For some time now I have been working for OSS Watch, which is the national advisory service on free and open source software for universities and colleges in the United Kingdom. It sounds grand, and in many ways it is. Our work stretches from the highest levels of national and european policy to the most practical kinds of advice for staff at universities who want to release their software under an open source licence. I enjoy it. I ought to, I’m the manager.
The strange thing is that I do not have a background as a programmer. Once, in long ago days, I was a philosopher. Latterly I became a communications manager in a digital research environment. This led in time to my working with OSS Watch, initially to help this national service shape its communications package, more recently to manage the service as a whole.
Talk about what you know, they say. So at first I concentrated my public presentations for OSS Watch simply on what OSS Watch is, or hoped to be. As a brand new advisory service there was plenty of work to do in this area. Being a quick study, I was also soon able to converse at length on the nature of free and open source software, with a concentration on copyright and licensing matters, both of which are vital to any understanding of open source software.
The theory of free and open source software is not enough, of course. You have to get your hands dirty. I began by using open source applications on my desktop – email client, web browser, office suite and more. Soon I was able to speak with some authority on a variety of open source applications. I then moved on to exploring the variety of GNU/Linux distributions available, installing at one time or another Mandrake (now Mandriva), Suse, Fedora Core, Knoppix, Debian, and Ubuntu. I have probably installed some variety of Linux more than 50 times in the past year or two. Gradually I have learned a thing or two.
Still, it’s not enough. There is no way to avoid the fact that to really get involved with open source software just means to get involved in open source software development. So how does a non-programmer with a broad theoretical knowledge of free and open source software development and deployment get involved in the practical aspects of open source development?
I’ll find out the hard way by doing it.
I will record what I learn here as I go along.