Of FOSSMeets at NIT Calicut

It’s been over a month and a half since the last edition of FOSSMeet at NIT Calicut. As an active member of organizing team for FOSSMeets ’10 and ’11 and a keen but silent observer for the 2013 edition, I want to share some history, some ideas & few observations with this post. The intent is to generate discussion among people who have been part of earlier FOSSMeets and to leave some things to ponder about (and act on) for juniors.

Year One

FOSSMeet 2010 and the preparations that led to it were a great experience for me as a fresher in the college. We have a Google Group for FOSSMeet discussions connecting alumni and others connected to FOSSMeet in some or other way together. The thing I liked most was the open discussions we had on the mailing list about the problems faced in our campus when it comes to organizing a technology focused event like FOSSMeet, the event structure of FOSSMeet itself, lots of suggestions and ideas being shared from alumni, seniors, and even freshers like me and Pranav. It was exactly like the way I imagined an open community works – involving everyone without bias on age, seniority, gender, etc. Much thought was given even to suggestions we gave as freshers (fresh perspectives), and questions/doubts/uncertainties that we raised were patiently addressed. We also had few IRC meetings, and even got trolled in one of them :D. I got to learn the history of FOSS culture at NITC and got connected to many interesting seniors and alumni. What more could a budding FOSS enthusiast ask for?

I contributed to FOSSMeet that year by designing the website along with Pranav Ashok. It was my first complete website based on Drupal, and I can’t describe in words the amount of learning and fun I had working on it (working till midnight at SSL (that too in first year!); getting ourselves locked in the IT Lab Complex in the midnight of Dec. 31, it was Pranav’s birthday; etc). We made sure all kinds of information that participants/speakers would look for was easily available on the site, and even went on to properly archive the websites of previous editions of FOSSMeet so that visitors get a complete picture about our history. There was a small forum to answer queries raised by visitors (especially freshers of our campus), and registration of both delegates and speakers was handled through the website itself – thanks to the awesome contrib modules available for Drupal (guess the registration team was pretty much relieved that they could just export an Excel sheet of all registrations). The amount of support and freedom given to us by seniors (especially Amarnath) was heartening. Overall, this one website got me started with Drupal and can be credited as the reason for many other sites I did later (including my best website work yet – the CSED site). To happy memories of an upcoming web enthusiast…

Another way I was able to contribute that year was as a volunteer in the Speaker Hospitality team. I recall asking Amarnath what would he choose, and I had my answer. It was a great experience getting to meet almost all the speakers in person (even Atul Chitnis!), sharing ideas and views with them, getting inspired in the process, and yeah running to and fro to the cool (literally) NITC Guest House to arrange accommodation for speakers and making sure they were comfortable. Seniors including Anil and Febin were very helpful in the process.

Praveen’s birthday was celebrated on the stage in one of the halls, another example I saw of how people were close to each other while working on things of common interest. Some of my most happy memories include working with GeoHackers on their website in their FOSSHut and going out for dinner at Broast  (my first visit there) with the gang of geeks – 12 of us, each carrying heavy laptop bags, and only one, I, an NITC student. I don’t remember if I participated in any of the workshops, but talks by Dr V Sasi Kumar and Atul Chitnis were quite interesting. Overall, this FOSSMeet was a huge success with good participation, effective talks and workshops (most popular was one on Blender IIRC), and a lot of happy memories. :)

Related Links

Year Two

Something was different this time, less enthusiasm among the team, lack of proper leadership and hence lack of a clear vision about the aim & purpose of the event, perhaps it was the fatigue of conducting another related conference just a few months earlier – FOSS in Education (which saw RMS visiting Calicut and we students getting to interact with him in person). There was comparatively lesser amount of discussion on the mailing list (intrusion of Facebook into our lives can be attributed to this), or if we look at it the quality of discussion was different this time.

I took the responsibility of Speakers Manager along with helping out with the website (logical promotion from my previous year’s responsibilities) this time. I had visited two professional FOSS related conferences that year – PyCon 2010 and FOSS.IN 2010 – and met a lot of geeks and hackers. Anjhan’s keynote at FOSS.IN had a great impact on me, and also made me realize how grand FOSSMeet used to be when he mentioned it there on that stage. I realized expectations were high and I had a relatively important role to perform.

A lot of hard work followed in hundreds of email exchanges with potential speakers (some of them I had befriended the previous year or in other conferences), arranging for their travel plans, accommodation arrangements in the Guest House and hostels, making sure all their needs were met, etc. Anil Vishnu, my senior, again was a great help. One thing different this time was the visit of Chamba team to our campus a week before FOSSMeet started, this was a great initiative to try and get talented students from NITC involved in their team.  But I found myself burdened with work and responsibility and aghast with conflict of interests among FOSSMeet activities and some event by a group which was part of organizing bodies of FOSSMeet; perhaps it was just lack of communication among our whole team – a serious problem which scales with the size of teams.

On the website front, we tried to make the session proposal process more open this time, and received a few proposals. I believe a smooth web experience matters a lot in making things open using technology and we faced few problems in that respect, but web team couldn’t be blamed completely for this because that year we faced problems with our hosting provider with one server upgrade and a last minute server crash. I learnt how difficult it becomes sometimes to convey ideas to others in the team. There were some heated exchanges and ego clashes which had long term impact much later. Alas, important lessons learnt the hard way.

Another disheartening aspect of this year was low attendance in some of the best workshop sessions arranged that year – Git workshop by Noufal, Intro to GCC Compiler Collection by Praseed Pai, and many of the talks. I had even personally identified the best technical sessions and tried to promote them in our class but the response wasn’t as expected. Python workshop was overcrowded, the most popular session that year. It, indeed, showed the need of a better mechanism to allow entry to a workshop based on prerequisites and interest of participants. Otherwise, it becomes a problem for both the organizers and the speakers in effectively conducting the sessions. Some speakers mentioned missing prerequisite among the audience, and some were of course disappointed with low participation in their sessions.

Some of the best moments from that year were my interactions with Niyam Bhushan and Praveen. Praveen inspired an urge in me to ask questions, and Niyam left a message to never give up on my passion. At the end of the event, the team faced a complete burn out, and not much effort was done to properly document the event – something I think is very important. One other thing I personally felt was a need to question ourselves – Was it all worth the effort? Were we able to realize a dream of having NITC community involved in open source development? Heck, were we gaining anything out of this, technically and otherwise (an inner satisfaction)? We were so tired that no other FOSS related activity was done that semester except for one preplanned LaTeX session.

Year Three

I remember meeting Jerrin, Shamil and a few others and questioning ourselves about last FOSSMeet and think about the next one. I had personally moved away from most of the FOSS activities in the campus (were they any left by then?) and wanted to play a minimal role in FOSSMeet that were to happen. We tried including all technical groups of campus this time, ISTE was a fresher. But there were internal troubles within our team, somehow we had failed to inspire our juniors to lead the effort. And again, there was minimal discussion over the mailing list or the Facebook group that had been formed. I also felt there was lack of interest in our team to discuss on questions like the aim of FOSSMeet, why should we even do it or how it could help change the face of technical activities in the campus, when I once raised them in a physical meeting. Sadly, after some efforts, some preparations and  some rescheduling of dates, the event was called off.

Year Four

Before starting on this one. I want to acknowledge the efforts of the team behind bringing FOSSMeet back! The efforts by Shamil, Jerrin, Arunanand (Taa), Nimish, Vipin and Jaseem are commendable. Especially, with the help of Taa’s professionalism & experience and a burning desire in Shamil to bring it back, the seniors were able to inspire the juniors to make FOSSMeet happen this year. The team composed of many dedicated second years – Govind, Karun, Shiv, Vinith, Adithya, Hemant, Pallab, Vimal and many more – who put their best efforts. Third years including Yazar, Prajith, Sudev, Ashwin, Bandna and many more helped with their experience and wherever they could. The speaker line up was good, both for talks and workshops. I heartily congratulate everyone in the team to make this happen, bringing something of legacy back to life isn’t an easy task, something I can tell from experience.

But all wasn’t so well during the actual conduct this year. I observed few things myself and there were comments from speakers and participants as well (see links below). I couldn’t be an active part this year because of other commitments, but it was great and humbling experience being a silent observer for once.

One general observation was the same as earlier – audience not fitting in the right sessions, which leads to some of them being overcrowded and some being almost empty. Also, the expectations of a speaker aren’t met in terms of prerequisites and interest of the audience in their session. This is IMO a not-so-difficult problem to solve – IIT Madras has been doing this in their HackFest (during Shastra) at least for last 4 years since I know about it. A screening process for delegates, that could be easily implemented on the website, which helps them choose which sessions to attend based on their interests and earlier experience in those fields could be very effective. This is more important for the type of audience that FOSSMeet caters to – students, some of them completely uninitiated about how free communities and open source works. This could also help in scheduling the sessions depending on the numbers and difficulty levels of sessions.

There were some complaints about arbitrary reschedulings, delays in initiation of sessions, etc. Also, something I observed myself, there were no volunteers in some sessions to introduce the speaker, to track the time taken in a talk or to present the memento at the end of the session.  I understand the problems organizers face (being one myself earlier) but I felt this could have been dealt with more professionally and carefully. An intro session on where to find information, how to identify volunteers, etc. during the inauguration of the event could certainly help.

This time the team opted to use HasGeek’s Funnel for proposal acceptance. Funnel is a pretty awesome tool for the task, but switching to it should have been done well in advance. I observed there were some proposals on the website in the beginning which never appeared later on Funnel. Also, there was some gap in communication among the proposers and organizers (especially pointed out by students from Amritha – I was really happy to see so many proposals coming from students there), again this is something organizers should be very careful about in conducting a professional event.

Another complaint was about the student audience being complete novice for some sessions. Personally, I was shocked to see the number of students who appeared for Django Hacknight who were completely clueless about even the syntax of Python (sadly, the hacknight that was supposed to be done among 4-5 people turned into just another beginner session on how to start with Django with about 25 participants). This is not an easy problem to solve, only thing that can help is regular meetups/sessions during the year by seniors interested in technology and open culture. Student organizations like CSEA, FOSSCell, IEEE have been trying to help but regularly tend to get lost in clearly defining their purpose of existence and things they need to focus on.

My happy memories about the event were really good technical talks by Harisankar on Ruby and Rails and another by Ram on Advanced Git.

Blogposts about FOSSMeet 2013

Conclusion

It’s been an interesting journey over last 4 years, with many ups and downs. I have tried to cover things which can be improved on, mixed with history and memories at this time of nostalgia while I am about to leave college. I might be biased in my views on things or might have failed to see the complete picture, for which I invite viewpoints from others. On a happier note, this long (and) overdue blog post is finally complete. :-)