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Open Source in Finance Podcast: How to be a good corporate citizen in open source, Dawn Foster

August 10, 2022

In this episode of the podcast, Grizz interviews Dawn Foster, Director Open Source Community Strategy at VMware. 

This is the beginning of our series on the bedrock benefits of open source. Dawn and Grizz talk about how collaboration breeds creativity, how to be a good corporate citizen in open source, and also about Dawn's path, and how she's been able to turn her fascination in open source communities into a career.

Episode show notes and transcript are available below.

Audio Podcast Version

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Grizz Griswold: 0.03
Good morning, good afternoon. Good evening, wherever you are. This is Grizz Griswold, Head of Marketing. And this is the open source in finance podcast. On this episode of the podcast, I sit down with Dawn Foster, who's the Director of Open Source Community Strategy at VMware. We talk about how collaboration breeds creativity in open source and the experiences that Dawn has had throughout her career, and what she's seen as a good corporate citizen in open source. So sit back and Cue the music.

Grizz Griswold: 0.49
All right, is everybody in? Cool. So this is an interview with Dawn Foster, who's the Director of Open Source Community Strategy at VMware. And Dawn has been a consistent speaker at our open source in finance and open source strategy forums, in the past couple of years. I talked to her right before open source and finance forum in London this past year, and she was presenting on how to be a good corporate citizen in open source, which you'll hear us talking about that a little bit. And this is also a beginning to our series on the bedrock benefits of open source within financial services. And in this particular one, we talk a little bit about collaboration, breeding creativity. And we find this so much within the work that we see happening on a daily basis, between our sell side banks and our buy side firms and the cloud servers, service providers in the big tech firms that and the service integrators and the reg techs and fintechs that all work together on these open source projects. So what I wanted to talk to Dawn about was, you know, over her 20 years experience within open source, you know, what she's seen at an atomic level, you know, in companies and how that has grown over the years. This, you know, the collaboration, breeding creativity, and kind of where it starts is in the tiny little niches of things that actually grow into something bigger. But enough of my talking, I'll let you hear from Dawn, and hope you enjoy it, and we'll catch you on the other side.

Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening, wherever you are. This is Grizz Griswold of FINOS, hope you're doing well. Today. My guest is Dawn Foster. Dawn is the director of open source community strategy for VMware. Dawn say, hello.

Dawn Foster: 2:46
Hello, everyone.

Grizz Griswold: 2:48
How are you today?

Grizz Griswold: 2:53
Sometimes we have to work in interesting situations. And today is one of those days for me. So I hope you're having a nice day at home and chilling out a little bit. I'd really like to talk to you and find out you know, a little bit about your career, your developer, your technologists journey that you've had, and kind of what brought you here? What brought you to VMware?

Dawn Foster: 3:19
Yeah, sure. So I have been working in open source for more than 20 years, actually, I came out of university with sort of the standard computer science degree back in the mid 90s and I started my very first job out of university as a Unix System Administrator. So I spent a lot of time working on on Unix, this was before most companies had adopted Linux in any form. So that was for a manufacturing company in the Midwest. I did that for a few years. amongst some other things. I also worked on some some e commerce, which was the hot new thing back then. It was before bust. And then I ended up at Intel in 2000. And shortly after I started, they started to do a little more work with Linux and Open Source. And they needed someone to take a strategic look at some basically Linux and Linux developer tools in particular, so open source tools, but also proprietary Linux development tools, and figure out which ones were likely to be strategic for Intel over the coming years. And we'd focus on some of those to enable new processors. And they looked at me and they were like, well, you did Unix, which is kind of like Linux. And of course, as a Unix sysadmin, I dealt with all kinds of open source tools. So you know, I've been a user of open source for quite a while. And so I ended up with that project. And I started as part of this kind of strategic look at these open source projects. I got fascinated by the way that these communities operated, because you look at it from the outside and it's just like chaos, right? It's just like people throwing code together and somehow they end up with something that not only works but works really, really well. So I got fascinated by how these projects just operated. And I managed to sort of turn that into a full time career and I managed to move from, you know, at Intel, I was doing kind of strategic, open source things, I moved into more of a full time community management roles, community lead roles. So I did that at places like Jive Software, and I did some consulting for a few years I worked at Puppet where I lead their community team. And then for my for my midlife crisis, and 2015, I quit my job at Puppet, I sold my house and sold my car in Portland, Oregon, and picked up and moved to London, where I got a PhD, and I studied the Linux kernel. And I looked at how people collaborate together from various competing companies to produce the Linux kernel. And then after that, I ended up at Pivotal, and then now at VMware.

Grizz Griswold: 5:57
And I think the first the first time I met you, well, I don't even think we're FINOS at the time, we were still the Symphony Software Foundation was when you just moved to pivotal. And I think we've been brought you in as a speaker from one company and going into another company at the same at the time. And but also, I know that you've talked to all things open too. And that was part of the genesis of that as well. And so I've kind of followed your career over the years as a conference organizer, which has been kind of cool. So and you do a lot of speaking as well, right?

Dawn Foster: 6:38
I do. I actually recently counted because I've started doing talks on how to become a conference speaker and how to submit good talk proposals for conferences, and I've done over 100 talks at industry events.

Grizz Griswold: 6:49
That's pretty stellar.

Dawn Foster: 6:51
It's a lot. This is what happens when you have a 20 year career and something turns out, you talked a lot about it.

Grizz Griswold: 6:58
Well, it's good, because what is the first 15 years is becoming the expert in it? And then yeah, the next. I don't know that. That's is that outliers is it was that the Malcolm Gladwell book about? It takes 15 years to become an expert in something. And, you know, you, you fake the rest, I think, maybe I read anyway, um, so. So in your talk, your talk is how to how to be good corporate citizen in open source. Can you talk a little bit about that, but can you also talk about to some of the difference, the goodness and the benefits that come out of open source? You know, as you go through your career as a good corporate citizen in open source

Dawn Foster: 7:54
Yeah, absolutely. So VMware, I run our open source community strategy team. And so I spend a lot of time looking at the open source projects that are important to us that are strategic for us. And, you know, looking at ways that we can improve, improve the health of those projects. And it's something that is  - so open source in general, is super important to VMware. So we're, we're building our flagship products, like the VMware tanzu line, on top of open source cloud native technologies like Kubernetes, and lots of other CNCF projects. And we really see open source as the way for us to innovate - nearly all modern software is based on open source in one form or another, right and it allows us to be more creative, it gives us faster time to market, it gives us access to innovation, it gives us you know, increased developer productivity, but you don't get that benefit of open source just by consuming it, you really also need to contribute to it. And that's really how you get this innovation benefit. And there are lots of people that consume it, not a lot of people who contribute to it. And we have loads of people who spend all or most of their time contributing to upstream projects, like Kubernetes and spring and rabbit MQ and lots of other other CNCF projects, but we believe that it's really important for us to invest in and contribute to open source, and that's part of how you become a good citizen in open source.

Grizz Griswold: 9:30
And I think maybe, maybe you've seen this in financial services, but when I first started here five years ago that there was a lot of consumption and and really, truly in the past five years, we've seen a huge uptick in contribution in the financial services industry, in general across the board, which again five years ago was not not a thing. So may be a little bit later to the table than some of the other, you know, more purely technological, I guess, companies and industries. But I hope that you're seeing that as well in the work that you've been doing.

Dawn Foster: 10:16
Yeah, absolutely. And like you said, I mean, finance has been maybe a little bit late to the game, just because they tend to be, you know, more more conservative companies, for sure. yeah, but I think about contributing to open source software in general, there, there are a lot of different layers, right. So I mean, at the very basic layer, it's, you make a change to an open source project internally, you you create a patch, whatever, to fix something that you you needed, or some bug that you encountered. And the first step is sort of contributing that back upstream into the project as a good corporate citizen. But contributing that backup stream means that you're letting other people benefit from it, but also that you're not taking the burden of maintaining that patch, every time there's an upgrade, or security update, or, or something, and having to be constantly reapplying these patches that you've done. And so that's kind of like the first step, that's the baby step into open source is just to reduce your own technical debt, or using open source open source projects. And then would you really see the value, though, is when you start to build on that, and you start to become truly part of that community. And when you're taking on leadership positions, and getting really deeply involved in these communities you can have influence into the products, you know, projects direction, you can help make the project better for everybody, you learn about what's coming in the project, I mean, the best way to not be surprised by what's happening in an open source project, is if you're in there on a day to day basis, working on it. And, and that's that's really how from a company perspective, that's how you get this, this innovation, that's how you get the creativity, that's how you get the benefits of open source is by being there on a day to day basis, and helping make the decisions and making things better and contributing as needed to do that.

Grizz Griswold: 12:15
You kind of separate it in your talk. And this goes to what you were just saying. You separate the company from the individual from the community. And I think part of what, at least what I'm getting out of, you know, what, what I'm reading into the abstract is, is that the company as an entity has goals, the human, the individual has goals, and the community has goals as well. And they don't probably always match up. Is that true? And then how does that work?

Dawn Foster: 12:56
Yeah, they don't indeed, always match up. And so So I actually look at these actually look at these three things is sort of a triad. So I think that they're distinct things. But they're also interrelated and really complicated ways that are hard, I think, for a lot of companies to understand. So on the one hand, you have individuals, so those are the people who are actually in these communities, making those contributions. They're building trust in those communities, they're moving into leadership positions, which they take with them if they change companies. So it really is the day to day work in these communities is very much individually based. And then but you've got these collections of, of individuals, so you've got the community, which you can kind of think of also as the project, right? So the community or the project has to do the right thing for the project. So everything that goes into into the project has to be in the best needs of the community. And so that's why you have these individuals working together within these communities. And it's really to deliver this open source project. And you know, to be kind of the best it can be. But it really everything does really need to be in the best interests of the community as a whole. And then you've got the companies. And so the companies are paying people to spend their full time in these communities. So they're paying these individuals, these individuals are part of the communities. But the companies also need to recognize that they can't just push stuff into these open source communities just because they have those individuals there even individuals that are in leadership positions. And what can happen if people don't understand this
kind of complicated dynamic is that they put their individual employees into these no win situations where they can't do what they need to do for the good of the community without jeopardizing their employment and their livelihood. And that puts people in really tough positions and I have quit jobs I'm because of this dynamic in the past where the company has continued to push me to do things that just weren't the right things for the community in the project, and not really understanding why that was not cool, and it has a huge impact on employee retention, and it has a huge impact on that company's reputation and these open source projects

Grizz Griswold: 15:22
I imagine, in part of your talk that you talk about the company's role in making sure that the individual is, is allowed to work within the community in order to make whatever that open source project is better. I do wonder, what's the responsibility of the employee to? And I wonder, because I've seen, you know, what is the responsibility of the employee to kind of educate the employer, as to why, or the benefits that they would actually be getting, by continuing or allowing an employee to really be part of a community because it benefits the community, it benefits the individual, but it also benefits the company itself as long as it's a symbiotic relationship. You know, is there any onus on the employee back to the employer? I guess, as far as education, especially, I'm thinking, again, in financial services to where regulated industry, you've had a history of like, things are getting better, but, you know, it's still not always there because of the regulation, because of the the ultra compliance. And then also some people just they weren't born in open source as well. So, you know, so there is a lot of education that we still do. But I wonder for that contributor, what's, what's the education back to the employer?

Dawn Foster: 17:08
Yeah, I think to the extent that they can help educate their employer, I think that's definitely something you need to do, especially if you don't have a lot of open source in your company. But on the other hand, you know, putting that on individual employees can also be really hard. So, you know, especially more junior employees might not be good at making that connection. And being able to really clearly articulate why it is that the work that they do is important. And I see too many, particularly junior engineers, position it as in a way that makes it sound like charity, which is not going to win them any favors, being able to continue to do that long term. Because it's not charity, it's work that needs to be done and that the company benefits from, like I said, you know, we VMware, we look at it from the standpoint of as a way to power innovation, and we don't look at it as as charity. And so I'm very careful never to position it as this is just for the, for the good of all of the people, it's for the good of VMware, and it also benefits or benefits our customers, it benefits the entire ecosystem. But I tried to talk about it in terms of benefits, as opposed to charity. But this is also a place where if the company has an open source program office, which are becoming increasingly common, the open source program office can do an awful lot to start to do  some of this education across the company, because the more managers and leaders who understand how these dynamics work and the importance of these long term commitments in these communities, the more likely you are to be able to sustain these contributions. And this is why I also talk a lot about having strategies and plans for your open source work that clearly tie back to what the company is trying to achieve. And the reason I I saw hammerheart on this, and just about every presentation, I give on almost any open source topic, because I think it's really, really important and from a good corporate citizen standpoint, the work that we do in open source projects, because a lot of it is based on these individuals build trust, and they build reputations in these communities. So these are long term investments. And so if you have companies that are constantly pulling people on and off of these projects, and treating people like replaceable cogs, they're not going to be successful in their open source efforts. But if you take the time to put together some strategies and plans that tie back to what your organization what your whole company is trying to achieve, it's like our company is trying to do this, and here's how the open source work that we do fits into that, then you're more likely to be able to justify that over periods of years as opposed to getting cut in the next cycle because someone decides it's charity, and not real work

Grizz Griswold: 20:05:
is a very good way of putting it too. I think you're right. I still remember the log world and helping organize some of the Linux User Group and in different places and how sometimes it did feel very if not charity, then like, Hey, we're kind of doing this thing. But there's real true business value that can be derived out of this. But if it's the right project as well then there's a lot of good that can be done. I think too building the community, a good healthy community that's around something that people have purpose in, I think that people need communities. And they gravitate towards them with things that they like, and when they find a community, whether it's video gaming, whether it's an open source project, whether it's, something that you do as a hobby that has nothing to do with technology, I can't think of outside technology right now. this kind of good for the human soul, I feel. And so there are benefits that come out of it that aren't necessarily business value. But I think, yes, you're very correct that if you have to sell this, then the melody is here dollars and cents, and there's a whole bunch of rounded that is so beneficial to your company as well.

Dawn Foster: 21:51
Yeah, I mean, early in my career, this is part of why I've been able to do this for so long, I spent a lot of time justifying why I was doing this and basically justifying my existence at various companies. And I do this on behalf of other people, right, so I justify the work that we do in various various open source projects that are lots of people contributing. But so this is, I'll be honest, this is sort of my sneaky way of working this is that you, you build the contribution strategies and plans based on what you're trying to achieve as a company. But you also encourage people that are working in that project to also do other things that benefit the community that the community needs. And you can you can do that, you're waiting for a big PR delay, and you're answering questions, you're answering questions in forums, or doing GitHub reviews on other people's stuff, or maybe improve some documentation. But there's lots of stuff that you can do to benefit the community, sort of what we call in Kubernetes, the chop wood carry water tasks, so the little thankless things, and I think those are also important, but you're not going to justify the work based on that. Those are some things that you can do in addition, because you're not always going to be working on a big new feature, or, you know, whatever. And and these help build your reputation and those as an individual and as a company, in those communities, because you're doing things that that are needed for the community but aren't the selfish things that you you need as a company.

Grizz Griswold 23:30
No, I agree. And both are important.
We've kind of touched on a couple of times, but I did kind of want to come back to, you know, the the collaboration, side breeding creativity. And kind of the - I don't want to call it hive mind that that would be the wrong way of looking at a community mind. But the different perspectives that come out of a community and how they can really breed creativity in your project that you bring back into your business as well.

Dawn Foster: 24:00
Yeah, I mean, I think one of the reasons that you do see a lot of creativity and innovation and open source projects is because you have a whole bunch of people coming from different backgrounds in different places working together. And from the standpoint of like diversity, equity and inclusion, you've got people from different, you know, different backgrounds from that standpoint. But you also have people from different companies and different types of companies think about things very, very differently. So finance companies versus semiconductor manufacturers versus software companies like VMware, we all have different approaches and different ways of thinking about things. And so when you have a big project, like like Kubernetes, for example, that's an obvious one, because everybody knows what it is. You know, having people from lots of different types of companies, lots of different backgrounds, lots of different kinds of experiences over the years, helps you think about things in a way that you just never would if it was a project that you're building entirely within the walls of your company, because you'd have product managers who are talking to your customers, but not other customers. And I think one of the reasons that this does, you end up with things that are more innovative and more creative is because you're tapping into this whole pool of people who know about your customers, but also people who know about customers that you could have in the future. And other people who might want to use this, this software, project or platform in a way that you you wouldn't in a traditional environment where you're kind of running through the traditional sort of

Grizz Griswold: 25:39
And I was talking to a maintainer of a project last week. And he was saying that one of the most important things that they've gotten from the work that they've done together as actually competitors, within the same space, that it's been the use cases that have come out of the different companies that are competing with each other in the same space. You're right, they do things differently, they, they have different gooeys, their philosophies are different on on how they approach things. And they have, you know, slightly different customer bases, that brings in different use cases, so that it eventually has made, what they've been building incredibly different from where it was a year ago when they were in version 1.2 of it. Now, they're going into version 2.0 of it. And even the diversity of the diversity of customers, and what they do on a daily basis is become very important to that group. And so they may not always agree on things, but that's every community. Right? But that was something that he was pointing to directly as a maintainer in that particular project going - it's the healthy competition. And in the coopetition that has come out of that community that has made what they're doing even better. So totally goes to what you're saying, I feel.

Dawn Foster: 27:31
Yeah, I mean, every time I, I contribute to something, you know, I, I always learn something whether I'm talking to people at conferences, whether I'm doing reviews of the work that other people are doing or other people reviewing, reviewing the things that I've done, you really just get different, different perspectives. And you're like, Well, why did you do it that way, and Help me Help me understand. And at some point, you were like, wow, that's way better than the way I was doing that thing before. And so you learn so much. So this is part of why I've loved being an open source for as long as I have these amazing connections with people that I've met at events that I've met in communities. And I can travel just about anywhere in the world and meet up with somebody that I know from some open source community that I was part of in the past, or that I know from from conferences, and I've just had really interesting conversations with really fascinating people over the years. And so it's just been from a personal standpoint, that's been the best thing to work on, that I could even possibly ever possibly think of.

Grizz Griswold: 28:42
That's awesome. And you're right. It's kind of the fun of conferences, it's one of these communities as well. So, are there any besides Kubernetes? Are there any other projects that really pique your interest? Whether you have them working on them currently, or if you've seen something that, like, hey, you know, somebody should really check this out. Anything that maybe somebody wouldn't know about? Right now that maybe even just needs help?

Dawn Foster: 29:15
Yeah, so I spend quite a bit of time in the chaoss project. So that's chaoss with two s's. It's a it's a Linux Foundation project that's focused on Project health metrics for open source projects. And it's something that I've been involved in for a long time. I've cared a lot about open source metrics. This is part of how I've justified my job over and over and over, as we talked about earlier, is through metrics and data and I'm just a fan. I'm a fan of data in general. So this is a project that I contribute to and it is genuinely probably the nicest community of people I've ever been involved in and I've been involved in lots of communities with really nice people like Puppet had fantastic people. Kubernetes has lots of fantastic people but the K ASP project really is super welcoming. It's super diverse. And I think a lot of people look at Project Health Metrics and they think, Well I don't write code I can't contribute. And a lot of what we actually spend our time doing is defining metrics using words. So it's what does it mean, for, you know, time to first response on an issue? How would how would you do that? Not? How would you do that in code? But how would you? How would you approach that? How would you measure that? What questions are you trying to ask? And so we spent a lot of time just talking about what metrics we need, and defining them in a way that makes sense for the people who might be using them. And then we can implement them in software. Well, because the software sort of pre dated some of the metrics, one of the things we've been doing is going back and actually defining a lot of the metrics that are already implemented in the software. So we do it that way, too. But it's a fun community that anybody that's interested in the health of open source projects can participate in some way or another.

Grizz Griswold: 20:58
Because words have meaning folks? 

We have projects that have meaning specifically about how do we say this so that the intent is correct. And that's what you're saying and what what I meant with words have meaning and that should help draw non technologists, marketing people, HR like the entire spectrum, can get involved with open source, which I don't think still at this point, that that may be like, the next level of open source, getting the people that don't code that are engineers consider themselves technologists to really start to come into the fold. I don't consider myself a developer - I made websites, front end development, kind of more hacking it. But when I've gotten involved with things, it's been on the Oh, yeah, it's just the understanding so that other people can understand it as well. So this my halfway technologist brain, trying to get involved and in your right if you have the right community that welcomes different point of views then you really do a lot with that. 

Dawn Foster: 32:55
I still occasionally contribute code to projects, not very often, and usually very small, small bits. But the vast majority of the contributions that I make tend to be around things like improving the governance, which, again, is words and markdown files. But I think open source projects, really need to do a bit more to mentor some of the, you know, I'll just call it non developers into the fold, because even to make changes to website content, or markdown files, it requires a process uses GitHub, which is relatively straightforward. For those of us that have used source code control systems for many years. It is absolutely not intuitive to anyone else. And so I think that a big part of getting product managers, which are super important, and open source projects, documentation, or tech writers and people who do marketing and all of these other things you really need within an open source project. I think we need to do more and open source projects to provide training and mentoring and bring these people in and help them because once they understand how it works, it's not hard, but it's not going to be intuitive to a lot of people until they've done it a few times. 

Grizz Griswold: 34:20
Totally agree and have seen it and then you get that person that comes in thinking that they have no part in it, and then those are the ones that usually shine later on when they really take hold something and make it their own, and then become part of that community as well. So I think that's pretty cool.

Dawn Foster: 34:40
Yeah, somebody who works on my team she just finished this, this document that was a updatestar file that we're going to use this template across the VMware projects. And he was like, Yeah, I'll ship this over to so and so and you know, and you can do the pull request. I was like or you could do the pull request. And in 15 minutes, I walked her through how to do her first pull request, we installed the plugin on Chrome that converts that Google Doc, which is what she'd been working in to markdown, we cleaned it up a little bit, we did a PR. And it was like 15 minutes, but I was like 'you could do the PR' but you know, it's not obvious how to do that until you get somebody walks you through it.

Grizz Griswold: 36:26
No, that's true. I still I rarely do PRs anymore. And when I do I have to go through an entire process of like, Okay, what did I do last time in order to get to there? But you're right, you know what, once you know how to do it, then yeah, keep doing it. Keep doing it, keep moving. Because you will eventually start getting a lot out of it. So for anybody who isn't able to catch Dawn in person in London, for the open source in finance Forum her video is going to be available. And obviously this podcast is to complement it. So. But Dawn, I really appreciate your time today. And even though this podcast will come out after the conference, I'm looking forward to your talk.
The matrix is real. And anytime, if you have something you're working on in the future, please let us know. And I would love to talk about all things open source to the year. I think that this was great. I think that I told you I want to talk a lot about collaboration and creativity. And I think we hit everything in open source. All the benefits. So thank you. And with that, I'm gonna go ahead and say, Good day. Good night, wherever you are. And thank you again, Dawn.

Dawn Foster: 37:05
Yeah. Thanks for having me. It's fun.

Grizz Griswold: 37:07
All right. Well, we hope you've enjoyed this podcast with Again, my guest was Dawn Foster from VMware. Her talk from open source finance forum in London, is available at our website and the name of the talk again, was how to be a good corporate citizen in open source. And we'll put Dawn's information and how to watch your videos as well, in the show notes, if you enjoyed this podcast, please rate it wherever you can on your podcast platforms. And also get involved with the foundation at Sign up for our newsletter or for this week at FINOS in order to get continual updates on what's happening within the FINOS ecosystem. Sign up for our Slack channels as well and just get involved with the community. We're looking forward to seeing you. And with that, I'm gonna say again, good day, good night, wherever you are.


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The FINOS Open Source in Finance Podcast celebrates open source projects and interesting topics at the cross section of financial services and open source. So far, our industry experts have discussed practical applications of and their real-world experiences with a range of open source projects including desktop interoperability, low code platforms, synthetic data, and data modeling. They’ve also discussed best practices for inner source, common myths about open source and why commercial companies choose to introduce open source offerings. Tune in and subscribe to hear what comes next.


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