Tuesday, September 02, 2008

» About the openSUSE Board and the Elections

As you have probably already read, the openSUSE Election Committee has taken over and finalized a process and page about the upcoming openSUSE Board Elections. These are drawn on the preliminary work of the current Board and the community itself, through the mailing-list discussions and IRC meetings held in the past months. First of all, thanks to community members Andrew Wafaa, Claes Backstrom, Vincent Untz and last but not least Marko Jung who has been driving most of the work of the Election Committee up to now. At this point, almost everyone is probably wondering what it's like to be on the openSUSE Board, what is the amount of work involved, what are the activities of Board members, whether it has any implications on your freedom of opinion and speech (the latter for the paranoids and men in black believers amongst us). Disclaimer: I'm a member of the current openSUSE Board, and I will most likely be a candidate for the next Board's elections too. I'm really trying to give a honest opinion about the whole Board thing, but if you're wearing paranoid glasses, you're now aware that I'mdoing so from the inside ;)


"Hi, I'm Community" "Hi, I'm Board"
I believe we're still doing our first steps here. The Community has to find what it wants the Board to be, how it wants to interact with it, what its expectations are. Joining the Board is actually a good opportunity to shape it from the inside, although I personally think that it's mostly up to the Community to define and draw what and how it wants its Board to take care of.
  • what: defined by the requests that are sent to the Board, by its expectations (some want the Board to not intervene/interfere with the current processes and structures, while others want the Board to take leadership, drive everything, ... and the best solution for everyone is certainly somewhere in the middle);
  • how: by deciding whom to vote for, or by becoming a Board member.

What's the Board anyway ?

Besides the constraints defined in the mission statement of the Board and in the Guiding Principles, the Board is there to act as a mediator, something like an ombudsman, and sometimes as a representation of the Community (think of "passing the message", not of "deciding on behalf of"). Its extended goals are certainly also to support people, projects, initiatives in their bootstrap phase, which means putting the right people in touch, help driving discussions, mediate between opposing parties. One point that really must be clarified (again) is that the Board is not responsible for taking technical decisions. That's other people's job, e.g. AJ as the director of openSUSE and platform, Coolo as the openSUSE distribution project manager, or Michl as the openSUSE product manager. Of course, it might happen one day, occasionally, if the Board is explicitly asked to do so by all parties involved, but that's a last resort scenario and rather fits in the "mediation" sort of duties. It is really important to understand that the Board is not a government, nor a parliament that decices on behalf of the members of the Community. Actually, the parliament is the Community itself. It is a service to the community in order to help and support, not the opposite.

What has the Board done so far ?

While we certainly haven't achieved as much as we'd have loved to, we actually did a few things. First of all, please remember that the current Board is a "bootstrap Board", as it hasn't been elected and, as I explained above, the Board still has to un-blur its scope of activities, by being driven and shaped by the requests and expectations of the Community. The elections for the next Board has been our primary mission, and it looks like we're going to succeed in doing so. Then, Board members have been involved in merging english speaking community forums into forums.opensuse.org - with the help and deep involvement of Rupert Horstkoetter, our Community Manager Zonker, and, first and foremost, the admins of the merged forums (who did 95% of the work). Francis and I have been participating a lot during the initial discussions though, and it is probably a good example of what the Board should take care of in terms of mediation. The Board has also jointly set up and driven the openSUSE Membership initiative, most prominently by double-checking and voting on Membership requests. Other things that haven't been mentioned publicly because they were either confidential or in progress at that time, is that we've been consulted about a few topics, such as PPC support in the openSUSE Build Service, having RHEL as a build target in the openSUSE Build Service, as well as giving our recommendations about the openSUSE Community Manager job position.

What has the Board not done so far ?

We've certainly been lacking in several domains, and I'm the first to admit that. When I joined the Board, I was personally expecting to be able to drive more initiatives, put more people together than what actually happened. There are a few reasons to this:
  1. we did not receive a lot of requests (or emails in general, actually) from the Community and, hence, we haven't been "shaped" a lot (if you read what I wrote above :))
  2. busy busy busy: the current Board members are respected throughout the Community for the amount of time, heartblood and work they put into the distribution and the Community itself, but this is a double-edged sword, because all of us have also been awfully busy doing lots of things at a time
  3. we had and still have awful tooling and processes for openSUSE Memberships... sorry for that, I know it isn't an excuse, but still, it clearly didn't help alleviate our "busy busy busy" issue
  4. busy busy busy busy: happy events have held almost all of us pretty busy for a few months, respectively, namely AJ's Jonna, Federico's Luciana, Stephan's Felix and my son Thomas (Francis, your turn :P)
Maybe the current Board has the "rock star problem" (see Federico's Board Member Mini-HOWTO for the GNOME board elections). Although I personally believe the other option isn't better in any way (the Board being composed of people with a lot of time and energy to invest, but lacking respect, experience and connections; open source communities are meritocracies after all). I also think that while we barely have been contacted by Community members, we haven't been proactive enough to notice projects and initiatives to support. Mostly due to the reasons above. We didn't solve conflicts between Novell and the Community, simply because no such conflict appeared during the lifetime of the current Board. Note that the Novell-Microsoft agreement predates the creation of the Board, and while I'm trying to address a few things about it (or rather, the communication problems Novell is having with it), I won't talk about it right now because it's still in flux.

Independent ?

Believe it or not, we're not "Novell shills". I'm not employed by Novell, and neither is Francis, so there isn't even the remote possibility of pressuring us from an employer-employee point of view. The three other openSUSE Community members on the Board who also happen to be Novell employees (AJ, Coolo and Federico) haven't been pressured in any way either. Of course, as I wrote above, there hasn't really been a conflict situation between Novell and the Community, but there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it would have happened. Actually, after talking to Jeff Jaffe (Novell's CTO) during Hackweek 3, I'm rather under the impression that Novell is expecting a lot more voice, independence and guidance (in both directions) than we'd think. Of course, there's no way to prove our independence, and some may even think that I've become a Novell shill now that I've talked to Novell's CTO, disregarding the time and energy I'm putting into the opensource community at large (not just openSUSE) but hey, you'll just have to take my word for it :) But yes, indeed, the status of the Board gives the Board Chairman (currently that's AJ) a veto right. That right has not been made use of during the lifetime of the current Board (not even remotely), and I think that everyone (including Novell's management, IMHO) would consider it to be a failure if one day that veto right would be used to override a decision made by the Board. Personally, I think there's no point to argue about that until it actually happens, because it's pretty unlikely to happen at all. And by the way, being a Board member doesn't mean that you're urged or forced to travel a lot.


While anyone who has the openSUSE Membership status can apply as a candidate for Board elections, I do believe that it only makes sense if you meet certain conditions:
  • have at the very least a basic understanding of opensuse.org, be it from a technical, marketing or whatnot perspective
  • be involved into the project and be respected by your peers in the Community, because just being on the Board doesn't make your voice heard automagically; then again, Community members most probably won't vote for people they don't respect for their opinions and their involvement in the first place
  • have good communication skills, be able to listen to people, don't be stubborn with your ideas (and note that this includes being sufficiently fluent at English, as that's the interoperability language used in 95% of discussions in and around the project, like it or not ;))
  • have enough time and energy to invest, don't end up bailing out after a few months' time
Hope this helps :)

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