On Building a FOSS Community in My University

Uni­ver­si­ties are a place of in­no­va­tion and ex­plo­ration, thought child­hood me. What a chump. Sap­py son of the sun­ny sea­son. Some­one should have told him Uni­ver­si­ties will sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly slaugh­ter cu­rios­i­ty much like school did. Only more snob­bish. They be­lieve they are at at the fore­front of in­no­va­tion by teach­ing you ma­te­ri­als ripped off from guru99.com and geeks­forgeeks.com.

Re­gret­tably, no one told me. Ex­cept some of my friends from oth­er col­leges who got de­ceived at the same time as yours tru­ly.

En­gi­neer­ing col­leges in In­dia are more of­ten than not, ter­ri­ble vo­ca­tion­al schools, and a mar­ket­place to sell par­ents the promise of a de­gree and place­ments.

I al­most re­signed my­self to be­com­ing a cyn­i­cal grump with a chump stamp on my fore­head. Un­til I found hope.

An ex-col­lege club

It was right af­ter the end of my first year. I was scrolling through the list of clubs main­tained by my uni. PES Open Source. Oh, I love the idea of Open Source. Open Source peo­ple are tin­ker­ers. They don’t de­base learn­ing, nay, they ac­tu­al­ly re­vere it.

PES Open Source was dead. The group was ex­quis­ite when alive. They op­er­at­ed out of the dark ages of 2011 AD, when Open Source was not a buzz­word to pad out your ré­sumé with. Which means most stu­dents and fac­ul­ty had no idea what these nerds were even on about.

These peo­ple loved learn­ing, the bot­tom-up kind that re­sult­ed from tin­ker­ing. It’s telling that one of the first things they did when they formed was to bunk a week of col­lege, so that they could at­tend a KDE con­fer­ence in the city. They met the KDE lead­er­ship. They pushed them­selves in ways col­lege sim­ply could not.

I was savour­ing the old records of the count­less im­pec­ca­ble things that hap­pened in their five year his­to­ry. Col­leges can have real learn­ing some­where. Stu­dent-led com­mu­ni­ties are the an­ti­dote to the schol­ar­ly numb­ness that col­leges in­ject in our veins.

I found a link to their Slack work­space. I thought it was dead. But I clicked any­way.

PES Open Source was dead. Their founders not dead.

The founders were sur­prised at this blip of ac­tiv­i­ty. They told me more about their gold­en days. I asked them if I could restart the com­mu­ni­ty. They hand­ed me the keys to the ac­counts.

Over the next two years I joined a roller­coast­er with a set of like-mind­ed col­lab­o­ra­tors. We tried to re­build a com­mu­ni­ty fo­cused around Open Source. More im­por­tant­ly, around bot­tom-up learn­ing. The kind whose mem­bers would be tin­ker­ing and shar­ing with each oth­er ideas that ex­cite them. We’d achieve a sum greater than our parts. This is my sto­ry of what that looked like.

Ca­reer or noth­ing

It didn’t make sense to try recre­at­ing the light­ning-in-a-bot­tle that was the old group. Once that co­hort grad­u­at­ed, there was no PES Open Source (not for long at least). We want­ed some­thing more sys­tem­at­ic, and ac­ces­si­ble. Let’s ed­u­cate the mass­es about what Open Source real­ly is like. Let’s learn to con­tribute our­selves. It’ll all be per­fect­ly crunchy ap­ples, cold and sweet.

I want­ed this utopia. My col­lab­o­ra­tors want­ed this utopia too. Open Source every­where with all the stu­dents. Bound­less learn­ing and in­no­va­tion.

I did not take into ac­count that most stu­dents want oth­er things. They were not sap­py sons and daugh­ters of the sun­ny sea­son. They pri­mar­i­ly want­ed what the Uni­ver­si­ty dished out—the de­gree. My Uni­ver­si­ty ex­ist­ed not to be a bea­con of light to en­light­en a com­mu­ni­ty of schol­ars, no. They were here to ful­fil an eco­nom­ic de­mand. A piece of pa­per that helps you se­cure a job. Place­ments. Crack the in­ter­views. Study in our sys­tem, and you get a sta­ble ca­reer. Ide­al­ly one with a steady, over­flow­ing in­come, that brings pride to your fam­i­ly name.

The mar­ket­ing de­part­ments of the Uni­ver­si­ty re­volve around tar­get­ing these pil­lars of In­di­an so­ci­ety.

Mar­ket­ing is easy when coun­sell­ers on You­Tube do it for you.

The much ro­man­ti­cised col­lege life, has a dark un­der­cur­rent. It per­me­ates every ac­tiv­i­ty. Every in­ter­ac­tion. The air reeked of it. Life is about ca­reer. This is where you make your ca­reer. Every sin­gle ac­tion you make will ei­ther work to­wards your ca­reer or it won’t. This is where one’s au­then­tic­i­ty is sup­posed to die so that they can fi­nal­ly tran­si­tion to be­com­ing a grown-up.

I like a good ca­reer, but I like be­ing my­self more. I like learn­ing new things more. They can co­ex­ist with my ca­reer, with­out be­ing sac­ri­ficed for it. These are state­ments I can make, be­cause I am eco­nom­i­cal­ly and so­cial­ly priv­i­leged. I am aware not every­one is in a po­si­tion to be able to adopt this line of think­ing.

These ca­reer-or-noth­ing at­ti­tudes though, are of­ten at odds with our phi­los­o­phy.

Like when we adopt­ed a non-hi­er­ar­chi­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion struc­ture. There is a core team to han­dle ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks. We made it clear that this core team has no el­e­vat­ed sta­tus—they are just vol­un­teers that mod­er­ate dis­course, make our week­ly mee­tups hap­pen, and en­cour­age projects. We also prid­ed our­selves in be­ing open and wel­com­ing. Any­one in­ter­est­ed can join and vol­un­teer, with no in­ter­view process (which is the norm in col­lege clubs).

We got a lot of peo­ple who ap­plied to be the ad­min­is­tra­tive back­bone with in­com­pat­i­ble mo­tives. A lot of them did not un­der­stand Open Source soft­ware (not a pre­req­ui­site), but they sure as hell pre­tend­ed to love it. Many peo­ple did ab­solute­ly no work, es­pe­cial­ly when we des­per­ate­ly need­ed it. They con­tributed near­ly noth­ing, but were forth­right in men­tion­ing how they were a “core mem­ber” of our stu­dent so­ci­ety in their Linked­In pages.

Si­lence is a li­a­bil­i­ty

In ad­di­tion to the ad­min­is­tra­tive back­bone, we want­ed to cul­ti­vate a cul­ture of tin­ker­ing among all the par­tic­i­pants in the com­mu­ni­ty. I was also aware that a lot will join and do noth­ing. We stu­dents have a ten­den­cy to put our foot in every­thing, act on noth­ing, and still have plen­ty to show for it. That’s how we were con­di­tioned. So I in­tro­duced a sim­ple mea­sure to weed out large swathes of loafers. To get the PES Open Source Slack link, you had to take three steps.

Step 1: Fork the repos­i­to­ry pe­sos/mem­bers-list on Git­Hub.
Step 2: Add your name, and in­tro­duce your­self in the text file.
Step 3: Open a PR against the main repos­i­to­ry. A bot gives you a link.

We made it as be­gin­ner friend­ly as pos­si­ble, with clear in­struc­tions, and a con­tact point for help.

This tiny bar­ri­er was ef­fec­tive enough to pre­vent a ma­jor chunk of stu­dents from mind­less­ly click­ing a join link and for­get­ting about it. The bonus is, this was tech­ni­cal­ly an Open Source con­tri­bu­tion, the first for any be­gin­ner. By the time they join, they have al­ready got the gist of how Open Source ba­si­cal­ly works.

It wasn’t good enough though. In our ef­forts to make things ac­ces­si­ble, we lost out on real par­tic­i­pa­tion. For­get en­thu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pa­tion, hard­ly 20-30 of the 293 that joined in our work­space even spoke a word on the com­mu­ni­ty cha­t­room, when you look at the week­ly sta­tis­tics. The ac­ces­si­bil­i­ty was in fact, a façade. Our phys­i­cal mee­tups looked rather emp­ty for a group that boast­ed such a large mem­ber­ship.

Most peo­ple don’t even check the Slack work­space, let alone par­tic­i­pate in dis­course.

Here’s the prob­lem. No one wants to par­tic­i­pate in a cha­t­room where most of the mem­bers lurk, but do not speak. Si­lence begets si­lence. It doesn’t help that only this one tiny group of reg­u­lars talk, and it’s of­ten about more ad­vanced things. They ap­pear as an “elite class”. So we end up psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly block­ing out peo­ple who could bring some­thing new to the ta­ble, be­cause they don’t feel wel­come in the dis­course.

We learned that there is a cost to every silent and in­ac­tive mem­ber that joins our com­mu­ni­ty, which in­creas­es over time.

The phys­i­cal mee­tups

PES Open Source was al­ways more than just a cha­t­room. We also tried to have two mee­tups every month. The goal was to talk about things we find cool, show­case our projects, and real­ly, just meet to learn from each oth­er. We want­ed to hear from a di­verse set of voic­es from dif­fer­ent ar­eas of in­ter­est and ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els. That did not hap­pen.

In­evitably it al­ways fell upon my main col­lab­o­ra­tors and me to come up with some­thing, and share things we learnt. We tried hard to en­cour­age ac­tiv­i­ties that re­quires more par­tic­i­pa­tion from the peo­ple who show up. We want­ed oth­er peo­ple to start speak­ing up.

But no. Peo­ple used to come, and ex­pect to be lec­tured. In the class­room we bor­rowed to con­duct these mee­tups, the front bench­es re­mained emp­ty. The ones at the back were packed with blank faces. Maybe two or three got what a meet­up real­ly meant, and en­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed. Oth­ers could not di­gest the fact that the hi­er­ar­chy was peer to peer, not head­mas­ter to stu­dent. Even di­rect­ly ad­dress­ing them did noth­ing, they used to just shrug and mum­ble a phrase or two. They con­tributed noth­ing, dur­ing the meet­up or out­side of it. I was awestruck. Why do these peo­ple even show up, when they are clear­ly not in­ter­est­ed?

De­spite the awk­ward­ness, the mee­tups were great in mak­ing those who par­tic­i­pate feel like a com­mu­ni­ty. The ones that did get some­thing out of it, made the best parts of PES Open Source hap­pen.


Our biggest event in terms of raw num­bers was dur­ing the month of Hack­to­ber­fest. We thought rid­ing this wave will make ca­su­al Open Source con­tri­bu­tions and shar­ing ideas among stu­dents the norm. So we host­ed a lo­cal Hack­to­ber­fest phys­i­cal event. It was our first and only some­what large scale thing we pulled off. It had three events: A Git work­shop, a day of talks from FOSS com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers from the city, and a “hack day”.

It had a lot of the sta­ples you see in any hackathon these days: stick­ers and merch every­where.

The sched­ule was tight be­cause of col­lege ex­ams get­ting in the way. We need­ed to bor­row the Uni­ver­si­ty’s au­di­to­ri­um for 6 hours to have the “hack day”, where we get peo­ple in a room to work to­geth­er and make small Open Source con­tri­bu­tions all over the world. We’d be in­tro­duc­ing a lot of stu­dents to Open Source.

The Uni­ver­si­ty buried us in lay­ers of red tape, just to let us re­serve the au­di­to­ri­um. They have a pa­per reg­is­ter where we re­serve our slot. Ex­cept they have two pa­per reg­is­ters. So an­oth­er club booked the slot, on the oth­er reg­is­ter. Oh and also, the word “re­serve” is a loose term. We had to resched­ule our dates every two days, be­cause some oth­er clubs that were cre­at­ed by fac­ul­ty, just over­rode our reser­va­tion, with­out di­rect­ly telling us.

I was once sum­moned by the chair­per­son and this oth­er fac­ul­ty who ran the cy­ber­se­cu­ri­ty club. He want­ed to in­ter­ro­gate me. He first looked me in the eye, as though I was sup­posed to con­fess to some­thing.

“Sir, uhh, what can I do for you?”
“Hmm,” he said, with the gears turn­ing in his brain, “what is this Hack­to­ber­fest?”
I ex­plained to him what Hack­to­ber­fest was about.
“We are do­ing a CTF event on the same day. We can­not have an­oth­er hack­ing-re­lat­ed event from some­one else on the same day.”
“Sir, I think you are mis­tak­en. Hack­to­ber­fest has noth­ing to do with that kind of hack­ing or cy­ber­se­cu­ri­ty. We are not com­pet­ing with your event. The tim­ings do not clash, and the au­di­ence is dif­fer­ent.”
“I still can­not have you do this on the same day.”

I was try­ing hard not to laugh, but I was also so tired of all this non­sense. We fi­nal­ly had to pick a Sun­day in a four day long week­end, when ab­solute­ly no one would nor­mal­ly show up to col­lege.

Pro­mot­ing the event was hard as well. I vivid­ly re­mem­ber spend­ing around ₹4000 from our al­lo­cat­ed bud­get to get a gi­ant pro­mo­tion­al poster for our event near the front en­try of our col­lege. There was con­struc­tion work go­ing on in the cam­pus, and the au­thor­i­ties were hap­py to dig a hole where our poster used to be erect­ed, and throw the poster away with while they are at it. Well, at least we got 40 min­utes of dis­play time.

We still man­aged to get some Open Source lead­ers and tin­ker­ers from our lo­cal com­mu­ni­ty to give talks, rang­ing from Open Source hard­ware to phi­los­o­phy. To this day, I am still hap­py with get­ting Zainab Bawa, CEO of Has­Geek, to give a talk for us, who brought with her a mem­o­rable dis­course.

The swag hunt

The hack day event, was fun, but had a dis­as­trous out­come. We had re­wards giv­en to peo­ple who made the most con­tri­bu­tions, the best con­tri­bu­tions, etc. And ob­vi­ous­ly free stick­ers for all those who showed up. Of course, there were also the free t-shirts that come from Hack­to­ber­fest it­self.

We tried to be re­spon­si­ble hosts, em­pha­siz­ing why Open Source is awe­some, and what is good eti­quette when ap­proach­ing projects. We also tried invit­ing an Open Source start­up and main­tain­ers of a pop­u­lar Open Source project to ad­dress the au­di­ence (the start­up folks mis­read the date, and did not show up). Me and a lot of my col­lab­o­ra­tors were guid­ing peo­ple who were stuck.

We had also had a team to ac­tu­al­ly au­dit the con­tri­bu­tions that were be­ing made. There were about two hun­dred Pull Re­quests opened by the end of the event. Only about ten of them were le­git­i­mate. The rest of them were more or less spam or junk.

Open Source re­pos­i­to­ries around the world af­ter the hack day.

All that pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and tire­less ef­forts to build an Open Source com­mu­ni­ty only to end with us hurt­ing main­tain­ers of projects around the world with spam. I was in de­nial about this for al­most a whole year.

Our col­lege hap­pened to be ahead of the curve in this as­pect, for there was a whole me­dia de­ba­cle that fol­lowed in next year’s Hack­to­ber­fest around spam Pull Re­quests made by col­lege stu­dents just for a free t-shirts, and the op­por­tu­ni­ty to pad their ré­sumé with “Open Source con­tri­bu­tions” to im­press re­cruiters.

I want to re-em­pha­size one point here. The peo­ple who be­have in these ways are not bad peo­ple. They don’t have ma­li­cious in­tent. The prob­lem is cul­tur­al and sys­temic, and to this day I have no so­lu­tion, oth­er than to keep do­ing what’s right, and keep be­ing hon­est and pas­sion­ate. Au­then­tic­i­ty and philo­soph­i­cal con­sis­ten­cy can be in­fec­tious.

Fi­nal­ly some­thing that works

The Hack­to­ber­fest non­sense burnt me out, and put me off PES Open Source for sev­er­al months. I was not even do­ing some­thing so rad­i­cal­ly against the grain, and yet every­thing felt al­most pur­pose-built to sap our en­er­gy.

But a few months lat­er, we slow­ly felt the pull to make our com­mu­ni­ty work again. A bunch of our mem­bers start­ed pitch­ing ideas for Open Source projects. Past ef­forts for this nev­er real­ly took off, be­cause my col­lab­o­ra­tors (the only ones tak­ing ini­tia­tive) were too busy to be hack­ing on projects. Now that there was noth­ing go­ing on, they start­ed mak­ing fun lit­tle Open Source projects, de­signed to be con­trib­u­tor friend­ly.

We could in­di­vid­u­al­ly men­tor peo­ple want­i­ng to break in, and give them a space where it was okay to get things wrong. We made spe­cial help chan­nels for these projects, so that the main­tain­ers can help them learn the code­base and guide peo­ple. Even though we did not get mass­es of peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing we didn’t care be­cause it was so much fun.

These lit­tle projects did well. Slow­ly, but sure­ly, a new batch of ju­niors start­ed mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions. What real­ly sur­prised us was that many of these projects start­ed get­ting a bunch of ex­ter­nal con­trib­u­tors from around the world as well.

We made these projects front and cen­ter for PES Open Source and they are do­ing fair­ly well. They are not “se­ri­ous” soft­ware to dri­ve a prod­uct or a busi­ness (de­spite hav­ing users, and one be­ing show­cased in a con­fer­ence), but they are real­ly fun to work on and learn new things. The main­tain­ers of these projects are of course, my reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tors who have done a great job of mak­ing these friend­ly to be­gin­ners, yet tech­ni­cal­ly in­ter­est­ing.

Killing PES Open Source

We re­alised we do not want to be big, or to throw big events. Most of the great stuff was com­ing from a small set of pas­sion­ate peo­ple. Most of the learn­ing hap­pened in this small group, who cared about our ideals.

We want peo­ple to net­work and de­vel­op a sense of be­long­ing. We need peo­ple to know all the oth­er peo­ple. That’s what a friend­ly-neigh­bour­hood com­mu­ni­ty is, no?

Through oth­er out­lets, I start­ed talk­ing to and find­ing peo­ple with a tin­ker­er’s mind­set who share the same val­ues that we did, from uni­ver­si­ties all over In­dia. There were al­ways such stu­dents found in ob­scure pock­ets and lit­tle bub­bles.

I was start­ing to ar­rive at a set of guid­ing prin­ci­ples for a new com­mu­ni­ty, based on our ex­pe­ri­ences. They were:

  1. Non-par­tic­i­pa­tion is a li­a­bil­i­ty.
  2. Con­nect­ing a di­verse set of peo­ple with shared ideals is a su­per­ad­di­tive func­tion. One plus one is more than two. Cre­at­ing in­no­va­tion is non-lin­ear with the num­ber of ef­fec­tive con­nec­tions we make.

This co­in­cid­ed with me be­ing in­flu­enced by Nas­sim Taleb’s “An­tifrag­ile”, with­out which I won’t even have the vo­cab­u­lary to say what I was real­ly try­ing to build with our Open Source com­mu­ni­ty. We used to run our projects in a cen­tral­ized way—meet our spec­i­fi­ca­tions so that we can stan­dard­ize, and make it eas­i­er for new con­trib­u­tors. This is nice, but it con­strains the abil­i­ty for chance events that may ben­e­fit us, yet do not fit in our frame­work.

I pitched a chaot­ic idea to my col­lab­o­ra­tors—let’s kill PES Open Source, and start from scratch.

Why lim­it or af­fil­i­ate with only our own col­lege? Let’s in­stead in­di­vid­u­al­ly seek out the cre­ative and pas­sion­ate peo­ple and cre­ate an in­vite-only com­mu­ni­ty. A small­er com­mu­ni­ty with a larg­er im­pact. Every mem­ber has the pow­er to in­vite an­oth­er per­son into our com­mu­ni­ty. In­vite only those we trust, so there’s al­ways a chain of trust that can be fol­lowed to every­one.

This lets us keep the up­side like the spark that led to our fruit­ful projects, and the thought­ful dis­course. All start­ed by the “good” mem­bers. We keep none of the down­side, ie, dor­mant mem­bers in it for the wrong rea­sons.

Most im­por­tant­ly, we do not con­trol or dic­tate the ac­tiv­i­ties, or the di­rec­tion of any of the mem­bers. Our job is to con­nect, not con­duct. We cre­ate a large metaor­gan­i­sa­tion that hous­es many Units, ie, groups of col­lab­o­ra­tors for just about any ac­tiv­i­ty. Units are ful­ly au­tonomous. This also lets us ac­co­mo­date ex­ist­ing groups of peo­ple who were do­ing things sim­i­lar to what we are. A high­ly fed­er­at­ed and de­cen­tral­ized struc­ture that sup­ports high­ly mo­ti­vat­ed peo­ple to con­nect and make po­ten­tial­ly awe­some things hap­pen. This formed the ba­sis for Uni­FOSS.

That’s where we cur­rent­ly stand. It’s still the ear­ly days, and even though I am only an year away from grad­u­a­tion, it feels like we are just get­ting start­ed.

I strong­ly be­lieve that the an­ti­dote to this dystopi­an so­ci­ety that de­bas­es learn­ing is re­sis­tance. Re­sis­tance, not by re­volt or be­ing right­eous. Rather, re­sis­tance by re­fus­ing to be sat­is­fied with what is hand­ed to us. Re­sis­tance by tak­ing ini­tia­tive and seek­ing what we tru­ly de­serve.

Ap­pen­dix: The cur­rent strug­gle with di­ver­si­ty

We still face one chal­lenge that con­founds us to this day. We have done poor­ly with di­ver­si­ty. Most of our mem­bers, even af­ter the tran­si­tion are men, and peo­ple with plen­ty of priv­i­lege. Women and mem­bers of oth­er mar­gin­al­ized groups in tech haven’t been par­tic­i­pat­ing in the same ra­tio as their pres­ence in our col­lege. We are hop­ing that our in­vite-only sys­tem lets us take af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and choose in­vite peo­ple from more di­verse and mar­gin­al­ized back­grounds.

If you are be­long to a his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ty in tech, or iden­ti­fy as a woman, and want to be a part of Uni­FOSS, please reach out to me at raykar dot ath (at) gmail dot com.