Brussels / 2 & 3 February 2013


Interview: Leslie Hawthorn:
The Keeper of Secrets

Leslie Hawthorn will give a talk about The Keeper of Secrets at FOSDEM 2013

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hello FOSDEM! I’m Leslie Hawthorn, and I currently lead community relations efforts for Red Hat’s Open Source and Standards Team. I’ve been a user of FOSS for more than a decade. I have held a variety of roles working in the open source space for about the past seven years, both in industry for Google and academia at the Oregon State University Open Source Lab. I volunteer my time for a number of FOSS projects, including the Privly Foundation, the Sahana Software Foundation, and the CASH Music Project. When I’m not thinking about all things FOSS, I enjoy cycling, gardening, and spending time with my two cats during the odd times I am actually home in Portland, Oregon, US.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

My talk will be about the difficulties of interpersonal communication amongst members of open source projects. Specifically, I’ll be focusing on the role of secrets in FOSS; though we value openness and transparency, community leaders often find their most important conversations happen one-on-one or “off the record.” Being able to effectively negotiate one’s role as a keeper of secrets with one’s role as a leader who must nurture a community’s development is pretty challenging, but it’s also pretty amusing watching the different ways that geeks approach social problems. I’ll explore this topic using some real-world examples.

I chose this topic because many people from a variety of projects confide in me personally, so this topic is near and dear to my heart.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

I hope that this talk will be a catalyst for the FOSS community to be able to discuss tough social issues in an open and nuanced way. We’re all intelligent folks, but I find that often our most challenging questions go undiscussed because we’ve already decided how we ought to respond to a given situation, or we’ve already decided how we feel about a particular topic, and we aren’t really willing to be convinced otherwise. In sharing some of the stories I’ve been privy to –maintaining everyone’s privacy, of course– I expect that people will be more comfortable tackling difficult situations in their own communities, as they’ll realize that many other people are experiencing the same difficulties. I also expect that attendees of my talk will leave with a few useful tips in approaching and handling difficult situations.

Q: Currently you’re responsible for Community Action & Impact on Red Hat’s Open Source and Standards team. What does your job look like?

I’ve recently taken on the team lead role for our community relations efforts. Since it’s a brand new role, I don’t have a clear sense of what it will entail, but I’ll be working with several colleagues to help several projects that are upstreams for Red Hat to be more successful. In general, our team is focused on making users and developers in these upstream projects happy, and what that means differs greatly depending on the project. On a day-to-day basis, I work on educating folks in the fine art of community management, project marketing, organizing outreach events and generally being available as a resource for my colleagues as they consider the best approach to a particular topic in their work. I guess that qualifies as “Open Source Den Mother,” but that title doesn’t look quite so great on a business card.

Q: Does secrecy inhibit progress in open source communities or is the situation more nuanced?

I think the situation is much more nuanced, and it depends upon the particular type of secrecy. Some secrets are absolutely required, such as when a particular individual does not want to share details of their personal life but those details impact their ability to execute on assigned tasks. In general, I’m an advocate for radical transparency, but there’s a way to be radically transparent without alienating your friends, colleagues and would-be project contributors. I’ll be talking about how to do so in detail during my presentation.

Q: How do you decide which conversations in an open source community should be public and which ones private?

I let the person(s) I am talking to make that decision for themselves, and for me, as well. In cases where someone shares information with me that I think must absolutely be public, I let them know that I feel this way and ask their explicit permission to share what they have shared with me with a wider group. We then work through how to present the information so that goals are achieved and folks do not get hung up on a particular point of the delivery of that information. It takes a bit to work out, but in the end the information gets out to those who need it.

In cases where an individual decides a conversation must absolutely remain private, I respect that decision and look for ways to mitigate the impact of not sharing a particular piece of information. It’s a delicate dance, but one that can be done quite well.

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

Absolutely, and I am thrilled to be returning to FOSDEM this year!

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.