Container developer and open source advocate, Microsoft employee and LCA 2018 keynote speaker, Jess Frazell

Building a community for those with a common interest is often a difficult task. David Guest reports on a, perhaps unlikely, community to have made great progress in this area.

Linus Torvalds may not be well known as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs but his computer operating system, Linux, runs the majority of computers in the world.

Linus has a reputation for being “grumpy”, as can be seen from the following sample of his better known quotes.

  • My name is Linus Torvalds and I am your god.
  • Those that can, do. Those that can't, complain.
  • Talk is cheap. Show me the code.
  • Microsoft isn't evil, they just make really crappy operating systems.
  • I'm basically a very lazy person who likes to get credit for things other people actually do.
  • I'm a bastard. I have absolutely no clue why people can ever think otherwise. Yet they do. People think I'm a nice guy, and the fact is that I'm a scheming, conniving bastard who doesn't care for any hurt feelings or lost hours of work, if it just results in what I consider to be a better system. And I'm not just saying that. I'm really not a very nice person. I can say "I don't care" with a straight face, and really mean it.

Linus is determined to create the best software possible but making everything work together where there are over 15 million lines of code in the kernel, the heart of all operating systems, is too much for any one person. There are teams of maintainers for the various subsystems and ultimately they all answer to Linus. If they stuff up, they will incur his wrath.  

As with other open source computer projects, contributions to the linux kernel are made freely. If they are accepted by Linus they make it into his kernel. If they are rejected you can put them into your own kernel with almost no restrictions. The only problem with this is nobody else will care and maintaining your own kernel is clearly a difficult task.

The fights on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) are legendary and some contributors find the venom intolerable and leave. The resulting loss of talent is of great concern to some within their community.

Similar problems have occurred in other open source projects and managing the community is now recognised as an important issue for most large open source initiatives.

The linux project was started in 1991 and achieved some traction amongst computer enthusiasts in the late nineties. Well known Australian software developer, Rusty Russell, financed the first meeting of Australian linux developers in 1999 with his bankcard. The event has grown over the years to become the annual meeting of Linux Conf Au (LCA). This year it was held at UTS, Sydney. 

The archetypal computer nerd is a pimply teenage boy, typing away furiously in his parent’s basement. However, times are changing and the LCA community has worked hard in recent years on being a more inclusive community. An increasing proportion of the talks were given by women, as were two of the four keynotes.

Throughout the conference, and even before, participants are made aware of the behaviours expected of attendees. The Code of Conduct and the values of the Linux Australia community are mentioned at each plenary and anyone with any concerns about safety or similar issues is encouraged to contact the organisers through the registration desk. 

So what might one learn at LCA2018? 

You could join Fiona Tweedie talking at the GLAM project workshop. GLAM  is not about fashion. The Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums initiative looks at ways of making better use of these municipal resources. Developing effective but free software is one focus but Fiona’s talk looks at ways non-technical people can help preserve and categorise Australia’s print and sound archives.

Alternatively, one might prefer to take a trip back in history with Lilly Ryan to learn from Wildman Whitehouse how not to run a major project and maybe consider some approaches to increasing the chances of your project’s success.

For something a little more up to date but equally pertinent, Katie Bell addressed Why your bus is late. She is thankful she no longer has to catch the 370.

If you’re a little shy about public speaking Emily Dunham, DevOps engineer at Mozilla, told  us why You Should Speak and how to “lean in” for the benefit of your community and yourself.

The fabulous Holden Karau, committer on the Apache Spark project,  gave some hints on how to cope with too many contributions to your project. 

Technical users interested in core operating systems boot sequences could join Alison Chaiken in Linux: The First Second, while Microsoft employee, Jess Frazelle hypothesised that 2018 will be the year of linux containers on the desktop.

Lightning talks are fast. The presentation technique traditionally uses 3 slides or 3 minutes, whichever comes first. With the death of PowerPoint, the slide number has increased to 30 but the 3 minutes is a constant. 

One rule of presenting is never do a live demo. The technology will always defeat you. Undaunted by conventional wisdom Sasha Morissey demonstrated how to generate C++ code using templates within her allotted time.

Some of the brightest programmers on the planet come to LCA. Linus Torvalds himself turns up some years. It is a tribute to the community to hear their support for Emma Sprinkmeier, 15-year old schoolgirl and LCA volunteer give her first major talk, on her passion topic, Vocaloids.  

The majority of graduates in medicine are women but the percentage for computer science is less than 25%. At the Open Education Miniconference, Dr Nicky Ringland discussed her efforts through the National Computer Summer School, as well as through online mentoring, to address that imbalance.

Dozens of other talks by women presenters from LCA2018 are available online. Thanks to a team of AV tech volunteers nearly all the presentations and workshops were recorded and archived by the conference and also usefully made available on youtube.

So what might one learn next year in Christchurch at LCA2019?

Well, you can learn lots of interesting things about kernels, boot sequences and blockchains. However, you could also learn how a bunch of weird techies are transforming their community to embrace gender equality, diversity and inclusion. See you maybe?