Jane Silber is the CEO of Canonical, a 650-employee software company best known for two things. Its Linux operating system, named Ubuntu, that competes with Windows and Macs, and its bold plan to take on Apple, Google, and Microsoft with soon-to-be released phones/tablets/internet TV devices.
Note that Silber is a woman. And we point that out because the world of open-source software is even more male than the general tech industry. (Yes, that’s possible.)
This is surprising because open source is the kumbaya of the software world, built on the idea of inclusiveness. “Open source” means that anyone can look at the software’s code, change it and share their changes with others. People participate voluntarily, out of interest in the project, interacting over the internet and through code-sharing sites like GitHub.
It seems like women developers would be more welcomed in this world. Not so.
People who contribute to projects tend to get noticed and, sometimes, hired. In fact Silber tells a pretty funny story of joining Canonical in 2004 as COO, two months after it launched.
Because there were so many volunteers working on the project, no one really knew who actually worked there.
“There were around 15 people. One of the interesting things in those early chaotic startup days that nobody really knew for sure,” she laughs. “One of my first jobs was to figure out who am I supposed to be paying and are they being paid? There’s some funny stories about getting it a little wrong.”
We recently caught up with Silber to ask about her what gives about women in the open-source world. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Business Insider: What’s up with the lack of women in your part of the software industry, open source?
Jane Silber: I have a theory. I’ve always worked in male-dominated work companies. The only time I ran into awkwardness around being a women was always out of the office, in work-related social situations. That’s one facet.
The second is the internet at large. It can just be a nasty place. People feel very free to express themselves in ways they wouldn’t do face-to-face.
And both of those dynamics happen in the open-source community. You are in an out-of-the-office environment and relationships are a big part of it, it’s the special part of a meritocracy. And a lot of the interactions happen online in a sometimes dehumanizing environment, a mailing list or blog with un-moderated comments.
Those things collide and can make it a more challenging place for women.
BI: Some of this is from Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, isn’t it? He’s notorious for funny and not-so-funny tantrums on Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML). Intel’s Sarah Sharp once accused him of “verbal abuse.” Is abuse just part of the open-source culture?
JS: He has a very strong, outspoken style. It would be a shame if that became the standard for the open-source community but I don’t think it is. Many people think of him as the technical standard bearer. But it’s wrong to paint him as the cultural, social standard bearer for the community.
BI: But he does seem to set the example. At your biggest competitor Red Hat, debates often get heated and sprinkled with foul language. How is it different at Canonical?
JS: When we started Ubuntu, we looked at the social dynamics of other communities, how they governed themselves and where things worked, got stalled, turned into flame wars. One of the very first things we published was a community code of conduct. It’s common sense: be courteous, step-down [resign] well, this is how we talk to each other. Now, many communities have codes of conduct. But at the time it was a big statement. And people still use it, call people out on it.
BI: How is Canonical doing in terms of attracting more women to its workforce?
JS: We are working on publishing our diversity numbers now. We are higher than average in terms of women in management positions. We’re average or a little below in terms of the number of women overall. Unfortunately, we are not a poster child for great stats but we’re in line with the general tech industry. [Note: we’ll update this post when the numbers are published.]