ROSE Blog Interviews: Alison Chaiken, MeeGo Technical Consultant at Nokia

Rikki Endsley

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Jan 07, 2011 GMT
Rikki Kite

I met Alison Chaiken at LinuxCon 2010 in Boston, not long after she joined Nokia as a MeeGo Technical Consultant. If you want to learn How to induce your Fedora user process to drop core for debugging purposes, how to run PCBSD and MeeGo under qemu-kvm and qemu-gl, or learn about ubiquitous, pervasive computing; flexible displays and printed electronics; biomechanics and DNA melting; structural and electronic properties of indium selenide thin films; magnetism, giant magnetoresistance and exchange coupling and much more, then check out Alison's website: Perhaps if you're lucky, she'll even tell you what your name translates to in Finnish (mine means "broken," "kaput," and "asunder"... go figure).

RK: Tell us about yourself.

AC: I'm a 48-year-old single woman living in Mountain View, California, and yet I don't work for Google. In the last year I've learned how to use git, how to do a handstand and how to speak about 200 words of Finnish. I was born in Philadelphia and have lived all over the U.S. but have never lived overseas, an omission I would like to rectify. I hope gas prices go way way up so that everyone walks and rides around on bikes and scooters.

RK: What do you love about working in an open source-related job?

AC: I love getting paid to do "work" that until recently I performed for free. I love the feeling that the huge host of open source contributors and users are all part of the same great enterprise. Open source is as much a system of belief, lifestyle and political movement as it a method of creating great products and services. I love the fact that so many of the monumental engineering works of our time are just a click away, so that when I start wondering, "Hmm, how could 'tail -f' possibly work?" I can find the answer within minutes.

RK: You're speaking to a group of women from other fields who are considering switching careers. What should they know about the open source environment to prepare them for the transition from a different field?

AC: I've just switched to software engineering from solid-state physics and am amazed to see even fewer women! I recently attended a small conference that had no other paid female registrants. Nonetheless, I am already used to the "zoo animal" feeling. When people stare at me, I simply introduce myself and launch right into a technical discussion. If I ask someone a complex and subtle question, I can see precisely the moment when he forgets that he's speaking to a female. Seeing more sexually inappropriate behavior in open source than in physics has been disappointing, but I think that's mostly due to open source's culture of frank and unfettered discussion. For better or worse, our tribe comes right out with what's on their mind, which is easier to deal with than subterfuge and politics.

RK: What do you think will be the "hot topics" in open source for 2011?

AC: I can list the usual answers (HTML5, IPV6 migration, open social networks ... ), but the trend that no one else mentions is an increasing role for cameras and microphones in mobile. Cameras and microphones are used deliberately to take photos and record voice commands, but in the future they will be always on, gathering ambient data about the environment of users on the go. Mobile devices will soon have smarts enough to fulfill the promise of context interpretation.

RK: What will your focus for 2011 be at Nokia?

AC: 2011 is the critical year for the MeeGo embedded Linux distribution promoted by Linux Foundation, Intel and Nokia. My role is to help make MeeGo a success by creating demonstrations and documentation that explain the attributes and benefits of the OS to potential partners.

RK: What question do you wish I'd asked? And how would you answer it?

AC: What is the major threat to the future of open source and what can we do about it? The biggest challenge is the superior level of integration and interoperability that characterize the services offered by walled gardens. No cobbling together of varied and disjoint open alternatives can begin to match the ease of use of the Apple or Google ecosystems. The many useful mashups out there are a sign that open source can rally, but what we still need is the web equivalent of an open source distribution: cloud-based, desktop and mobile services that are optimized to work together and to upgrade in tandem. Essentially this is the "internet operating system" Tim O'Reilly has been promoting for so many years.

If you or a woman you know would like to participate in this series of interviews, please email me at:

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