Tuesday, 12 July 2011 11:24

FOSS advocate who's free, frank and fearless


Journalist, FOSS advocate, feminist - Carla Schroder is all these and more. But more than anything it is her straight talking that marks her out - when she takes a stand on issues she is driven by conviction.

This means that often she is at the receiving end but it is something that she can more than handle. The good thing about dealing with her is that she never allows her personal and professional worlds to mix - even her worst enemy will be allowed to have his/her say on a site which she edits. This is indeed a rare trait.

Schroder was recently in the news when her gig with Linux Today, one of the better-known FOSS news aggregation sites, ended in dismissal. Her readers liked what she was doing but the management apparently did not. The terms of her leaving do not permit her to say anything about it.

But there is a lot more to Schroder than what she did at Linux Today. She has moved on and rejoined LXer where she was an editor before joining Linux Today. She took some time off to speak to iTWire about her present, her past and what she looks forward to.

Who is Carla Schroder, where do you come from, and how come you ended up in computing?

I grew up in Eastern Washington, USA, and have lived in a lot of different places in the Pacific Northwest, big cities and small towns. I was a country girl trapped in the city until the Internet matured to where I could live almost anywhere as long as I had an internet connection, and got to where I could make a living writing. Now I own a little farm with my girlfriend of six years, two horses, one tractor, three cats, two dogs, and a roving population of deer, quail, bobcats, coyotes, owls, raptors, and other critters. It's a great life and I love it.

The publishing business has changed a lot since I started way back in 1995, as I am sure you know, so I am seriously studying programming now. I'm ready for a new challenge and good coders can always find paying work.
Carla Schroder
I'm a natural-born mechanic (auto, carpentry, general fix-its), and a computer is just another kind of machine, an infinitely flexible and fun machine. The first wave of Linux users came mainly from UNIX backgrounds. I arrived later to the party, and my first PC was a Mac LC II way back in 1993 or 1994. It was fun, but it belonged to a friend so I couldn't really dig into the guts. Then I bought a Tandy 386 SX (remember the SX processors, which were crippled DX CPUs?) with a whopping 4 megabytes RAM, and a hundred-megabyte hard disk. It had a 13" color CRT monitor at 8 bits resolution, all full of nice big pixels.

This machine ran Windows 3.1 and DOS 5. Windows drove me nuts, though I remember the file manager fondly, and the ability to tile or stack open windows. I spent most of my time in DOS. I liked the DOSSHELL because it made sense, and having a separate CLI and graphical interface made sense to me.

There was this great local free computer magazine, Computer Bits, that had excellent articles and wonderful ads. The ads were more like catalogs, with detailed product descriptions and prices. Back in those days (Portland, Oregon, USA) there were dozens of independent computer stores, internet service providers, and BBS (bulletin board services.) It was a great time to discover personal computers, with a lot of energy and activity, and a lot of interest. I read about Linux in Computer Bits, and that got me started with Red Hat 5, I think, on floppy diskettes. You could buy Red Hat and Mandrake in computer stores back then, even big chains like CompUSA and Fry's.

Everything I've learned about computers has come from books, friends, and searching online. I haven't had any formal training; I just like to dig into something and learn everything I can about it.

How difficult was it to make a mark in FOSS?

Not hard at all. There is wide-open opportunity; it is helpful to have stubbornness and rhino hide. Which I had, as I have a lifelong habit of gravitating into male-dominated careers, and doing things other people think are not suitable. The biggest difference with FOSS is most of it is online, and as you know people are much braver with an entire internet between them and whoever they feel like flaming or abusing in some way. It's quite different when you're face to face with someone; maybe they want to be nasty but it's a lot harder in person.

Even online there are lot more supportive and helpful people than the other kind, and I have benefited greatly from the generosity and helpfulness of others.

As a woman, you would have faced more than your fair share of discrimination, both in the workplace and outside. In your case, that would probably have been compounded by your sexual orientation. How have you coped with this?

Stubbornness and rhino hide :) I had a paper route when I was 13 (remember paper routes?), and I was the only girl. My supervisor said that of course I was not eligible for any of the contests or promotions, and some of the prizes were cool things like trips to Disneyland. I didn't question it because I didn't know any better, and my parents were zero help, but I sure remembered it later. Memories like that are good fuel when you're bumping into problem situations later in life, because they're so ridiculous and unfair and petty, and it keeps me going when I want to give up.

And then there are priceless moments like a LUG meeting that I attended way long ago, 1998 or so I believe, and there was a guest speaker giving a presentation on some kind of cool new super-high-power server. He had a batch of slides with photos of the product, and every slide had a stereotype - an improbably-endowed scantily-clad sexy babe draped all over it. I was ready to punch this goofball until the LUG guys- again, I was the only woman- complained "Get her out of the way, we want to see the server." I doubt it had anything to do with me being there, they were just focused on their reason for being there, which was not improbable sexy babes. They gave the rep a hard time for having only babe slides and little technical data.

The key to achieving goals is always the same, I think: align yourself with good people who like you and can help you, and that you can help in return. Or at least pay it forward. Life is full of annoying, unhelpful, obstructive, and hostile people, so having a good solid circle of friends and professional acquaintances makes all the difference. If you feel alone and isolated everything is thousand times harder. I'm more of a glass-half-empty personality, so I have to deliberately focus on the good things and not get derailed by nuisances. As so many sports coaches say, play your own game and don't let yourself get distracted and thrown off your game.

Another key thing to remember is the vast, vast, vast majority of people are followers, not leaders. Some might talk a good talk, or talk a mean talk...in fact, to most people simply talking, just having their say, is the most important thing in the world to them. There are a whole lot of people who can't hold their tongues even when doing so is to their benefit, even if there is a large cash prize for silence. So anyone who is a doer rather than a talker will go far and get what they want, while the talkers are still sitting around nattering and going nowhere. In FOSS (as in any field) there are a lot of people spreading nasty talk, but they can't stop you from doing things.

You are a person who is frank and, to all appearances, does not tolerate fools gladly. Has this been your attitude all along or did it develop in response to some particular incident(s)?

This is something I struggle with every day. I used to be a people pleaser, and people pleasers are big phonies because they're not honest, they don't tell you what they really think but what they think you want to hear. So I suffered a number of negative consequences before I wised up, from making commitments I couldn't keep, and from bottling up my real feelings until I exploded and created a big crisis. It was utterly silly and useless, and to this day I can recall clearly any number of friends and other people telling me "All you had to do was say something." There wasn't any one thing in particular, I just worked at getting out of the habit of being a dishonest dork and disappointing people.

So then I went way far the other way, to the point of rudeness and impatience and temper, and being not very nice to people who deserved better treatment. I think most of my friends are better people than me, and they are awesome for remaining true friends. I'm closer to a reasonable balance now, and I'm pretty comfortable with myself. I don't need for everyone to like me. There are certain things that I believe in, that I think are important to stand for and to speak out, and that draws a certain amount of negative attention. Somebody is always to going to be unhappy with me no matter what I do, that's just life, so I figure I might as well make the most of it and try to do some good in the world.

Encouraging people into computing is a difficult job at the best of times. How do you approach it and how did you come to develop an interest in it?

It is hard, and sometimes I think the US has produced generations of easily-discouraged quitters who have no idea how to really work at something, how to learn new skills, how to plug away at a task until they master it. And so we have these efforts like Unity and Gnome 3 chasing people who really aren't interested in computers, trying to win them over by being so ultra-easy that they'll be irresistible. I think this is a loser strategy, because smartphones and tablets are perfect for the just-let-me-poke-it crowd. PCs are incredibly powerful, wonderful general-purpose machines, and I think a better approach is to show how they have brought formerly expensive, difficult tasks like audio production, color photography, movie making, industrial design, 3D printing and home fabs, and much more into the reach of home users, hobbyists, and small businesses. Approach people according to their interests, show them how computers can help them be creative and do things they enjoy faster, cheaper, and better.

My least favourite words are "Oh I could never do that." Which is rubbish, and what they really mean is "I can't learn it in half a minute so I don't want to try." Anyone can learn to do anything. If they're willing to invest some time and brains.

When it comes to tech I'm already hooked. I've always been curious and retained my love of learning even though my school years, especially high school, were a nightmare and horror and mostly a waste of time from grades 8-12. I didn't have good adult guidance so I missed out on classes I might have enjoyed such as shop and audio-visual club. When I discovered computers (in my late 30s) it was like having a new galaxy to explore, with limitless possibilities. I feel that way more than ever now as it seems that everything is moving to software. Good programmers, artists, and admins will be busy for several generations to come, I think.

I bought my first PC to help me run my business - I was a massage therapist and owned a little clinic - and it didn't take long to realise I would rather mess with the computer than run my little clinic, even though I liked the massage business. Most of my clientele were either athletes, or stressed-out computer nerds, and it was rewarding to help them de-stress and relax, and to relieve physical pain from injuries. I learned a lot just from listening to the computer nerds, and several of them helped me in material ways such as giving me software and loaning me books.

You appear to be one of the few people in FOSS (whom I've encountered anyway) who manages to keep the personal and professional aspects of life separate - your personal likes and dislikes do not appear to impact on your professional judgement. Has this been a conscious decision on your part or did it come naturally?

Thanks, I take that as a compliment, though I'm no angel and I have to work at it. People piss me off sometimes, and I doubt I am as fair as I would like to be. But that's life, and it's too short to hold grudges, and certainly too short to be vindictive over dumb stuff. People have forgiven me for some pretty rotten behaviour, so I try to keep the high-level perspective and not get caught up in things that aren't worth it. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and the person who vexed me greatly yesterday may turn into a cool friend tomorrow. You just never know.

How do you think women can be encouraged to take part in activities in and around FOSS?

I see three different demographics: young women who are already interested and maybe already in tech, young girls who could be exposed to FOSS and its many opportunities, and mid-life career changers. For the first group the main thing is not put all kinds of roadblocks in the way; just get out of the way and treat them like normal people.

The second group I'm not sure. I don't have kids of my own, and I was always the odd little outcast nerd, so I don't know what motivates young girls. I think computers and tech should be integral in primary education, including math, hardware, simple coding and scripting, and learning to how control the technology rather than being a passive consumer. I'd like to see young girls (and all young school kids) exposed to technology on a daily basis because it is fundamental to modern life, and encouraged to dream, to dream big, to figure out what they really want to do and then go do it, to put their own interests first.

I can totally relate to mid-life career changers since I have had multiple careers. FOSS has more opportunity than any other tech arena because the barrier to entry is low and the flexibility is limitless - just a computer, an internet connection, and your own smarts and effort. Most people don't really know themselves until they've been on their own for a few years, until they are in their 30s and 40s. FOSS is perfect for the independent soul who wants to follow her own path.

You have made a big contribution to FOSS through your advocacy, writing and other professional activities. Which one is your favourite (software)?

I hope I've made some meaningful contributions, because FOSS has given me a huge lot of good stuff. It's hard to pick a favourite. I love using Debian, Audacity, JACK, Ardour, and the Hydrogen drum kit are first-rate and endless fun, Digikam is the all-time best photo manager and editor, XFCE and Fluxbox, Python, Bash, Perl, PHP, the GNU tools and GNU development tools - it is a feast of riches.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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