Join host Amanda Meeks in a conversation with Heather Meeker, founder of the Free Open Source Stories Digital Archive (FOSSDA), and learn about how and why the project was started. Plus, get a sneak peek into some of the amazing interviews Heather has conducted so far, where she captures the personal stories from the open source movement’s pioneers.
Guest name: Heather Meeker
Bio: Heather Meeker is the founder of the FOSSDA project. She is a General Partner at OSS Capital, www.oss.capital, an early stage venture capital fund specializing in commercial open source development. She is also a partner at Tech Law Partners, LLP, www.techlawpartners.com, a law firm focused on technology transactions.
Meeker is an internationally-known specialist in open source software licensing. She is the primary drafter of many widely-used licenses, including Elastic 2.0, and served on the core drafting team for Mozilla Public License 2.0 and the PolyForm licenses. Her book Open Source for Business, now in its third edition, is a definitive handbook for lawyers, engineers, and businesspersons on open source licensing in business. In 2019, Meeker was named by Business Insider as one of the ten people transforming the way the technology industry does business, along with the CEOs of Salesforce, Stripe, and Microsoft. She was the only lawyer on this list. Heather is a former professional musician and enjoys dancing, gaming and travel.
Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with Permanent.org. This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks, and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent, and I'm also your podcast host. This episode is all about FOSSDA, or the Free Open Source Stories Digital Archive, which is a Permanent Byte4Byte grantee.
The founder of FOSSDA, Heather Meeker was able to join me for a conversation about the project, how it got started, and where it's going.
I am really excited to talk with today's guest, Heather Meeker about the Free Open Source Stories Digital Archive, or FOSSDA. Welcome and thank you for being here today. I just wanna start out by asking how you're doing.
Heather Meeker: I'm doing just fine. Thank you, and I'm happy to be talking to you today.
Amanda Meeks: Great. Would you mind taking a moment and just introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about you and how you got here?
Heather Meeker: Of course. I'm an attorney and a venture capitalist, and I've been working in the open-source area for many years.
I'm basically a software licensing lawyer, but over the years I've been focusing more and more on open source and I'm in a venture capital fund that only invests in commercial open-source development. I'm also a former programmer, but my programming experience was long ago and it developed for me a love of software.
But my clients and portfolio companies are the people who really know what they're doing.
Amanda Meeks: Wonderful. Thank you for that. So we'll jump right in with a little bit more information about FOSSDA. I know this project really aims to uncover and record the stories of the first generation of free and open-source software developers.
Can you tell us a little more about the project and how it got started?
Heather Meeker: Yes. During the pandemic, I was sort of mulling big questions like many other people were. And unfortunately, someone I knew who had been involved in open source for a long time passed away, not from Covid, it turned out, but nevertheless, a loss.
And it occurred to me that the early generations of people involved in the free and open source software movement were aging, as I am, I'm sort of one of the people kind of half a generation after the original group. And what occurred to me is that we had not heard a lot of their personal stories about why they got involved.
There's a lot out there about free and open-source philosophy. And there's a lot out there about the technology, but the kind of people who had participated in this movement are sometimes not all that forthcoming about personal questions. Sometimes they are, sometimes not, but to me, open source has changed the world greatly for the better, and I thought it was important to understand why the original participants did what they did.
When you write open-source software, it's a gift to the world. And open source not only created great advances in technology, but also opened up the idea of a gift economy. And I wanted to understand why do people do that? Because the next time it needs to happen, it would be useful to understand what incentives people have to share that broadly with the world.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I love that this is really about personal stories of the folks involved and kind of the why behind the work, their life's work. I know you mentioned that people aren't as forthcoming with their personal stories as maybe you would hope for, but are there other challenges or if you wanna like dig a little more deeper into that one in particular around collecting these personal stories? I'd love to hear about that.
Heather Meeker: Yeah, I think it's mostly that the developers assume that people wouldn't be that interested in their personal stories, not necessarily that they're reluctant to share them. But, if you want them to share you have to ask specifically for their personal journey.
Also, open source development is asynchronous for the most part and for the most part it's text-based. It's not a face-to-face thing, and for that reason, many people who are not comfortable in social settings like to participate. I, by the way, kind of count myself in that category. I understand why it's so appealing.
So, when you ask people specifically, "Well, you know, what made you do this? What on a personal level made you do this?" then they start to think a little bit differently about it. Many of them have shared greatly about technical ideas and philosophical ideas, but not about their personal stories.
Also, you know, I think it's great when you have a movement like this that enables people who might, you know, not be comfortable interacting real-time face-to-face with people. They're allowed to participate too, and in fact, you know, they're some of the people driving the movement. So I think that's very interesting and a wonderful opportunity.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. That's amazing. I wanna mention that I think the feeling of "my story isn't important," is so common with people in our society.
I read an article recently about a woman who became a hospice volunteer, and one of the things that she noticed in doing life reviews with people was that they would always start out by apologizing and saying, "Well, I don't really have anything interesting to say", or "I don't have any amazing life stories", but that almost always proved to be untrue once they really got into it. So I love that you are acknowledging that and that that's a common problem I think universally that we don't talk about nearly enough.
Heather Meeker: Yeah. Also, having talked to a few people who were in open source, some of them got involved very early in life, and they got involved because open source software was available to them, even if they had very little access to resources, particularly people in the developing world.
You know, open source could be the only way they really get access to technology legally. I've talked to a few people who have started working on open source by quote, unquote "hacking into computer systems," which may, I don't mean to say that's doing something inappropriate. It's just that they were trying to figure out how to do the things they wanted to do in a practical way without any help from anybody else. And I think that's also a great aspect of it, is that people would get involved just because they wanted to and even if there was no one around to help them. And then when they got involved in open source, they found that there was this broad community of people that they could collaborate with.
Amanda Meeks: Mm. Yeah. The term hacking, I feel like is always a challenging one because it, it often conjures up, you know, this idea of somebody who is doing something malicious, but when really it's just trying to solve a problem of some sort or iterating on something, making something work better than it did before.
And that's how I think of hacking anyways.
Heather Meeker: I think that's the sense of it that most people in the software community mean that word. I guess to the broader world, it has negative connotations, but in the software world, it's mostly just, you know, trying to figure out something until it works.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I think that's good for our listeners to know because I don't know that everybody who listens to this podcast wouldn't necessarily know that.
Heather Meeker: Yeah. I mean, if you imagine somebody sitting at home, with an electronics tester and a soldering iron trying to fix their radio, you know that's kinda what it's like.
Maybe you have access to some broken parts or something that nobody wanted anymore, and you're trying to figure out how it works and make it work. And that's kind of how software hacking works too. You may not have access to a lot of resources, but you're trying to cobble things together.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that's the perfect analogy.
Thank you. So I know. Your project is not about any one particular open-source project. It's all about all of them. And, well, I think this beautifully highlights the interconnectedness of the people of these types of movements. Can you talk about the interconnectedness of the open-source movement in particular?
Heather Meeker: Sure. There were, by the way, at least half a dozen to a dozen really important projects in the early days that , they tended to have different communities working on them. But there were many people who worked on multiple projects across communities Once they got involved in one of them, they realized, "Oh, this is actually a way to collaborate, so I'm going to get involved with other ones as well."
And so you started to see a lot of cross-pollination. Many people who got involved in open source seemed to have done so just because, "Well, there was this project that I needed for my work or for some personal use, and so I started getting involved in it," and often they didn't really know that much about open source models generally when they got involved. Then they got involved because they had a task to do. Then they found out how much they liked it, and then they started participating in other projects.
So you saw a lot of people who were moving from community to community and collaborating with people. And then you saw people saying, "Okay, this is the way to collaborate. So what I do in the future is going to be open source."
Amanda Meeks: Wonderful. So how does this project support the new and future generations of open-source developers and coders?
Heather Meeker: The project isn't actually entirely limited to the first generation. We are starting with the first generation because there is a time aspect to hearing from the first generation. We want to make sure to capture their stories while we can.
But we're also involving some more recent or younger participants in the open-source movement as well. And as we go forward, we hope to find more and more of them. I think we'll probably find that some of the motivations are a little bit different for the first generation and for those who go after, but we'll have to see what people say in the stories. I'm just making that guess based on sort of anecdotal evidence.
But also, I think that hearing the personal stories of people who started the movement, it's extremely inspiring anyone who's thinking, "Well, can I really do this? Can I really be involved?" after watching them talk about what their motivations were, I think would be very inspired to do what they're not sure they can do.
And I'd also say, by the way, that being a coder isn't the only way to have participated in the movement. There are lots of people who do other things like testing and quality control and community management, and those sort of functions are a little bit more common in people who came a little later as open source became more prevalent and many more people started getting involved in it. But we also hope to include people who are not coders, but who have been involved in the movement and have helped generate great products and software even though they weren't exactly writing code.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It's important to capture kind of everyone who was involved, seems like.
I know that FOSSDA is a Byte4Byte grantee, and you are partnering with us to make sure that the raw oral histories kind of stay in the public domain and are permanently available. Can you talk a little bit more about the other partnerships that are part of this project?
Heather Meeker: Sure. Well, so by the way, when I got involved in this, I don't know anything about doing oral histories. I just thought this was something that needed to be done.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Heather Meeker: And so I reached out to people who knew a lot more than me, and I quickly learned that there are many moving parts to doing an oral history. And your listeners probably know more about this than I do, but you have to first record the oral histories. You have to then transcribe and index them so that when people use them, they can access them easily. It's very difficult to go through videos and find something you're looking for unless you have that meta information. And then, they need to be stored properly, which is where Permanent comes in.
And I'm sure your listeners know this, but it's not as simple as just putting something on Google Drive because that is not futureproof. You need something that's more robust and is gonna be more reliable.
So we have people involved. First of all is TheirStory, which is an oral history platform, and Zack and his crew at TheirStory are extremely expert in collecting video and audio oral histories, and providing the tools to index them and make them accessible.
Then we also have the Rochester Institute of Technology who is helping us with things like getting interviewers together, students are involved. They also have a robust filmmaking aspect to what they do at RIT, because, you know, the raw videos are probably a little difficult to consume, but we hope that people will want to make documentaries or use the videos or the information in the videos to do other kinds of materials that will become accessible.
In the longer future, you know, we hope to have something like an interactive website where people can look at particular clips, do research and so forth so that they can consume what we've created in a reasonable way. We don't expect anybody to watch hundreds of hours of oral histories, but things like clips and, you know, writeups of what was going on, we hope to do things like that too. Although, I think that's probably step two or three.
So those are the major players helping us. We also have a lot of volunteers who are helping us with interviewing and also contributing to support funding for the project. And, also to be kind of a board of advisors for the project as well, because we have to figure out who to ask and who to do the interviews and how to prioritize those given the funding that we have.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I love that there are so many possibilities with how this can be used in the future in terms of providing access to researchers and creating films and just really focusing on telling these stories and making them more widely known.
This is such an incredible project and I'm really honored that we got to sit down and have a conversation about it.
Heather Meeker: Well, you know, I am very interested in the history of technology. The thing about technology is that as soon as it's outdated, it's kind of old news, and so there's not a lot of focus on the history of technology until much later usually. And then by that time, you've lost the opportunity to talk to the people who were originally involved in it.
So for me, part of what's great about a project like this is that we really get to, in a shorter timeframe, take a look at the amazing things that people were doing. I mean, if you look at what our world is like, you know, people can hardly imagine what it was like before we had, say, mobile phones, and it hasn't really been that long or before the internet, and it hasn't really been that long.
And so these changes, you know, open source actually underlay a lot of the changes in technology that we experienced today. You know, we're talking on a platform right now that runs on open-source technology. Your phone runs on open-source technology, most of the internet does. And so I think it's really important to sort of capture these inflection points because they made so much difference in how we lived our lives.
And also the fact that it was open source was a way to make sure that technology could be used by everyone and also that it would be auditable and understandable by everyone. So, I want the project to fill a little niche that probably wouldn't be filled otherwise.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. That's beautifully said. Thank you. Thank you, Heather, for joining us today.
Heather Meeker: Oh, it's my great pleasure. Thank you.
Amanda Meeks: Thank you so much to our listeners and our special guest, Heather Meeker for sharing a little bit about the FOSSDA Project. And for those of you who are curious about our Byte4Byte program, to learn more about that or to apply, visit www.permanent.org/byte4byte.
The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app, Permanent.org is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription fees.
We also support nonprofit organizations in their long-term preservation efforts through our storage granting program, known as Byte4Byte, which you heard a little bit about in this episode. Anyone can create a free account and start archiving today.
Special thank you to our editors at Next Day Podcasts.
Until next time.