Open source changes everything: What John Walicki learned about community building
Jason Perlow | 23 March 2023
John Walicki, who has recently joined the Linux Foundation as VP of Community Operations, is a name many former IBMers like myself recall with admiration.
As a former consultant in the company’s services delivery business from 2007-2012, I relied on the very customized RHEL-based Linux desktop that John maintained for use in many business units worldwide.
But while I knew John as the IBM Linux desktop guy, his career spanned over 30 years at Big Blue. To learn more about his background, I asked him to recount his time at the company, his lessons learned over the decades, and how they have informed his understanding of open source. – Jason Perlow
In high school, I got my first Apple IIe, and my friend had an IBM PCjr. The “Which OS is better?” debates that my buddy and I had back then have raged for the past 30+ years. Along the way, I was exposed to different operating systems such as DOS, MacOS, OS/2, Win95, WinNT, Linux, AIX, WinXP, Win7, Win10, OS X, embedded, and mobile devices.
I learned from all those operating systems that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to technology. Instead, I learned that there is an appropriate platform, operating system, and form factor for every use case. Choosing the one that does the job best for the task at hand and quickly moving beyond fanboy arguments is critical.
Lesson Learned: Different communities have developed around different platforms, each with their own tools and resources. To succeed, navigating these communities and understanding which platforms and tools are best suited for the task at hand is essential. The ability to move beyond fanboy arguments and appreciate the strengths of different communities is critical to building effective solutions that meet the needs of users.
The GUI (1984)
In 1984, the original Macintosh and its new graphical user experience revolutionized the computing industry. At the time, I was still in high school, but I was fortunate to land a job at a local Apple reseller where I was responsible for teaching introductory classes to new owners of expensive Macintosh systems. To my surprise, the reseller gave me a Macintosh to develop the courseware, and this experience allowed me to become an expert in MacOS, MacPaint, and MacWrite.
Lesson Learned: Sharing knowledge and experience with others is essential to help build a stronger and more collaborative community. In the open source software industry, this principle of community building is particularly critical. open source software relies on a community of contributors who work together to create and improve available software.
Open Source and IBM (1990)
After earning my BSEE degree from Lehigh University, I joined the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center as an OS/2 programmer. There, I had my first introduction to open source software (OSS). I was tasked with porting the BSD-licensed SunRPC to OS/2, which turned out to be a significant turning point in my career.
My work on the SunRPC port was incorporated into the OS/2 TCP/IP implementation and was the single most important thread throughout my 30-year IBM career.
Lesson Learned: This experience opened my eyes to the power of open protocols and open standards. I realized that these principles are essential for creating software that is accessible, interoperable, and flexible.
When I first saw NCSA Mosaic running on an AIX RS/6000, it was clear that the nascent Internet was evolving from connecting computers to connecting people. Before the introduction of web browsers, we had been heavy users of FTP, Gopher, Usenet, and sendmail. However, the arrival of web browsers like Mosaic opened the internet to everyone, regardless of technical expertise.
Later in my career, I had the opportunity to lead the effort to switch all of IBM from Internet Explorer (IE) to the open source Firefox browser. This was a significant milestone in my career and an important step towards embracing open standards and open software for an open Internet.
Lesson Learned: Embracing open standards and open software is critical for creating an open Internet that is accessible to everyone. By making technology more accessible, we can empower people from all walks of life to participate in the digital economy and promote social and economic growth.
In 1999, I was one of the founding members of IBM's Linux Technology Leadership Council. Our recommendations established IBM's Linux strategy and created the Linux Technology Center. As the architect for the world's largest enterprise Linux client desktop and desktop virtualization deployment ever conceived, I helped to pave the way for the corporate adoption of Linux through the internal Linux@IBM Open Client initiative.
At LinuxWorld in 2001, I was there when Sam Palmisano announced IBM's billion-dollar investment in Linux. This investment was a significant milestone for the open source software industry, and it solidified Linux's position as a major player in the tech industry. Today, Linux runs the Internet and is the foundation of cloud computing. It runs on the world's largest supercomputers, the majority of smartphones in the world, and powers billions of IoT and edge devices.
Lesson Learned: This was an incredible opportunity to help Linux become even more pervasive. As a member of the Linux Technology Leadership Council and as the architect of IBM's Linux client desktop and desktop virtualization deployment, I contributed to the growth and success of the Linux community. My first encounter with Jim Zemlin was when I hosted several Linux Desktop Architect Meetings. The Linux DAM meeting assembled open source developers to tackle inhibitors to Linux desktop adoption. I joined the Gnome Foundation Advisory Board. I am proud of my contributions to the open source software industry, and the power of community building has been critical to the success of Linux and open source software more broadly.
I've always been a gadget guy, and for a decade, I carried around a bat belt featuring a pager, StarTac mobile phone, and Palm Pilot. I was never one for the pocket protector of prior generations, but I was easy to spot as a nerdy data center manager.
In 2001, I bought a Kyocera 6035 – one of the first smartphones on the market. This device consolidated all my gadgets into one and was a game-changer for me. From that point forward, I became a dedicated BlackBerry user. However, the arrival of the iPhone and Apple's app store flipped the mobile computing market on its head.
As an open source software developer, I was particularly interested in the potential of the iPhone and its app store. I quickly became a mobile iOS and Android application developer, but my first attempts with PhoneGap, let's be honest, were less than stellar.
While I started with iOS, I left that walled garden ecosystem in 2014 and predominantly became an Android developer. Android / Java / Kotlin / Flutter / Linux-based solutions were the path forward for me and the open source communities I work with.
Lesson Learned: Despite my early missteps, I remained committed to open source software development for mobile devices. The future of mobile computing depends on open standards and open software. By creating software that is accessible and open to everyone, we can empower people to build better applications and create a more inclusive and collaborative mobile ecosystem.
Enterprise IT (2005)
After leaving IBM Research, I joined IBM IT as the IBM I/T Client Platform Architect. In this role, I was responsible for developing and implementing IBM's internal strategy for Windows, Linux, Mac, Mobile, and BYOD solutions. With over 500,000 IBMer workstations to manage, my focus was on security, fighting malware, and global patch management.
One of my proudest accomplishments was establishing IBM's Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy. This involved developing strategies for mobile devices, desktop virtualization, and open standards to ensure that IBM's workforce could access the tools they needed to be productive and efficient.
Lesson Learned: As the IBM I/T workplace of the future strategist, I led the transformation as IBM embraced a more heterogeneous workstation environment and adopted open standards-based cloud native solutions. I believe that open source client software solutions are key to the future of enterprise computing. By promoting open standards and open software, we can create more flexible and interoperable solutions that better serve the needs of our clients.
Today, I continue to advocate for adopting open source client software solutions and work to promote collaboration, transparency, and openness in the tech industry.
When IBM began to focus on Watson AI technologies, I was excited by the opportunity to contribute to the company's transformation. I joined the Watson IoT Developer Ecosystem team, where I worked to engage IoT and AI developer audiences worldwide.
As part of this role, I created tutorials and taught developer workshops to help developers learn about managing large-scale distributed endpoints. My open source expertise was also critical in helping to improve the IBM Watson Platform.
Lesson Learned: Working with open source developers is a passion of mine, and I believe that open source software development is key to the future of technology. By empowering developers to collaborate and share their knowledge, we can create better, more efficient software solutions that benefit everyone.
The Edge (2020)
As an electrical engineer turned embedded software developer, I am always looking for new ways to gain insights from data. That's why I am excited about the potential of edge computing, especially in the context of faster 5G speeds and AI-infused edge use cases. I became a maintainer and architect on the LF Edge Open Horizon Project.
However, I am not one to be swayed by gushy headlines. For me, edge computing is all about moving workloads and models away from the cloud and closer to where the action is. It's about managing distributed AI models that can process data and distill insights by running predictive analytics close to the data source.
Lesson Learned: Edge computing and 5G represent the convergence of every aspect of my career. As someone with a deep understanding of electrical engineering, software development, and data science, I am well-positioned to help developers manage AI workloads at the edge.
By applying containerization skills and working with open source communities, we can create powerful new solutions allowing developers to gain real-time insights from data. The potential of edge computing is truly limitless, and I am excited to be part of this exciting new frontier in technology.
The Linux Foundation (2023)
Finally, I’ve arrived today at the Linux Foundation. My goal here is to continue working with open source developers to promote collaboration, transparency, and openness in the tech industry. I am dedicated to supporting and mentoring developers and helping them create innovative solutions that push the boundaries of what is possible.
With his passion for open source and community building, Walicki's arrival at the Linux Foundation is a significant step forward in delivering better experiences for OSS communities and members. His breadth of experience and understanding of different OSS models will help deliver better experiences for communities and members, and his contributions to the open source software industry will continue for many years to come. Welcome, John!
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