Interview with FSFE Fellow Isabel Drost-Fromm

Isabel Drost-Fromm

In her own words, Isabel Drost-Fromm is member of the Apache Software Foundation, co-founder of Apache Mahout and has mentored several incubating projects. Interested in all things search and text mining, with a decent machine learning background, she is working for Elasticsearch as software developer. True to the nature of people living in Berlin she loves having friends fly in for a brief visit. As a result she co-founded and is still one of the creative heads behind Berlin Buzzwords, a tech conference on all things search, scale and storage. Beyond and above all that Isabel is mummy of a little geekling since April 2014.

Paul Boddie: Your involvement with Free Software development, personally and professionally, seems to revolve around projects associated with the Apache Software Foundation and there is a significant Java component. You remarked in your blog that with such a background in the world of Free Software “kingdoms”, this is like coming from a different dynasty to many other developers whose focus is on GNU/Linux or the Free Software desktop. Do you feel that all these kingdoms pay enough attention to each other? Where do you see opportunities for closer collaboration between them?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: The post you mention actually is meant quite ironic and not to be taken too seriously – after all it’s my wedding announcement. If you really wanted to stretch it to learning something from the post it’s less about closer collaboration and more about being open minded and learning from each other: topics like monetisation, community management, leadership, to some degree even technical architecture and tooling are pretty much project independent. So instead of completely looking the other way just because one aspect of another project doesn’t fit one’s view of the world it might be beneficial to look a bit closer, there might very well be a lot of things to learn from.

This aspect is why I like events like Froscon and FOSDEM which bring together a broad spectrum of the open source world. Also this is what many new projects at Apache benefit from: instead of making the same mistakes over and over people get to learn one working way of running an open source project from the start.

Paul Boddie: One memorable article for me on your blog was a brief mention of how one media company had migrated their search infrastructure from a proprietary solution to Apache Solr. I remember being in related work situations both before and after this change in corporate mindset. Has Free Software now become the default choice for integrating search into products and services?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: From what I see in the wild, yes – though of course my view of the world is skewed due to the nature of the communities I’m part of. Essentially it’s a question of:

  • Speed – especially Apache Lucene has astonishing performance compared to other even proprietary solutions
  • Feature set – given that projects like Apache Lucene are developed in the open it’s a question of when someone needs a particular feature, implements it and contributes it. Most contributions are based on this kind of “scratch your own itch” approach to solving problems: instead of discussing with your sales rep which features you really need you go ahead and implement them. Contribute them back to save the cost of having to adjust them to future code modifications and get valuable feedback through the public code review cycle for free.
  • Scale – both Apache Lucene and Elasticsearch show in various installations just how far you can take search with ordinary hardware.
  • Transparency of decisions – in contrast to closed development for me one important aspect of OSS projects is to be able to follow the development process and be part of it if you choose to.

Compare that to the price you pay (or paid) for typical proprietary solutions and it’s obvious why people go for the open solution.

Paul Boddie: Are there any areas where Free Software projects could be more prominent, where such projects could be improved to deliver the benefits of Free Software to a wider audience?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: IMHO today developers benefit the most from using OSS software. It’s important to make the public understand the benefit of an open development model in particular when it comes to vital or security sensitive technology. As a society we are far from having understood the implications of keeping software development secret. See FCC Rules Block use of Open Source.

Paul Boddie: Is Free Software delivered via the Java technology stack more acceptable to certain kinds of adopters or is the audience now more concerned with other aspects of the solutions under consideration?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: I don’t think it is – actually it depends on who you talk to and where their comfort zone with development is. If they are themselves Java developers and they are choosing a stack to develop against it probably will need to have a Java API. If they are familiar with another programming language they’ll have different preferences.

Paul Boddie: You are based in Berlin and have been active in organising Berlin Buzzwords: a conference focused on scalable data storage and search, focusing on Free Software solutions. As various economies try and show off their “digital economy” credentials, Berlin seems to attract people from all over Europe, presumably making such events particularly attractive and viable. What do you think that Berlin offers technology professionals and entrepreneurs that other cities perhaps do not? Given your travel experiences, could you see yourself tempted to live and work anywhere else?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: Aside from being extremely cheap to live in compared to many other cities worldwide it has attracted enough tech-savvy people to be interesting to others as well. In addition compared to other places in Germany Berlin is one of the cities where you can feel like you are on vacation any day: There is no need to be fluent in German to get along. Essentially it’s a melting pot of many cultures – still far away from the cross-nation and cross-culture collaboration we see online but still closer to it than in most other real world places. Probably that’s also why it’s relatively easy to convince people from all over the world to move to Berlin or at least come here for a visit.

Paul Boddie: You have previously shared your thoughts on topics like Agile and Scrum development practices, but I thought that one of your articles reporting a talk about failing software projects was illustrative with regard to what some of these practices are supposed to be about. Would you agree that movements like Scrum are a way of bringing some of the good practices from other disciplines to the software development profession, or do you feel that there is something more to it than that? Does it say something about the fields of software project management and software development that these movements have had such a visible impact amongst practitioners? Can individuals and small Free Software projects readily share in the benefits by adopting some of these techniques?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: Actually I think most OSS projects are beyond what Scrum and Agile try to bring to the corporate world: Some problems I’ve seen in proprietary software projects often involved a lack of honesty and transparency – both against yourself and against the customer. As a result cover-up actions or death-march like phases followed. Most OSS projects I know keep all development decisions and planning out in the public. As a result everyone sees when things are getting delayed – and why. Priorities change, so does our knowledge about problems that come with certain tasks. To me the most important benefit of things like Agile and Scrum is to keep your course flexible, to be able to respond to change and to make problems in your development process visible.

Paul Boddie: Looking at the activity level throughout the years covered by your blog, you  have obviously been very committed to Free Software in a variety of different ways, although it looks like your blogging has had to yield to other priorities in the past year or so. What advice would you give for people who have to make time in their own busy lives to contribute to Free Software? Which ways to get involved are the best for those with only a limited amount of time to invest in contributing to something?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: There’s just one piece of advise: Don’t contribute for the sake of contributing. Contribute to projects that fit with your personal needs. This is also why my contribution level recently has shifted away from my personal blog on to github: I’ve finally found a job at Elastic that lets me contribute during my day job full time which means that as a result I can dedicate more time to my family.

Paul Boddie: You wrote a nice article about having the self-confidence to pursue the things that interest each one of us personally, asking only that society should support people in what those pursuits might be, rather than try and reinforce past expectations of what people should be spending their time doing. The topic of diversity in Free Software and in technology is never far from people’s minds these days, especially with Ada Lovelace Day happening today, although diversity has many dimensions, of course. You have provided some advice about encouraging the next generation of hackers, makers and tinkerers, but what do you think it will take for society to make the transition from “legacy” roles and expectations to one where people really can choose an interest or profession without that choice being seen as “special” (as you put it)?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: It will take a lot of hard work and fundamental changes. Which type of work and which specific changes – that’s a topic for a whole series of books.

Thanks to Isabel for responding to our questions and for her continuing involvement in the Fellowship of the FSFE.