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A conference like Fosdem is moving the frontiers of technology. Which is a really good thing and everything and we I think reap the benefits of it a couple of years down the road. But from a non-profit perspective and what we can implement as non-profits, a lot of that stuff is not really applicable today or the next couple of years, right? So it's not as interesting.

00:38 What is Open Source and why is it good?

00:44 I think if you ask different people, different people will give you different answers based on their different biases, so I kind of give the spin of Open Source more from a non-profit perspective, right. If you look at non-profits the very reason that they do the work and everything is for the public good. It's to benefit society or benefit the community and everything, which it don't mean that anything they produce and anything they do that they should share it both within their immediate community and in the wider community, irrespective of whether it's beneficial or not. So from a non-profit perspective, I  think it's just the ethical thing to do for them, that they share their work, and their work does not necessarily mean the work that the non-profit does with their community, or the focus of the non-profit, I mean, anything that helps them be more efficient.

01:35 That's why since they're doing stuff for the public good that's why I think all the stuff that they do should be open and freely available to other people. But open source in general is just a really good way of sharing things among a much larger community without necessarily wanting it to be transaction based.

01:54 Do you find it easy to communicate that to non-profits if they don't have a technology background?

02:06 Um, yes and no, right since I've wear two hats both as a funder and someone helping them or consulting for them or whatever and in general, the power dynamic between funders and non-profits is incredibly skewed. I don't know how badly skewed it is in the UK but in the US, in the US it is fairly skewed and in India it is even more skewerd. Um and so I think non-profits in general have a hard time saying no to anything that a funder says so I try and disregard that.

02:38 I would say most of them are open to it. I don't see a lot of problems with it, but again it might be a biased vision. I mean some of the larger ones absolutely don't do it and I think we've got to change that culture, right. Some of the larger ones. So I spent a year and a half or so working with lots of non-profits trying to understand the space and what I realised is we shouldn't be going after non-profits. I mean we should continue helping non-profits, but the whole thing about open source and sharing work and everything - we've got to go after the larger foundations. Because, again, because of the power dynamic and everything the non-profit does or the software vendor of the foundation does whatever the foundation tells them to do. And they're never ever going to question it because any questions not in the line of work could lead to them not getting the contract.

03:30 So if the foundation wants the copyright, they'll give them the copyright. And it's not really that the foundation wants the copyright or cares about the copyright but many of the older foundations have been around for 20-30 years, or 40 years, when it was just standard practice to get the copyright, right. So it's not that they are taking the copyright for that thing, they are just kind of doing what they have done for such a long time. So at least I think this year one of my goals is to educate foundations and try to get them to ensure that any work that they subsidise or pay for is released in the public domain.

04:12 You must have seen the culture you mentioned towards 20 or 40 years, the culture is shifting, it's becoming more normal again.

04:27 I'm sorry I didn't get that question

04:27 I'm sorry...

04:33 Has there been a shift back towards it in your career from being something quite fringe to something anyone can understand?

04:47 Yeah I think it has become quite mainstream right now. My goal this year is to go and talk to the foundations and everything. Ten years ago I don't even think I could have talked about it, right. Probably because at that point in time it was like "what is open source and why the hell should I care about it?" And at that point in time you just can't convince people. You need some level of knowledge, you need some level of awareness and stuff like that. And right now is a really good time, right now they are willing to have these conversations. If you look at FosDem, actually at Sustain - and you were at Sustain right - we had the Ford Foundation there, the Sloane Foundation there again like five years, forget ten years ago, those people were not in the room. They were funding, Ford was funding, commercial stuff. And again not because they wanted to fund commercial stuff but because that was what they knew

05:41 It's a really good point. Going back a bit - what were your first memories of using the internet and the web?

05:50 Hmm. So, I'm quite old, so I'll go back to the pre-Internet days. Email was probably the biggest revelation,r gith. And even in the email days, there was like the WhatsAPp version on computers when you could talk to people across, on the network. There was a programme called Talk, and you could talk to your friends in other universities who were also sitting at their desk at the same time. And you could have these conversations. And then the web, and dubdubdub and the http protocol and everything didn't really come about at the flip of a button. Before that there was the FTP protocol, and then after that there was Gopher and probably in-between I'm forgetting quite a few other things, right. And so it was more of an evolution and very similar to our foundations getting more and more of Open Source, even the web and technology in general most of the times is always an evolution, it's never like one fine day. Even the iPhone if you look at the history of all the devices before the iPhone: the Blackberry, the Newton, everything - and just like humans who evolve, the web has also evolved. 

07:06 So yeah the early days of the web were quite, really nice - to see all this information come out in a really accessible manner from a research perspective I was at universities at that point in time and it was really awesome that you could go and get research papers so easily rather than having to go to the library adn find out the conference journals and dig that up and read papers, so that whole free and easy distribution of information and sharing of information and things made life a lot easier.

07:39 And when did you start working with it?

07:41 Oh when it first started. So that was probably in 93 or 94. 92, 93. I think Mosaic – I also did a lot of stuff with Gopher. Because before, before Netscape and Mosaic came out, Gopher was your information browsing system. Again very similar to ther web but slightly different.

08:06 It doesn't seem like there was a strong sense of ownership in those early days, it just used the academic notion of sharing knowledge and building on it?

08:12 Yeah. I mean because most universities, most CS departments around the world, and most engineering schools, they had access. All of them were connected to the Net, all of them had a domain, so they didn't have to go and get a domain. So the academics could jump on it much quicker than companies right only late on were like this is a fairly good means for communicating with end users.

08:42 And then before CiviCRM what were you doing? You were involved in a number of projects?

08:48 Yes, I was working for a non-profit tech company who was doing services over the Internet, so they were doing donation and mailing services for non-profits, primarily, yeh, mainly in the US. And they also got foundation funding, and that's where I learned how to pitch to foundations and get them to give you funding and that's why Civi got some foundation money. Probably because I had my network of foundations from there, so OSI at that point in time it was Open Society Institute which is the Soros Foundation and is an amazing, amazing organisation, and they wrote Civi a cheque - and they were like if you want to get a group going in Poland with Civi, it means we can give you money but you've got to use it outside the US. And that's how the Polish team came about. And tyhen they also funded - our first sprint was funded by OSI. And  their style of fgunding and their way of interacting with NGOs is really amazing and I think I modelled a lot of work I do and the way I interact with NGOs the way they do it. Like, really minimal paperwork, really minimal bullshit - I think our first Civi proposal was a one-page meila, four paragraphs email. The budget was really very loosely sketched out. We need so much money to have two people for a year, that's what we think, and…

10:24 They've been really aware of what's needed for a long time, it seems, in that respect. What was the actual genesis of CiviCRM?

10:34 Um, again it was like the um, the desktop to the web movement. There were a couple programmes on the desktop for non-profits, one was called eBase which was on Filemaker Pro. I used to remember going to a meeting at the Ford Foundation to talk about this other Desktop programme called Metrix and moving that to the web but I have no recollection about what happened after that meeting. And then we realised that we have to  kind of start thinking about how do we move this, how do we start making an open source system because there were a couple of commercial companies and we knew that eBase which was also - it was Open Source - but it was a Filemaker Pro plstform and we knew that was going out of favour fairly soon - definitely in the next decade or so and it was showing its age. Becasue, again so many of the non-0profit projects are foundation funded because the notion of community and everything becomes a lot easier when people are connected. One of the main reasons, one of the big reasons why Open Source has taken off in the last 20 years is also because of the Internet. Not only does Open Source drive the Internet, the Internet has also connected so many people around the world who came to work on the same thing. Again if you go back [30] years ago you couldn't collaborate on the Linux kernel from different, if you wanted to build a kernel you would have to be sitting in Amsterdam with Linus. And at that point in time when Linus posted everything, it was on Newgroups and everything - it was the first version of the Internet - so that was the whole communication channel


12:27 So the Internet allowed mass communication across land and sea and allowed you to build a global community. So to some extent because everything feeds of each other, that's one reason why Open Source kind of also started gaining traction and also many of the foundations are aware of it even if they don't support it.

12:46 I'm sorry that's the first 12 minutes, I'm just going to - do you want water..

We've got like another 12 minute section.

Ok great, um. So it started with eBase which was part of the .. sorry

So ebase was a FileMaker Pro database?

13:24 And we knew the eBase founders quite well. And then of us decided lets work together. We had a mailing list and we started talking about what we really want in it,, what's most important, what are the various modules and components and we started building a  really simply address books, a contact database. And then after that - and we brought Dave, Dave, Mikhail and I had worked at Groundspring so we were localisable and internationalisable from the very beginning. Thanks to Mikhal and his team in Poland because they wanted it in Polish and OSI funding was for something like that and we thought, hey, donations, is a really big market – and that's what people really want to start collecting, get money from.

14:08 So CiviContribute was our first module and pretty soon we followed it up with CiviMail. So again a lot of the features and things that we built were driven by the community because they knew more about what they wanted and what was important than we did, right. And again that's the power and beauty of open source, right. People have a voice, you don't necessarily have to code. I would say 90% of the cool features of Civi came about from community suggestions, right? So that's why listening to support forums, right, even though sometimes though it feels like people are always asking for things, right and there's an insatiable demand for "gimme more" and "gimme more" if you try and go in and ask and udnerstand what they are looking for it's like there's amazing knowledge in there and listening to what they want and what their problems are, because we can't really sit with them all the time.

15:15 And many of the people we spent working with early on had years and years of experience. So I think that really helped like having a pretty good solid community to help build the product with us, was super-helpful.

15:26 Were people coming more from the general tech space, or the non-profit space or a mixture.

15:35 I'd say it was from the non-profit tech space. So because I don't think there's too much of a crossover from the tech space to the non-profit space. There's this group of people who've kind of migrated from the tech space to the non-profit space. So is there a non-profit tech echo-system. And I mean FOSDEM is a good example, right, there is really no non-profit tech ecosystem at FOSDEM. Like, Civi was one of the few open source . Looking at all the talks and lightening talks and speakers and trying to get an idea - was there any talks we should attend or go listen to and I counted one. Right? (laughs)

16:19 Why do you think that us?

16:23 I think it's because people like us haven't stepped up. And made a change and made a difference. If you want non-profit tech to be at FOSDEM we should pull in the non-profit tech people, it's good to have it. I think for Civi to be out here in isolation is nice, but it's not super great or super helpful, because I think the non-profit tech ecosystem is slightly different. And I think we can learn a lot from each other. But in the large context, right. If we get all the non-profit tech people in the same room at the same time there's not too much similarity between what we are doing, because say someone is working in public health or someone is working on mobile apps for the disadvantaged or something like that, the crossover is not too much, but when you put it in the contect of FOSDEM, and in the context of technology in general, then it makes a lot more sense.

17:14 Do you think ethics should be part of a computer science training programme or degrees?

17:24 Yes. But my main problem is who decides about what is ethical. Different people have different viewpoints about what ethical is. I think a lot of us can agree on the 70% of stuff, which is the really broad base and which is the easy to agree on. And so very recently there's been more things like open source between friends.. like I'm going to give you my code if you're a friend of mine if I know you and you're a friend, but human beings can be incredibly bad judges of character, right. If I'm pissed off at you tomorrow and I take your Civi access away because Open Source between friends you may or may not have done anything wrong, I'm just mad at you for some other thing or something like that. So for me, for an open source community to decide.. In some cases it's really really egregious and it's really obvious and everything so I'm not saying. But in general there are so many grey cases. And that sets a problem of like who's going to be the judge and the jury? As kids would say, who made you the boss?

18:27 Absolutely. If you were speaking to had just graduated and was looking for a career is there any way you would persuade them that non-profit tech might be something they should consider, that there's a value to them to consider.

18:43 Um - not necessarily. It depends on what they are interested in and where they want to go down, what path they want to go down. And I think people should be exposed to different – I think different people will go down their own roads and everything. Showing them this option you definitely have to make them aware of it. And more and more people are doing it. If you look at the number of tech non-profits coming up these days, it's increasing right. There's way more. So I think people are more aware of it. And there are more and mroe fellowships coming up. There's OSI non-profit startups support. Very similar to their for-profit startups. Look at the fellowships - and the MONALO <?> fellowship, it's not alltech related, but there are quite a few tech fellows there.

19:40 Just going back to your time with CiviCRM can you highlight any particular things that were tough or pleasantly suprising?

19:54 So I've been out of Civi for three years now, and I think I've got good memories, but I've forgotten all the tought things. But I think in general, herding a community and trying to make a community work together is always the challenge and you always. And looking back I think we made a few mistakes, I remember losing my cool a couple of times when I think it was really stupid to have done so. But I think when you are in the heat of the moment such things happen, not that it is forgiveable - it is forgiveable, but it's not an excuse. But I think just getting people in the community working together, actually partnering with people in the community and working as a whole I think that in general is an amazing thing in theory. In practice it's not really easy, in practice its;' really hard. I think the main problem is you never know what the other person is facing. I never know the other person, say on a software consulting side or an NGO side, what they are going through in their daily work. So for me just to think about why the hell aren't they contributing back man, doing more for th ecosystem. I can only make those judgements with such a limited view, with such minimal informaiton  and many a times judgements, most of the times they are probably right, because, in general I do think people are good and I think in general people give as much as they actually can. But just in general

21:25 to make the sum of the parts greater than the whole is always a tough challenge. I think the non-profit sector the open source and the non-profit sector, and the non-profit sector is a bit tougher than the general open source sector because in the general open source sector many of the project have been funded by developers for developers. So the people who contribute to the ecosystem there, the natural attraction, stratching your own itch works great for that. But for non-profit tech most of the itches are not itches of people who run those programmes. They've seen the dificullty. If you talk to the Open MRS <?> people or the KOBO, none of them were scratching their own itch. They were scratching the itch because they saw something happening and they knew there were better ways of doing it. SO kind of building a developer community in the non-profit ecosystem is a lot harder.

22:27 But that's a thing that Civi has been super successful with building a community, like Open MRS, KOBO, ODK, all of them have the same struggles. And again, sitting on this side of the fence it's really easy to say oh, the Linux Kernel or Kubernetes and all those problems, they don't have any problems of attracting developers, but again we are talking from a space of limited knowledge. And they probably have exactly the same issue as we do. But for us it's a real thing that hey, for them it's a lot easier than it is for us, which I think might be a bit true, but I'm not certain.

23:01 Was it hard to step away?

23:08 No because when I start something I know I'lkl need to step away and I think it's really important because my impression from the funders, even from an early stage was, we've got to make this community sustainable in 5 or 7 years because we know that Foundations are going to get board of funding the same project. And foundation money will dry up at some time or another. And we had to make it sustainble. And I was kind of a funder and a contributor to CiviCRM. And we had to build a funding source.  What that means is we had to start minimising the funding over a period of time. SO  before I started the project I'd given myself a 6-8 year window and then I stepped at 9-10 years. So it wasn't like a spur-of-the-moment decisions, it was a fairly well thought out decision and I thought the community was fairly strong, right, and it was time for the community and the project to step up and survive and thrive, or if it wasn't, if it couldn't do that then it would have to fold up and die. I think projects have to go through a transition in succession and really on each other. And I'm really proud right now. I was a bit worried about Civi in the first two years. But in the past six months I'm just so excited and happy to see how well the community is doing – financially things are on an upward trend. And the community is doing really nicely. There have been, I don't know if you have been aware of it and everything, but there was probably some tension in there and there was 'how do we manage to do these things' and there was some ups and downs, but I think it's part and parcel of growing up.

25:00 And I think it was important for the community for me to step away. And I'm glad I did.

25:07 I can't think of other examples similar to it - I'm sure they exist - but it shows quite a remarkable self.. um.. I don't want to say self-sacrifice, but to have created something in there and not want to stay fiddling with it forever, that's quite a tribute.

25:32 When you walk away from something, right, so I've avoided ever being critical of Civi in the last three years...<BLACK>

25:43 because I know how it is to be critical of something from the sidelines. Again, without knowing the people in the [cough] in the cracks are facing right. Because they are facing a really hard issue  </BLACK>

25:55 and a really hard problem and so that's how I've tried to maintain this kind of clean separation and given Josh and the team space to play and do things the way they want to do things. Because ultimately it's their ship, it's their baby. [cough]

26:12 Finally could you, your current work is still in the non-profit space, can you give a little overview?

26:21 Yes so currently, and this kind of started off in the US, 15-20 years ago with Gunner and Aspiration. Because 15-20 years ago, just as - there was really no open source tech movement for non-profits in the US. I again keep talking about the US and India, probably because those are my two countries of reference. I'm sorry I can't talk too much about the UK and the scene out there. But 15 years ago, GUnnar and his crew started the NPTech conference. I think they have been going 15 or 20 years now. 156 years I think. At that point then it was all Advocacy Dev and it was the first non-profit that I worked with and Groundspring where Dave and I worked and we were said like, hey, we've got space, lets get a group of 15-20 developers. And that I think was the start of the open source tech movement, for NGOs in the US. And that was one of the pillars that helped build the ecoysstem in the US, and probably worldwide also, it was very similar to the CircuitRider (?) movement just the next generation of it.

27:30 So we just tried to do something simlar in India by getting all these software companies to realise hey non-profits have money, non-profits can pay for software, non-profits are worthy of your attention. It's not that you have got to do everything pro-bono. You can make a really good business case, you can live a really solid life, take multiple vacations a year. You won't become a billionaire or so but it's not that your depriving yourself of many things. So that's what we are doing, we're building a collaborative of software companies. Each of them indpendent, we don't have any financial stake in them. And I'm also convincing a bunch of funders from around the world, I mean the US and India - and hopefully a couple in the UK over a period of time to support this network. Because you need initial startup money and we basically solve problems for NGOs and that's part of the reason we try to use open source. Our pitch to NGOs is we give you six months of por-bono support, but before we give you the support we tell you how much it's going to cost you. And ultiamtely software is going to cost you for the rest of the software lifecycle. So you have to put some money into it, evern after we disappear but we are going to give you after the first month or two we're going to tell you how much it's going to cost you and how much you need to go and raise money, and in six months we'll tell the world we solve, either your whole problem if it's a relatively small problem, or if it's a big problem, we've solved a lot of them but we've put it on a platfform on which we think can solve the whole problem in a really nice manner.

29:05 And then you can decide to engage with it as software partners or you can go and engage with your favourite person but because everything is open source and we want you to succeed, and code is just the way you can take that code and go give it someone else to work on. So hopefully it means - the ultiamte goal from an open source perspective is, at the end of three years - because we are generating money for three years. At the end of three years we want to build or be strong partners for at least five open source platforms. And again already in the first year we already had four. Out of which two are existing open source projects and we are just going to try to strengthen that community and build on it. Because again we don't really believe in building a product just for the sake of building something, if there's something that is existing then we're going to use it.

30:00 Can you say what those four projects are?

30:02 Yes so we've got, which basically is a case management system for abuse against women or children. It's a UN funded project, it's an amazing, amazing project. It doesn't have too much of a community. But that's ok, I mean - they actually put code out there with really good documentation, it's a a really solid project, we don't mind helping them and working with them and building a community.

30:29 The other which we began working with a few years ago on a pilot project is Kobo ToolBox which is a really nice layer above ODK, which is Open Data Kit which has got an amazingly strong ecosystem and there are at least 3-5 commerical companies on ODK. There's another project which we've incubated in India which has started a couple of years ago called Afvni, which basically takes Kobo to the next level. While Kobo does something really well there are a couple of missing features in Kobo which without them many organisations can't use them.

31:07 And the fourth project is a CRM-ish based programmatic platform. Because many of the NGOs have to deal with people, can provide services to people. And it's not really CivICRM in the sense that in the US and UK, your dealing with your donor base. CiviCRM deals with your donor base, or dealing with the people you are interacting with. You aren't dealing with your beneficiaries. I don't like the term beneficiaries, but you aren't dealing with people you are providing medical services to you are doing health education with and stuff like that. And pretty much all the NGOs in India are more on the other side of the thing, so you are managing a lot of people. It's not a lot of information, it's not detailed contact information – in some cases it's just really thin longitudinal information. So we are just to support that project.

32:04 The tech demands in India, I imagine are very different. The scale is one but presumably mobile is the primary…

32:14 Yes for everything it has to be mobile first.

32:16 I'm aware I'm using a lot of your time, but finally - do you have any messages to the CiviCRM community.

32:22 You know being at FOSDEM it did show it to me, speaking to some of you all yesterday, at FOSDEM and at dinner last night, I'm just really really proud of this community. I'm just grateful - and just super kicked and just super thrilled about how awesome the community is, and how strong a presence you all are. The marketing video which you all did with Erik and stuff, the minute I saw it, it was like, Oh My God, this is so cool! Like, so to some extent, I'm like a proud dad saying like Rock On!

Thank you very much.

Cool thanks.


Donald Lobo

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  • Filmed on
    02 February 2020
  • Filmed by
    Nicol Wistreich
  • Sounds by
    Nicol Wistreich
  • Interviewed by
    Nicol Wistreich
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    CC-BY-NC-SA (Attribution, no-commercial, share-alike)

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