FSOSS 2008 – Thoughts and Experiences

Today was the first day of the annual FSOSS (Free Software and Open Source Symposium) held at Seneca College, Toronto. The day began with registration which started at 8:15am. I got there at around 8:50 (just in time since the first round of presentations were slated to begin at 9am). Each person attending the conference was given a Seneca handbag with various things inside (including an FSOSS T-shirt, schedule booklet and the latest Ubuntu CD). The last couple of years there has been at least one key note speaker but that wasn’t the case this time around. Everybody was ushered into the various tracks and all the presentations began immediately.

Software Security

This time around the first day had four tracks instead of the usual three. This new track carried the same theme throughout as various Seneca people gave their thoughts relating to open source. I chose not to attend any of these tracks since I already have some idea of what they were going to talk about. The very first presentation that I attended, The Most Important Thing – How Mozilla Does Security, and What You can Steal was excellent. The speaker, Johnathan Nightingale was clear and confident, he knew his stuff. I found it interesting how he called browsers “stupid” since they download unknown code 3rd party and run it. I agree with him, it is “stupid” but that is what makes a browser so useful. The ability to run other people’s code situated anywhere on web makes the browser the most used application on a person’s desktop. Throughout the presentation Johnathan kept emphasizing the importance of writing tests. I think everybody agrees that they are needed, it’s just that it’s difficult finding people who want or like writing them. Tests are one of those things that are essential but are always hated. They are not fun or “cool” to most people. They are like taking medicine, we might hate the procedure but the results are beneficial in every way. The presenter stated that the most important thing is to learn from your mistakes so that you never make them again. I think this can’t be stated enough, even if I bolded, underlined and capitalized that statement it wouldn’t be enough. Such a statement doesn’t just apply to software security, it applies to life itself. I know that it has been repeated many many times over the years but people still don’t seem to get it. Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. History repeats itself and learning from it is essential if you are to succeed.

Open Source Communities

I enjoyed the security presentation (see above) immensely, it was one of my favorite this year but I have to say that the last presentation that I attended, Community Building and the Architecture of Participation was absolutely brilliant. Greg DeKoenigsberg was captivating and expressive. He put forward an important question that I think many of us at FSOSS take for granted. He asked whether free software was better? This got me thinking. We all assume that it is better just because it’s free and open. The presenter said that he thought the answer to his question was yes, it is better. But I don’t know if he was clear enough with his question. What does he mean by “better”? Better in price? Better in quality? Better in service? In many of these categories free software can sometimes leave the user disappointed. Nonetheless, I think the presenter is right that free software is better, definitely from a philosophical and ethical standpoint at the very least. Now, the goal of every free software practitioner and supporter should be to make it better in every other way possible, but that is easier said then done. Another interesting point that came up during the talk was the way to get new contributors involved in your open source project. The presenter expressed that fact that it is important that one must allow people to start from the “edges” and work towards the “core”. Now what does this exactly mean? Well, many times open source software can be very challenging to get involved in. Many communities fail to provide a starting point that pushes new users in the right directions and allows them to learn more about the project. Basically, when a project fails to provide areas that beginners can easily work on the barrier of entry is increased exponentially and the likelihood of that project getting new users that eventually contribute significant knowledge decreases drastically. I wholeheartedly agree with Greg on this issue. It is a major problem with some of the open source projects out there today. How can this be fixed? How can projects make it easier for beginners to get involved? Couple of things that will definitely help are clear and concise documentation and helpful community members. It is important to let new users know that they are desired and that the work they are doing is important (even if it might not be). Attracting fresh recruits is a constant challenge for any organization or project and it is important to handle it correctly to secure the future of the project.

In the End…

Overall, FSOSS was an incredible learning experience for me, as always. The speakers mostly did a great job (excluding one talk, which I will not name) and I enjoyed myself throughtout the conference. I was glad to see more Seneca students come out to than conference than I have in the past two years so that is always good. I wish more students would take advantage of this great opportunity of having such a reputable conference right in our back yard. I wish I could have attended all the talks but alas that was impossible. I look forward to when the videos for each talk are released. The only thing missing from this years conference was a key note speaker. Nonetheless it was a great conference and I would like to thank all the volunteers and faculty that made it possible. I keenly look forward to FSOSS 2009.

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