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20 Years FSFE: Interview with Reinhard Müller


In 2021, the Free Software Foundation Europe turns 20. This is a moment that we want to use to celebrate our community with a series of publications. In our second publication we interview Reinhard Müller who has contributed as a volunteer since 2002 in various roles from local activities to the European core team.

Reinhard Müller claims that his T-shirt folding capabilities are legendary. Without denying this fact, anyone who has worked with Reinhard on behalf of the FSFE can confirm that his dedication to Free Software and the FSFE is legendary as well. Reinhard joined the FSFE as a volunteer in its first year and met in person with the volunteers behind the FSFE's very first booth at FOSDEM in 2002. In the years following, Reinhard held many different positions inside the FSFE community. Reinhard became a founding member of the Austria country team, joined the FSFE's General Assembly as an official member and even helped to run the organisation for several years as Financial Officer and part of the FSFE's Executive Council. In all these positions Reinhard helped shape the organisation of the FSFE and still does, so much that many people are surprised when they hear that Reinhard is a volunteer and not a paid staffer of the FSFE.

Reinhard Müller socialising at the General Assembly 2015.

Besides his official positions, Reinhard never stopped contributing. That means listing all of his contributions in one webpage basically seems impossible, but we try to mention a few: Reinhard engaged as a local volunteer in the Vienna group and the FSFE's country team Austria, organised and ran countless number of booths in Austria, in Germany and his favorite one every year at FOSDEM. Apart from these local engagements, Reinhard is always eager to shape the FSFE's European engagement by participating in the European core team discussions and decisions. And although Reinhard already had a lot of responsibility with the FSFE's yearly bookkeeping and communication with donors as our financial officer, he additionally spent his free time with countless contributions to the website, including his constant optimisations of our self-written static website generator and the automatisation of information material orders. Not forgetting to mention that in all his contributions and positions, he always aimed at making himself replaceable at the same time by maintaining comprehensive and understandable documentation of his work and hand-overs.

Finally, anyone who has met Reinhard before will agree that his most obvious and visible contributions are his highly social skills. Be it as the good spirit behind the booth, during intense and funny conversations after the booth is closed or deep at night when Reinhard performs one of his self-written songs about the FSFE: Thank you very much for being with the FSFE in the last 20 years and we hope you stay with us in the next 20 years!

Interview with Reinhard Müller

You were looking for opportunities to get involved in the Free Software movement when you saw the announcement that the Free Software Foundation Europe was going to be founded. What made you curious about the FSFE and do you remember the first contact you had with the FSFE? How did it evolve from there?

Reinhard Müller: The thing about the FSFE which attracted me most was that there was something being started in Europe. Back 20 years ago, the whole Free Software community looked very US-centric to me, and I thought that an European organisation would make it easier for me to get involved.

At some point I started to write occasional emails to the public discussion list and contributing my view about topics like whether it should be possible to make money from Free Software, or whether the FSFE should take money from companies. Funny how some discussions seem to come up again and again even after 20 years...

Back 20 years ago, the whole Free Software community looked very US-centric to me, and I thought that an European organisation would make it easier for me to get involved.

My first in-person contact to the FSFE was at FOSDEM 2002, where I met Volker Dormeyer at the FSFE booth and had a nice conversation with him. I'd never have thought that this would be the start of such a long tradition - I've been with the FSFE at each FOSDEM ever since, except for the virtual one this year.

Very soon I also started to join the discussions and physical meetings of the FSFE's Austrian associate organisation, from which the Austrian country team of the FSFE evolved later.

For Reinhard Müller it is sometimes hard to decide what is the higher source of energy: spending some time at the beach or run a booth for the FSFE.

FSFE: Although you never got paid from the FSFE, from 2007 to 2017 you have been taking over the responsibility of the financial officer at the FSFE, and you still keep contributing heavily in our financial team. What are the financial challenges for a volunteer driven European NGO?

I think the biggest challenge is the contradiction between the desire on the one hand to plan ahead for the association's activities, and thus also its expenditure, and the impossibility on the other hand to predict the future development of incoming donations.

At the FSFE, we are fortunate to be able to alleviate this problem in two ways: firstly, our numerous supporters ensure that we receive regular and predictable payments with their monthly or annual contributions, and secondly, we have been able to build up financial reserves over the past years that allow us to compensate for fluctuations. Both factors allow us to act freely and without regard to any interests of our corporate donors.

FSFE: What is the most important thing so far that you learnt from your work at the FSFE?

Don't think in weeks or months, but in years, if not decades. Enjoy your successes, but don't overestimate their long-term impact. Don't overestimate the impact of setbacks, either. And always plan your activities in a way that they can survive the point at which you personally lose interest in them.

Ever since it has been started, the "I love Free Software" campaign has been my favorite.

FSFE: And what is your personal favorite activity, campaign or message that the FSFE has done or is still doing?

Ever since it started, the "I love Free Software" campaign has been my favorite. It sends a thoroughly positive message, it helps to remind people of the benefits of free software, and it offers everyone a low-threshold and easy way to participate.

Reinhard Müller participating in his favorite campaign.

FSFE: Many people know you from your happy face behind FSFE booths all around Europe, especially at FOSDEM. What is so fun about it that you travel hundreds of kilometers to spend a weekend at an FSFE booth?

It's the people I meet there. With a trip to such an event, I get the possibility to meet and talk in person with exactly those people I work with over the internet during the rest of the year, and I also meet people less tightly associated with the FSFE who just come to the booth, buy a T-shirt and tell us that we're doing great work. Both are an essential source of energy and motivation for me for the work I do in the FSFE.

FSFE: From all the moments behind the FSFE booth, can you tell us one of the stories that still warm up your heart or that always makes you laugh or smile when you remember it?

Once at FOSDEM, when I still was rather new in the FSFE, Alan Cox, a well-known leading Linux kernel developer, happened to stand near our booth, and when somebody asked him about the latest news regarding software patents, he pointed to our booth and said: “ask them, they know that stuff better than me”. At that moment, I felt incredibly proud being a part of the FSFE, and I think it somehow helped me shape my vision of this organisation: let all the excellent Free Software developers in this world do their work and save their backs from the political or legal issues they don't want to mess around with.

However, the most beautiful memories are more related to the hours around the actual events: spending the LinuxTag social event sitting in the lawn, playing the guitar and singing, taking the metro after FOSDEM with 10 FSFE volunteers and 30 "I love Free Software" balloons, playing the piano in the Cafe Kafka in Brussels, or just spending insanely long evenings in restaurants, bars, and hotel lobbies with extensive discussions about how to change the world to the better.

FSFE: As a last question, what do you wish the FSFE for the next 20 years?

May the FSFE always keep a healthy balance between professionalism and openness to volunteer contributions, never lose its roots in the Free Software community, keep a dedicated and highly effective team of paid staff, and at the same time continue to affirm to volunteers that their work is important and valued. Success in the FSFE's activities will result from that naturally.

FSFE: Thank you very much!

About "20 Years FSFE"

In 2021 the Free Software Foundation Europe turns 20. This means two decades of empowering users to control technology.

Banner with FSFE 20 years. FSFE since 2001

Turning 20 is a time when we like to take a breath and to look back on the road we have come, to reflect the milestones we have passed, the successes we have achieved, the stories we have written and the moments that brought us together and that we will always joyfully remember. In 2021 we want to give momentum to the FSFE and even more to our pan-European community, the community that has formed and always will form the shoulders that our movement relies on.

20 Years FSFE is meant to be a celebration of everyone who has accompanied us in the past or still does. Thank you for your place in the structure of the FSFE today and for setting the foundation for the next decades of software freedom to come.