Interview with Li Jiansheng: How Did I Choose to Become an Open Source Evangelist?

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As Li said, "My career started with Linux and open source when I was a 20-year-old with nowhere to go. Having participated in open source for 20 years, I hope more people can benefit from it today. "

Li Jiansheng, also known by his pen name Kuo Si, is an open-source evangelist, creator of the Open Source Way community, and author of "The Myths of Open Source", a trilogy about open-source achievements.

A chance encounter with a RedHat Linux 7.3 CD changed Li Jiansheng's life and led him headlong into the open-source community. Over nearly two decades, he has been on the path of open source resolutely.

As Li said, "My career started with Linux and open-source when I was a 20-year-old with nowhere to go. Having participated in open-source projects for 20 years, I hope more people can benefit from it today. "

The crossroads of my life: where I started to do open source projects

"I found my strengths through involvement in open-source projects," Li pointed out.

Li grew up in Inner Mongolia, where he was one of the few students in his village who chose to go to school. His upbringing taught him that "people are small" and that a failure is nothing to be ashamed of.

As he recalls, the days of exploration were a time of "happiness" that opened up a whole new world for him.

After graduating, Li found a decent job using his Linux skills. But he did not stop there. He wished to gain a deeper understanding of the technology and culture of open source. In the following years, Li worked for high-tech companies and startups, focusing on open source projects. However, this process left him frustrated.

This stemmed from a disagreement over whether to adopt an "upstream first" strategy.

The term "upstream first" refers to any changes made to an open-source project that should be submitted to the project maintainers before being incorporated into your product. By adopting this approach, you can improve compatibility between upstream and downstream systems. Conversely, if you maintain your products without taking into account feedback from upstream, this kind of siloed development will likely result in unnecessary work.

At that time, the concept of "upstream first" was not widely accepted. Disappointed by this, Li decided to become a professional evangelist for open-source software. This choice may seem rational today, but it was regarded as an anomaly in 2015.

Taking such a road is a rare arrangement, and no one is certain whether it will succeed or not. Li, however, as a lone ranger, regarded his journey as a no-turning-back pilgrimage.

As he notes, "The open-source world is big enough, and there are many things to do; from coding to support to advocacy to sales, founding, marketing, and even innovation, all of which are very challenging and rewarding. It is only natural to self-actualize here. "

Open source has never been a utopia

"In real open source, you have the right to control your own destiny."

– Linus Torvalds

To accomplish his mission as an open-source evangelist, Li spends most of his time reading, writing, and attending conferences.

In addition to writing articles about open-source projects for many years, his main goal is to finish the Open Source Trilogy series at the moment. His first book, "The Myths of Open Source," was published successfully in 2022. Additionally, he organizes reading activities and shares open-source-related book lists from time to time. He also participates in events hosted by other organizations, such as the Open Source Evangelist program of the Linux Foundation APAC.

A series of observations, recordings, sharing, and communicating have gradually become his habits, enabling him to gain a deeper understanding of open-source culture.

The term "open source" is frequently associated with myths, some of which stem from misunderstandings of its "original purpose". Many people believe that open source arose out of an altruistic spirit, so they interpret the word "free" in open source projects as "free of charge". In Li's view, this is an unthinking and blind assertion.

The birth and rise of the open-source movement can be traced to the Free Software movement. The word "free" here refers to "freedom", not "free of charge". This movement advocated freedom for people and demanded an end to monopolies, an indication of the awakening of collective consciousness.

It was in 1997 that "The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary" was published, in which Eric Raymond described the theory and practical application of the open-source software development models and compared the production of commercial software to a cathedral, and the production of open-source software to a bazaar. Since then, the open-source movement has developed its own set of goals.

Over the past several decades, open source projects have persisted and grown rapidly. Thus, it is evident that the spirit of open source sharing is not a utopian daydream but a market-driven and internal development need.

Li also maintains an open attitude concerning open-source and closed-source software. According to him, regardless of whether a program is open-source or closed-source, currently, no program can stand alone but must serve users with one another. "Like the operating systems, Linux, Mac OS, and Windows are thriving and prosperous as well. And in the database market share, we can see that open source and closed source software are essentially equal in share."

People from diverse backgrounds and cultures have different ways of sharing intellectual property when it is the fruit of their labor. Therefore, "there will not be an open source-only future, nor will there be a closed source-only future, but both will coexist and work together for the benefit of mankind."

Behind the "delete & disappear": an open-source dilemma

"Delete & Disappear" is now a popular Internet jargon in China, which refers to a technician's choosing to disappear after deleting a company's database without permission.

Earlier this year, a series of "delete and disappear" events conducted by the authors of several open-source projects generated widespread interest in discussions surrounding open-source payments and risks.

During the last few years, the value and impact of open source projects have been more widely recognized. Recent announcements from GitHub indicate that it will be updating its Sponsors feature to offer developers a more equitable share of revenue and rebates. In addition, avoiding risks posed by open-source projects, such as "delete and disappear" events, and sharing responsibility for open-source code have become pressing issues. According to Li, there are three critical perspectives to consider.

Firstly, in the case of authors who "delete & disappear", it is true that they violate certain "community norms". However, one could also offer empathy to them and understand their viewpoints. It is essential to consider whether they have mastered and understood the essence of open source, decided to open-source the project based on their understanding, and know that the project no longer belongs to them after open-sourcing. If so, then it is either malicious or deliberate; if they are coerced or hurt, then they have a legitimate complaint.

In addition, from a social perspective, the manner in which open source communities are governed and the way in which companies participate should be examined. Vendors who leverage open source projects should be aware of their risks. Without any guarantees, would it be more secure to choose a project from an open-source non-profit foundation rather than an individual project? In what manner should companies demonstrate their support for adopted open source projects? Is there a financial commitment? Does the company have an open-source department responsible for the whole process?

Evangelists need to explain open-source as a whole, including the psychological process that individuals must go through, the difficulties they may encounter, the sustainability dilemma, and the social, cultural, and institutional issues they face. "Evangelists are actually deeply grieved when they observe similar events ("delete and disappear") and feel that we are not fulfilling our obligations."

In the past few years, even people who are not familiar with the term open-source generally feel that the community is gradually becoming more active, thanks to increasing contributors. As the concept is becoming increasingly popular in China, its significance is gradually being recognized, and the open-source communities have grown significantly. There is, however, a long way to go before enterprises' participation in open source projects is extensive enough. There are still dilemmas affecting open-source participation, and there is still much work to be done.

Furthermore, he maintains a very open attitude towards the relationship between open and closed source software. As an implementer, his interests lie in how to make a project successful, attract participants, achieve goals under limited conditions, calculate technical debt, and innovate the business value of open-source projects. In his opinion, "solving problems effectively and economically is the key, and arguing about abstract ideas won't help."

As stated in Li's book, an evangelist of open-source is defined as someone who works relentlessly to promote the advancement of this concept. Li, as a devout believer, will not take a break from his adventure around the open source world, and is excited about the future of both closed-source and open-source projects in the ICT industry. 

责任编辑:庞桂玉 来源: 51CTO

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