Aaron Seigo Talks About KDE's Past and Future

Open source must be competitive with proprietary software, the KDE leader says, otherwise “in the long run, that will leave us with nothing to show except for a strange group of people that work on something irrelevant.”
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Aaron Seigo is one of the most public faces of the KDE desktop. Not only is he a long-time developer, but, for the past three years, he has been president of KDE e.V., the German non-profit that handles the project's financial and legal affairs.

He is also an articulate blogger and public speaker who combines thoughtfulness with brash outspokenness. This last weekend, I finally met him face to face at COSSFest in Calgary. Now nearing the end of his time as president, he talked about KDE's recent past and near future, and his role in both.

Seigo is aware of his celebrity (or notoriety) in the free software community, but not altogether comfortable with it. "I'm not a huge believer in the cult of personality," he said over a large bowl of vegetarian Pho. "You look at Apple: Steve Jobs goes away because of illness and stock prices go down. I don't think that's fair to the other people in Apple, who put their hearts and souls and lives into it. And that's not really in the spirit of KDE. But that's what you get with the cult of personality."

At any rate, such celebrity is often misguided. Seigo insists, for instance, that his role of president is not nearly as important as many people imagine. "To the outside, the role matters," he says. "But, really, it is just added responsibility, with no ability to dictate or anything of that nature. It's not so much an empowerment of the individual as the individual serving the community and how to make sure that the community processes that need to be engaged actually do get engaged."

Even the fact that he was president as well as a lead developer in the introduction of the KDE 4 series, he describes as an accident, although he admits that the coincidence "gives the odd appearance."

As he looks forward to stepping down as president and refocusing on his development interests, Seigo is far more interested in talking about what has been accomplished during the last three years. He mentions the introduction of a code of conduct for interaction within the community and an upcoming membership drive for individuals. But what he is most pleased about is the increased transparency and the institutionalizing of developer sprints within the project.

"When I stepped in, the board people were very busy people," he recalls. "They spent their time getting things done, as opposed to helping people understand what was getting done. And there was a certain decrease in interaction and trust that occurs when you do that."

Consequently, when Seigo took office, "it was a stated policy that we wanted to increase transparency. So we did things like starting to publish publicly quarterly reports on our activities, and we were much more pro-active in communicating our goals, as well as our results in things such as finances, so there was more trust and transparency."

Another change that Seigo is proud of is the institutionalizing of development sprints -- events at which members of a sub-project meet for an intensive few days of interaction and work. "With refunds for travels and lodging, we hope to have the organization on the ground so that, when they arrive, things get done," Seigo says. "And we also have accountability, so they have to return and give us a report."

This report serves three purposes: to ensure that sprints are productive, to give participants some public credit (an important consideration throughout the free software community), and to inform the larger KDE community of what is happening.

According to Seigo, the development sprints have been a useful investment for the project. "We are holding them now about once a month for different projects, and it's part of their budget. We track results, and it's interesting: During the event, you'll see an uptick in activity in the form of svn commits, and then there's a long tail of anywhere from three to six months. Then it comes down to normal level, and there'll be another one in the next year, or six months after the first one, and you get that uptick again."

Remembering KDE 4's Reception

2008 saw the introduction of KDE 4.0, a major overhaul of the popular desktop. For a complicated variety of reasons, the release was received with loud and often abusive hostility, which only abated when the 4.2 releases restored many of the customizing features of the KDE 3 series.

Asked whether the reception was challenging, Seigo replies, "Absolutely. Especially in the first half of the year. You release something that you've put so much of your passion into, so much of your heart, you work for two years -- it was very disappointing. And then there was the level and unrelenting nature of it, and the people who really wanted things not to go well. There are, unfortunately, certain individuals out there who love a train wreck, and not just watching it, but pulling the switch."

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Tags: Linux, developer, software, KDE, desktop

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