The Stack Overflow Podcast

Chatting with Robin Ginn, executive director of the OpenJS Foundation

Episode Summary

Just before OpenJS World kicks off, we sit down for a chat with Robin Ginn, executive director of the OpenJS foundation. Turns out their code is being used to help power space suits for NASA astronauts. With great power, comes great responsibility.

Episode Notes

You can learn more about today's event and all the livestream broadcasts here.

If you want to learn more about Robin, you can get in touch here.


Episode Transcription

Robin Ginn Say, you're building a commercial product at a company think about the support you have around you. You have a PM, you have legal, you have marketing, you have HR and finance. And essentially that foundation brings that, kind of, that package to you to build and ship your product. Only your peers and your fellow team are distributed across the open source community.




Ben Popper Hey everybody, this week's episode is brought to you by Couchbase. Couchbase is an open source, no SQL document and key value store database. It requires no external cache, supports SQL and analytic queries for JSON data and Couchbase supports technologies like Kubernetes, Java, .net, JavaScript, Go and Python. Download it today at and let them know we sent you. 


BP Good morning, everybody. Hello and welcome back to the Stack Overflow podcast. I want to say hi to my wonderful cohosts who are here with me as always. Hi Paul. Hi Sara. 


Sara Chipps Hi Ben, How's it going? 


BP It's going well. Sara, I heard that you and your husband sometimes talk about going to outer space. Did you know me and my wife have had that conversation at least a hundred times?


SC Really?


BP Oh yeah. 


SC Who wants to go to space? You or your wife? I really want to go to space and she's deathly afraid of going to space. [oh] And so we've agreed maybe like for our kick the bucket thing, you know, when we're 89 and we've made it, we'll just go. [Sara laughs]


SC Aren't they looking for a lot of 90 year old astronauts? [Sara & Ben laugh]


BP Yeah, no, sometimes they want to do different kinds of experiments to see what zero gravity effects. And I feel like yeah. Effects of zero gravity on the octogenarian and something I can imagine.


SC Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah. With us it's I really want to go to, I applied for the Mars program. Elon Musk has this great quote that I love and it is that he wants to die on Mars. [Ben laughs] Just not just, just not on impact, [right, right] which I think is amazing. And, uh, yeah, I'm the only one of us that thinks that's sounds fun.




BP I'm glad you have your seat reserved. Is it business class or did you spring for the full package? 


SC Economy plus!


BP Nice. Nice. Alright. Great. Well, Sara, you invited a guest on today. So would you like to introduce her and we can get chatting?


SC So our guest today is Robin Ginn. Robin is the executive director of the OpenJS Foundation. OpenJS is the parent foundation to projects you may have heard of such as nodeJS and jQuery and Electron and Amp and WebKit. So OpenJS has some exciting announcements, as well as an astronaut. Robin, I heard you talk to, to an astronaut the other day.


RG I did talk to an astronaut. The reason we reached out to NASA is we found out they were using nodeJS for space suits solutions.


SC Nooo!


BP Yesss!


SC That is the coolest thing I've ever heard in my life.


RG It is. So we always say node JS is everywhere. Well, it's even an outer space. So we thought that was pretty cool.


BP Sara, are we using Stack Overflow in space? I hope so. 


SC I hope so.


Paul Ford I'm just thinking of MPM installs kind of like going a little off and, and sort of what that could mean. So you're, you're your dependencies are a serious issue when you're sending them into the stratosphere. [Ben laughs]


RG Well, one of the questions we had from the community is how do you do an internet search in space? Is there Stack Overflow in space? 


SC What a good questions. 


RG You're going to have to like go back and watch the keynote from Christina Cook and see what she says about that.


BP Oh, very cool. We'll put a link in the show notes. If it's up by the time this airs, that would be really fun. 


SC So being an executive director of an open source foundation, there's probably, there's a small handful of y'all or a large handful of y'all, but it's not something I think a lot of people know what the job is like. So can you talk a little bit about what you do?




RG Sure. As the executive director of the OpenJS foundation, I'm a peer of many other great foundations out there, many under the Linux foundation, but others from Mozilla to Apache, to Eclipse and even the .net foundation, Sara, what you're a part of. [yeah!] And I actually, when I got my job last year, I did reach out to many of the folks and learned a lot from those leaders and listened to them. And essentially you are sort of that neutral home for projects that really sort of grow. And you work with your membership and you work with the community. And really just try to be in sort of in a way it's sort of the business organization around some of these open source projects, but in a neutral way.


SC Right. Because when you build open source or when you have an open source project from the beginning, I've observed, people are just kind of thinking about the code and they're not thinking about one day, we might need a nonprofit in case people send us money, or what happens if we get sued because someone is using the wrong license, or what happens if someone takes our name or things like that you don't think about, but foundations seemed to provide the infrastructure to bring that support.


PF Let's make the case and talk it through. So let's say I made a, a new text editor and it uses a lot of JavaScript. It's all JavaScript. And maybe it runs inside of Electron and it's got a zillion users suddenly, and my life is being destroyed as a result. Like I everyone's yelling at me and GitHub issues and I've made 10 million mistakes and I just received some money and I don't know what to do with it. This feels like the use case for approaching and working with the foundation. So first of all, I don't even know what to do. How do I get in touch? What happens now, coach me through this period of terrible growth.


RG This period of awesome growth, right? [Paul & Sara laugh] You should be excited for that. It's a good problem to have. So if you want to become a project, you work with our cross project council and just sort of backing up a little bit. If you think about open foundations, like OpenJS, we sort of separate into sort of the business side and the technical side, and an essentially that separates the technical decisions from the business and operations and perhaps the money and legal side of your project. Does that sort of answer your...




PF It does. Do I, what do I do? I send an email. How do I like I'm actually like, what's the initial point of contact?


RG Oh they come in from all over the place. Sometimes folks reach out to me. Sometimes folks reach out to folks in the community and it's a pretty organic process. So what I do is if I get pinged or other folks get pinged, a few of us get on the phone and just walk the community leader or the project owner through the opportunities and benefits of joining the foundation. We then have an application that you fill out quite easy. And then it goes to the cross project council, which is our technical oversight committee that crosses all of our projects.


PF What responsibilities do I have on the other side? Right? Like you're doing a lot of things for me. Like if I'm, if I'm going to be part of a foundation, what do I need to do?


RG So since we're an umbrella organization, we've really establish it to give a voice to all of our projects. But the most important thing you need to do is to have an open governance process, which means you've really documented how you build it, how decisions are made, and it's all sort of an open and a transparent way. So for example, if you go to, you can check out their governance process. They have the build, they have security, they have community they've really outlined how those decisions are made and the different pieces of building that technology. And so for example, most of our decisions and meetings they're done live on YouTube. You can go to our YouTube channel and check it out. Most of our projects do the same thing. Notes are documented again, super open, transparent way for roadmap to changes and things like that.




PF I want to throw it back to you, Sara, cause sort of your world is overlaps with this quite a bit because we were working with the .net foundation. And do you like, what are the differences between two different foundations? And I don't even mean between you two, like how did different foundations do things differently? And I know that's very abstract, but it actually is an indicator of how confused by this world.


SC Yeah. Yeah. I think something that I've observed, getting more involved in this world over the last year too, is that every foundation has its own, first of all, its own place in the life cycle. So different foundations, you know, there's things that they have in common, such as, you know, providing support for projects, working to help find committers for projects and things like that. But based on the community and the size of the community, there are different challenges. For example, in the .net foundation, we have a lot of projects. Our community is a little smaller than something like the Linux foundation or open JS foundation, our membership community. And we're in the process of working with our members and figuring out how we can provide them value. Something like the OpenJS foundation has been around a lot longer. The OpenJS foundation used to be the JS foundation, which used to be the jQuery foundation. Did I get that right Robin?


RG The OpenJS foundation was the merger of two foundations, the JS foundation, which used to be jQuery and the node JS foundation.


SC Yeah. So that's, uh, so those, all of those have been around for a long time. And so the infrastructure exists to have weekly meetings on YouTube and that level of transparency. I think something like the .net foundation, we have some of those things, but we're working to introduce the infrastructure that works for our membership so that they can feel like they're an active part of the foundation and stay aware of what's going on and things like that. So I think what I've observed about the different open source foundations is all of them have a different level of maturity. But the good thing is it seems like everyone's learning from each other.




PF Is there a foundation of foundations?


RG Yes. The Linux foundation is become a foundation of foundations, sort of one of them. And again, those executive directors have become essentially my peer group that I learned from and meet with. And so think about the, uh, the LFAI. So LF is Linux foundation. So we have an AI foundation. We have Hyperledger, which is blockchain. We have LF networking and edge, the NCF, the cloud native computing foundation. So.


BP What were things like in the pre foundation era? Like was there a moment in time where open source software was a thing and there was a lot of people who wanted to be contributors that were, you know, languages or frameworks that were popular, but there was no governance? And what, how did it work back then? 


PF Let me, let me give a dumb answer before these people give us a long answer. 


BP Oh that'd be perfect, Paul.


PF You would, you would FTP insecurely to and download GNU software. And that was about it. That was how you got involved with open source or you'd reviews net.


RG Well, and you know, I started doing open source at Microsoft in 2008, which was pretty early, but if you didn't have a foundation, sometimes we thought, gosh, how do we, you know, we, we have a pull request to make something work better on windows. How do we get it in? Are we not in the Valley? Are we not having beer in the right places, having beers with people? Like how can we, you know, influence the direction of a project and contribute? And so without that transparency and sort of that neutral home, um, it was harder to harder to do that.


SC Yeah. And I think what I observed too is there's a great talk, What is open source and why am I so sad? I think, [Sara laughs] uh, by Jacob Thorton and it's, it's about, it's all about, you know, a lot of people found themselves making open source projects and which is great, right? Like I built the software. I'm so happy people are using it, but then it quickly becomes, okay, now I'm donating my time for free. Okay. Now I don't have time to do my job. Okay. There's this one guy in my issue. So you just keep screaming at me and is really upset. And I don't know what to do, what I've observed as a, foundation's really help with that, where that used to  be the case. There's now places for people to go for support.




BP Yeah. I mean, I think it's fascinating how much has changed and how much, you know, big tech companies that either previously opposed it or just, you know, we're sort of agnostic about it have now embraced open source. I guess from the, from your perspective, Robin, you know, how much easier does that make it to become a new contributor or just to exist in a community to feel sort of welcome and included?


RG You know, I hope it's much easier. We have, again, a checklist we talked about when you want to join. One of the things on that checklist, for example, is adopting the OpenJS foundation code of conduct. It's again, documenting your governance. And I wouldn't say there are templates, but again, we all do learn from each other in the open source community and just in the foundation world as well. So we do hope it makes it a little more approachable. Right.


BP Do you think that there's something that appeals to engineers about having a set of rules that they can follow? Even if they're not legal rules? I feel like something about like a code of conduct, sometimes riles people the wrong way, but also like give me the rules and the structures and tell me how, you know, it would be appropriate to interact with this entity. And then I can really get into it as something, I feel like the engineering mindset kind of clicks with, right.


RG Just sort of across the board on some of our benefits, we hope it sort of removes some of the friction. And so then you can just, you can just focus on the code, [right] And writing great code.


PF I mean, that's the thing we had years and years of people saying no, no, being a colossal ass is actually critical. [Sara & Ben laugh] The codes, the codes of conduct showed up and everybody's like, no, you've destroyed everything with your, with your horrible liberal culture. And like, I don't know, put politics aside, right. You just, nothing has changed. Like everything seems to be better. And actually what's happening is that instead of one really loud ass coming in and blowing up your day, you actually have something to point to and go, Whoa, we don't do that here. And that, I don't think people realized, like these are two way document. It's not just like, you have to button it up, but like some random person can show up and wreck your life because they're in the mood.


BP Yeah.




PF And they're upset that you used, you know, Pearl instead of Python, like to that, that, I don't know if people who weren't around watching this world can understand how that, that was like 80% of open source development compared to the coding. And that, that reduction in friction is actually fantastic for the community and wonderful for like probably makes everybody happier and more profitable.


BP I mean, just like help me put it a little bit more into context. So we talk a lot about how, you know, within the engineering world, and again, I'm, let's not pigeonhole engineers. They can be all different types of people with all different types of mindsets, but there is a lot of rules loring that they love. And I deal with that when interacting with meta a lot for better or worse, but right. Like they like to point out that we've agreed upon a rule and then be very specific about it. And so once you do get a code of conduct of code of conduct into place, maybe you have to fight to get it there it's very useful because people will stick to it. They're very, you know, they enjoy following the rules as written down. Yeah?


RG Well, I would say there's a lot of people who use open source, but I think my experience has been with like kind of the core collaborators and the folks who are really active participants, they are in sort of the positive, productive people. They enjoy working with folks from the community, from their competitors, from their partners. So, yeah, I've had a lot of great experiences.


BP Yeah. We had a Dries on from Drupal the other day and it was really fascinating to hear him talk about like, yeah, some days I'm focused on, you know, just making sure that the 10,000 people who are, you know, trying to push and pull on this or, you know, getting what they need and we're explaining the rules. And then other days I run the company over here and it's like, wow. You know, you have to be a certain kind of person to be able to, you know, switch back and forth between like, this is a company where we make decisions at an executive board level. And this is a massive global open source project that I run where everything you know is very, has to be very collaborative.




SC No, I think that the one thing I've observed is, especially when it's a lot easier to get involved too, when people are looking for a place to contribute, often it can be over whelming getting started in open source. But the more things that spring up like this, the better, you know, yesterday, this is a little bit of a tangent, but yesterday I was working with someone that is a friend that just graduated a boot camp that was looking to get involved with open source. And I went to GitHub and I went to the good first issue tag. And there is now a wealth of all these things, which is, I think, you know, partially to do with GitHub introducing this stuff, but also a really neat part of the structure that has come around open source for people that just want to get started. Robin, what should, if people want to get involved with a project in the OpenJS foundation, what do you think is the best way for them to get started?


RG There's a number of ways. If you go to, there are several links. You can join our Slack channel to learn. You can add our meetings to your calendar. We have, we are always welcome to be an observer at any of our meetings. We also Joseppe who runs our across project council from IBM. He has open office hours every two weeks. So if you're just new and just have questions or ideas, Jo's always there to spend an hour every couple of weeks. But again, we meet weekly meetings are open and you know, this week we also had our collaborations summit on top of our conference. And our first day we had content all for new contributors. So you can also go on a YouTube channel and check out those videos as well from our community league.




PF I mean, I think it's really worth it for people who are new to this world to understand you really can lurk, like you can go watch a meeting, be held and you can see how people interact. And some of your anxieties are going to diminish very, very quickly when you realize that they are simply people like you, who might know a little more about open source, open source governance and, and sort of how to code node, right? Like that they might be a little further down the path, but you're going to, you're going to be very aware very quickly that these are mortals doing mortal things. And when they say they'd like your help, they mean it. And so that to me is the power of the, it's not just being able to download the code it's that you get to look inside of the world of software. And there's no industry like this. Like if I really was fascinated by carpeting, [Sara laughs] I couldn't go suddenly into like the open carpet foundation and see how they run their carpet. Like, like, you know, like, you know, we're, we're having a big summit on deep pile this month. Like that doesn't happen. And that to me is still kind of one of my favorite things. Cause I've worked on video calls and conference calls and no one has known I'm on them. And I'm just like, let me figure out how people are interacting and communicating in this world. And then it turns into code down the road, but really like you owe it to yourself. If you're at all curious to just poke around and lurk and it's, it's welcomed.


BP Very cool. Robin, this is your chance to say maybe where folks can find stuff. The conference has happened was amazing, by the way, I can't believe you went into space, but if people want to check out some of the highlights from the conference, where can they go?


RG Just go to our YouTube channel or go to I hope you all are following us on Twitter at the openJS foundation @openJSF. But just on Paul's point, I'm learning all the time. Sometimes governance still is a mystery to me, but I think it's just human interaction. You know, you just learn on how consensus is reached on really complicated things. And it's a pretty cool thing to watch. 




BP Very cool.




BP Alright, Robin, I'm going to read a lifeboat. So at the end of every episode, we shout out a lifeboat that someone who earned a badge on Stack Overflow, they have an answer score of 20 or more for a question that had a score of negative three. So they came in and saved a question. This week, the question is how to declare a variable of type list parentheses string. Yeah. So thank you to bossa rat for answering that. And that question was first asked six years and one month ago.


SC Wow! Hopefully you haven't been hanging out in the office since then waiting for an answer. [Ben laughs]


BP So Robin, if people want to find you online and you want to be found, where can they go look?


RG You can always reach me on Twitter @RGinn206. Robin Ginn. You can always email me Find me on Slack. Join our OpenJS foundation Slack channel.


BP Oh, very fun. Okay, cool. I'm Ben Popper, the director of content here at Stack Overflow. And you can find me on Twitter @BenPopper.


SC I'm Sarah Chipps, the director of community here at Stack Overflow. And you can find me @SaraJo on GitHub.


PF And I'm Paul Ford, friend of Stack Overflow. And I'm the cofounder of a software development firm called Postlight, check us out at


BP Very, very cool y'all. Robin, I just want to remind you that there are at least 36 other intelligent life forms in the Milky way. That's a scientific fact. I read it in a science article. So just...


SC Yeah. Which article? Yeah...


BP I can't remember the name of the publication, but I'm sure it was legit. That's all I can say.


RG I'll check with NASA and see what they say.