Kushal Das4

FOSS and life. Kushal Das talks here.

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When I was sleepy

Back in 2005 I joined my first job, in a software company in Bangalore. It was a backend of a big foreign bank. We trained heavily on different parts of software development during the first few months. At the same time, I had an altercation with the senior manager (about some Java code) who was in charge of the new joinees and their placement within the company. The result? Everyone else got a team but me, and I had to roam around within the office to find an empty seat and wait there till the actual seat owner came back. I managed to spend a lot of days in the cafeteria on the rooftop. But, then they made new rules that one can not sit there either, other than at lunch time.

So, I went asking around, talking to all the different people in the office (there were 500+ folks iirc) if they know any team who would take on a fresher. I tried to throw in words like Linux, open source to better my chances. And then one day, I heard that the research and development team was looking for someone with Linux and PHP skills. I went in to have a chat with the team, and they told me the problem (it was actually on DSpace, a Java based documentation/content repository system), and after looking at my resume decided to give me a desktop for couple of weeks. I managed to solve the problem in next few days, and after a week or so, I was told that I will join the team. There were couple of super senior managers and I was the only kid on that block. Being part of this team allowed me to explore different technologies and programming languages.

I will later write down my experiences in more detail, but for today, I want to focus on one particular incident. The kind of incident, which all system administrators experience at least once in their life (I guess). I got root access to the production server of the DSpace installation within a few weeks. I had a Windows desktop, and used putty to ssh in to the server. As this company was backend of the big bank, except for a few senior managers, no one else had access to Internet on their systems. There were 2 desktops in the kiosk in the ground floor, and one had to stand in a long queue to get a chance to access Internet.

One day I came back from the lunch (a good one), and was feeling a bit sleepy. I had taken down the tomcat server, pushed the changes to the application, and then wanted to start the server up again. Typed the whole path to startup.sh (I don’t remember the actual name, I’m just guessing it was startup.sh) and hit Enter. I was waiting for the long screens of messages this startup script spewed as it started up, but instead, I got back the prompt quickly. I was wondering what went wrong. Then, looking at the monitor very closely, I suddenly realised that I was planning to delete some other file and I had written rm at the beginning of the command prompt, forgotten it, and then typed the path of the startup.sh. Suddenly I felt the place get very hot and stuffy; I started sweating and all blood drained from my face in the next few moments. I was at panic level 9. I was wondering what to do. I thought about the next steps to follow. I still had a small window of time to fix the service. Suddenly I realized that I can get a copy of the script from the Internet (yay, Open Source!). So, I picked up a pad and a pen, ran down to the ground floor, and stood in the queue to get access to a computer with Internet. After getting the seat, I started writing down the whole startup.sh on the pad and double checked it. Ran right back up to my cubicle, feverishly typed in the script, (somehow miraculously without any typo in one go.) As I executed the script, I saw the familiar output, messages scrolling up, screen after joyful screen. And finally as it started up, I sighed a huge sigh of relief. And after the adrenalin levels came down, I wrote an incident report to my management, and later talked about it during a meeting.

From that day on, before doing any kind of destructive operation, I double check the command prompt for any typo. I make sure, that I don’t remove anything randomly and also make sure that I have my backups is place.

That missing paragraph

In my last blog post, I wrote about a missing paragraph. I did not keep that text anywhere, I just deleted it while reviewing the post. Later Jason asked me in the comments to actually post that paragraph too.

So, I will write about it. 2018 was an amazing year, all told;, good, great, and terrible moments all together. Things were certain highs , and a few really low moments. Some things take time to heal, some moments make a life long impact.

The second part of 2018 went downhill at a pretty alarming rate, personally. Just after coming back from PyCon US 2018, from the end of May to the beginning of December, within 6 months we lost 4 family members. On the night of 30th May, my uncle called, telling me that my dad was admitted to the hospital, and the doctor wanted to talk to me. He told me to come back home as soon as possible. There was a very real chance that I wouldn’t be able to talk to him again. Anwesha and I, managed to reach Durgapur by 9AM and dad passed away within a few hours. From the time of that phone call, my brain suddenly became quite detached, very calm and thinking about next steps. Things to be handled, official documents to be taken care of, what needs to be done next.

I felt a few times that I’dburst into tears, but, the next thing that sprang to mind was that if I started crying, that would affect my mother and rest of the family too. Somehow, I managed not to cry and every time I got emotionally overwhelmed, I started thinking about next logical steps. I actually made sure, I did not talk about the whole incident much, until recently after things settled down. I also spent time in my village and then in Kolkata.

In the next 4 months, there have been 3 more deaths. Every time the news came, I did not show any reaction, but, it hurt.

Our education system is what supposed to help us grow in life. But, I feel it is more likely, that school is just training for the society to work cohesively and to make sure that the machines are well oiled. Nothing prepares us to deal with real life incidents. Moreover, death is a taboo subject with most of us.

Coming back to the effect of these demises, for a moment it created a real panic in my brain. What if I just vanish tomorrow? In my mind, our physical bodies are some amazing complex robots / programs. When one fails, the rest of them try to cope , try to fill in the gaps. But, the nearby endpoints never stay the same. I am working as usual, but, somehow my behavior has changed. I know that I have a long lasting problem with emails, but, that has grown a little out of hand in the last 5 months. I am putting in a lot of extra effort to reply to the emails I actually managed to notice. Before that, I was opening the editor to reply, but my mind blanked, and I could not type anything.

I don’t quite know how to end the post. The lines above are almost like a stream of consciousness in my mind and I don’t even know if they make sense in the order I put them in. But, at the same time, it makes sense to write it down. At the end of the day, we are all human, we make mistakes, we all have emotions, and often times it is okay to let it out.

In a future post, I will surely write another post talking about the changes I am bringing in my life to cope.

Do not limit yourself

This post is all about my personal experience in life. The random things I am going to write in this post, I’ve talked about in many 1x1 talks or chats. But, as many people asked for my view, or suggestions on the related topics, I feel I can just write all them down in one single place. If you already get the feeling that this post will be a boring one, please feel free to skip. There is no tl;dr version of it from me.

Why the title?

To explain the title of the post, I will go back a few years in my life. I grew up in a coal mine area of West Bengal, studied in the village’s Bengali medium school. During school days, I was very much interested in learning about Science, and kept doing random experiments in real life to learn things. They were fun. And I learned life lessons from those. Most of my friends, school teachers or folks I knew, kept telling me that those experiments were impossible, or they were beyond my reach. I was never a class topper, but once upon a time I wanted to participate in a science exam, but the school teacher in charge told me that I was not good enough for it. After I kept asking for hours, he finally said he will allow me, but I will have to get the fees within the next hour. Both of my parents were working, so no chance of getting any money from them at that moment. An uncle who used to run one of the local book stores then lent me the money so that I could pay the fees. The amount was very small, but the teacher knew that I didn’t get any pocket money. So, asking for even that much money within an hour was a difficult task. I didn’t get a high score in that examination, but I really enjoyed the process of going to a school far away and taking the exam (I generally don’t like taking written exams).

College days

During college days I spent most of my time in front of my computer at the hostel, or in the college computer labs. People kept laughing at me for the same, batchmates, juniors, seniors, or sometimes even professors. But, at the same time I found a few seniors and friends, and professors who kept encouraging whatever I did. The number of people laughing at me were always higher. Because of the experience during school days, I managed to ignore those.

Coming to the recent years

The trend continued through out my working life. There are always more people who kept laughing at everything I do. They kept telling me that the things I try to do, do not have any value and beyond my limit. I don’t see myself as one of those bright developers I meet out in the world. I kept trying to do things I love, tried to help the community whichever way possible. What ever I know, I learned because someone else took time to teach me, took time to explain it to me. Now, I keep hearing the similar stories from many young contributors, my friends, from India. Many times I saw how people kept laughing at my friends in the same way they do at me. They kept telling my friends that the things they are trying to achieve are beyond their limit. I somehow managed to meet many positive forces in my life, and I keep meeting the new ones. This helped me to put in my mind that we generally bound ourselves in some artificial limits. Most of the folks laughing at us, never tried anything in life. It is okay if we can not write or speak the perfect English like them, English is not our primary language anyway. We can communicate as required. The community out there welcomes everyone as they are. We don’t have to invent the next best programming language, or be the super rich startup person to have good friends in life. One can always push at personal level, to learn new things. To do things which makes sense to each of us. That maybe is totally crazy in other people’s life. But, it is okay to try things as you like. Once upon a time, during a 1x1 with my then manager (and lifelong mentor) Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay, he told me something which remained with me very strong to this day. We were talking about things I can do, or rather try to do. By taking another example of one of my good friends from Red Hat, he explained to me that I may think that my level is nowhere near to this friend. But, if I try to learn and do things like him, I may reach 70% level, or 5% or 50%. Who knows unless I try doing those new things. While talking about hiring for the team, he also told me about how we should always try to get people who are better than us, that way, we always will be in a position to learn from each other I guess those words together changed many things in my life. The world is too large, and we all can do things in our life at certain level. But, what we can do depends on where we draw those non-existing limits in our lives.

The Python community is one such example, when I went to PyCon US for the first time in 2013, the community welcomed me the way I am. Even though almost no one knew me, I never felt that while meeting and talking to my life time heroes. Funny that in the same conference, a certain senior person from India tried to explain that I should start behaving like a senior software engineer. I should stand in the corner with all the world’s ego, and do not talk to everyone the way I do. Later in life, the same person tried to convince me that I should stop doing anything related to community as that will not help me to make any money.

Sorry, but they are wrong in that point. I never saw any of my favorite human beings doing that. Does not matter how senior people are, age or experience wise, they always listen to others, talk nicely with everyone. Money is not everything in life. I kept jumping around in PyCon every year, kept clicking photos or talking with complete strangers about their favorite subjects. Those little conversations later become much stronger bonds, I made new friends whom I generally meet only once in a year. But, the community is still welcoming. No one cared to judge me based on how much money I make. We tried to follow the same in dgplug. The IRC channel #dgplug on Freenode is always filled with folks from all across the world. Some are very experienced contributors, some are just starting. But, it is a friendly place, we try to help each other. The motto of Learn yourself, teach others is still very strong among us. We try to break any such stupid limits others try to force on our lives. We dream, we try to enjoying talking about that book someone just finished. We discuss about our favorite food. I will end this post saying one thing again. Do not bound yourself in some non existing limits. Always remember, What a great teacher, failure is (I hope I quoted Master Yoda properly). Not everything we will try in life will be a super successful thing, but we can always try to learn from those incidents. You don’t have to bow down in front of anyone, you can do things you love in your life without asking for others’ permissions.

The journey continues at Freedom of the Press Foundation

The code we write is the extension of our emotions and thinking. A few months back a twitter thread on Gnome’s account made Anwesha and me think about it once again. I think the most important reply in that thread came from Miguel de Icaza.

The contribution to Free Software happens over 2 forms, for many it helps to solve or support a personal cause. Sometimes it is something we deeply care about (actually the 2 points are not that different). That is why people come back to home from their daily jobs, and then continue contributing upstream till late night. Many jobs now also allow working on upstream Free Software projects as part of the work. The word Open Source helped to create a bridge between businesses and creators. But, we still have to keep fighting for Freedom in various levels in life, even including for the basic human rights.

More than a month back, the Supreme Court of India ruled that privacy is a fundamental right to every Indian citizen. It was a huge win for every privacy advocate, but it was one of the big battles in the whole fight for right to privacy. Even though governments are using public money to develop software infrastructure, almost none of them are Free Software. There is a current campaign happening for having publicly financed software developer for people to be Free Software. No one knows what is going on in the closed source infrastructure, and if people point out the issues, they are getting punished. If you never heard about Aadhaar project in India, feel free to visit this site to learn about how much destruction it is bringing in.

Journalists were the most common people in the movies (in our childhood days) who used to find out all bad things people in power were doing, and at the end of the movie, public used to win with help of court (and sometimes fights between the hero and villains). Things have changed a lot over the years. Now technology enables many to be in a condition to find out the wrongdoings of the state, or private companies. It is much easier to send across that information to the journalists, and we can see how those revelations are helping the world. But, technology also enables the wrong-doers to attack the whistleblowers and the journalists who publish the truth to the people.

At this point if the government can identify the whistleblower, it is too dangerous to be a whistleblower. If we want to find what the state is doing, so that, we, the people, can have control over it, we need to make whistleblowers safe. -- RMS in his talk last year.

Freedom of the Press Foundation is one such organization working to protect and defend journalism, to support journalists and whistleblowers worldwide. One of the major development from the foundation is SecureDrop project. SecureDrop is an open-source whistleblower submission system that media organizations can use to securely accept documents from and communicate with anonymous sources. It was originally created by the late Aaron Swartz. The project also won The Award for Projects of Social Benefit from Free Software Foundation in 2016. This week I joined the Freedom of the Press Foundation as a staff member to help on the SecureDrop and other projects.

As I started writing the post with Why Free Software?, helping the journalists and whistleblowers with Free Software is vital cause I can personally relate to. In the last month, we saw at least 3 journalists killed in India, from 1992, we have the second highest deaths of the journalists due to their work. We also saw the increased death threats to the journalists in India and other parts of the world. The freedom of the press stands as a pillar of the democracy, and we will continue to protect it.

Taking off Red Hat, but not Fedora

Red Hat, the name means a lot of things to me. Red Hat Linux was the first Linux distribution I ever saw and worked with. Later I moved into Fedora, and it became my defacto distribution from Core 1 days. Started contributing to the project formally from 2006, and joined in Red Hat for the first time back in 2008. People kept asking me why do I wear my Red Fedora everywhere, why do I feel so enthusiastic all the time? For me, it is always the people, the company itself started to provide a healthy relationship with the businesses and Free Software vendors (including itself). It is still standing tall and growing because of the people in the company, who still cares about Freedom. I left Red Hat for 11 months in between, and then came back to work on Fedora itself as Fedora Cloud Engineer in the Fedora Engineering team. Later Sayan also joined the team.

The last 3 years were full of fun in different levels. There were last-minute breakages, heated discussion over IRC or on emails. But, the community stayed above of everything, the goal of releasing a better distribution for everyone, and kept inventing at the same time was in sync. I actually have to admit that I can not express my feelings about working on Fedora as a full-time job. It was the dream coming true. Friendships became deeper, found many complete new points of view at things in life. It is never only about technology. The 4 foundations always remind us why the community is still growing and why we are in love with the project. I should mention that most of my technical know-how about Fedora and many related things actually came from Patrick. He taught me a lot of things over the years.

I am now back as a community contributor to the project. This was a personal decision, and I got support from Anwesha and friends to go ahead with this. I always worked on upstream projects with my personal email ID, means there is nothing changed in Fedora directly for me.

At the end, I want to thank Paul Frields, Matthew Miller, Denise Dumas, and rest of the Fedora Engineering team and the community to give me this opportunity.