ROSE Blog Interviews: Máirín Duffy, Team Lead for Fedora Design Team

Rikki Endsley

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Sep 02, 2009 GMT
Rikki Kite

In this interview, Máirín Duffy explains how easy it is to get started with free and open source software, and that age, economic status, and experience don't have to hold you back. She points out how easily a single bad experience can turn someone away from open source, too.

Q: Who are you?

A: My name is Máirín Duffy and I'm an interaction designer and artist. I work for Red Hat, and I am also currently the team lead for the Fedora design team.

If there is one thing folks in the FOSS community know about me, it is probably that I am stubbornly religious about using free and open source software only. This is not a common or popular stance amongst designers. I haven't used Windows, OS X, or any Adobe/Macromedia product in years.

Q: What do you currently do in open source? What do you love about it?

A: Primarily I'm an ambassador between users and developers of open source software. I interact with users in any way I can to understand how the software fits into their lives and meets or fails to meet their needs. I work with developers to help identify issues in their software, figure out how to tweak existing software or build software up from scratch to meet their intended users' needs, and in some cases coach the developers in design thinking processes to help them help themselves when it comes to design and usability.

There's other smaller tasks I help out with as well. Some examples include creating icons, logos, artwork, website layouts, html/css, marketing materials and collateral (posters, t-shirts, media artwork), and the like. Bigger, specific projects I've been working on lately:

  • Fedora Community, a new web application that aims to make Fedora contributors' jobs easier and more fun.
  • With the fabulous Mel Chua, I've been trying to figure out how we can attract more HCI students to get involved with Fedora.
  • The first phase of a complete re-design of Fedora's website,
  • A redesign of anaconda's UI (anaconda is the program used to install Fedora)

There are so many things I love about what I get to do in the FOSS community. First of all, as a designer, there is no lack of projects to work on, and they are happy to have the help! It's a wonderful opportunity to work on software of all types across all different kinds of domains (great brain food.) Secondly, also as a designer, it's really nice to be working on things out in the open, to be able to solicit feedback directly from users the same day you've finished up a mockup. When you work on proprietary software, you just don't have that kind of access to your userbase, there are barriers – NDAs, red tape, things like that. I have an entire design portfolio I don't need people to sign an NDA to look through!

Finally, in general I just love the can-do spirit of the FOSS community. Usually you don't have to ask for permission – you can dive in and work on what you're interested in and learn a lot. The barriers between you and extremely smart and talented people are very low.

Q: You're speaking to a group of women from other fields who are considering switching careers. Why should they consider moving into an open source-related career? What should they know about the open source environment to prepare them for the transition from a different field?

A: Working in free and open source software is a great opportunity to really change the world for the better – it's an uplifting field to be in. If you're stuck in a grind right now, feeling like you need a higher purpose, and if you enjoy technology, you should really consider it. Working in free and open source software is similar to the academic model – on an international level you're building on others' work, you're sharing your work (without expensive academic journal fees!), and it's ultimately for the common good. Unlike the academic model, though, it can get a bit informal – folks don't always document things very well, communication is dominated by electronic methods, and there's no gentle ushering into the FOSS community the way graduate school prepares you for working in the academic community.

There also isn't a formal method of peer-review/verification of knowledge produced the way there is in academic journals, which results in a much poorer signal-to-noise ratio. So you need to read, listen, and interpret very critically.

What I think you should expect, then, is a model of working similar to academia, but a bit more rough and tumble and less formalized.

Q: You're speaking to a group of high school students (male and female). Why should they consider exploring career options in open source?

A: Do you really want your technological life dictated by a handful of corporations? Wouldn't you like to have some say and some control with how you and your friends interact with computers and how technology plays a role in your life?

You can get started right now. You don't need a $700 (or pirated) copy of Adobe Photoshop, for example, to be an amazing digital artist – you can download all the tools you need right now, free and legally. If you want to be a DJ, there are lots of free & open source audio tools you can download right now and start using. You can build up skills that will always be useful in formats you'll always be able to open because they're openly documented and standardized. If you end up having a great idea for a new tool or a new way to do something in a piece of software, you can try writing Adobe an email, but there's no guarantee they will do anything about it. If you have an idea for a free and open software application, you have the ability to try your hand at making it happen – yourself – and if it works out you'll be able to point people at that software and show how you made a difference. It's a wonderful feeling.

Actually, we have a high school student on the Fedora design team right now, Ian Weller, and he ended up getting a summer internship with Red Hat because he does such great work. Free and open source software is really merit-based – you can work your way up to having greater responsibility if you're interested in it without your age being a barrier.

In the end, working on free and open source software gives you a really powerful sense of self-sufficiency and independence. The more we can improve and spread free and open source software, the more control we all can have over our technological lives.

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

A: I wish that you had asked about our view from the ground, whether or not we had any ideas on why there aren't as many women involved in open source, if we see it growing in the communities we're involved with, and if we have any ideas on how to get more women involved.

Of course, I'd be more interested in the other respondents' answers – I don't have any great insights myself. I have seen more women getting involved in Fedora, but at a slow rate. I think maybe the best way to get more women involved is simply to invite women you know with the needed skill sets to solve a problem or finish a task if some need comes up in your project.

When I first attempted to get involved in FOSS, I did it on my own, completely cold, and had a bad experience that discouraged me and set me back for a few years. When I tried again, it was with the encouragement of folks I knew personally who were already deeply involved in the community. They knew I liked doing digital artwork and when they ended up needing icons, logos, or things like that, they encouraged me to pick up the tasks to get involved and things grew from there.


If you are a woman in open source, I'd love it if you'd take a moment to answer these interview questions and send your responses to me at rkite AT linuxpromagazine DOT com. If you'd like me to interview a particular woman in open source, drop me a line and let me know who she is and where to find her.

Additional reading:

Interview with Carla Schroder

Interview with Kelaine Vargas

Interview with Moose (Ohio LinuxFest)

Interview with the GNOME Foundation's Stormy Peters

Interview with Beth Lynn Eicher (Ohio LinuxFest)

Interview with Erica Brescia, CEO of BitRock

Interview with Linux Foundation's Angela Brown

Interview with Dru Lavigne

Interview with GSoC participant Kanika Vats

Interview with FSF's Deborah Nicholson

Interview with Kanika Vats

Interview with Hillary Rettig

Interview with Máirín Duffy

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