Jane Silber Interview

Amber Graner: This Ubuntu Women interview in the Women of Ubuntu Series is with Jane Silber, the current Canonical COO, but as of March 1st, 2010, she will be taking the reins of Canonical as the CEO. More about this announcement and Jane’s history with Canonical can be found here (http://blog.canonical.com/?p=307). First I want to welcome you Jane, and thank you for taking part in this interview series.

Jane Silber: Thanks very much. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to support the Ubuntu Women initiative.

AG: After reading the announcement that you would be taking the reins as CEO for Canonical I couldn’t help but be excited for you personally, for Canonical, the Ubuntu Community and by extension Women in Open Source. I noticed in the announcement made on Dec 17th, on the Canonical Blog, when asked about “How will this impact Mark’s role on the Ubuntu Community Council and the Ubuntu Technical Board?” you stated, “One thing this move will bring about is a clearer separation of the role of CEO of Canonical and the leader of the Ubuntu community. It will be two different people now, which I think will be helpful in both achieving their joint and individual goals more quickly.” Can you elaborate on what those joint goals of Canonical and Ubuntu are and what the individual goals are besides the obvious commercial differences?

JS: Canonical and Ubuntu have many common goals. First among those is to make Ubuntu the most widely adopted free software platform, and Canonical invests heavily in the development and marketing of Ubuntu to make that happen. Elsewhere, the goals diverge in places where something is of less interest or less suited to one than the other, rather than the goals being in conflict. For example, Canonical has a large team that works with OEMs to get emerging, pre-production hardware enabled for Ubuntu. The contractual and liability requirements for such work simply aren’t well suited to community work. In contrast, local advocacy (e.g., installfests, local events, etc) is much better suited to the LoCo teams in the Ubuntu community than to Canonical. There are areas where the we are exploring how Canonical and Ubuntu relate to each other, and breaking some new ground in the models. The Ubuntu One services are a good example of that. Fundamentally however, Canonical and Ubuntu have a symbiotic relationship in which both benefit from the other.

AG: Since you mention that the role of CEO and leader of the Ubuntu Community will now be separate and Mark stated that he will be able, thanks to you, to concentrate on product design and development and talking to partners and gathering feedback, does this mean Canonical now has and R&D team lead by Mark, being developed under your guidance?

JS: There isn’t a new R&D team being stood up, but we do continue to have a good amount of R&D work happening throughout Canonical. In some cases this is concentrated in a specific team, such as our Design and Desktop Experience teams, which are responsible for things like the notification infrastructure, the Ubuntu Netbook Edition launcher, and the revamped Software Center. In other cases this R&D-type work happens organically throughout the company, including the Ubuntu team itself. Prime examples of this are Scott James Remnant’s work on Upstart (http://upstart.ubuntu.com/) and Rick Spencer’s work on Quickly (https://edge.launchpad.net/quickly). So this move doesn’t signal a dramatic shift into the R&D world – we plan to continue what we’ve been doing. But rather than having product design and strategy receive a portion of Mark’s attention, my new role will allow him to dedicate nearly all of his attention in that area.

AG: When surveying what the transition of COO to CEO entails what do you see as the biggest challenge?

JS: My history at Canonical and close collaboration with Mark and the rest of the senior team over the years gives me a solid foundation on which to build. But there are clearly challenges ahead for Canonical and for me personally. My focus over the last couple years has been largely internal, and naturally the CEO role will add a more external, outward facing element. Additionally, while my current operations focus will remain, the CEO role will require a strategic leadership and decision-making capacity, where I have been in more of an strategic advisory role to date. The changes may seem subtle, but I think they will require something of a mind shift on my part.

AG: Just from some cursory searches on the web in referencing women CEO’s for OSVs (operating system vendors) I could not find a long or readily available list of women, it would seem you are blazing a trail and raising the bar, how does that feel?

JS: I am proud of my contributions to Canonical and Ubuntu to date, and look forward to the continuing to help make them successful. But I am by no means the trailblazer for women in open source or women in IT. You may be right about OSVs in particular, but in the open source world, Mitchell Baker (Mozilla) springs to mind and there are many examples in IT in general. The phrase “on the shoulders of giants” often gets used in the open source world, and I think it’s applicable here too. I’m proud to be part of the group of women executives, but I certainly am not the first.

AG: Speaking of blazing a trail, the news of you becoming the CEO of Canonical spread like wildfire throughout the community, especially the Ubuntu Women Community, do you see yourself as a role model for other women not only in the Ubuntu Project but in Open Source as a whole?

JS: I think that only an individual can decide who she or he thinks of as a role model, and the reasons for it. I.e., it doesn’t matter if you think of yourself as a role model or not – you are a role model only to the people who find that quality in you. If my new role as CEO provides a positive example or inspiration for someone, then that’s great. But for me personally, role models are people who have qualities that I aspire to or that I have to work at (as opposed to achievements or career successes). I am very aware of the impact of positive examples as role models and as learning opportunities, and I try to always be conscious of the impact of my actions and words. That’s true whether I am coming from the perspective of a woman in open source, or a manager, or a co-worker or friend.

AG: As a strong leader and role model within the Ubuntu Community do you now or have you ever participated in FOSS projects or groups specifically created to encourage women? If so can you tell us a little about them? If not can you elaborate on why?

JS: I joined the Ubuntu Women mailing list around the time it was created. And while I have followed the ups and downs of that group with interest, I haven’t taken an active role in the group. I recognise that due to my role at Canonical, my experience in the community as a woman is very different than others, and I thought it was important to provide the space for other women in the community to understand and articulate the issues from their perspective. I recognise the value of sharing experiences and having the support of people in a similar position, and I relied on women’s groups early in my career. In particular, when I was working as a software developer/researcher in Japan, I joined the Systers email community (started by Anita Borg, and now part of the Anita Borg Institute, http://www.anitaborg.org/initiatives/systers/). At a time when I felt I was an isolated minority (by gender, exacerbated by culture), the Systers list gave me real support. Knowing that I could find people with similar experiences and even solutions at times, was a real boon for me. I hope that the Ubuntu Women’s group can provide similar support within the Ubuntu community.

AG: As the transition to CEO should be complete by March 1st , 2010, does this mean you will be announcing the -M name or will that still come from Mark? You will be opening UDS-M as the new CEO, have you thought about how you will inspire and encourage and keep the excitement and energy levels from undulating and remain steady and constant during UDS?

JS: Good question! Mark and I haven’t discussed the -M name yet… maybe I’ll sneak that privilege into my new job description ;). With respect to UDS, I am always amazed at the excitement and energy levels on display there. But I think that is clearly due to the Ubuntu community – LoCo teams, developers, translators, documentation writers, advocates, etc. It’s my job to ensure that Canonical can
continue to provide the forum and infrastructure and opportunity for the UDS magic to happen, but it is the collection of people who participate in UDS, whether in person or remotely, that provide that energy.

AG: At UDS-L I had the opportunity to interview Mark about Canonical’s enterprise strategy, what is your strategy? I asked him specially when he named 10.04, Lucid Lynx, referring to a clear-minded, thoughtful, predator, I know wonder if that describes you and your plan of execution in taking on the enterprise market with this LTS release?

JS: Don’t expect a dramatic change in strategy as I take on this new role. Mark and I have had a very close partnership and are in agreement about our current strategy. We have different styles and experiences and this will inevitably result in different decisions, but the starting point for my tenure as CEO is building on Canonical’s successes and strategies to date, not cleaning house or changing direction.

AG: Jane, thank you again for taking time for the interview and congratulations on your new role as Canonical CEO.

[Discuss Jane Silber’s Interview on the Forum]

Originally posted by Amber Graner in Full Circle Magazine Issue #33 on January 30, 2010

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