. Very excited about that, ‘cause I’m out of kimchi. I’m learning how to spin yarn, which is just a fascinating, meditative sort of process that brings me joy. I finished a new pair of socks this week, in knitting, that brings me joy.
Just all these things that, at the end, there’s this functional, useful, and sometimes even beautiful object that I can hold. I know I made it; I did that. That’s not something I get to do in my job because my job is all strategy and communication, and there’s no tangible object at the end. So I love having this time to do a tangible object sort of marathon. It just fills me so much more than my actual day-to-day job does, which is fulfilling in other ways.
julia ferraioli: I can totally relate to the need for something that you can see and touch and interact with in what people un-poetically call meatspace.
The so-called real world. I think that a lot of people find that kind of connection as they progress through in tech. They find that they need that connection to reality a little bit.
VM Brasseur: I do think it’s something that would be great to get it into the early training for people who are going to boot camps, a university, or something like that, to try to teach them balance earlier on - at least the concept of balance - so it doesn’t become mind-blowing when they reach their late thirties or forties. Suddenly, they’re like, “Why do I feel unfulfilled?” Well, [chuckle] let’s talk about that. There are ways to fix that.
julia ferraioli: Balance.
VM Brasseur: Yeah.
julia ferraioli: That’s actually a perfect segue. For those who don’t know you, what is your connection to open source, something that is oftentimes anti-balance?
Getting paid in open source and making money with open source
VM Brasseur: Well, I’ve been in Free and Open Source Software in some form or other for - I can’t even do the math anymore - far more than 30 years now. I’ve been around but didn’t start getting really paid to do it. I didn’t really, I guess you could say, come on the scene of open source until after 2010 or so. That’s when I started to be a lot more public about my advocacy and really more publicly helping people. What I do for a living, when I do have a job, which I’m on pause right now. I’m so grateful for the opportunity - and so privileged and grateful to do that. What I do for a job is, I help companies with their strategies around Free and Open Source Software: how can your company be more successful by using, releasing, and contributing to Free and Open Source Software in a way that’s good for the communities and for the bottom line? That can mean creating an Open Source Program Office, also known as an OSPO. It can mean working with them on their software supply chains. It can mean working with them on how to release software in community management. It’s the big picture stuff. It’s like C-suite, Chief Open Source Officer type stuff. That’s what I do for a living, when I have a living. [chuckle]
Right now, I quit my job, as I have said multiple times, because I’m so excited to have that opportunity. Right now, I am primarily working on my second book, which is all about all this stuff I just said, so I can help more companies, more people understand how to be a responsible, authentic, open source citizen and creator and contributor while also being responsible to their business. Right? And how to do these things well. Because it’s possible to do both of these things well without using your community as free labor for instance. That’s bad. There are ways to do commercial open source, which don’t involve that.
julia ferraioli: Right. Right. As we’ve seen the evolution of open source and corporate involvement, there’s been a fair amount of tension, I would say.
VM Brasseur: Yeah, and a lot of it is self-inflicted tension: people more driven by meeting funder expectations than creating a sustainable business and ecosystem within which to build that business. I think the motivations are misplaced. Therefore, that leads to bad actors and people who just are fine with the motivations being misplaced and purely driven by those dolla dolla bills.
julia ferraioli: Yeah. The money, the bottom line, profit over everything.
VM Brasseur: Yeah. Profit über alles, unfortunately.
julia ferraioli: That’s pretty heavy.
VM Brasseur: Yeah. Sorry.
julia ferraioli: No, it’s fine. It’s just a little early in the morning [laughter] for these deep thoughts.
VM Brasseur: We’re gonna need more tea for this.
julia ferraioli: Yes, more tea.
Free and open culture to free and open source
julia ferraioli: When you’re thinking about your experience in open source, whether it’s paid or unpaid or semi-paid - that’s probably a thing. All of us are underpaid, so semi-paid…
What has influenced your path, your trajectory through it, or how you think about open source as a system, as a concept?
VM Brasseur: Well, open culture has really influenced and was kind of my gateway to be honest, because I didn’t come into open source the way a lot of people do, especially now. People are like, “Oh, I want to code. I wanna do something like that.” I was there pretty early on. I mean, we’re talking early, early ’90s before open source was a thing.
julia ferraioli: Right.
VM Brasseur: This was like in the free software days, before Linux. I learned about this thing, Project Gutenberg, and we found it via, I don’t know, a Gopher server or an Archie server or something like that. It was absolutely magnificent. You could download text. We got into so much trouble printing out on dot matrix printers in the computer lab the entire text of Through the Looking-Glass, or my friend printing out the entire CIA Factbook. There were just all these books available for free, and that was wild to me. Who does that?
Well, it turns out you can share texts and things for free for the better good of everyone. That’s how I was introduced to Free and Open as a concept: that it’s okay to share with everyone for the good of everyone and become that “rising tide that floats all boats” sort of cliche. This was the days of Usenet News. I spent a lot of time on Usenet, learned about free software and the free software movement. That was just, again, kind of mind blowing: this is a thing that people do. These were the days of Microsoft Windows in packages that you walk into Best Buy and pick off the shelf sort of thing, right? So people giving software away over the internet via Usenet, or that’s pretty much what it was, or [via] FTP servers, a lot of those.
julia ferraioli: Sure.
VM Brasseur: That was kind of mind blowing, right? That was incredible, and it really appealed to me at a visceral level. I’m also… I have a long history with libraries. I’ve worked in libraries and the library space for at least 10 [to] 12 years of my career in some form or other. That, again, is a space where people are sharing things for the good of others, so to me, it’s fairly analogous to that. This is a public good that helps everyone, and we all should be contributing to it. Like, frankly, how public transit is the sort of thing that I think should be free because it’s a public good that helps everyone.
I think it really falls into that sort of camp, open source, Free and Open Source Software. I do tend to try to say Free and Open Source Software because they are different but related. They’re different but related things, and they help to support each other in very fundamental, important ways. I don’t want to drop free software off the map, there it is. It is a separate thing and it is very good - if implemented correctly. So I think libraries in that concept of public good really apply well, but in the past few years, I’d say eight or so years, I’ve been…in my thoughts around Free and Open Source Software and how I interact with it, with my companies, my clients - ‘cause I do freelancing once in a while - is more of an ecosystem perspective. I do a lot of reading around ecosystems, both business and especially otherwise: natural ecosystems. The concept of balance there, again, is very important. In Free and Open Source Software, we have a lot of things out of balance.
julia ferraioli: Indeed. [chuckle]
Ecosystems, all the way down
VM Brasseur: That leads to a lot of problems, and ecosystems being what they are, they… It’s really… You’ve got an ecosystem, inside of an ecosystem, inside of an ecosystem, inside of an ecosystem, right? You can get down to very small ecosystems, but they’re still impacting in a part of other ecosystems. In my work, I can work at the small ecosystem level to try to make that healthier within a company, within a community, within a foundation. Then, use that to try to create ripple effects or examples or case studies or something like that, which I can then take to the next ecosystem and say, “Look, here’s how we can impact your ecosystem, which is going to make everything healthier, including your line, your company, your bottom line. If you are doing it and your competitor is not, that gives you a leg up and look at how much better this can be.” Right?
julia ferraioli: It’s no secret that I love thinking about things from an ecosystem perspective. I also do a lot of reading around ecosystems and sustainability within ecosystems. One of the terms that I’ve been picking up a lot is, it’s a fairly logical one, but the one, sub-ecosystem. People tend to think of open source as one thing and Free and Open Source Software as one thing, but it’s really not. It’s just a concept.
VM Brasseur: It’s a concept. It is very much a fundamental concept and philosophy and a standard out of the OSI, Open Source Initiative, but it is not one thing. It really is a culture, right?
julia ferraioli: Yeah.
VM Brasseur: I mean, if you look at something… a lot of people use Ubuntu. It’s, like, okay, well you’ve got the entire Ubuntu ecosystem. Well, Ubuntu doesn’t just come into being, Ubuntu is built on Debian. Debian is built on the Linux kernel and all of the various packages it comes with. Each of those packages has their own ecosystem. That’s not just Ubuntu, that’s so much more than that. That’s something that I think more people need to really think about: what’s the composite picture? Right? What are the components that make up your particular ecosystem?
julia ferraioli: What makes it possible? What makes it… all come together? In a sense, it’s very pure, right? You’re building on the shoulders… you’re standing on the shoulders of giants - or maybe not giants - but you’re learning from other people’s experiences.
VM Brasseur: I’ve often used academic research as a metaphor with open source. The people today who are doing academic research in say cancer research - trying to understand breast cancer or throat cancer or what have you - they are all building upon the work of those who came before them. These research papers are absolutely fundamental to them being able to do their job - and having those open and freely available allow them to do their job. Of course, a lot of them are locked behind paywalls, and these people are fortunate enough to be parts of academic institutions that can afford to pay to get behind those paywalls. So they have free and open access but others don’t, obviously. That science wouldn’t be possible without everyone who came before them.
julia ferraioli: Yeah. We’ve come back to the open culture and open access.
VM Brasseur: Yeah. Exactly.
julia ferraioli: I love thinking about it in terms of academic research, because you read a paper - and I still print out papers because I internalize better that way. I print out the papers, and at the end - oftentimes it’s a third of the size of the paper - is the bibliography, the references.
VM Brasseur: Yep.
julia ferraioli: That type of giving credit to things that have the influence… to people who have influenced your thinking, the direction of your research - positive or negative - is so important. It’s something that we don’t do very well in open source, in my opinion.
VM Brasseur: No, I don’t think we do do it very well. If we did do it very well, then we wouldn’t be having these software supply chain conversations that we’re having now. A lot of that, I think, is because people don’t truly understand what open source is, how to open source, or what’s involved with it. This is not at the higher level of those who are consuming and using open source but just those who are producing software. They don’t understand. There is a definition of open source that is actually very important to the functioning of Free and Open Source software. There are reasons why you need to have licenses in your software. There are reasons why you need to have a NOTICES.md file or what have you, showing who did what and why. There are really good reasons for all of these things, but people, I’ve watched them just… The culture has evolved in such a way that it’s lost touch with that. Now, it’s, “Let me build something, throw it over the wall, put it on GitHub, and now it’s open source.”
Bringing open back into Free and Open Source Software
VM Brasseur: That’s only the smallest sliver of the actual picture. I think we in open source, those of us who have been around for a very long time, this is our fault, frankly. We did a very bad job of educating. It’s like in 1998, or so, the Open Source initiative was created and came out with the Open Source Definition (OSD). Bruce Perens went on his various speaking tours telling everyone who cared about the Open Source Definition - and everyone knew about it, and that was great. Then, everyone just rested on their laurels and stayed at this baseline of what Free and Open Source Software is. We don’t need to tell anyone else: we’ve already told them. In the meantime, the software industry just grew dramatically, and now we have completely lost track of that initial baseline. It used to be, years ago, you could at least find somebody who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone, who heard Bruce Perens speaking at the university once way back in the day. They, at least, had some concept of the fundamental tenets of open source via the telephone game. They had some concept, but I think we’re even losing that. That’s because we stopped educating, as the early people of open source.
julia ferraioli: So let me ask a question about that that’s two-fold. I’m doing the things I hate when I’m giving a talk. Do we course-correct? Should we course-correct? And if so, how do you think we go about approaching that?
VM Brasseur: I don’t know how we could get by if we don’t course-correct. I honestly don’t know how Free and Open Source Software is going to continue if people don’t understand what it is. The answer to that is yes, absolutely we have to course correct. How we go about doing that is a… There’s no simple answer to that, obviously. It’s going to be a longer term process. I do think it needs to come from the Open Source Initiative in combination with other important, non-profit organizations within the Free and Open Source Software world, e.g. Free Software Foundation Europe. I won’t say Free Software Foundation because they’re still broken - sorry, FSF, but as long as you have RMS on your board, you are broken. FSFE, OSI, Software Freedom Conservancy, Apache, Eclipse - they gotta get their heads together, sit down, and go, “Okay, this shit is broken, yo. How do we fix it?” And come up with a plan to educate and get the message out again in a consistent, coherent way.
It has to be across multiple vectors, in multiple languages, just everywhere. Have a consistent message around this. It’s not gonna be easy. There are a lot of big personalities with big ideas, and they don’t like to see eye to eye often. I think for the future of Free and Open Source Software - if we want it to have a positive trajectory and not just spiral into data capitalism - then we need to figure this out and to get the word out. I do think that Open Source Initiative, being the keeper of the Open Source Definition, is where it all ought to center. I don’t have a lot of confidence in that happening.
julia ferraioli: When you talk about Bruce going on his speaking tour initially to get the word out, I’m just thinking the scale is so much different [now]. It’s so much bigger than it was then. The avenues that people enter and exit open source are so varied now, that, yes, you do need a multi-pronged approach. You do need someone spearheading that charge.
VM Brasseur: Yeah. It can’t be this willy-nilly, okay? We all agree this needs to happen, break [out], and then everyone goes off and does it their own way. That’s not going to help. We do need a consistent, coherent plan of messaging, and then everyone raises their hand. It’s a project like any other project. You have an open source project that you’ve released. It does one thing, maybe it transposes music. Maybe it does that. It does one thing, but it has multiple parts, and someone raises their hand and says, “I’ll take this part.” Someone else raises their hand. “I’ll take that part.” That’s a project. This is just a project as well, but it’s a big one that does require coordination. That has to happen for us to, I think, do that course correction.
julia ferraioli: Bringing back the culture into Free and Open Source Software, it’s trying to go back to some of the roots and some of the cultural principles that underlie Free and Open Source Software.
VM Brasseur: Yeah, exactly: it’s not just about the code. It’s never just been about the code, but that seems to be where people put their focus.
julia ferraioli: That’s true.
VM Brasseur: Unfortunately. You look at any successful software project, and it’s not simply the code. It takes a lot of people to get there, a lot of different roles, and that’s part of the important culture of Free and Open Source Software. It can allow a lot of different people to contribute to the benefit of others, not just programmers. We’ve kind of got this cult of the software developer that has for many, many, many years, excluded a lot of people. That’s something I think this we can… that’s part of what we do in an issue, or in a project, to practice, to really focus on that bigger picture, that culture, what it actually means to do Free and Open Source Software.
julia ferraioli: Well, I recognize that we’re technically over time, so I have one parting question. What are your hopes for open source software - Free and Open Source Software? I’m trying… Sorry. I’m trying to…
VM Brasseur: No, that’s okay. No. You do you. I do me. That’s how these things go. One of my hopes for Free and Open Source Software, I would hope more people do start to take this ecosystem perspective. Look at what’s better, what’s good for the ecosystem as well as for them, and try to create that sort of balance. That would be very nice. I would hope people would, as a part of that ecosystem perspective, start to look at some huge single points of failure we have within Free and Open Source Software and start to address those before they come crashing down around our ears. I would like to see more academic organizations teach Free and Open Source Software in a correct way, rather than just throwing it at someone who can spell Free and Open Source Software. We get a lot of poor education about Free and Open Source Software right now out of a lot of academic institutions, and there’s a lot of stuff we can do. These are all fixable problems, which is good, I think. It’s just a matter of working on getting them fixed.
julia ferraioli: If I might introduce my own perspective: those are all fun problems too.
VM Brasseur: They can be fun problems…
julia ferraioli: They can be, yes. I realize our definitions of “fun” might be different.
VM Brasseur: They also all involve, as most everything we do does, they involve people. People can be difficult, squishy things. They can complicate things, we human beings. They can become problems, but they’re also not things you can just go in there and steamroller over.
julia ferraioli: Yes. You have to take an ecosystem perspective on that as well. So, yes.
VM Brasseur: Exactly.
julia ferraioli: Yes. Well, VM, thank you so much for coming on Open Source Stories. It was a delight to have you.
VM Brasseur: I was so glad to be asked, and thank you so much for doing this. I think it’s definitely a service that we in Free and Open Source Software need a lot more of.
julia ferraioli: I agree. I’m so glad to see the interest and the dedication to preserving these stories, this history.
VM Brasseur: Thank you for that.