Eight months after Stormy Peters left
the post to join Mozilla, the GNOME Foundation has chosen Karen Sandler
as its new executive director. Sandler is leaving a position with the
Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) as general counsel and starting with the
Foundation June 21, but will be working part-time for each organization
during the transition.
Prior to joining the SFLC, Sandler was an associate with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York and Clifford Chance in New York and London. Taking up a position as executive director seems a slight departure from practicing law, even if focused on free software — so what made Sandler choose to pursue working with the GNOME Foundation? Sandler says the appeal is GNOME itself: "It's an incredibly important and impressive software that's been entering a critical time. I can't wait to be a part of that and assist the GNOME community to develop and grow."
She does acknowledge that it's a departure from focusing on legal issues, but says that she's looking forward to the change. "As a lawyer you're generally working to avoid pitfalls and anticipate the worst case scenarios and I'm excited to help much more proactively than that."
So what will Sandler actually be doing as executive director?
When Peters held the role, she says that she started by "asking
everyone in the GNOME community what they thought I should do."
During her time, Peters says that she ran the Foundation's day-to-day operations, served as a contact point for questions, helped build the marketing team and travel committee, and "helped make events happen" though she says events mostly happened thanks to the GNOME community.
Sandler, taking a cue from Peters says that she'll ask what people think
she'll be working on, but hopes to spend at least some time on advocacy:
I think as with any ED, one of my main roles will be as a point person for
the organization, both as a spokesperson and as someone who is dedicated
to listening on its behalf. A lot of organization, facilitation and
coordination will undoubtedly come from those roles. I think there's a
real opportunity for advocacy and I hope to have the time to really focus
She notes that this isn't dissimilar to what she's been doing for the
My work as General Counsel for SFLC is substantively similar to what I hope
I'll be doing for GNOME - a lot of advocacy, organizing, coordination and
even fundraising. And of course it's moving from one service role to
another. Instead of serving my clients in their legal needs, I'll be
serving the GNOME community.
Sandler also points out that there are likely to be a lot of housekeeping tasks that have gathered dust since Peters left for Mozilla and her first days will be "spent getting up to speed, getting to know people, taking care of the administrative backlog and ramping up for the Desktop Summit (and of course following up on items raised during the Summit). I'll also look to renew relationships and generally try to immerse myself in all things GNOME."
Peters left in November 2010, and the search committee for the executive
director was announced
at the end of December. The committee included Peters, IBM's Robert Sutor,
GNOME Foundation director Germán Póo-Caamaño, Kim
Weins of OpenLogic, Jonathan Blandford of Red Hat, Luis Villa of Mozilla,
former GNOME board member Dave Neary, and Bradley Kuhn of the Software
Freedom Conservancy (SFC). However, Kuhn says that he stepped down from the
committee once Sandler emerged as a serious candidate, as they had worked
closely together at the SFLC and SFC; Kuhn also considers her a personal
One thing Sandler won't be doing is driving the technical direction of GNOME. Sandler says that, like Peters, she has "a limited role" in the technical direction of GNOME, and says "I'd support whatever the community and release team decided."
Another large part of the role is fundraising. The executive director is the point person for the advisory board and works to encourage members to sign up and donate not only the advisory board fees, but also to contribute to specific events like GNOME Hackfests.
Financially, the GNOME Foundation is doing well enough. In April 2009
there was a concern
that the foundation would be unable to continue the executive director
position due to lack of funds. In that message, John Palmieri said that Peters had managed to recruit a number of new corporate sponsors, but "we are still projecting that without a significant influx of steady contributions we will be unable to keep an Executive Director on the payroll without cutting into the activities budget." The foundation started leaning heavily on its Friends of GNOME program for individual donations, and doubled advisory board fees for corporate members from $10,000 per year to $20,000.
Despite the increased fees and additional income from Friends of GNOME, the budget for 2011 shows a decline in income of about $52,000, while the proposed expenditures are higher by about $64,000. Though it's worth noting the expenditures will likely be lower than planned, as it appears the budget was prepared with the expectation an executive director would be hired by March.
The GNOME Foundation budget for 2011 is $518,000 — with $145,510
earmarked for employees, and the executive director position is the largest
part of that budget. (The GNOME Foundation also has a part-time system
administrator.) So, is the executive director position the best use of
GNOME Foundation resources? Sandler says yes:
While responsible for fundraising, the position covers itself but there's a
lot more that the position contributes. There's loads of house keeping in
running a nonprofit, holding events, facilitating work and coordinating
communication amongst all participants in the community. I think it's also
really important to have someone speaking and advocating for the project.
Sandler is joining the GNOME Foundation at an interesting time. The
GNOME community is looking a bit fragmented at the moment. The GNOME 3.0
release has gotten mixed reviews, some users are feeling dissatisfied with the lack of
ability to modify GNOME to suit their needs, and the relationship
between GNOME and Canonical is strained at best. The GNOME Shell has not been widely embraced — Fedora 15 has shipped GNOME Shell, but Canonical has gone its own way with Unity, and other GNOME-centric distributions like Linux Mint chose to sit out the GNOME 3.0 release and ship GNOME 2.32.
In short, some would say that GNOME as a project has seen better
days. Sandler is not convinced of that:
GNOME 3 has been controversial, but I think that's an exaggeration [that the project has seen better days]. I (and a whole lot of others based on the press I've been reading) think that the rewrite is really great. Some of the choices made in the rewrite were strong decisions and make for a different desktop experience but all were made with what is best for the user in mind. Some people will object to change no matter what it is - you can't make everyone happy. But you can never move forward if you are not prepared to take a few risks, even if it means some of your users will stay with the old version for a while. Honestly, I think GNOME 3 will win users over as it gets worked into into the main distros, but it will take time for that to happen completely.
I've also read that some of the changes coming for GNOME 3 are geared towards developers, which hopefully will make it easier to write great applications for GNOME 3, not to mention just the attractiveness of the platform overall. As GNOME 3 applications improve so will adoption.
Whether GNOME 3 has time to evolve is another question. The Linux
desktop, on traditional PCs and laptops, simply is not gaining much
traction beyond its current audience. But Linux is being used in a number
of mobile systems that address end users, but GNOME in its entirety is not
yet there. Sandler says that she believes GNOME 3 will make GNOME more
relevant on mobile devices:
It looks great and is designed to be easy to use, not to mention the fact
that it already has some touchscreen functionality. I think [...] that
there's the potential for a lot of change in the way users think about the
desktop but I believe the GNOME 3 rewrite is well positioned to roll with
those changes. It's probably worth noting that some mobile vendors are
using GNOME technologies (if not GNOME 3 yet).
Sandler is also unwilling to give up on the PC desktop just now. "It's also probably worth noting that desktop computing is still how most people use their computers (I think people forget that sometimes)!"
As for GNOME 3's slow adoption and potential fragmentation, Sandler says
that the transition is "still underway and it will take time to see
how things really shake out." She says that "strong
decisions" will always alienate some people, but she hopes that
GNOME can restore relationships. "I think that ultimately good
software and good community will fuel increased participation rather than
the fragmentation that seems [to] be arising now."
The upcoming Desktop Summit may be a good opportunity to mend some fences, says Sandler. "The GNOME board tells me that there's already a full list of sponsors and attendees for the Desktop Summit (and that Canonical in particular is planning to attend and sponsor the event). I believe that developers in the different distros are all talking to GNOME and I hope that we'll only see more cooperation going forward."
Ultimately, Sandler says she's optimistic about GNOME: "Coming to GNOME is obviously a vote of confidence from me personally. I love my work at SFLC and am only persuaded to leave because I think it's a great opportunity to be a part of a great organization."
One thing is certain, working with GNOME at this stage is likely to be an interesting job. We wish Sandler the best in her new role, and thank her for taking the time to talk with LWN ahead of the announcement.
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