OSU Open Source Lab leader looks to further FOSS community outreach

A former Google exec and new Open Source Outreach Manager of Oregon State's Open Source Lab talks building FOSS community relationships and teaching future leaders of open source.

The Open Source Lab at Oregon State University is a bustling open source community, from the FOSS projects it hosts, including the Linux Master Kernel and Apache Web server, to the open source awareness it promotes through educational programs, such as a data center run by OSU computer science students.  

Earlier this month, the Open Source Lab (OSL) announced its newest team member, Leslie Hawthorn, a former program manager at Google, who joins the OSL as Open Source Outreach Manager. In this role, she will develop educational programs with the aim of increasing awareness and adoption of open source development both in the classroom and the FOSS community. I recently spoke with Leslie about her OSU and FOSS community goals, and on teaching the future leaders of FOSS.

What led you from Google to Oregon State University and its Open Source Lab? How will your work at Google supplement your new role in increasing open source awareness and adoption in the classroom?
I had a wonderful run at Google -- more than six years -- and decided it was time for a change of scene, both career-wise and geographically. I had worked extensively with the team at OSU's Open Source Lab during my time at Google and had consistently been impressed with their support of the open source community and their leadership in bringing open source into computer science education. My new role allows me to support both aspects of their mission, and I am very excited to join them.

I made many connections in the open source world during my time at Google. I also became an active member in several communities working to lower barriers to the teaching of open source in undergraduate education, including the Teaching Open Source community and the Humanitarian FOSS Project. The network I built during my time at Google will be invaluable in continuing to match eager students with the right open source projects for their mutual benefit.

What will you do to ensure your programs for undergrads and grads prepare the next generation for a career in open source development? A lot of CIOs are currently having trouble finding the right candidates with Linux skills to run open source environments.
We're still thinking through what our programs will be, but as to how to make them relevant to the needs of industry -- that will involve the usual: market research, interviews with industry players, etc. I think the most significant piece will be a hands-on development requirement -- for example, a requirement that students participate actively in an open source project. Students who graduate from university with a useful body of work that they can show to prospective employers will be much more attractive candidates.

As the open source outreach manager at OSU, what will you do outside of the classroom to ensure that the OSU Open Source Lab stays connected to the FOSS community as a whole?
The Lab does a tremendous job supporting the community -- we're hosting more than 100 key open source projects, including Apache, Debian and Drupal. I'd like to see us do more to communicate with the community and the business world about our efforts -- what we do, how we do it and how we need support in these efforts. Everyone here is so busy doing wonderful things that they don't take much time to talk about it, and we'll be improving that as time goes on.

What are your short- or long-term goals in your new position as open source outreach manager?
Short-term, I am helping our team promote the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON), our annual nonprofit event to connect government IT Management and Government 2.0 advocates with one another to share best practices and tips for successful, transparent governance. Long-term, I am looking forward to helping Oregon State continue its outstanding track record of supporting the open source community and teaching students about open source software.

Open source is certainly growing, but Windows still predominantly runs the show. How much of a curriculum, then, should be dedicated to FOSS when this is still the case? Do you think it will be a challenge for training programs such as OSU’s Open Source Lab to become the norm in colleges around the country?
I think that answer largely depends on what careers a college is preparing its students for. I think a rigorous education in computer science covers both Windows and open source software, but if students want to specialize in a given area, then they may require more in-depth knowledge of open source than other areas. The most important part is giving students the opportunity to increase the breadth of their knowledge and to explore different ways to tinker with what they're creating. That creative energy is what fuels innovation, and I think open source software caters to that creativity in significant ways.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in the FOSS community?
I think the biggest challenge all of us in the FOSS community face is too many good things to do, not enough time to do all of them. Many developers are paid to work on various FOSS projects as part of their day job. Those same developers spend many hours off-the-clock working on those projects that interest them, and there still tends to be much to do. Recruiting new members to a project, be it coders, documentation experts or user-experience gurus, can be difficult, which makes sharing the load, and training one's future replacements, a less achievable goal.

What is the next big FOSS movement or growth area you see for 2011 and beyond?
Health IT and FOSS are a big story right now and I think that's only going to become more significant in the next year and beyond. Given how many different systems must interoperate securely, open source and open standards just make sense in this arena. I think the CONNECT project is a great example of this principle in action.

I also see a lot of energy around humanitarian FOSS, in areas like disaster management (Sahana & Usahidi), healthcare for the developing world (OpenMRS), microlending (Mifos) and beyond. People are much happier when they feel their work has a deeper meaning, and working on humanitarian-focused projects is a real win-win: real-world technical problems to be solved while simultaneously improving others' lives. Groups like CrisisCommons and Random Hacks of Kindness are spreading this meme worldwide with great results.

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