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My trip to FOSDEM 2005

[ Due to lists.debian.org's spamfilter's discrimination policy against 
women my first two attempts didn't make it through. It's apparently the 
first time the filter makes such bad behaviour, so maybe it can be 
forgiven. Maybe. ]

Before I went to FOSDEM somebody asked if I could write about the trip
afterwards. It's a pretty long story (I don't tend to be a person of few
words), but in short it was a great trip and I think the women at the
conference got a lot of positive attention, both related to talks and in
general. I didn't feel any hostility or sexism or anything like that.

My pictures from FOSDEM are at http://www.geekhouse.no/Gallery/fosdem2005/

The trip
I decided to go to FOSDEM[1] in November or December last year, after someone
talked a lot about it on an irc channel I am on. I didn't know much about
it, but I thought it could be useful for my thesis, which I intended to
write on women in free software, in some form or other.

In December I ordered my plane tickets.  

In January I started getting cold feet when I saw the conference schedule
- was this really interesting? Would the people I was interested in
talking to go there? Would this actually be fun? But I already had my
(non-refundable) plane tickets, so I thought, well, I have to go. A friend
was also going, and I figured out that we'd at least have a nice trip to

We decided to make it a long weekend, from Friday morning to Monday night,
so we could do some sightseeing, it also felt a bit stupid to travel from
Norway to Belgium on our own expence for only two short days.

A few days before the conference (I wasn't really an early bird on this) I
sent a couple of emails to Debian-Women and LinuxChix, to find out whether
anyone I knew from the lists wuld be there. I was glad when I received a
few replies, as there would then at least be a few women there to talk
to. I also found out about a "pre-FOSDEM" event in a pub in Brussels on
Friday night.

On Friday evening we went to Roi de l'Espagne at Grand Place for the
pre-FOSDEM event. A whole floor was reserved for us, and it was crowded
with people after a while. I have no idea how many were in there, but
quite a few. I walked around and talked to a lot of people, both men and
women. I tried to talk to all women I saw, but I am not sure I managed to
- I guess I spoke to some 12-15 women. A few were there with their
boyfriends without any interest in free software at all, others were there
with their boyfriends but with an "independent" interest in free software,
while the rest, which I think was the biggest group, were there "on their
own" (without boyfriends).

I soon found Hanna Wallach (I was cheating and had looked at a picture
before I left) and we spent a lot of time walking around talking to

With the exception of one guy who was staring at us for a while - I think
it was a "joking stare", kind of, since we were suddenly about four women
discussing loudly around a table - I never experience any peculiar,
hostile or weird reactions in my "hunt" for women. Maybe the most
"hostile" ones were the girls who were there with their boyfriends, but
with no interest at all in free software - some of them seemed a bit
annoyed by these eager women approaching them with stupid questions.

I spoke to a lot of people, and I really don't remember them all. Some of
them I met later during the conference as well, and it was very good to
see a known face in the later slightly chaotic conference. I forgot to get
the email address of a few, so if you think you spoke to me during the
conference (or you didn't, but you would like to get in tough anyway, feel
free to email me.

One thing I was "complaining" about when I spoke to people, was the lack
of female talkers - neither in the main tracks nor in the lightening talks
were there any women. Someone heard this and introduced me to one of the
organizers, who said there was a free spot in the lightening talks track,
and we could have that one if we wanted to. So suddenly Hanna and I had a
talk to prepare (in addition to Hanna's talk in the Debian developers
room). Oh well.

Arriving at the conference was like, wow. It was a lot more people there
than I expected. I am not sure what I expected, maybe 2-300? But there
were at least 1500 - the 1470 seat auditorium was crowded when Richard
Stallmann gave his talk, and there were still people walking around in the
corridors at that time (other sources claim there were 3500 at the
conference - I really have no idea).  

The organization was unfortunately far from perfect. There was little
practical info besides folders with tiny letters fastened to windows and
bulletin boards, and there was no organized "here can you get info"-info
even if there was an info boot next to the entrance - but without the
regular "INFO"-arrows leading to it. (Ok, I know this sounds like
contradiction in terms - there actually was a pretty good info desk, the
problem was mostly that it was crowded and the area where the conference
took place was quite messy and information wasn't well distrbuted -
hanging up A5 copies in 5pt fonts is not considered very good information,

The corridors and common areas were crowded with people most of the
time. Along them were info stands for different projects, like Debian,
Mozilla, O'Reilly (one of the main sponsors) and lots of smaller
projects. There were also many people selling t-shirts,. which is great
since the price is often lower than elsewhere and in any case one doesn't
have to pay a fortune in postage and handling, and in my case, tax and

Even though the main tracks had few talks of much interest to me, there
were a lot of interesting "developers rooms" where various projects gave
their own presentations. I rather randomly ended up in the Calibre
developers' room, which had talks about current research on Free Software
in Europe. Basically it was presentations of what different groups had
done, and a lot of it was quantitative and involved analysis of CVS logs
in various forms. It was nevertheless very interesting - and as always
when I do something special related to my studies, inspiring.

On Sunday I went to Hanna's talk at 11:30. It was a very good talk (and I
immediately fell in love with her nice slides. She used a package called
'beamer'[2] with LaTeX) about the Debian Women Project[3]. In her blog she
said she would be the one at front looking nervous, but honestly she didn
neither look nor sound nervous at all. Quite a few were interested in the
talk; I guess the room had about 80 seats and there were at least 90
people in there. Of them about 15 (16%) were women. That's quite a lot to
be in Debian - considering the fact that there are about 0.3% female
developers in Debian and that women are about 0.6% of the participants on

Hanna had decided to talk for about 20 minutes and then open for questions
and discussion. This worked very well, and I think the discussion could
have gone on for quite a while if there wasn't a talk coming after
hers. Everybody participating in the discussion seemed friendly and
polite, and as far as I remember nobody disagreed or seriously questioned
the debian-women project.

After the talk about half of the audience disappeared - they had come just
to listen to Hanna :-) In fact there seemed to be a special interesting in
both the talks related to women and free software. Also when I and Hanna
gave the day's second talk on the issue, a more general one in the
lightening talks track, a lot more people came to listen to it compared to
the talks before and after, and there were several questions after the
talk - one of them simply dumb, the others rather clever and
insightful. And we got applause twice :-)

(I say "I and Hanna" gave this talk, but it was mostly Hanna this time as
well. We based it on her slides from her talk about Debian-Women and made
them a bit more general. Unfortunately I didn't study them close enough
before the talk, so I never really knew what was on the next slide or what
exactly she had mean with what she had written. The obvious tips applies:
write your talk yourself, get your own copy to study if you are more
people working on it, and have some extended notes to give yourself a hint
about what you are going to say.)

The conference
So what do I think about the conference?

If the attendants to FOSDEM are representative for the average free
software users, the future looks bright - and various. There was a lot of
people there, speaking different languages, and from different countries
and cultures (even though there were few colored people), and also a
number of women. I don't know how many, but it was nearly impossible to
talk to all of them, and I felt like they were "everywhere". There were
also some parents with children there, and quite a few "older" people -
significantly above 25 and maybe also above 65.

I am really glad I went, because I learned so much there. Not that much
about technical aspects of free software etc, but about people and
organizations. The Debian people (at least those I met, mostly from the
UK) seemed really great (I don't really know much about their behaviour in
mailing lists, but I now know they mostly act quite civilized when out
among people.).

Going to the beer-event with someone helped a lot, it was great to meet
people in an informal setting before the conference. Being alone at such a
conference for the first time must be horrible, especially if one is a bit
(or very) shy. I'd really suggest to try to meet someone before the
conference or the beer event or whatnot, to be able to arrive with someone
and have someone to "stick to" in the beginning. I had Tollef, so we soon
found a table and some people to talk to, and I was soon introduced to a
lot of people I had or had not met on irc and email.

Something I really missed having while I was there, was some printed
information on Debian-Women, LinuxChix and similar initiatives and
organizations. It would have been great to have a little printed info to
hand out to interested people - just a slip of paper with some info, URLs,
mailing list info and a space to write time&place for "local events"
during the conference. We tried to get women to meet us at the Debian
stand on Saturday for an informal meeting, but not many turned up. I think
some written information might have made more people come. I am thinking
of just something simple that can be used in all kinds of conferences,
downloadable from web to print or copy as desired. (This is what my boss
calls "put a brick on the table". Yes, I'll pick it up and volunteer to
put something together :-P)

Another nice thing would be t-shirts. I suck at t-shirt design and related
stuff, so I won't say more on that :-)

The future?
My trip to this conference, and especially all the fun I had with the
debian-uk people, has made me considering entering the NM process to
become a DD.

My motivation for it is two-fold: It's for academic reasons - for my
research and to experience myself what it is like in stead of just
reading other people's perception of the process and "life as DD". The
other reason is probably the most important one, from the Debian view
- I want to contribute. I know I can write documentation and that I am
able to translate. I also think I am able to package a fairly good
deb-package, although there are a few years since I last did it and
that was just a private package (and probably not a very good one,
albeit it did its job...). I have not quite decided yet, but I think
I'll give it a try.

Magni aka Naima :)

[1] http://www.fosdem.org/2005/
[2] http://latex-beamer.sourceforge.net/
[3] http://www.srcf.ucam.org/~hmw26/talks/fosdem.pdf
[4] These are my own currently unpublished statistics, from my thesis work. 
    I plan to write a proposal for Debconf5, and there will be more about it 
sash is very good for you.

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