An Interview with Mirko Boehm, Senior Director of Community Development for Linux Foundation Europe
Jason Perlow | 14 June 2023
Mirko Boehm is a renowned figure in the world of open source, known for his dynamic leadership and immense contributions to the movement. He’s joined LF Europe as its new Senior Director of Community Development.
Born out of his passion for open source software, Boehm began his journey in 1997 as an open source contributor, and he has since played a pivotal role in shaping the sector. From developer and community manager to licensing expert, he has been instrumental in the open source community's evolution from a fringe movement to the revolutionary force it is today.
In this enlightening interview, Boehm shares his journey, the insights he's gained from his diverse experiences, his vision for Linux Foundation Europe, and his thoughts on the future of open source software.
Can you tell us about your journey and how you became the Senior Director of Community Development for Linux Foundation Europe?
As a student, I got involved in open source development when I asked my tutors if I could develop on the upcoming KDE desktop environment instead of doing the preformulated programming exercises. To my surprise, they accepted, which is how I became an open source contributor. That was a long time ago, in 1997; however, open source became the defining topic of my professional life. I had the great luck of being involved as a software developer, community manager, and licensing expert in the transition of the open source community from a fringe movement to the innovation motor it is today. After a three-year hiatus as an engineering manager in a massive automotive software project, I am now mega happy to refocus on open source community building in Europe.
Given your background in open source projects, like KDE, how will this experience guide your work in your current role?
The open source community today is composed of incredibly diverse stakeholders. Decentralized, volunteer-driven projects like KDE are an essential part of it. So are, increasingly, public administrations and policymakers. While the majority of contributions are now made by people in their day job, the real power of the open source community is in enabling open collaboration across the board. I had the opportunity to work all three corners of this triangle, for example, by driving open source adoption in the industry, authoring studies for the European Commission, and contributing to KDE, the Open Source Initiative, and the Open Invention Network. I am sure this will come in useful to facilitate the necessary collaboration for developing the European open source community further.
What is your vision for the future of Linux Foundation Europe, and what strategies do you plan to employ to ensure its success?
Our recent studies show that Europe has enormous potential as a hub of many established communities. The current European community activities do not fully realize that potential. I want Linux Foundation Europe to become the collaboration platform closing the gap. This will require patience and long-term thinking. The experience of the Linux Foundation as the largest collaborative development organization will be very helpful.
Could you share some insights about your role in facilitating collaboration between different stakeholders in the Linux community?
Europe differs in the structure and culture of some industry verticals and the country and EU-level regulatory approaches. The local open source community is also vibrant but may be better represented by the FOSDEM spirit than by larger-scale industry-led collaboration. At the same time, open source culture has more commonalities than differences across the globe. Knowing the similarities and differences between Europe and the rest of the open source world is a good starting point to facilitate collaboration.
How do you plan to engage with the diverse community of open source developers across Europe?
The great thing about this is that we are not starting from scratch. Well-established conferences and events like FOSDEM, KDE Akademy, or SFSCON already bring the community together. Linux Foundation brings its own Open Source Summit Europe and more specialized conferences like KubeCon or the Embedded Open Source Summit. A great start will be to connect these different venues to build a wider collaboration across the different camps.
Knowing the different trajectories of industry, policymakers, and the wider open source community is also important. For example, industry verticals often worry about supply chain security and maintenance of their dependencies and vulnerabilities. Regulators strive to find a framework that enables software innovation while safeguarding policy goals like cybersecurity or data governance. The open source community wants to steam ahead and innovate. At the highest level, however, all these perspectives are aligned: We all want innovative, secure, and stable software at all stack layers. So let’s work through the differences and find common ground.
What are the challenges the European open source community faces from your perspective, and how does Linux Foundation Europe plan to address them?
Focusing on issues that are specific to Europe (as opposed to issues like the sustainability of maintainership, security, and others that are global open source challenges), I would highlight the relationship between the open source development community and both the more traditional industry verticals prevalent in Europe as well as regulators, mostly at the European Commission.
When it comes to industry, we still need to develop the understanding that downstream consumers bear the responsibility for how the free software provided by the community is applied in products or made compliant with legal or certification requirements. This also requires a strong network of supporting businesses which we need to encourage. We have to work with regulators to find the right approaches to foster the innovativeness of open source while allowing issues like product liability, cybersecurity, or digital sovereignty to be addressed. This is a highly complex endeavor because the landscape has changed from a balance between private enterprise and the public sector to a triangle between the private and public sectors and the wider open source community.
Please discuss some of the key initiatives that Linux Foundation Europe is working on and how they might impact the wider open source community.
LF Europe has many initiatives that it is working on. First, we intend to have more public sector engagement with open source as we continue our discussions with European governments, agencies, etc. The LF Europe Member Summit, being held this coming 18th of September in Bilbao, will be a great opportunity for us and LF Europe members to do this. We’ll also engage heavily with other foundations on common grounds to reduce fragmentation and educate the ecosystems on various policy side effects, through forums such as the upcoming Open Source Congress in Geneva, in July. And, of course, we will continue to launch new projects such as RISE, the LF Connectivity Project, the OpenWallet Foundation, and Sylva.
You have a long history of contributing to the open source movement. What are some of the key changes or evolutions you've seen over time?
The most visible evolution is of course, the level of maturity that the open source community has achieved today. When I joined, we slept in bags in university lecture halls. People laughed at the hippies developing software for free. Today open source is the largest innovation collaboration worldwide. However, I don’t expect this to be the end of the story. Open source is its own sector next to public and private enterprises, with distinct governance norms and culture. For example, we still interpret the joint stewardship that contributors apply to their community products based on traditional copyright. It works, but there is a huge potential for further community development.
At the same time, we are still explaining the basics to pretty much everyone. What are the four freedoms of software, how do they make open source software a public good, why is it in the interest of the business not just to consume but also to contribute, and why are in-house forks a bad thing – as open source reaches a wider and wider audience, we need to keep in mind that we have to onboard everybody. The work is never done.
What advice do you have for those who want to contribute to open source projects but don't know where to start?
A great starting point is always to follow your heart, meaning your personal interests. Many highly engaged contributors work on something that fascinates them. In the morning, they are looking forward to the work of the day. So ideally, find something to contribute to that you use yourself. Developing your interests and the open source tools supporting them can be very rewarding.
If you get stuck, ask! Chances are everybody runs into the same issues of setup and understanding existing codebases. People in the community are happy about every contributor and eager to help. Find the right chats and forums and post your questions!
And finally, try to add a real-life angle to your open source career. I suggest attending developer sprints, hackathons, or conferences. You will meet people with interests similar to yours, which can be great fun. There may only be two dozen people in the whole world who share your very particular interest; however, the open source community is a place that brings them all together.
As someone with a strong understanding of the business aspects of open source software, how do you balance the commercial and community aspects of the Linux Foundation's work?
I look at everybody engaging in the community as a contributor. And I believe that the most important task of foundations is to facilitate that everybody interested can contribute to their best potential. While businesses and individuals sometimes differ in their motivation to contribute – self-motivated personal interest versus business rationale, every single contribution makes open source better. Volunteer communities and businesses also bring different strengths – volunteers are sometimes more perfectionist and can be more innovative, while businesses bring a longer-term perspective and the capacity for reliable maintenance. So the key to balance is to realize that both aspects need to be facilitated, and one should not drown out the other.
Can you discuss the role of Linux Foundation Europe in the broader global context of open source development?
The wider open source community generally disregards borders and collaborates globally. However, we do observe a sort of regional cohesion and unique culture in Asia, the Americas, and also Europe. The unique characteristics of Europe deserve the dedicated focus of Linux Foundation Europe. This approach is unique at the Linux Foundation, highlighting what sort of hotbed for open source innovation Europe is.
There are also community development concerns specifically relevant to Europe. For example, the international collaboration applied by the open source community is a perfect fit to shape the European Union's single market. Europe also has a history of developing infrastructure and utilities in close cooperation between private and public enterprises. Linux Foundation Europe aims to be the transparent and openly collaborative platform for such efforts. Overall, there is huge potential for open source in Europe, and LF Europe will work towards realizing it.
How will the open source landscape evolve in the next 5 to 10 years, and what role will Linux Foundation Europe play?
Predictions are always difficult, especially when they are about the future :-)
I expect that open source software and development practices will continue to mature and permeate all aspects of the digital world. Volunteer participation will grow to be a venue for knowledge transfer between education and industry where individuals “graduate” on their learning path as contributors.
I also expect that with the growing relevance of open source for public infrastructure and cybersecurity, the attention of regulators will increase. The open source community cannot expect to be the one segment of the commons that regulators leave untouched forever. Providing guidance and offering dialogue will be key to developing the right balance and approaches.
And then, there are all the innovation areas adjacent to open source software. Code is just one detail of digital products. Data, hardware, training, and infrastructure complement it. I hope that open source software will become the instrument to ensure we understand how data models and infrastructure operate. This is the area with the highest uncertainty, and Linux Foundation will be the platform for collaboration.
What's the most rewarding aspect of working in open source, and why?
For me, personally, it is the unlimited potential for collaboration with like-minded people, combined with the knowledge that the outcome will always be available for everybody. In short, it feels like doing the right thing all the time. While my interests have changed over the years, there was always a new challenge in the open source ecosystem that allowed me to grow further. I expect this to continue for the rest of my life, which is incredibly motivating.