Interviews/Stormy Peters

From Strategic Planning

Stormy Peters is an information technology industry analyst and prominent Open Source software advocate, promoting business use of Open Source. She advocates as a consultant and conference speaker. She co-founded, and was later appointed as executive director of the GNOME Foundation.


  • The GNOME foundation was initially established to support the GNOME desktop project open source project. It has now expanded to include software for mobile phones as well as devices like GPS systems. It is run entirely by the developers who contribute to the GNOME projects. It has 1.5 FTE’s and receives financial support primarily from companies that are committed to seeing GNOME succeed.
  • GNOME has approximately 400 active developers about 40% of which are paid by different companies to work a full time on GNOME.
  • A critical component to maintaining community health is frequent face-to-face meet ups. The foundation provides financial support to help people attend these gatherings

Interview in full

Can you provide us with a high-level overview of the GNOME Foundation, how it was created, its mission, and how it is structured?

Mission is to provide a free desktop environment that’s accessible to everybody. And by free, I mean free of cost and free software. And accessible to everyone, I mean regardless of how much money they have, regardless of their ability or disability, and regardless of language. Actually GNOME’s mission goes beyond desktops. It’s also your phone, also some GPS systems, all types of software really.

The foundation was created in 2000 or 2001. The people interested in GNOME wanted to find a way for this to remain a ongoing project. It’s primarily funded by companies, though we’ve had a few successes from individual contributors. The Foundation has 400 members, who have contributed to GNOME. They have to apply, they are the people that did the work. Each of those members can vote, and they vote for a Board of Directors every year (and we have seven members today). They run things day to day in terms of making decisions. We have a staff of 1.5, me and an administrative assistance (Rosanna). The staff has really never been any larger. We take care of marketing to finances to legal and so on. But we necessarily touch the technical direction. We have about 20 companies that work closely with us, and those that are most aligned with us make regular donations. They also sit on our advisory board.

Our Board of Directors is very active. They do a lot of work.

Relationship between foundation and developers?

The developers are the ones that run the foundation. They run it by electing the Board of Directors. They are almost always all developers. They’re very technical. The contributors respect them and want to put them in a leadership role.

I like to ask you some questions about how the movement been able to create such a successful software project using all volunteer developers. How do you set the direction for the project?

It’s done by the developers, the people who own the project. And the release team decides what will come out in future releases. It’s not done by the foundation; it’s done by the developers. But there is obviously a large overlap in who’s doing the work. For example, 2/3 of the release team are directors.

How do new initiatives get rolled out, like mobile?

It’s usually someone who has the idea goes to the Foundation to discuss it. It goes to the Board of Directors, they vote, and then they decide to do it.

Can you describe the version release process?

It happens at a couple different levels. Each module in GNOME decides what goes into their product or module. For example, the web browser—the person who owns that module will decide what goes on with this. At the project level, it’s a mini-dictatorship. Usually, this is the person who did the work or is currently doing the work.

But for the desktop release, we release every 6 months. Each module owner releases a module to be included. If they’ve always been in GNOME, they’ll be included. If they’re new, there’s a review process that looks at some guidelines to decide if you should be part of GNOME.

We’ve read several articles that talk about the difficulties that open-source software projects have had in creating highly usable software that's accessible to non-techies. What are your thoughts on this?

Usability and design are big in the GNOME project. We made the decision to be easy to use. We make a lot of default decisions for the user—for example, we decide the background color for a new user. And we have a usability team, a team of people across companies and communities who work on usability issues. For example, the latest version of GNOME took out a feature because it was confusing to new users.

We’re also working more closely on working with users and with companies that have usability labs.

What have some companies decided to support GNOME?

There are several types of companies that invest in GNOME:  Companies who ship Linux distributions. They give us money and work on GNOME.  Companies like Intel and Google, who use GNOME tech in other products. There are pieces of GNOME in what each is doing.  Companies like Nokia, who ship GNOME tech in phones. They’ve created an ecosystem of small companies in the GNOME community. Instead of hiring everyone and putting them to work, they contract out work to developers in the community, and those developers have created companies. Collabora, for example. Small companies, less than 50 people.

What percentage of the work is done by people who are being paid to work on GNOME vs. those who volunteer their time to it?

40 percent of our community has a paid, full-time job working on GNOME. And 60 percent are volunteers. There’s, of course, a question of how much work is done by each group.

On the Board of Directors, I know that at least 2 of them don’t have GNOME jobs, 2 do have GNOME jobs.

Who makes up the GNOME community? Who plays which roles, and why? (e.g., foundation staff vs. volunteers)

We have a really strong community. We have a slogan—GNOME is people. It’s exciting! We have an annual meet-up, and people like seeing each other. Many people do this on vacation time. People work on it because they believe in it.

There’s not quite a distinction between the role of the Foundation vs. those of volunteers, because we’re only 1.5 FTEs anyway! We’re not hiring developers at the Foundation level. The next staffer we’ll add is a system administrator. That said, it amazes me how willing people are to help out!

How do you communicate as a community?

Mailing lists and IRC channels, to be honest. It’s like walking over to someone’s cubicle in a community.

Are there any problems within the community? (e.g., lack of diversity, excessive conflict in discussions)

Not a lot of tension between volunteer and paid developers. We’ve been really successful in some areas of diversity. We have a lot of diversity when it comes to nationality. Almost all cultures and nationalities are represented. We’re we have a lot of diversity in sexual orientation - we have a lot of openly gay members. But we’re not quite there on gender. We created women’s outreach. It’s less “Come show how cool you are,” and it’s more “Come see this free software project.” The messaging is important. We have an article coming this week in the GNOME.

What barriers do you think that women face?

A good talk to look at Kirriloy (sp?) at OS-Con, and she also wrote a blog post on this.

One problem is there’s not enough women! I keep coming back to—with sexual orientation, there are a lot of gay people in our community, but their identify isn’t immediately obvious. But with women, when you come on the mailing list, your identity is indeed obvious. I've heard you need 5 active, visible people in a group before that group doesn't feel like a minority and attribute all responses to the group they belong too. Maybe 5 isn't the magic number, but more visible women would help.

I had a friend look at marketing materials, and she had some comments. I posted those comments on the mailing list, and they were shot down and my friend felt shot down as a result! And that’s a problem. Some solutions might be having meet-ups, because people aren’t as aggressive in person.

What role does the foundation play in the health of the GNOME community?

We spent a lot of money making sure that people can come to annual conferences. These events that we have, finances, approval usually goes through the foundation. We budget the money for many things, like events. The travel committee coordinates travel sponsorships. The Board also theoretical also has the mediator role. If someone doesn’t like another’s blog post, it’s the Board they appeal to.

How do you manage language issues?

For the most part, communication happens in English.

We noticed that GNOME receives the vast majority of funding via donations from individuals and corporations. How does GNOME think about this balance, and what strategy does GNOME use to meet revenue targets? (e.g., banner ads, events, etc.)

We still heavily rely on corporate donations. We’ve made improvements in individual donations, but we’re not self-sustaining here yet.

On the corporate side, we’re okay with depending on them as long as there’s diversity—a large number of them. It would be more powerful, though, if we were supported by the community. We did a survey of all people who contributed to “Friends of GNOME,” and over 95% of them were people who didn’t contribute because they didn’t have the time or the skills. So it’s not developers contributing.

We’re working on reaching these people (non-developers) better. We want our applications to note that you can donate when you use them. We also know that a lot of users read “Planet GNOME,” so we could use that.

How many people contribute to GNOME?

Around 400.

How familiar are you with the Wikipedia project and the MediaWiki software platform?

Not very familiar. But I have indeed contributed pages!

Do you have any thoughts on the types of changes you would like to see to the MediaWiki software platform?

The mark-up is scary, and the whole process is a bit scary.

What type of volunteer developer community do you think would be necessary to support and develop that type of a platform?

We have a documentation team. And we created a Wiki page that has pointers on different information and small projects that someone might be able to get started with. I’m not sure how successful it is.