Interview with Juan José Sánchez Penas of the GNOME Advisory Board
Stormy Peters interviews Juan José Sánchez Penas, a member of the GNOME Advisory Board, about his experience working at Igalia and with free software technologies.
Juan José Sánchez Penas is a member of the GNOME Foundation Advisory Board where he represents Igalia. He’s the Co-founder and member of Igalia, an European company specialized in the development of innovative technologies around Linux, Freedesktop.org, Webkit and GNOME. During the past 5 years, Igalia has applied its upstream experience to the mobile market, contributing to open platforms like GNOME Mobile, Maemo, Moblin or LiMo, and developing many projects for relevant international companies. At Igalia, Juan José works in tasks related to business development, group coordination and project management. He is also a part time teacher at UDC since 2001, giving courses related to software design and programming.
How did Igalia get started working on GNOME?
We founded Igalia back in 2001, with the main goal of doing innovative free software development. Some of our first clients wanted ad hoc software for managing their business. As some of us had been following with interest what was happening within GNOME, we decided to take some risks and build a solution on top of the GNOME technologies.
Things were very different then. We started using GNOME 1.x and while we were in the middle of the product development, 2.x was released, so we had to make a huge effort to port everything to the new APIs. In 2002 we started attending GUADEC, getting more and more involved in the project, learning a lot, and progressively went from being external consumers of the platform to become active contributors to the core components.
How many people do you have working on GNOME?
We try to grow slowly and organically, and we have high standards to ensure that we keep the company culture, based on workplace democracy and self-management principles, very strong. We are 40 people in the company and leaving aside a small group of people working in web technologies and a very small management team, the rest of the company is working with or inside GNOME, Freedesktop.org, and related technologies.
Why did you pick the areas/projects that you did to work on?
We try hard to combine strategy and sustainability with selecting technological challenges that are attractive to our hackers. For example, we are investing a lot in WebKitGTK+, as we really think that the synergy with web technologies is one of the keys in the future of the desktop and mobile. But we are also doing that cause we have a team of people strongly motivated to take on that challenge with energy and passion.
What is the biggest challenge working with both companies and a free software community?
Sometimes we the small open source consultancy companies can be seen as working right in the middle of two very different worlds: the evil empire of companies wanting to make profit, and the pure and ethically oriented free software community. But at the end there are a lot of shared interests and huge potential for the win-win. The main challenge is to find the people in key roles of big corporations or institutions that really understand how free software works, the dynamics of the community, and the right way to approach a project and have influence (as opposed to control) in its future.
What is the biggest benefit?
In my opinion the biggest benefit is that bringing powerful companies to contribute directly or indirectly to a free software project is a way to make that project advance faster, and therefore become more useful for more people.
How do you find customers?
We are quite active upstream, and quite specialized, so in many cases it is them who find us. It is becoming more and more common that people contact us because they see our contributions to the repository of a project. The best marketing for a company like us is to git push cool improvements or features to our own projects or projects we contribute to. But of course we also go to many commercial conferences and technical forums, where we try to get closer to companies that could be interested in our services.
How do you hire people? Do you look for people already contributing to GNOME? Do you ever hire anyone that doesn’t already work for GNOME?
This has evolved over the 8 years of company history. Nowadays we mostly hire experienced contributors to the free software platforms that we are most interested in, GNOME being a key one. But we also have hired – and still do sometimes- people with a lot of potential to become good hackers.
What would you like to see the GNOME project do differently?
It is a very difficult question, and I don’t have a specific answer to it. The project is very wide and heterogeneous.
The Desktop is in a stable, mature period nowadays, and not a lot of radical innovation is taking place there. Things like the Shell or Zeitgeist are fresh air and hopefully will contribute to a solid and exciting GNOME 3.0. But in the past years most of the innovation has taken place within the platform itself, with new components that are providing the applications with new exciting ways to interact and cooperate with the world, and that are being used also outside the GNOME desktop, and specifically in the mobile world.
What do you see as the GNOME community’s biggest challenge in the next few years? (Or with GNOME 3.0.)
I really think that the biggest challenge is to compete against and at the same time cooperate with the revolution that is taking place in the web, with very powerful new standards and technologies that are starting to become the default choice for software development and deployment. HTML5 is at the center of all that.
There are many other things, obviously, like ensuring that we have the right accessibility support, keeping the good work in the most innovative core technologies, and consolidating things like the GNOME Shell, which as I said can provide the needed fresh air in the way we interact with the desktop.
What excites you about GNOME?
The thing that excites me most is that what I explained as the biggest challenge can also be seen as a very good opportunity: we can create something very powerful taking the very solid GNOME platform as a building block, and WebKitGTK+ as the bridge between the two worlds.
About the Author
Photo of Juan José Sánchez Penas by csaavedra under a CC-NC-SA 2.0 license.