Linux Q&As

Getting to know the man leading Fedora

It can feel like herding cats leading the open source charge

matthew miller fedora
Matthew Miller via Creative Commons

One of my favorite parts of doing... whatever it is that I do... is that I get to spend so much time talking with some truly interesting people in the Free and Open Source Software world. Leaders of the projects that create the things we use every day – Linux distributions, desktop environments, office suites, and the like.

Some years back, I had the good fortune to meet Matthew Miller – who has been the Fedora Project Leader since 2014 – and immediately liked the guy. Very easy to chat with. Opinionated... but reasonable. Friendly as all get out.

Now, I'm an openSUSE guy. I use openSUSE for my primary systems, have a collection of green chameleon plushies, and sit on the board for openSUSE. (If I could fit the word “openSUSE” into this paragraph anymore, I absolutely would.) But I like and respect a great deal of what the Fedora Project does – and, in the open source world, even competitors are friends. Plus, their project leader is an interesting guy.

What follows is an (unedited) conversation we had. I'm not sure if I'd consider this a hard hitting “interview”. Perhaps it's more of a simple opportunity to get to know the man leading Fedora with his thoughts on the present and future of the project. I've broken this out into two parts – because Matthew Miller had a lot to say.

And, now. Part 1.

Bryan: How would you describe the Fedora Project to someone who had never heard of it before?

Matthew: “(I'm going to skip the background of what open source and free software are. I end up explaining this a lot to a whole bunch of different audiences; I assume NetworkWorld readers don't need it...) Fedora is a community project sponsored by Red Hat, with the goal of advancing free and open source software — and the culture of sharing and collaboration that goes with it. We produce the Fedora operating system, which you can download and use for free as a desktop OS, in the server room, or as a base for cloud-computing applications.

Since there a lot of Linux-based operating systems, you may wonder: what's special about Fedora? First, in Fedora, community collaboration isn't just talk. It's really a project where you can get involved and make a difference, whether it's hacking on some personal interest or working your way up to the top levels of project leadership. I know many people — myself included — who feel like Fedora is more like family than a job or hobby.

Second, we have a charter to move fast and try new things. Red Hat bases the Red Hat Enterprise Linux product on the work we do in Fedora, and it's a great way to see what might be coming there — and, again, to participate in shaping that, if you want. And it's not just RHEL-centric — about two-thirds of our (hundreds of) core contributors don't work for Red Hat, so you see integration of software and features from everywhere in the open source world. And third, we have amazing engineering, in everything from the low-level software, to quality assurance and release engineering, to the apps team which makes the tools we use to collaborate. The collective wisdom, talent, and expertise of the Fedora community is very humbling.”

How would you describe your role within the Fedora project?

“My basic job is to make Fedora be as awesome as possible. You may have heard the phrase 'herding cats' to describe leadership in a technical project, and especially in open source. It's an appealing joke — I saw a traveling troupe of (allegedly) trained cats on late night television, and the basic humor is that, well... the cats occasionally, kind of, sort of, do something which appears to be taking direction. And, software developers and engineers share this cat-like spirit, so people often guess that that's what I do. But, like the cat circus, that wouldn't really work.

Matthew Miller

First of all, I have no actual power to force people to do things — the community is primarily volunteers, and even the people who work for Red Hat don't work for  me (and many of those are doing work in Fedora because they want to, not for their day jobs). So, if I just tell them to jump through hoops, whether by order or by whisper, they'll probably just not. But more importantly, it would be silly of me to try. That huge pool of talent and intelligence that is the community would just be held back by me trying to dictate where we go.

On the other hand, cats wandering around randomly is not going to look like the most awesome Fedora at all. (It might look like the most awesome Neko Atsume game, but that's not  our  mission.) So, I listen, I try to get people talking to each other in a productive way, and I encourage everyone in the project to think about our collective strategy and how we might advance together. We are never going to have a herd all rounded up into the same direction — much less a cat army all marching in lockstep — but it's essential that we have a shared idea of where we want to be, and are all inspired to get there together.

My job is to help that happen. In concrete terms, I serve as the chair of the Fedora Council, which is our top-level leadership and governance body. It's a mix of appointed and elected roles, as well as some selected by other subsets of the community, and in addition to mundane matters like managing the budget and trademark use, our primary job is to identify Fedora community goals — short term and long term — and then do whatever we can to make them succeed.”

Sounds like a serious challenge. If you don't mind me asking... why do you do it? What's in it for Matthew? :)

“Oh, it definitely is a challenge. I know it's cliché to say that I enjoy that, but it's true. Historically, Fedora Project Leader has been a high-burnout job, but my incredible predecessor Robyn Bergeron made it her parting mission to make things better for the person. The Fedora Council is set up to be part of that, and we have a new full-time role, the Fedora Community Action and Impact Lead — Remy DeCausemaker, who comes to us from Rochester Institute of Technology (where he worked on the world's first minor in free and open source software). Remy takes care of budgeting issues, and specifically works on projects for community health and growth. Josh Boyer works as the engineering lead, which is incredibly helpful in the occasions when I have my head too far in the clouds.

And, when the Council identifies the big community goals I mentioned, we actually appoint an Objective Lead for each one, to keep track of all the details. For example, Langdon White is working on this idea we call "modularity", which is all about finding ways to scale up the operating system to solve the "too fast / too slow!" problem. All of these roles didn't exist before I started, and so while it certainly is still a huge challenge, it's also great that it's shared with so many other amazing people. And, to return to cliché, that really is the reward — it's wonderful to work with so many talented, insightful, and generous people, not just in the Council but in the community worldwide. Also, my children think I'm famous. I tried to explain to them that it's a very, very specific sort of nerd-famous, but at their age that distinction is a little hazy.”

I have the exact opposite thing with my kids. I took my daughter to a conference once and, after I finished giving a speech, I was talking with a few people. One of them wanted to take a picture with me. My little (then) 4 year old took the opportunity to politely remind them that I am 'just Daddy' and really 'not that big a deal'. :)

Thus ends part 1. In the next article we'll talk to Matthew about the big future goals of the Fedora Project, his thoughts on rolling release distros, gender equality in open source and more. Read on to part 2.


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