Meet Karen Sandler, a force in open source

Sandler is the executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy. She is an attorney by profession, previously led the GNOME Foundation as executive director, and served as general counsel of the Software Freedom Law Center.

Karen Sandler
Swapnil Bhartiya

Karen Sandler is one of the most influential voices in the open source world.

I met with her last year and we talked about how free software affected and changed her life and how she is working to change the lives of others. It was a wide-ranging and inspirational conversation.

First encounter of the computer kind

Sandler started programming at an early age. She wrote a lot of BASIC programs and attended engineering school. The first classes that she took were FORTRAN and C.  

In our conversaction, Sandler recalled a time when she had to go to the computer center to get her account created. She went with a friend and was surprised that there were no women in the computer center. While it didn’t bother Sandler, her friend was creeped out when they noticed a guy who had some ASCII porn on his screen. Her friend left, but Sandler marched into the office of the head of the computer center and said, “There are no women here, you have to do something about this." He looked at her and said, "You're hired." Then he called in his best computer center employees and said, “Give her root by the end of the week, or as quickly as you can bring her up to speed."

They installed a Linux lab, which was fun but Sandler recalled thinking, "This free software thing is a cool idea. It's too bad it won't last." She had no clue that she would eventually play a big role in turning this "cool idea" into a phenomenon.

Sandler went on to law school and became a securities lawyer. Later she decided to get involved as a lawyer in the free and open-source software world.

Diagnosis: open source

Sandler was diagnosed with a heart condition that put her at high risk of sudden death. “Being involved in free and open-source software, my first questions were about the software itself and what does it run? I wound up launching a research project on the safety of software in these devices and the Food & Drug Administration review in the United States. Of course, what I found turned me from being someone who thought that open source was cool and useful, into realizing that software freedom is something to be very passionate about,” said Sandler.

She found that the software running on the device her life depends on is closed and proprietary, which meant she couldn’t review it. It’s a fact that software has bugs and it’s a frightening thought that you can’t even check and ensure that there is no serious bug in a device that could end your life at any given time. “What happens is that without any kind of ability to access the source code or even audit the source code on my body, it means that I just have no control over my own health care,” said Sandler.

Last year when Sandler was pregnant, she was shocked twice by her defibrillator because her heart did something pregnant women's hearts often do. “Pregnant women sometimes have their heart rates race from time to time, and that was triggering my device. The solution that my cardiologists proposed was to take medication to slow my heart rate down, not because my faster heart rate was dangerous, but because if my heart rate was slowed down I would be less likely to trigger my device being activated and shocking me,” said Sandler. 

Sandler was really disappointed that she was unable to examine the code and try to match the algorithms with what she was likely to experience. If it was an open source technology, it could have been done easily. “It's not that Medtronic, the device manufacturer, has no interest in pregnant women being shocked. They definitely do not want that, but at the same time, there are very few women who have defibrillators and have babies,” said Sandler.

Trust in open source

Sandler said that the heart device is merely a metaphor now for all of our other software. As our software is talking to everything else in a connected, internet of things era, we don't even know what's critical to life and society. That’s why today it’s even more important to have access to source code, to be able to audit it and ensure that there are no threats to our lives or society.

The good news is that open source is gradually becoming the de facto model for software development. We can credit that to the popularity of Linux in the commercial space. Linux has proved that open source can be the driver of an economy.

Sandler says that she is optimistic about the growth of open source in different fields, especially in the medical field. “I've had really productive conversations with some medical device manufacturers. People are starting to talk about these issues. I joke about myself being a cyborg as my life depends on a computer running inside my body,” said Sandler.

“As diagnostic tools become cheaper, and younger people who are technically savvy are getting these medical devices (and as older people also become technically savvy), we're going to see more ‘cyborgs’ demanding the rights to the software in their own body. We're starting to see that, and so now there's a whole group of us that are working in different aspects of this field,” added Sandler.

Sandler’s point is that we should demand the rights to the software used in the products we use. At times using products that don’t have any proprietary code means making some sacrifices. Many people like her are willing to make that sacrifice. Sandler has dedicated her career to this cause. Not many people may be willing to make that sacrifice. At times, making such a sacrifice would also mean giving up on tools that you need for your job, and that is not an ideal situation. The only way to not make any sacrifice and yet have access to source code is by demanding it as a user. It’s a cultural change that’s needed across society. You demand access to clean water, that’s how you get it. Not by refusing to drink water.

Women in STEM

Sandler says that reasons behind the shortage of women in STEM fields are quite complicated. There are many factors that play critical roles, some of them very subtle, some not so subtle.

“My calculus teacher in high school told me that girls were not good at math. I thought, Oh, I'm going to show you,” said Sandler. Today she is among to the most powerful voices in the computing world.

Sandler recalled her experience at last year's Linux Plumber Summit. “I had a session at Plumbers Summit. I took an escalator to go to the floor where the conference was happening and as our escalator went up, the number of women thinned out. When I got to the top, I realized that I was the only woman I could see.”

She said that even though she is established, and knew a lot of the men walking around, the hair on the back of her neck stood up because she felt so weird and uncomfortable. “All of a sudden I noticed that there were a lot of people around me and I was the only one that was like me. Then I turned a corner and I found a few people who had been Outreachy graduates all clustered together, and immediately I had a sense of relief. It really changed the dynamic,” she said.

Sandler is involved with many efforts to bring more women and girls into technology. One such project is Outreachy. “It's a paid internship program for women and other underrepresented groups in free and open-source software. It had been historically open to women and nonbinary people globally, but then last year we expanded the program to include men of color who are part of underrepresented groups in the U.S.”

There are some very inspiring stories that came out of this program. Sandler gave an account of a woman who mopped floors in a store, and now she's a manager at one of the tech companies working on OpenStack.

"Getting women involved in STEM is more than just bringing these extraordinary people to the field, it’s also about changing the feeling of the community, to make it more welcoming," Sandler said.

Most of the mentors in Outreachy are men. Men are making huge impacts in helping women and also people of color feel comfortable and included in this field. That is absolutely essential. The groups that Outreachy seeks to help are underrepresented, and many of the people from those groups who are already participating in free and open source software do not want to work on diversity issues. It would be an unfair burden and unrealistic to expect these initiatives to be entirely carried by them.

“I think that talking about these issues and helping men understand that it's okay that they don't know what every experience is, and to understand that there are people having different experiences than them is really important. I think that some of the changes we're starting to see where conferences are having rooms for nursing mothers, having child care at conferences now, a lot of that benefits men too,” said Sandler.

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