lørdag 11. desember 2004

Ubuntu - a role model and a resource

by Karianne Fog Heen

"Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". Ubuntu also means "I am what I am because of who we all are". The Ubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.

The decision to go to the Mataro Ubuntu conference made me both exited and a bit nervous. Not only am I an experienced Windows user and administrator, and a Linux newbie, but also a Girl. Neither of those is supposed to be especially good prerequisites for joining a development conference for a company and its Linux distribution. For two weeks, a decent amount of Ubuntu developers, counted among the best, were supposed to work on this project, while I was going on a vacation for pleasure, learning and exploring.

My primary goals were to discuss the concept of Debian Women with people, and to learn more about Ubuntu and Canonical's philosophies and goals. Also, for me an important point was not to be known as "one of the developers' girlfriend", but as an independent person being there for my own benefit. Travelling separate from my boyfriend, I arrived at the Hotel Ciutat de Mataro right after lunch on the first day of the conference. Directed by the porter, it wasn't hard to identify the lot of computer people gathered in the working room. After tracking down the BOF(1) -room and my room key, I settled in the large working room, and met with a few of the nice people at the conference. I knew of some of them from the mailing lists and the wiki, but I was still surprised by the appearance of some. Benjamin 'Mako' Hill, one of the persons I'd imagined to be in his late thirties, wearing his business suit and looking really important, appeared to be a bearded guy somewhere in his twenties, dressed in well-worn jeans and a college-sweater. Many of my "imaginative important-guys" appeared to be somewhat different in the same way. Though having a wide spectrum of age groups represented, most of the people attending the conference were in their twenties. Everybody was very interested and engaged in what they’re doing, and, not the least, social and very nice people.

During the four days I spent at the conference, I got to know many of the people there. My worries didn't last long enough even for me to take a breath. There was no way to see the difference between a Canonical employee and an ‘external’ community member. Everyone appeared to be equal, wether it concerned keeping bofs, operating system of preference, experience, or even gender. "Open source" has become a stronger expression with more than one meaning to me during these days.

Me being identified as a developer's girlfriend wasn't a problem at all, as we spent most of the time in different rooms. We were about 5 or 6 girls among 30-40 persons, and weren't treated different from anyone else. I felt fully respected as a member of the community, and was never met with arrogance or condescension when asking for help. I guess "I wish my girlfriend was more like you" is one of the best compliments that a girl can get.

I experienced the Ubuntu goals of being inclusive fulfilled satisfactory during my days in Mataro. The Canonical employees and other experienced developers and contributors seemed to me like more or less ordinary people like myself, devoted to their work and hobbies, tolerant of other people, and love having a good time socialising with a lot of interesting people. Each night, we went out to dinner to one of the local restaurants, split up into groups according to food preferences and random choices. In my case, my boyfriend and I went with more or less different people every day, and had a good time no matter whom we joined.

At dinner the first night, there were 10 boys and me sitting around the table in a pizza restaurant. While waiting for food, I thought about how it would have been with half the people around the table being women. Different, yet not. I held on to these thoughts throughout the rest of the conference, and came up with a lot of new thoughts and ideas concerning recruiting girls to using Linux and starting to develop, as well as a lot of inspiration and engagement to involve more and do some work on it. How do we get more women into using and developing Linux and open source software?

My theories encompass the fact that girls and women think different than men, and have a different intuition than men. In general, mostly the men have been the workers and developers of modern technology in history, and have become the "natural" users of their own developments. Then women started getting involved, and craving some degree of equal treatment to the opposite sex.

Because of mostly men have been involved in development, one result is that the systems developed are due to men's thoughts and ideas about what they, or other people, even women, wants. To some degree it works, but I believe that one (or more) men's imagination can hardly replace a woman's influence and intuition. My point being, the questions we must ask ourselves are: -What do women want from computers? -What would make a woman more comfortable with computers? -For which purposes would a woman use a computer?

To start building a foundation for female developers, we have to make more girls want to use Linux based systems. Getting a decent number of female users, developers will naturally and automatically arise from users becoming more interested in making the system to their own wants and preferences. I believe that due to difference in intuition and way of working, women will, to some degree, have different needs from a computer system than men. That means that we have to answer our questions, and aim to develop the environment that we want for ourselves. I don't mean a totally different system or distribution, but a system adjusted for women's as well as men's needs and wants.

Recalling my own first experiences with computers, I remember using Windows 95, mainly wanting my system to work properly, without any further complications. In time, I wanted to adjust programs to my own needs, and make my own and more proper applications. In other words, I desired to learn about programming and development. But I did not have an environment or any communities which encouraged that . Due to the lack of support and guidance, I prioritised keeping my system working, before trying out experimental ideas.

I experience males to have a different approach to computer systems in some ways. I observe girls wanting their system to work properly in the first place and then learn about the ways it works, hacking their way from the outside, towards the core of the system. Boys, I often experience tend to try things out and experimenting without necessarily knowing the environment well, learning to know the system by the results, regardless of success or failure. I believe both approaches to be useful and proper. It is often just a matter of how one prefers to approach the system and to learn about it.

One may think of it as the system being an imaginary circle. A girl would start from outside, making her way inwards through the system. The boys would rather start in the middle, and work their way outwards. I think that the boys' way of approach may in a greater degree encourage own development, though I also believe that the girls' ways of learning make them understand and realise what they want from a system in a totally different way.

Another important goal in getting more girls into computer and open source communities, is to remove the prejudices towards and actual tendencies in behaviour towards females in community social relations. Just like me, I suppose that more girls are concerned about being treated as idiots or of lower standing, and/or more or less drown in the boys’ knowledge and self-assuredness. This is something I didn’t experience in Mataro to any degree . As I expressed in one of the BOFs in Mataro, I felt treated as an equal and adequate member of the community, regardless of my prerequisites. An important part of this is also to strongly express the same attitude on the Internet, encouraging more women to take part in conferences like this. Also, one would want to express that there’s need of qualities other than good programming in system development. As well as translation and documentation, there are other areas of work and contributions where people can participate without being a first class hacker.

Men want women into their communities! Despite prejudices towards females and computers, and probably due to evolution concerning gender issues, the fact is that more and more men see the advantage and need of women in computing and open source communities. They represent a number of different qualities which appeal to the philosophy of making software available to all. It’s not a man’s world any more, and at some point you have to include women on the same level as men, to have further development in the modern society and culture.

I am thankful for and impressed by the way Ubuntu and Canonical express their philosophy. Rather than trying to include the community in Ubuntu, they succeed in becoming a part of the community. I think this is an excellent resource for Debian Women and similar groups, as well as a role model for all open source communities to follow.

At the end, I would like to thank

  • Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical for taking the initiative in Ubuntu
  • My parents as well as the previous mentioned for making me economically able to attend the Ubuntu conference in Mataro
  • All attendees on the first week of the conference, giving me a encouraging and welcome impression of Ubuntu and the open source society
  • Magni, Erinn, Jane and Louise for support, information and encouragement concerning women in Debian, Ubuntu and open source in general.
  • And, of course, Tollef for being my link to a New World of communities and possibilities to explore
    (1)BOF- Birds of a Feather, depends on informal discussion between the BOF- keeper and the attendees.