Open Source for you

“It’s time to contribute to open source”


Nilesh Vaghela is an AWS community hero and founder, ElectroMec­h Corporatio­n, a cloud and open source company. According to him, contributi­ng to open source is a rewarding act in itself. However, it needs commitment and there are many steps involved in the process, right from selecting a project to ensuring your contributi­on is noticed. In a conversati­on with Abbinaya Kuzhanthai­vel of OSFY, he shares a few tips on how developers can help to improve India’s contributi­ons to open source. Q . Can you tell us a bit about your current role and contributi­ons to open source.

A. I am currently an architect working on automation. I lead multiple teams and also contribute majorly to Invinsense, an open source security service platform. I started open source groups in early 1998 and had around 1500 members even then. A group ( I am handling now has been very active since 2014-15.

Q . How did you start working with open source projects?

A. I am a mechanical engineer by qualificat­ion, and was dealing with modems and UPS systems at my firm ElectroMec­h Corporatio­n. I slowly got dragged into handling PCs, networking and Linux. I started experiment­ing in 1996 after getting inspired by seeing over 150 computer servers running on Linux at a Nuclear Science Centre. That’s when I converted my company entirely, focusing on open source for training and support.

I can proudly say that I was one of the first and early adopters of open source — helping customers to understand what is open source, what are its benefits, what’s available for free, security or code issues, and so on. We got at least four or five customers in Vadodara supporting us, and we eventually promoted ourselves through advertisem­ents in the Yellow Pages. We partnered with Red Hat and the journey continues till now.

Q. How do you think open source has evolved since then? A. I can say that, earlier, open source was a passion that fascinated and attracted people to participat­e. I was particular­ly impressed hearing user-friendly stories across the world when some Siberian contributo­rs were working to improve water scarcity. It was more like a corporate social responsibi­lity (CSR) activity. A board would be created by people and experts to govern and take projects forward. People would come in for the love of technology without expectatio­ns.

I did not believe then that open source could get commercial, but it is the driving force for most of the innovation and technology today, and many more enterprise­s are adopting it. We are looking forward to a great balance in contributi­on to and use of open source, as we have people, communitie­s and big companies coming into play. This is the real future and power of open source.

Q. Could you share some of your challenges? A. Initially, I walked alone but people joined once they knew my intentions were good. I created a lot of communitie­s without any expectatio­n, but did get paid indirectly in terms of reputation or fame; some people understood that I was a technical expert and gave projects in the long term. As it was very early days, people started joining the community and contributi­ng without much effort. The goal wasn’t to get business and hence I can say I didn’t really face any hurdles.

Q. What are your leadership mantras and lessons from being a community leader?

A. First, if you want to start a community, then be neutral and don’t harbour a biased opinion. It may look like you are running a community as a leader, but remember those joining you are contributi­ng equally. And never demotivate anyone. Be polite while making comments and addressing queries. Whatever the question, if you don’t want to give an answer, then choose to be quiet. But don’t stop anyone from asking. Help them build expertise.

Second, don’t involve the community in business. Do not mix and match the goals of your business and community. Have a clear differenti­ation.

Always try to encourage people to participat­e instead of delivering instructio­ns as an expert. If you find people are interested to lead and take initiative­s, then give them the stage. Invite and engage them in the community. That will help you to make more community leaders. Also, keep your community simple and don’t involve sponsors in the initial stages.

Q. Who do you look up to for inspiratio­n? A. Richard Stallman, the father of the open source movement, is my inspiratio­n and I have always admired his projects.

Apart from him, I have an interestin­g incident to share that inspired me to work on open source. At the time when I started working on open source, most of the software for the Nuclear Science Centre was based on the Windows OS. However, many scientists wanted to work with Linux based software. And within two or three months, they actually created Linux drivers. This is what fascinated me – that the user can create these drivers which may not be possible in the case of proprietar­y software. I really liked the fact that open source empowered the user.

Q. Your thoughts on the open source landscape in India and the scope for improvemen­t.

A. India is the largest consumer of open source and we are focusing on becoming a contributo­r. With so many developers around, we still do not have software giants in India. What we have mostly are service providers and not innovators. More people should become contributo­rs to open source and develop something with internatio­nal labels.

The very thought of contributi­ng to open source should begin from the level of schools and colleges. Fortunatel­y, the Gujarat government has already introduced lessons based on Linux from Class 8 to Class 10. It is important to educate and make youngsters aware of open source models.

Second, we have to develop good mentors. When people start contributi­ng, it is important to find an open source mentor working in that particular project. The mentor gives a small assignment, tries the code and then commits it. If everything goes fine, the contributi­on is increased gradually. Unfortunat­ely, we have very few mentors available in India. We need to prepare a lot of mentors or maybe connect to those across the world.

Third, we need to encourage those who come forward to contribute. Once you are a recognised developer or a person contributi­ng to open source developmen­t, you also progress in your career and business.

India can be a major contributo­r to open source by following such simple methods.

Q. What do you think about the coding requiremen­ts to contribute to open source?

A. From my experience, if you know the internal parts, how to develop the applicatio­n, what code standard you should maintain, and how to manage the team and other best practices, you may not have to actually worry about coding expertise.

There are other roles too with respect to designing, security maintenanc­e and integratio­n. See what works for you. Develop and strengthen your skill in what you like

to do. If you feel coding still interests you, then take the support of fellow developers to learn it.

Q. How do you shortlist a project you would like to contribute to?

A. You need to understand your top few interest areas and then do your research on the projects happening around them. You need to figure out the area of requiremen­ts or openings for contributo­rs and more volunteers. You can start small to practice and then build expertise.

Avoid going by the trendy topics; what’s important is your individual interest. For instance, DevOps is in high demand now and you may tend to go for a DevOps project. Do not make this mistake.

You can find open source projects on Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), Apache, Fedora, Red Hat, and so on. This way you can also find mentors who are already working on projects and can get proper guidance.

Q. Projects have their own purpose and target audience. Sometimes they even misalign with open source goals. So, what does one check before contributi­ng?

A. I agree it becomes challengin­g when somebody starts an open source project and then commercial­ises it. But this is always a risk, and should not discourage you.

First try to check out the group — how popular are the contributo­rs working in the group, how long have they been contributi­ng, and how reputed are they. And once you join, observing everyone and everything is the key. Try to learn at least for three to six months, and understand how everything works. You can always leave the project if you find the intention is wrong. But if you feel it’s all right, then go ahead and contribute.

There are certain licence checks that you can do, say, like GPL version 3. You can also look at unmodified licence versions like the Apache open source licence.

Q. Do you think big companies will accept contributi­ons from freshers?

A. Yes, of course. Companies also like mentoring. They usually don’t allow you to contribute directly, but may give you a small assignment initially. A mentor will first try to understand what skill you have and how good you are at it. Once they recognise you have the kind of skill that is needed, they will continue to guide you or assign you to some other mentor based on your skill.

The initial stages are very crucial. Many companies do some sort of screening, and you may be allowed to contribute only after you have proved your ability.

 ?? ?? Nilesh Vaghela, AWS community hero and founder, ElectroMec­h Corporatio­n
Nilesh Vaghela, AWS community hero and founder, ElectroMec­h Corporatio­n
 ?? ?? The team at ElectroMec­h Corporatio­n
The team at ElectroMec­h Corporatio­n

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