1 August 2022
Reflections on IndiaFOSS 2.0
IndiaFOSS 2.0, the second edition of the conference organised by the FOSS United Foundation, of which I am a part of, was held in Bengaluru on the 23rd and 24th of July. Previously named IndiaOS, the first edition that ran in January 2020 was an experiment that turned out to be a small, nice gathering of ~100 people in a small hall in a corner of JP Nagar, a residential area in South Bengaluru. There were talks, discussions, and food. It was nice. The conference was meant to be a yearly affair, which the COVID fiasco stalled, like a billion other human affairs.
Every time Rushabh brought up the idea of a second edition, it kept on getting postponed owing to the spikes and troughs in the COVID graphs. Finally, sometime in May, it was agreed that we would give July 2022 a shot (pun intended). Vishal, the sole full time employee and one-person-army at the foundation, took up the mantle and got the wheels in motion.
While I started this post with the intention of writing a commentary on the event, Rushabh published a beautiful recollection of it with some excellent profiles of people who attended the event, albeit an exceedingly embarrassing one of mine.
This post, thus, is no longer a commentary on the event, but a deeply personal, romantic, and biased reflection, on how the event affected me in ways more profound than I could imagine. I expected to have fun and learn new things, but never to be affected.
I like sitting at home in front of my computer. Reluctance, and often apprehension, are my first reactions to the prospect of stepping out, especially on Bengaluru’s “roads”. All my personal projects have been done sitting at home. A significant chunk of stuff I have done for work has also been done at home. The one exception was that I liked going to the office (until COVID) at Zerodha, where despite prolonged periods of tumultuous and harrowing firefighting over many years, a peril of the nature of the business, we managed to maintain our sanity and have fun. I have zero affinity for finance or stock markets, so it has always been about engineering and hanging out with people with whom I can hangout and work without getting bored, Nithin in the beginning, and our team over the years.
I have only attended two big tech conferences ever (bought tickets and all), both in Bengaluru in the early 2010s, both of which involved so much corporate shilling and talks of such questionable quality that I ended up walking out. This of course reaffirmed my conviction that sitting at home and working on my projects was a better use of my time, that the community stuff was not for me. The tiny IndiaOS event in 2020 was fun though. The SMC language computing meetup in 2013 in Thrissur, Kerala, was also a nice event, although I was unable to sustain any active involvement beyond that.
The mid 2000s, my academic years spent outside India, some of my most productive years as a hobbyist developer, ironically, saw zero involvement in FOSS or hacker or developer communities. I had no developer friends or connections, and that never felt odd either. That productive developers sit at home and write software, was my worldview. This was before GitHub which now generates tremendous amounts of git based socialisation that is open to pretty much anyone. For me, the idea of socialising and collaborating with other developers changed gradually over the last decade, at work at Zerodha. While I wrote a couple of opinion pieces for papers, I made the first public blog post only in 2020, when I felt that there was something worthwhile to share.
Needless to say, I have never had the experience of participating in physical communities, or for that matter, online ones. The FOSS United Telegram group is the first online community where I make an effort to actively participate. It has been enjoyable (so far). For nearly two decades, my focus and interest was in code, not community, and that has only started shifting in the last couple of years. Ironically, Rushabh, who bats for code > community, kick started FOSS United, got me in for the ride, got me involved actively in a community for the first time changing my notion of code > community. He may not admit it, but he is an excellent, pragmatic, community builder.
Nonetheless, I was excited for IndiaFOSS 2.0 as an event organised by a non-profit, with no agenda but to get people together and have dialogues about not just technology, but fun, philosophy, business, law, and policy, all matters deeply intertwined with FOSS. I have laughed at myself multiple times at my own naivete, by the absurdity of this. Someone with zero experience in community building and participation, let alone organisation of a community event, pushing for a diverse community event. As Vivek (who sucks at Counter Strike) would smirk; lul. Even in the “fintech” industry which I happen to be in, I barely know or keep in touch with anyone. I am not a networker.
Then, the event happened. The way it happened, what happened, shattered my worldview. I came out of it a changed person. If I finish this paragraph with “read on to find out more”, it would be indistinguishable from a clickbait headline in a tabloid. But really, the effect it had on me is more dramatic than the words in this post.
How it all took shape, from messages exchanged between a few of us, to messages exchanged between many in a larger group, to messages spreading, to volunteers from everywhere coalescing, many with no particular interest in FOSS, to structure and order emerging from a chaotic, ad-hoc, headless group of volunteers, all culminating in what was not a conference, but a festival, was truly, really, mind blowing. Perhaps an example of emergent Holacracy. It clicked for me for the first time. This must be how community events must have felt since the dawn of civilisation. Despite having been a hacker, a FOSS developer for more than two decades, it is only now, in my mid thirties, that I have been able to truly understand what community events are; what communities are.
The event held on a weekend at the NIMHANS Convention Centre, barring two or three days prior to the actual dates, was oraganised online in its entirety over Telegram chats and conference calls. These groups were comprised of people who had expressed interest in volunteering via public channels. Some brought their friends. Some brought their siblings. Why Telegram, a non-FOSS app? To try and include as many people as possible, where the messaging technology wouldn’t be the reason to not participate. All volunteers had Telegram and no one complained. I really hope that we get a FOSS app with a low entry barrier and widespread, cross-demographic adoption one day.
I am afraid to name specific volunteers here, lest I miss out on some names. It would be an injustice. The amount of effort volunteers put in is monumental. It is 100%. Absolutely every aspect of the event, from buying pins and paper, to setting up the event website and selling tickets, arranging the tables at the venue, raising sponsorships, designing and printing stickers, inviting and managing speakers, setting up water stations, arranging tables and chairs, figuring out logistics for food for two days, absolutely every single thing, was done by volunteers. This activity continued late into the night on the eve of the event with plenty of last minute changes to arrangements. The number of idlis for breakfast was revised thrice in the same night. The cushions for open spaces were decided upon and procured minutes before the venue was shut. Volunteers who never spoke a word online turned up and moved mountains. I was a volunteer myself and helped out wherever I could. For months, Vishal worked round the clock doing whatever was necessary, connecting people, connecting dots. A photo + bio wall of all the volunteers on the event’s website is in the works.
This was a reasonably big event at a big venue. 650 tickets had been sold online and an estimated ~550 people participated in the two day event. The volunteers were professionals, students, hackers, non-hackers with no interest in software, people of many age groups, many people who met each other for the first time. I witnessed pragmatic consensus emerge spontaneously and self organising groups take up specific responsibilities. Simple acts of mutual trust and respect. I met many faces behind online avatars for the first time. For two days, we (everyone I spoke to for sure) forgot about everything else and just had fun. Volunteers who were tracking their step counts clocked 30,000+ steps per day in the halls of the venue.
As Sunday, the second day of the event progressed, the footfall dwindled steadily. In the last hour, we did an open mic session with the few who remained. That was a bit awkward. And just like that, everyone left, the attendees, the volunteers, the noise, the murmurs. The halls fell silent. While a few of us who remained stood outside the building and cracked juvenile jokes and crafted new memes, I pictured the building looking at us and smiling, as if to say that this wasn’t new; that it had stood witness to many such ocassions. We then headed to a restaurant for dinner and to stretch the day a little further, to have a little more fun. While I continued to crack juvenile jokes, I was already feeling deeply, profoundly, sad. I tried to run through the hundreds of faces I had spoken to over two days. I wanted to see them all again, but I was afraid. Would it feel the same again?
FOSS United Foundation
FOSS United Foundation was started by people from Frappe and Zerodha in 2020, after the interest we saw in the tiny IndiaOS conference. It was Rushabh’s brainchild, originally incorporated as the ERPNext Foundation. He saw a meaningful partnership in us which then turned into the FOSS United foundation. From the very beginning, it was clear to us that the goal of the organisation was to foster fun, creativity, the spirit of hacking, software, and its utility for everyone. Everyone, not just developers. For people who call it OS, FOSS, OSS, FLOSS, for people who insist on GNU/Linux over Linux, for people who just want to benefit from software, for children, for students, for professionals, for government bureaucrats, for hobbyists, for commercial enterprises, for people with different political views, for people who like “big tech”, for people who hate “big tech” … for people who are willing to speak and listen with decency and a sense of objectivity with the shared goals of promoting FOSS, the spirit of tinkering, hacking, and creating. For people who are willing to engage and have discourses in good faith. FOSS United was started with the clear goal of not proliferating a puritanical organisation that perpetuates us vs. them. There has been no dearth for that in this world, ever.
That building a non-profit organisation is extremely difficult, is in the “Duh! Water is wet." camp. Thankfully, we are fortunate to have financially successful enterprises to fund the foundation’s activities, while holding a clear understanding that for such an organisation to exist in the right spirit, it should have larger, diverse involvement not just in its community activities, but in its running, governance, and funding. Just two entities funding it is not sustainable. All the events we have run so far, two editions of the FOSSHack hackathon and IndiaFOSS 2.0, have been funded and sponsored equally by a diverse set of organisations.
With just one full time employee and some of us winging it and getting involved sporadically, it is impossible to develop a sustainable, participatory organisation. We have been looking for someone to take the leadership mantle with a full time focus for creating a diverse governance council, inviting and sustaining participation, building more projects, and for conducting more activities. If there is anyone out there who is interested, do write to us!
Speakers and talks
We had initially worried that we may not get a good enough response to the CFPs (Call For Proposals). IndiaFOSS was a brand new, unknown conference, and of course, physical conferences had taken a big hit since COVID. However, by the end of June, we were surprised and pleased by the 122 submissions that had been amassed. There was clearly great interest in an offline FOSS conference. The CFP requests had been sent out on social media channels, our forum and Telegram groups, and via word-of-mouth. Some of us who had volunteered to evaluate CFPs grouped over multiple calls and took on the difficult job of filtering down 122 submissions to a quarter of that. Slotting and scheduling the talks over two days across two halls was arduous.
To talk about the speakers who participated at IndiaFOSS, it was important to set context on the foundation and its broad philosophies. We had speakers from diverse areas. Developers (hardware, software, professionals, hobbyists …), product showcases for up and coming Indian FOSS projects and startups, talks on design, policy, legal, community, philosophy, languages, business, speakers from for-profits, non-profits, academia, and the government. The full schedule is available here.
I will cite just three names from the speakers list to illustrate this and refrain from citing any more names, even the talks that I really liked, to not end up missing anyone. We had excellent talks from amazing speakers, almost all of whom, I had the opportunity to speak to in person. I especially enjoyed the policy talks, which I would not have a few years ago. Policy in technology and FOSS is inevitable and unstoppable now. We ought to be involved. I digress.
Kovid Goyal, creator of Calibre and Kitty, globally acclaimed FOSS out of India, spoke about his experiences. I was happy to meet him in person, after having been familiar with his work for a very long time. I heard from many young students that his talk inspired them.
I interviewed Rudra, a 12 year old Linux developer and hobbyist from Bengaluru, on stage on the first day. How much he already knows and does, how much there is for him to know and do now, is exciting! He had come with his mother, who he said, introduced him to coding when he was six years old. Later in the day, some of us bugged her in the lobby and tried to alleviate her fears of her son tinkering too much instead of focusing on good grades (which he manages to score already). I messaged Rudra a couple of days later and he said that his mother had started to understand him better after having spoken to us; his kind, albeit much older.
Watching Rudra’s interview in the audience was Abhishek Singh (CEO of National eGovernance Division and MyGov, Ministry of Electronics and IT, India), who was so smitten[19 ➚] by the 12 year old hacker that he spoke to both Rudra and his mother. He later took the stage and spoke not only about the use of FOSS in the government, but opened up candidly about the problems governments face, the cultural divide between government developer groups and industry/community groups, lack of understanding and capacity that the government needs to bridge with active efforts.
Right after that was a policy talk that was a critique of the government’s approach to FOSS and technology regulation. Abhishek Singh stayed on for much longer, moving around and interacting with people. I would like to believe that a small bridge based on good faith was established that day. That he, a very senior government technology boss, saw not just the “civilian”, but the hacker side of it, up close[20 ➚], and that the community in attendance got a peek into the other side. I saw people mix freely without apprehensions in the halls of the venue. The us vs. them gap has to be actively bridged. FOSS is for everyone.
I almost forgot. I gave a talk on open data dictionaries (Olam, Alar). I also remember a rumour circulating that Karan, under the pretense of giving a talk on self-hosting software, infiltrated the venue and tried to start a cult, recruiting Kubernetes zealots to switch their allegiance to Nomad job files. Some say he still roams the corridors of the venue looking for recruits.
This website’s homepage has unmistakable hints of self-loathing and pessimism for humanity. I truly believe that we humans are the most self-destructive species to have ever graced this planet. Beings with infinite capacity for extreme cleverness and creativity, abstract philosophy and reasoning, boundless empathy, and yet, at the same time, terrifying capacity for hatred enough to cause physical large scale destruction of our own (and other) species for irrational reasons, defying the very nature of a species—propagation.
In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot.
We are wonderful and terrible, extremely intelligent and abundantly stupid, all at the same time. A self-aware species that needs to be saved from itself. I love and despise humanity at the same time. Misanthropic humanism. Is that even a thing? How profoundly, mind numbingly, frustratingly paradoxical! Whenever I feel consumed and stressed by micro events around me, I listen to this beautiful speech from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot to regain perspective, temporarily. Rinse, repeat.
I say this to add further context to the two poor conference going experiences I recounted earlier. An important aspect of the conference, the inevitable mixing and networking of people in the halls and open spaces of the venue, was something I had not thought about at all. People come to conferences to listen to talks and they leave. I couldn’t have been more naive and more wrong.
I was happy to meet a few people I knew and people whom I had only known online. I met Venky in person for the first time. Venky, whose experience, knowledge, and network are the stuff of legend, has been helping us understand the tech-policy landscape in India and all our interactions thus far had been online. Abhas’s hardware exhibit + hardware museum + tinkering area in the lobby attracted not just adults, but little kids[26 ➚] who tinkered and even ran bits of the exhibit. The open spaces with cushions hosted gatherings and impromptu talks. When Anand had insisted that we get cushions for people to sit on and chat, I hadn’t quite understood it. Seeing people use it, it clicked. Anand is the quintessential community person. Again, I’ll refrain from naming more people lest I miss out on recounting the great interactions I had with many cool, accomplished people!
The community booths setup by developer groups and organisations to larger tech/policy organisations also saw steady, vigorous interest from visitors. The organisers themselves seemed to be surprised by this. The handful of sponsor booths also saw tremendous activity. Schwag-love.
In the halls and open spaces of the venue, small and large groups of people moved, merged, formed, deformed, discussed, debated, laughed. Some must have left bored too. People were so engrossed in speaking to each other, volunteers often had to walk around doing megaphone announcements of talks resuming after breaks. Perhaps people were just glad to meet other people after being locked down for years. Perhaps this is how community events always are. I wouldn’t know.
Then, over two days, I spoke to a lot more people. All strangers, hundreds of them. I stood around and spoke so much that my throat hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt. To my continued surprise, scores of young college students kept coming in waves after waves. Young, energetic, thirsty, hungry, spirited, down for anything. They asked questions that made me pause and think. For many, this was their first time attending a big event or even coming to a big city. I had enjoyable conversations with people from many different backgrounds in those halls; hackers, researchers, developers, designers, social workers, professionals, business people, venture capitalists … and yet, I was most captivated by the infectious energy of young students. I didn’t feel old. I felt like I was one of them. Unrelenting enthusiasm, a drive to learn, to be involved, to do. So many walked up offering to volunteer on the spot, to be involved. Does society dampen spirit as we age?
There was this one college from Kerala from where 100+ students had registered to participate, but couldn’t, owing to an unsurprising last minute exam scheduling shenanigan by the college administration. 100+ students from one college. Wow. I was disappointed to know of this from some of their peers, but was so excited by their excitement that I committed to go spend a day each in Kochi and Trivandrum with them to attend their local meetups. To hangout, to chat, to talk about FOSS and technology, to talk about whatever. I, someone who doesn’t like stepping out of their house.
Something profoundly changed in me in those halls. I came out deeply spirited, excited to be involved with people, not software. I was buzzed and dazed for days. I couldn’t quantify it, but I felt it—the spirit of community. The urge to do things together. Maybe it is delusional, but I felt it, and it felt great.
For sure, someone coming out of a community event 3000 years ago in an ancient Indian town felt the same way. Humanity is doomed to forget, relive, and relearn everything generation after generation in a Sisyphean loop. Ironically, if we didn’t, we would be numb, devoid of passion, spirit, and discovery.
Another thing I ended up appreciating was the dated, grounded aesthetic of the venue. The posters volunteers had hand painted to avoid plastic hoardings, the hand made signs that were pinned to boards, the mural (on canvas) Rushabh and friends had painted the night prior to the event, the make do organisation by volunteers (which was in fact smooth). Everything just felt at home. I am glad that the event wasn’t an overly polished, jazzy, 5* affair. It was grounded, scrappy, realistic, and hacker-like. Speaking of the mural, when Rushabh had gotten excited about doing one, I was skeptical. What would a hand painted mural do at a FOSS conference? Would it look good? Turns out, it didn’t matter. Not only did it look great, it captured the spirit and vibrancy of the event and quickly turned into its centre of gravity, turning into a photo spot.
I, for one, with no care for the full awareness that I may be basking in naive idealism, look forward to participating in more community events, wide eyed, ready for discourse, ready for fun, like a college student.