Atul Chitnis is a name that is synonymous with technological brilliance, especially in India. Since the 1980s, Atul has been seen at the leading edge of India’s tech revolution, correctly pointing in directions that technology would take. Examples of this could be seen in his establishing India’s first online service – a Bulletin Board System (BBS) named CiX – as early as 1989, his highly popular column “COMversations” in the technology magazine PCQuest, his push for adoption and contribution to Linux and Free & Open Source Software, and his continued involvement with startups and the product development industry in India.
In this exclusive interview with YourStory.in, Atul recalls his journey so far, from the start of FOSS.IN to what we can look forward to from him and the Indian tech market in the near future.
What led to the starting up of FOSS.IN?
In the late 90s, the Open Source community became more active in India, and was looking for more avenues to “spread the word”. Our participation in Bangalore IT.COM ’99 was a HUGE success, as was a similar participation at the same event the following year.
In 2000, we decided to go beyond just demonstrating things, and hired a hall near the expo venue, where we proceeded to give talks on various technical and open source related topics. The response was excellent.
In 2001 we participated in another event, Wrox Publishing’s Bang!Linux, which was largely stuffed with famed international speakers, and almost zero Indian presence. We negotiated the use of an unused hall at the venue, and proceeded to hold talks of our own there. We knew that we had caught people’s interest when they left the paid talks to attend our free talks
Seeing the success of our various outings, we decided that we needed to have our own event, and in late 2001, held the first of our annual events, called Linux Bangalore, which we renamed FOSS.IN in 2005 when we changed the focus from Linux to FOSS, and from Bangalore to India.
What were some of the highlights of FOSS.IN?
For me, personally, 2003 was a defining moment – that’s when the hardcore kernel hackers started attending the event. The second I saw hardcore Linux kernel hacker Harald “laforge” Welte standing in the event crowd, I knew that this event had managed to gain traction where it mattered the most to us – the hackers and developers.
Having people like Harald Welte, Rasmus Lerdorf, Alan Cox, James Morris, Jon Corbet and other well known names participating and (most important of all) interacting with other participants – that was memorable.
And seeing Indian hackers like Gopal Vijayraghavan, Philip Tellis, Naba Kumar, Suparna Bhattacharya and so many others emerging from relative obscurity? Priceless!
Changing the format and focus of the event from a generic advocacy theme to “contributors and developers only”, dramatically raising the Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) of the event, and seeing the fantastic response from audiences endorsing our decision – that was both heartwarming and gratifying.
What do you love about it personally? What motivates you to do it?
Honestly, the thing that we love the most is seeing all the people coming to the event, attending talks, participating in tech sessions, interacting with each other, project members meeting face to face for the first time, projects interacting and spawning new ones, the impromptu Birds-of-a-Feather Sessions (BOFs) that discuss any topic under the sun, the electronic “flash mobs”, as a bunch of people suddenly decide to teach everyone how to solder and create simple electronic circuits, the interaction between speakers and audiences that spill out of the hall and continue throughout the event, and I can go on.
What are the challenges/roadblocks you faced (if any) and how did you deal with them?
Community politics, wannabe politicians, religious zealots, open source bigots – we faced them all. And dealt with them the only way we knew – ignored them, and focused on giving people the best event they ever attended.
Fighting sponsor pressures (sponsorship doesn’t buy you talk/keynote slots at FOSS.IN – we once tore up a huge cheque when a sponsor insisted on tons of talk slots), dealing with funding shortages when a primary sponsor decided to drop out (the team dug into its own pockets and paid for things) are also challenges we faced.
Challenges, by definition, are meant to be met, roadblocks meant to be bypassed.
What can we expect from the upcoming 2012 edition? What are your views on the numerous tech events that are also happening in the country?
We are enlarging the scope of the event, to allow a wider range of topics to be presented at FOSS.IN. This in itself is going to be interesting to watch. Some of the talks already submitted are genuinely interesting, while being very much within the scope of our “open technology” guideline.
At this time, FOSS.IN is the only large scale international tech event of its kind in India. There are other, more topic specific events (such as the events organised by HasGeek, or the python-oriented PyCon India), but there is no event that has such a wide range of things happening at one place at one time.
And we seriously encourage other tech events – we even sponsor them from time to time when we have some money left over!
Since you have been at the helm, driving some of the key tech trends yourself, how have you seen the ecosystem evolve? What are some of the trends that you have seen emerge?
Key trends are usually the same as everywhere else in the world. India cannot be isolated from global markets anymore, and the Internet is the great leveler.
But one trend that I am delighted to see is that of young people beginning to look beyond the “graduate, get job” approach, and start to think for themselves – sometimes while they are still in college. The entrepreneur bug is biting a lot of people, who are subverting the (often parent-driven) “safe” career paths and heading down the entrepreneur road to produce products and services that are sometimes truly astounding in scope and success.
I am also grateful to note just how many of these people have their roots in the open source world, where they learnt to understand, develop, and interact – skills that serve them well as they embark on their careers.