Jennifer Cloer on working with Linus Torvalds, open source and women in tech

“I’ve had the opportunity to be at the forefront of some of the most disruptive technologies in the history of computing, it’s an amazing and unique experience,” said Jennifer Cloer, former Director of Communications at the Linux Foundation.

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Credit: Jennifer Cloer

I have known Jennifer Cloer from the very early days, even before the Linux Foundation was formed. She is among the most influential women in the tech world, especially in the open source world. I have been planning to start a series of interviews of those women who made it into CIO’s most influential women in Tech list. When I approached Jennifer, I learned about a development in her career that made this story even more interesting. Cloer is moving out of the Linux Foundation and venturing into a new world of her own.

But first, let’s talk about her humble beginnings.

Close encounter with the tech kind

“One of my first experiences in tech was traveling to Europe for a five-day press tour, a different country every day. It was grueling,” said Cloer. That was back in 2002 when she worked at Tektronix, a public company that builds test and measurement equipment.

Her path crossed the Linux world when she started working with Page One PR. OSDL (Open Source Development Labs) was their biggest client. Later OSDL merged with FSG (Free Software Group) to create what we know today as The Linux Foundation. She has been around the Linux Foundation before it was born.

That’s when she also started working closely with the Linux and Open Source communities. She started working with none other than Linus Torvalds himself.

I find a kind of similarity between Jennifer and me. She also loves the challenge of translating complex ideas into something anyone could understand and be moved by.

Open source was where she realized that tech was where she wanted to work. Cloer recalls that it happened when she began promoting open source startups and software development philosophies.  

She remembered that she had just started working with Linus Torvalds and The Linux Foundation (when it was called Open Source Development Labs) and managed a CNN International shoot in Portland, Oregon. When Cloer saw Torvalds being interviewed by producers of the show, she realized technology was more than just 1s and 0s. Linux was changing the very foundation of our world. It was reshaping it. Today, Linux has become a dominant force in the IT world. Today Open Source has become the de facto software development model, Linux made it happen.

“I was humbled to be able to take what was at the time, a complex idea — Linux and open source software — and to translate that into one of the most well-understood and widely-accepted stories in the technology industry. I had the opportunity to be at the forefront of some of the most disruptive technologies in the history of computing, it’s an amazing and unique experience,” said Cloer.

Moving out of the Linux Foundation

The Linux Foundation is one of the most powerful and influential organizations around. It brings stability to one’s career while at the same time keeps you on your toes. “It was not a decision I came to lightly," said Cloer. "The work the Linux Foundation is doing is critical in supporting and shaping the future of software management and development. After 12 years supporting the organization, though, I decided there is no better time than now to begin my own firm. I see so many opportunities to adapt what I’ve done to translate complex ideas to some of the most exciting and pressing issues in tech today: inclusiveness and diversity in tech, technology education for students of all ages and backgrounds, and technology invention that transforms industries through software and hardware development.”

Although Cloer is moving out of the Foundation, she is not moving out of the tech and open source world. “I will continue to contribute through my ongoing work with The Linux Foundation, as well as with a number of community members as partners and clients. The great thing about the Linux and open source community is it touches all areas of the tech industry and a variety of markets, and your participation doesn’t depend on any one company,” she said.

Once a storyteller, always a storyteller

I remember from early on I always wanted to be a writer, I used to live in my own dream land. I used to think that as a writer you never work a single day of your life, you just get paid to tell stories and continue to work like that an entire lifetime. Once a storyteller, always a storyteller.

Cloer is no different. As she moves out of the foundation she is setting up her own public relations firm because “surfacing stories and telling them in a way that engages and inspires action is my elixir. I’m addicted to this process and how satisfying it is when you see it work. Being connected to and moved by others through story is a fundamental human experience and more powerful than ever,” she said.

Voice of women in tech

What makes Cloer more inspiring is her commitment to address one of the most pressing challenges in the tech world: gender diversity. When I asked if she recalled any particular incident in her life that inspired her commitment toward increasing gender diversity, Cloer couldn’t pinpoint one.

“I can’t recall a specific incident that compelled me to start addressing this in my work. Certainly I’ve experienced inappropriate behavior over the years, from dismissive and sexist comments to exclusion. But I don’t think this is uncommon or a surprise. Most women in tech will tell you similar stories. But as I saw more and more women speak up and call out this behavior, I couldn’t stand by,” Cloer said.

Jennifer has been instrumental in many efforts that the Linux Foundation has made to increase diversity. Two that I am aware of are childcare during LinuxCon so that working moms could also attend sessions or deliver talks. The second was a Women’s Networking Luncheon also during LinuxCon 2016.

“I’ve been a woman in tech my entire career, and I believe we’ve reached a tipping point in which the issues facing women in this space are more visible. Yet they are still largely misunderstood and solutions aren’t easy,” she added.

A lot of work is now being done to address these issues. “I really like the work being done by organizations like YesWeCode and Code.org,” Cloer said, “But I’m also following organizations like Code School, SkillsCrush, Age of Learning and Exponential Education, among others. Of course, I’m advising the Linux Foundation’s programs with edX, Goodwill of Central Texas and others.”

Looking forward

Cloer has set-up a new business called ‘reTHINKit PR’. One of her first clients is, as expected, The Linux Foundation. A new and interesting company she will also be working with is Praekelt.org, which uses open source and mobile technologies to put well-being within reach of people living in poverty (through mobile apps on basic phones). “Their work has been largely focused on South Africa but is beginning to expand to Uganda, Nigeria and even here in the U.S. Their most recognized platform is MomConnect, which allows expecting moms in these communities to navigate their pregnancies without having to get to the clinic. A helpdesk function allows them to ask specific questions of nurses and others.”

Another of her first clients is none other than the Big Blue, IBM. “The work with IBM is focused on engagement with the developer and startup communities and their cognitive and cloud work,” said Cloer.

In addition to these, Cloer will also be working with FemCity as President of its Portland chapter.

Cloer is also working on a film that will feature three stories of three women in tech — one beginning her career, one mid-way through and one reaching retirement. Through this generational illustration, Cloer hopes to uncover the past, present and future of women in tech and see how we might begin to address some of the challenges we face today.

“We’ll bring the three stories together so the women can share with each other on film and make the viewer a part of that discussion. We think this generational approach can also touch on how different phases of life and the values associated with those stages affect choices for both women and men (raising a family, for example),” said Cloer.

As someone who takes a keen interest in women in STEM, I am happy to see this evolution of Cloer. Its an inspiration to women who want to start something of their own, to create more opportunities for others, to be their own boss and to give back their talents to the community in a very meaningful way.

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