I know I am very late in writing this post. It has been almost one and a half months since the last edition of FOSSMeet is over. I have been a part of FOSSMeet both as a participant and a volunteer. I want to share some of my observations, views, and suggestions through this post. I intend to keep a memory of my most favorite event of NIT Calicut. Juniors can read this post and think about ways to improve FOSSCell and FOSSMeet. I did the same by reading Kartik’s post.
Before I start, if you have not read my post on the 2017 edition of the FOSSMeet, it is a good time to read that first. This post is going to be a follow up from where I stopped that post. Here is the link to that post.
I’ll start by quoting some lines from the last paragraph of that article.
I hope that I will find time next year for FOSSMeet, although I would prefer to attend FOSSMeet as a participant observing everything silently rather than being a part of the organizing team.
These were my views after last year’s FOSSMeet. I felt that I was not getting any benefit from volunteering for FOSSMeet. It is one thing that you help conducting an event, but on a personal level, I was not learning much. I wanted to attend talks and learn about free software philosophies, but because I was busy volunteering for workshops in SSL, I could not participate in any lecture. So I wanted to make sure that in my last FOSSMeet, I do attend all the talks and learn something new.
But fate had its plans for me. Few days after writing that post, Simsar, the coordinator of FOSSMeet ‘17, came to my room and asked me if I would like to become the next secretary of FOSSCell. Those who don’t know, FOSSCell is the group of people in NITC, who are supposed to work on free and open-source contribution. But it is not very active for the last few years. Probably the seniors decided to give me a chance because I was quite active in providing my suggestions for the FOSSCell when I was in the third year and had shown my intentions to reinitiate FOSSCell. Anyway, I was not very enthusiastic about this opportunity and refused to accept it. I thought that the topic was closed and did not bother about it much.
Fast forward two months, I was at home thinking about the reasons that I could not get an internship were. I figured out some reasons (a topic reserved for a later post!) and decided that whatever happens, I will not commit these mistakes again. A few days later, Simsar messaged me on WhatsApp, asking whether I am still interested in the post of secretary. This time, I immediately accepted his offer. I was under the influence of my learnings from past mistakes. And that’s how I became the unexpected (at least for my batchmates) secretary of FOSSCell.
I was placed in the first few days of placement season, so I was free on that front. CSEA had conducted a Debian packaging workshop at the very beginning of the semester, but I could not attend that workshop. So I messaged Pirate Praveen sir privately and asked him whether he can guide me about Debian packaging. As with most of the senior open source contributors, he was very enthusiastic about helping me. So that’s how I restarted my journey in open source. It was a fun time learning about free software ideology from Pirate Praveen. We decided to conduct a small Debian Packaging hackathon in NITC. As it is a norm in CSE NITC nowadays about any such activity, people did not turn up at all for this hackathon. Only five people showed up for the hackathon. That was disappointing. Though, on a personal level, I was satisfied. I submitted two packages to the Debian unstable repository. We did not have any other activity for the remaining of that semester.
Okay, enough of the background!
My Observations #
We opted for the HasGeek’s Funnel for the proposal acceptance this time also. The funnel works quite well for our workflow. We did not get many proposals in the beginning. I had read somewhere on the web that FOSSMeet had a MiniDebConf once. That seemed like an excellent idea to the team. So I talked with Praveen sir, about the possibility of a separate Debian track during FOSSMeet. I thought that Debian packaging might be a good and easy way to introduce NITC students to Open-source software.
In previous editions of FOSSMeets, the organizers used to receive the feedback that the student audience is entirely novice for some sessions and the supposedly advanced session turned out to be a beginner session. We were well aware of this problem and thought of a way to solve this. The solution may be a controversial one because even I have mixed feelings about this solution. We decided to look at the GitHub profiles of each participant and then select a few participants rather than allowing each and everyone who is paying money to attend the FOSSMeet. Our experience from last year was awful in this aspect. Students from various colleges of Kerala came to FOSSMeet just to get the certificate. Such an audience was not contributing anything to FOSSMeet.
Now, let me explain why I think that this is not the right way to filter good participants. If I am not wrong, one motive behind organizing such student run conferences is to inspire beginners and college students to learn about free and open-source software and to allow them to learn about new technologies. Now, it should not matter if the person has any prior experience or not. In our case, we prioritized the previous experience part and neglected the will to learn. I know that it is tough to identify if a person is really interested in the event or just coming for the certificate, but still, there must be some better way to solve this issue. For now, this method is the best option available, and it worked well enough for our purpose.
The decision to allow only 150 participants was an excellent move. We had decided not to have parallel workshops and talks. This decision was a direct outcome of some of the bad feedback from the previous FOSSMeets. The decisions to check GitHub profiles and to restrict the number of participants made sure that this edition of FOSSMeet has the most appropriate (read qualified) audience for any session.
We publicized the event among CSED’s first years. We even had a beginner level Git workshop for them. We were expecting that they will come to take part in the event. These events provide excellent opportunities for newcomers to learn about Computer Science and its various fields. I used to give priority to a CSEA event over any cultural event when I was in my first year. But, the turnout of first-year students for FOSSMeet was very less. I sometimes worry, how are these people going to continue organizing FOSSMeet. In the end, conducting this event will become a burden (of carrying a legacy) for them, and they will hold this event just like any other useless event that happens in NITC every weekend. We even made the entry, free for them; still, if they don’t feel interested in the event, then they are at an apparent loss.
One other complaint that we received from the community was that the procedure of selecting proposals from the funnel is not transparent. In my opinion, it is true. The organizing team of FOSSMeet sit together and choose the topics based on the relevance of the topics and its relation to FOSS ideologies. Most of the proposals in the funnel were related to some technology or programming language. We aimed to give a chance to the talks which explain more about free software in general. Most of the proposals selected this year revolved around this theme with one or two exceptions. But I think it might be a good idea to publicly tell the factors that are taken into account while selecting proposals. FOSSMeet is an event about free software and the community, and it is the responsibility of the organizers to make sure that they adhere to the ideologies of free software, including transparency.
The decision to select philosophical topics might seem like a great thing. Still, in reality, the student audience is not very interested in listening to some random guy preaching about something which is not very relevant to them. Students want more technical knowledge, which they can get only from technical talks and workshops. I hope that future FOSSMeet organizers will be more careful about maintaining the right balance between technical and not technical discussions and workshops.
Some students from Amrita college complained about our selection of the same speakers every year. In my opinion, it is a very valid complaint. In my last three FOSSMeets, almost 3-5 speakers are giving talks/workshops every year. I am not saying that it is bad in any way, but the organizing team can start a bit early and invite some other prominent faces of the field from different parts of the country. The issue is that we begin contacting speakers very late and the people coming from far corners of the country or from abroad get very little time for making arrangements.
We used to have panel discussions in FOSSMeet. For the last two years, we stopped having one. I think that a panel discussion is a great way to learn about different viewpoints of experienced people. It will be good if the future organizers can squeeze one such panel discussion in the FOSSMeet schedule.
Now coming to my memories of this edition of the event, I liked the video conference by Bradley M Kuhn, the president of the Software Freedom Conservancy. The way he explained current issues in software freedom was fascinating. I was amazed by his humbleness. I was looking forward to the talk by RMS, but he could not deliver his speech due to some technical issues.
On a lighter note, It feels strange when you are working in a team where everyone except you speaks a language that you don’t understand. I know that it is a very natural behavior, and I have no complains about it. But in my opinion, language is a tool of communication, and when you are not able to communicate your views to others, then there is some problem. When I think about these issues, I admire the forefathers of India for their farsightedness to make a foreign but universal language, one of the official languages of the Republic of India.
I feel at a loss because I got the chance to attend only three FOSSMeets (2015 edition never came to reality). It has been a great experience both as a participant and a volunteer for me over the last three years. I have written two posts about FOSSMeets and have tried to cover everything which I liked or disliked about this event. I might be very biased in the views expressed here as I was very disappointed with the lack of any activity from the FOSSCell side to introduce students about open source contributions. My lack of good communication skills made sure that the trend continues in my tenure also. I wish good luck to the next office bearers and hope that they will not continue this trend. 😄
Thanks to all fourth years – Sajmal, Navaneeth, Nithin, Kumar, Pavithra, Vrushabh, Nitin, and others for making the FOSSMeet a success. All the best to all juniors – Abhiram, Archana, Olive, Amruth, Gazala, Abhirami, Anupam, Madhumita, Adil, Vysakh, Arun, and others. Special mention to some second years also – Nirmal, Faris, Darshana, Kavitha, Naina, Vishnu, and others for helping us out in a smooth organization of the event.
Feeling relieved now, as this long overdue post is finally complete. If you find the article interesting, share your views in the comments section. Thanks for reading. ☺️