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20 Years FSFE: Interview with Fernanda Weiden


In our third birthday publication we interview Fernanda Weiden - co-founder of the FSF Latin America and former Vice President of the FSFE - about the early starts of Free Software in Latin America, nowadays use of Free Software in Big Tech and about support of diversity in different communities.

Fernanda "nanda" Weiden has a long history of personal engagement for Free Software and the FSFE. Actually a way too long to fit into this introduction but we try at least to shed light on some of her contributions: Raised in Porto Alegre, Brasil, Fernanda organised FISL, the largest Free Software conference in Latin America. Later she became founding and council member of the Free Software Foundation Latin America, before moving to Europe, where she joined the FSFE as a volunteer. Just a little bit later she was elected Vice President of the Free Software Foundation Europe from 2009-2011.

In these early years of her engangement with the FSFE, Fernanda helped to shape the FSFE's profile and organisation. Her favourite campaign that she was heavily contributing to was the Document Freedom Day. A campaign to highlight the importance of Open Standards and a global day to celebrate them. Fernanda is also co-founder of the "Women in Free Software Project" in Brazil and former member of "Debian Women". Until today Fernanda is part of the FSFE's General Assembly and helps the organisation with her manifold professional skills if needed.

For 20 Years FSFE we interview Fernanda about her time with the FSF*s, about Free Software event activities, and its use in big business.

Interview with Fernanda Weiden

FSFE: You were raised in Brazil where you co-founded the Free Software Foundation Latin America. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, how you initially got attracted by Free Software and how it came you co-founded the FSFLA?

Fernanda Weiden: I grew up in Porto Alegre, the southernmost capital in Brazil. It is a city of about a million people in a region under large influence of its European immigration. I never really planned to end up as a computer engineer. The first time I entered university, it was to become a mathematics teacher. After about a year of that, it was clear that wasn't going to work for me.

I started become more and more interested in computers, and a lot of people I knew were already using and playing around with GNU/Linux. I got curious about that very quickly and learning to use GNU/Linux without a graphical interface helped me to understand how computers worked without the magic of a user interface. I loved it.

After a while I started working with systems and when RedHat started their certification program called RedHat Certified Engineer, I was on the first group of people in Latin America who took the test. There were 10 of us, and 6 passed the test. I was one of them and obviously, the only woman.That brought a spotlight into my work, and also put a spotlight on the Free Software community for me. I rapidly became engaged.

Free Software Foundation Latin America was an obvious step to help strengthen the community and also support decision makers in the public sector.

Those years in Latin America were politically very interesting, and a lot of the governments were investing in Free Software as a possible alternative to foster business and also independence from software suppliers - usually from Europe or North America. Free Software Foundation Latin America was an obvious step to help strengthen the community and also support decision makers in the public sector to understand the issues around Free Software better. Unfortunately I do not think that FSFLA managed to fulfil its potential at the time, but it was a great experience nevertheless.

I was already very well connected with people from all over Latin America and over the world really because of the work I did in the program committee of the International Free Software Forum in Porto Alegre, so I ended up being a natural choice I guess. Being a woman also helped. Unlike many other women involved in the community, I was an engineer and understood not only the political side of the issues, but the technical side too.

Fernanda G. Weiden at Latinoware 2008, Fórum do Gnome. Foz do Iguaçu, Brasil. (Picture CC-BY 2.0 Germán Póo-Caamaño)

Back then in Brazil, you spent a lot of time volunteering to help organising FISL, the largest Free Software conference in Latin America. Can you tell us how the perception of Free Software was at that time in Brazil, why volunteering matters and why it is important to have such Free Software related events?

Free Software in Brazil was at its highest point, I would say. The government was interested and willing to make moves and cooperate with the community to learn from us. The government supported us also financially by funding our events and helping us to build a solid base for the community. Events are super important because they help spread awareness and build momentum for important steps to be taken politically. I also think events are opportunities to give the microphone to those who have something important to say. At that time, it was important that we all let the world know that there was a different path for digital transformation and to start an industry in technology that isn't dependent on technologies from big companies. Free Software is empowering for a third world nation because it can take countries and industries out of the backseat into the driver seat for their own future.

Later in your life you moved from Brazil to Europe where you joined the Free Software Foundation Europe as a volunteer and later became for two years our Vice President. How was your experience as a vice president and what keeps you active within the FSFE after over 15 years now?

I moved to Europe at the end of 2005, after receiving a job offer to join Google in Zurich. It was the most transformational experience in my life. Seeing and living different cultures, working in big tech for almost 13 years. All that changed me and helped me develop in ways I've never thought possible before.

I am forever grateful to what Free Software made possible in my life, and continuing to give back to the community is very important to me.

FSFE for me was a way to stay engaged with my roots. I had friends who were also engaged, and I wanted to continue to give back to the community that gave me so much. Not only in technical and political knowledge, but everything else that comes with that. I am forever grateful to what Free Software made possible in my life, and continuing to give back to the community is very important to me. Even if at times seem hard because life has changed so much, time is more scarce and priorities have shifted from a personal point of view.

Document Freedom Day was a campaign by the FSFE to raise awareness about the importance of Open Standards. You were heavily involved in the creation of the campaign, helped setting up the website and the general concepts. What did you like about DFD and what was your favourite DFD activity?

Open Standards for documents are vital. If you record your information in a standard that isn't open for anyone to implement, to me, it is the same as not owning the information you recorded, because you're prisoner of that vendor forever. If they go out of business, so do your records. I love the campaign because I think it is a way to raise the importance of digital freedom to those who might not be aware or even interested in Free Software. It is a way to plant a question into people's minds.

My favorite activity was definitely the pictures. We would ask people to send us pictures from all over the world of their events/celebrations for DFD, and it was great to see the community getting together all over the world to discuss the importance of Open Standards.

A Picture of the FSFE team handing over the DFD Award in 2010 to Radio Deutschlandfunk with the theme "rOGG on"

You spent several years in large international tech company. How is the role and importance of Free Software and Open Standards perceived in big business and did it change over the years?

When I became a Free Software activist, one had to argue about the platform to be used to build software. Today, Free Software isn't a question anymore. It is the norm in many places. Big companies play an important role because they hire and pay engineers to continue to produce state of art software that is then available through Free Software licenses. Of course not all engineer hours go into that, but it is definitely something that both big tech companies I worked for appreciated and contributed to in different ways.

The most important thing, in my view, is to make it a priority to build an inclusive environment. [...] It is a virtuous cycle: once you start making positive moves, more diverse talent will keep coming because they will feel safe.

You are co-founder of the "Women in Free Software Project" in Brazil, member "Debian Women", and accomplished to have the highest percentage of women in your tech department in a large international company. From your practical experience, what do you consider the most important points for Free Software organisations to create an inclusive environment for women and other traditionally underrepresented groups in Free Software?

The most important thing, in my view, is to make it a priority to build an inclusive environment. It cannot be a second thought. If you don't think first and foremost how I can make sure this environment is friendly to everyone, you're missing the opportunity to be inclusive. A lot of companies and organizations make the mistake to believe that one or other activity will make them more friendly to minorities. It isn't about one or other activity. It is about how you behave every moment of your day and how much effort you make to ensure you're listening to the quiet, being open to different opinions, and being restless to ensure your pipeline is healthy with diverse talent when you're going to hire. It is a virtuous cycle: once you start making positive moves, more diverse talent will keep coming because they will feel safe.

What is your personal highlight with the FSFE or an important thing that you learnt from your work at the FSFE?

From the early times working at FSFE I always appreciated the pragmatic and balanced way to engage with the community. FSFE has always had a commitment to have a dialogue no matter how different positions were held by the other side of the conversation. I think this is very important in business settings too: you have to listen to everyone if you want to be effective. FSFE also does it in a way that is friendly, accepting but does not compromise the core values we stand for.

Document Freedom Day celebration in Singapore 2018. (Picture CC-BY 4.0 Fedora Community Blog)

And what is a story that still makes you laugh or smile when you remember it?

Unfortunately I wasn't present for the day, but I still laughed a lot about it, and I was there when the song was released, and that was a lot of fun. Definitely the Schnitzel Monster. I will let the monster tell his own story though.

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

I wish that the FSFE continues to be an organization that evolves as the challenges of our times evolve. If in the past proprietary software was a big issue, now we have privacy issues in the cloud. We also have software running in our washing machines and ovens. I also wish FSFE continues to be the friendly environment it has always been to me. We don't see each other in person very often, but when we do, excluding the extra grey hair and wrinkles, it feels like we have always been close. It is a large and spread family.

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.