Free and open source software (FOSS) concepts and projects are becoming an increasingly important part of our daily lives. FOSS technologies are in our cars, televisions, video games, banks, phones, and hospitals. People are creating, remixing, and sharing pictures, art, music, writing, and movies under Creative Commons licenses. Yet, the average college graduate does not learn about how this community of collaboration actually works; they have never participated in open source.
In 2008, the [Rochester Institute of Technology] (http://www.rit.edu) made a simple request of Red Hat. We had a large supply of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops, which were donated to us for Fedora hackers to use and develop on. RIT wanted a few of these laptops to try to make some educational games, so we sent them 25. A few years later, one of my Fedora engineers, Luke Macken, came to me and asked whether we could do more. He was an RIT alum and he wanted to know why Microsoft and Oracle were visible on campus when Red Hat was not.
At the time, Red Hat wasn't really involved with any university in a meaningful way. We were doing things, but they were all one-off engagements. I was the Fedora Engineering manager at the time, but I was willing to research the possibilities as a side project. What I quickly discovered when I talked to the students and faculty at RIT is that they were eager for more than a simple donation of hardware or a sponsorship of pizza and soda for a Linux Users Group meeting.
The first thing you have to realize about RIT is that they have a longstanding hacker culture, in the traditional MIT sense of the term hacker. I suppose when you have the sort of winters that they do in Rochester, you have a lot of time indoors to tinker and create. Whereas other colleges would have a fraternity house, RIT has a computer science dormitory with a hacked vending machine, a dedicated server room (literally, a dorm room converted to house racks), tracks on the floors for robots to follow, and a speaker that plays a custom entrance song when you badge onto hall. At any given time, there are students working on a late night hack, often surrounded by incomplete or cannibalized hacks. The CS house at RIT is what the movie [Real Genius] (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089886/) told me college would be like, but I never realized art imitated real life until I visited the campus.
RIT wanted to think big, and I love it when people think big. They knew that their students had a hunger for free and open source software, culture, and community, and they wanted to encourage that environment. The school had just started running a seminar on FOSS, with the goal of trying to teach the students how to understand and participate in existing FOSS projects and how to start their own. In addition to computer scientists and engineers, a wide range of disciplines were represented, including open source journalists, writers, and designers.
What really sold me on RIT was the visionaries in their space:
Professor Steven Jacobs: Professor Jacobs is not a traditional CS educator - his resume is a colorful mix of trade shows, film, and gaming - but he immediately understood why FOSS was powerful, and he worked with his students as a community of equals. He found a dedicated space on campus, which they named the FOSSBox, where the students could gather and hack together, sponsor their events, and run seminars. He's a natural organizer and a visionary thinker, and his students love him.
Remy DeCausemaker: When I first corresponded with Remy DeCausemaker, I asked him whether he would be willing to use his real name with his contributions to Fedora, because Remy DeCausemaker clearly was a pseudonym. After all, Remy is someone who is active and vocal in hacking politics in the state of New York and working to open local, state, and federal data for anyone to use and analyze. As it turns out, Remy DeCausemaker is his given name, which is a good fit. Remy is eloquent, brilliant, and impossible to dislike. He is respectful, but passionate, and he's the first one to roll up his sleeves to help someone else. In the FOSS community at RIT, he is their heart and soul, and everyone there seems to know him.
Ralph Bean: Ralph looks like he should be riding a steampunk contraption across the playa at Burning Man (and for all I know, he does). His hair, glasses, and beard shield a soft spoken man, giving him an air of a revolutionary with a touch of poetry. He says little, but when Ralph does speak, that he is a brilliant thinker and an eager problem solver is evident immediately. When I met him, Ralph had recently graduated from and was teaching at RIT part-time, and he was the person that everyone pointed me to as the best developer around. After meeting Ralph, I knew I wanted to bring him onto my Fedora Engineering team at Red Hat, but at the same time, I couldn't imagine pulling him out of the Rochester and RIT FOSS community.
Looking at this community, I immediately knew that I wanted Red Hat to be involved in it as a participant and sponsor, so I sat down with Professor Jacobs and we worked out an ambitious - and expensive - plan. Red Hat would provide core funding to RIT to create new Creative Commons licensed courseware and grow the existing material, with the five-year goal of creating the first minor in FOSS in the United States. Additionally, we would create paid co-op openings with Red Hat specifically for RIT students to work on mentored FOSS projects on campus. We hired Ralph Bean and encouraged him to work from RIT as much as possible, and we funded a new associate professor position for Remy DeCausemaker to help teach these new classes. We set aside a pool of money for RIT students to travel to FOSS and IT industry events so that they could present what they had learned and done with FOSS.
Today, three years into this plan, the effort is called [FOSS@MAGIC] (http://foss.rit.edu). RIT students have run hackathons, presented at major conferences (OSCON, PyCon, SIGCSE), and even been honored at the White House for their projects. What we thought would take five years at best turned out to be possible in three. I've witnessed a flourishing of FOSS culture and works at RIT, and the students are proud to have an outlet to share what they have learned and built with the world.
At my first RIT career fair, I met lots of nervous students with identical resumes. Each resume had a section for Experience, which contained the name of their Programming Projects class, the professor's name, the name of the other students in their project team, and the name of their project. The only thing that was different was the student's name on the top. This past fall, I received resumes where the Experience section had github URLs, references to the FOSS projects they had participated in, and in many cases, the new projects they had started and that were thriving. Obviously this is amazing from Red Hat's perspective, but the experience is also invaluable to the students as they navigate the technology industry. Their new skills make the students valuable commodities and allows them to stand out. They were good programmers before, but now they are experienced community members, collaborative thinkers, and solid choices for entry-level positions anywhere.
I'm proud to have been in the right place at the right time to enable a partnership between Red Hat and RIT and help make this initiative a reality, and I'm eager to work with them on the next phase. Stay tuned.