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Welcome to our series of interviews with the people behind the OpenChain Project. While open source is mostly about software, and governance is mostly about licenses, it is also the story of thousands of individuals collaborating. We hope these interviews with inform and inspire our readers, and encourage more people to participate in open source and OpenChain.

Our twelfth interview is with McCoy Smith from Lex Pan Law and Opsequio

You have been involved with technology and law for a while, including open source. Can you tell us a little about your company, and how you first discovered open source?

My career in technology and the law is about as long as the existence of the free and open source software movements.  After getting my engineering degree, I spent time working at the U.S. Patent Office, before deciding to attend law school (in the United States, pursuing law as a profession normally requires a graduate degree). I then spent some time in the private practice of law, focusing on technology, on the East Coast of the United States. 

In late 1999, I moved to the West Coast, to a position in a large, Fortune 50 multinational technology company, and within a year I was handed the job of helping that company develop free and open source legal and compliance programs at scale.  At that time – in the early ‘00s – my employer – like a handful of the major technology companies around that time – realized the value of active participation in a wide range of free and open source software communities.

It has been an interesting, and fun, journey to see the development of issues, and of technology company programs, over the past 20 years. I have developed many professional relationships, as well as friendships, across the wide range of individuals working in various aspects of free and open source licensing, law, technology and culture.

Last year, I left my employer of 20 years in order to open two new businesses – one focused on the practice of technology law, and one focused on providing open source program office (OSPO) services for companies either not ready to run their own OSPO, or looking for some additional support with their current OSPO.

Your involvement in open source is very deep. Software is behind most of our technology and open source is behind most of our software. However, in relative terms there are few coordinators, managers or lawyers with significant experience of this approach to technology. How do you approach decisions for companies and organizations looking to adopt, or expand, their  use of open source?

When I first starting working in the area of free and open source software 20 years ago, there were even fewer coordinators, managers or lawyers working in this area – and at that time, I think I may have known them all. It has been really fantastic to see this community grow, and somewhat astonishing to me to go to the conferences in this area and see just how many people are attending – back when I started, these events were much smaller affairs. 

What has also grown during that time is the widespread awareness – through a huge number of industries, not just the IT sector – that the smart adoption of free and open source software as an integral part of business and product practice is now a necessity, and part of that necessity is to institute robust compliance processes.

OpenChain began as a way to develop open source compliance in the supply chain. Our industry standard builds trust and our reference material helps companies build processes to meet the standard. Approaching this discussion for the first time can be a little intimidating. Most people are modest about their understanding of licenses or choosing the “best” approach to solve a business challenge. It may be a strong word to use, but often a certain sense of fear makes people hesitate. How do you suggest potential adopters of open source, or OpenChain conformance,  approach these issues with a positive and open mind?

I know that there was a lot of fear and hesitation back when I first became involved with free and open source software, but I think that was the result of the limited availability of resources for people to learn and understand the technical, legal, and programmatic best practices in this area, and to a certain extent certain people and organizations raising questions about whether free and open source licensing was compatible with large technology companies and their intellectual property portfolios.  Much has been done since then to make those resources available widely, and to dispel the questions raised about the compatibility of large companies and free and open source – and the OpenChain project is one of the best examples of that.  Fear and hesitation no longer need to be a problem – there are plenty of resources available to help overcome those feelings.

Because the OpenChain Project is concerned with diversity we must acknowledge that every part of our project needs to continually improve. Our social structures, our meeting formats, our processes to create or improve material. Everything needs to be considered to find any challenge to making people welcome and empowered. Can you assist us in this process with some suggestions for improvement?

Having worked in a large, multinational, corporation, I was constantly working with people from around the globe.  I’ve also spent a lot of time traveling around the world talking about intellectual property and free and open source legal issues – in fact, I think I’ve probably done more of that outside of the United States than in my own country.

Juggling languages, cultures, and time zones can be challenging.  One needs to show flexibility in communication styles, meeting timing, and decision-making processes to really have an inclusive, and cooperative, result for any project. As someone who works across many time zones – and has meetings with colleagues both in Europe and Asia fairly regularly – I understand that convenient for USA Pacific time zone meetings are often not convenient for the people I’m working with.

All around the developing world age is a topic. Our populations are getting older and the social distance between young and old people seems to be growing. People in their early twenties seem to have very little in common with people in their forties or fifties. Of course, this is understandable and of course it has always existed between generations. However, in the context of open source, our population is aging too, with the average age of participants around 30~55. Maybe we have more older people than young people. Do you have any suggestions for how we can make young people interested and welcome in projects like OpenChain?

Although the people who were at the front edge of the free and open source movement in the 80s are aging, I don’t think it’s correct to say there are more people in free and open source software in that age group than in younger demographics.  The conferences and meetings I go to on these topics are filled with younger people, and their voices are more and more heard and respected.  In fact, there are some recent examples where members of the “old guard” have attempted to have their voices be heard on issues in an overly forceful and not particularly polite way, and there has been push back from the community – including younger members of the community – on that sort of behavior.  That is healthy, and is a good way to demonstrate that all voices are welcome, not just the loudest and longest-standing.

Making newer members of the community interested and welcome in projects like OpenChain really is a function of making all initiatives around free and open source licensing more open and inclusive.  This means the attitude that length of one’s time in the community somehow confers immunity from criticism, or makes one’s opinions or decisions dispositive, needs to end.  I see steps that that attitude is fading away, and that newer members of the community are raising issues in productive ways that may have not been pursued in the past because of interia.

There is a big difference between tactical activities that solve day-to-day problems and strategic activities that solve bigger challenges. OpenChain is basically focused on strategy. This means our participants think about the future and it means we also have to think about how many tactical actions can serve a strategic mission. People often ask how to do this and they often mention that it is hard to think strategically when many business metrics are based on quarterly activities. Do you have any suggestions based on your own experience?

Focusing on the short term rather than the long term has been a criticism leveled at a lot of companies in the technology industry, particularly those in the United States.  There will always be a need for tactical behavior – making sure that you understand the legal rules around a certain piece of technology, that you understand the community around it, and that you properly respect both.  That is what the OSPO and free and open source legal communities are there for, and the continued development of sophistication around issues and practices in those communities has helped increase the level of best practices around many industries. 

Strategy is also important, and can get overlooked when having to deal with day-to-day issues.  I’ve had a bit of a benefit in the latter part of my career around free and open source licensing to be able to think, write, and think about strategic issues and about where things may be headed in the future.  I think there are some really interesting strategic issues in this area right now, and part of the service that my companies offer is the benefit of experience from the past and an eye toward the future.

We have asked many serious questions in this interview. Each of your answers is extremely valuable for our current and our future community. OpenChain is all about sharing knowledge and helping everyone do better. However, we are not only a dry, factual community. We also have many positive social relationships and there is a hope or a goal that OpenChain can be fun too. We are all together collaborating to solve interesting challenges. Do you have any tips for how people can come into a project like OpenChain and find the experience rewarding personally as well as in a business sense?

As I indicated before, one of the best things about my long-standing participation in the open source legal and compliance communities over many years is the relationships and friendships that have developed out of that. Those have developed both out of working on common projects – or indeed, even working on the opposite side of some issues – but also as the result of social interactions outside of the “work” part of the community.  Although given the current worldwide situation, the social element of work around OpenChain and in the larger community will have to be substantially curtailed, I am sure that in the future the ability to engage in social interactions with colleagues will restart.

Finally, you have been so kind to answer these questions in English. However, the future of open source and OpenChain is not in English, but instead in communication from Mandarin to Hindi to German. The future is making sure people in each nation can work together freely. We already hold the local work group meetings in the local language but is there a way we can reduce language barriers even more?

For better or for worse, English has been the lingua franca in technology, and to a certain extent, law, for quite some time. As a native English speaker, that puts me in a distinct advantage. Using local languages for local meetings is one way to address the predominance of English, although even that practice often assumes there is a unitary “local language” for a particular region – which is not the case in all but a few countries with a monolithic local language and no appreciable regional dialects.

For myself, I have found that I need to be cognizant in many cases that audiences to whom I am speaking may be hearing me in their second (or third, or more) language, and that I should try to reduce idioms, slang and other word choices that might be unfamiliar to someone that is a non-native English (or in my case, non-native U.S.A. English) speaker.  I also believe that the use of written materials to supplement spoken presentations can be helpful for non-native speakers.  Although I am fluent only in English, I have a passing understanding of a couple of different languages, and I’ve often found it is much easier for me to understand those languages in writing rather than when listening – I’m more of a visual than aural language processor.

Thank you McCoy for your time and thoughts!