Interview with Jeroen Baten

We had a little chat with Jeroen Baten. He’s the operational marketing manager of the UBports Foundation and editor of our biweekly newsletter.

Could you briefly introduce yourself? 

Hm, you got me there already. The operative word being “briefly”, right? People who know me know that you give me a subject and I start talking and talking. So, the challenge for me now is to try to tell something sensible and be brief at the same time. Here, you see? Already four lines of saying nothing, really. So sorry.

Okay, so my name is Jeroen Baten, and I have been doing full-time open source stuff for years. I discovered Linux on a Slackware CD-ROM with kernel version 0.98pl13 in 1993, followed the developments and jumped on it in 1998, making it my full-time job in 2001. I’m now 57 years old and I’m one of those people walking around with a T-shirt that says “It’s weird being the same age as old people” Sure, the outside gets old and starts to wrinkle, but the inside is still a twenty-something hacker playing around with techy stuff and loving it.

Anyway, so I once got a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering, but most of my work has involved computers in any way, shape or form. For example, at one point I worked as the head of a software development department at a hospital. They wrote their own electronic patient record application (C++ via cgi-bin). But I have also been hired to consult on open source projects and policies at the European Union. In the past I also wrote several books about Linux (the LPI certifications) and other open source projects like LibrePlan and Odoo. I love to do talks and presentations and teach people. As a side note, in 2019 I did something that started to resemble a tour with one talk about “Running a mainframe on your laptop for fun and profit”.

But you can also find me at the vintage computer festival in Berlin where I am showing one of my (yes, I own several) vintage and very closed source IBM AS/400 systems.

You’re the operational marketing manager of the UBports Foundation. What does this mean?

I was asked to start doing this in January 2021. I always said that I only know open source and that I know almost nothing about marketing, but I was asked anyway because part of it is to also be in contact with the Ubuntu Touch community. Somehow there are plenty of marketing people around but people who can talk to a community seem to be scarce. And that is something I still don’t understand. What is so difficult about using email, Telegram, a forum, IRC, Twitter, Mastodon, Matrix, or other tools?

Anyway, what do I do, right? I try to stay in close contact with the excellent community members in the UBports Marketing Plus Telegram group. The community has been doing important stuff like the biweekly Q&A videos for some time now and it’s a well oiled machine. So I try to stay out of their way and sometimes ask them for feedback when I’ve got an idea, or when projects I run are almost ready I ask them for feedback. For me, although I have worked for 20 years in the open source world, working with a community is always an adventurous challenge. There are so many amazing people doing wonderful stuff on one end, and at the same time it is sometimes hard to distil the common voice and prevent the loudest people from dominating a discussion.

Next to this, I manage a team of professionals focussed on marketing Ubuntu Touch and the UBports foundation. These are professionals that add extra power to our marketing efforts. In no particular order I could mention people that I rely on on a daily basis. There’s Randy, who is my go-to guy for all things Odoo, and Odoo is the application that runs the UBports website, email newsletter, blog posts, web shop and community administration. There’s Koen who does a lot of writing. When I started this gig back in January I did most of the writing myself, but I soon found out that I needed a dedicated writer with solid open source skills because there was just too much to do. There’s Kiki, who currently concentrates on keeping the data in our Odoo instance clean, and Jolanda, who is a real life marketing professional, so she keeps me in line when needed to focus on doing actual marketing stuff. And there’s Richard, who does the collection and analysis of our website traffic that we gather (without IP tracing!) in Matomo. And there are also a few people who know open source philosophy and our project inside out, but simply like to remain anonymous, and I respect that too. Together we think of new ways to spread the message about the existence of Ubuntu Touch and the UBports Foundation.

What are you working on as part of this job?

So, basically I manage things. And I will forget when I try to write down a list, but what it means is I read stuff others write and give feedback when needed. I chair a weekly meeting on our marketing efforts. I also manage a lot of small side projects, like the development of training materials for Ubuntu Touch app development that is in the works. I manage events where we present our project. Currently, due to the pandemic, there are not a lot of those but the first one I know of will be the Dutch Hackerhotel event in February of 2022 (already booked solid). But I also handle the Ubuntu Touch VoLTE development project we are doing together with the German company Sysmocom. I keep in contact with a Dutch press agency that writes press releases we send out to Dutch journalist. After that I translate those press releases to English and send them out to our list of international press contacts that the community helped to gather. Soon we will have a Yumi pin in the UBports web shop. But that was also something we had to think of, have it designed, order a small test batch and acquire funding for all of this.

What do you hope to accomplish in your position as operational marketing manager in the next twelve months?

Wow, that is a tough one to answer. I hope to increase awareness by the public about the importance of our project. Tell people how important privacy and security is. So I hope to be able to spread that message as much as possible. As a geek I want to be able to measure the effect of the things I do but at the same time I know that it is almost impossible to do. Sure, we can measure an increase in web traffic and/or forum use, but there is no way of knowing what effort created which result. But, basically, I hope to be able to get our message out as much as possible. Thankfully I can limit this currently to a single planet.

And I want to develop relations with large sponsors. As a foundation we get many, many small monthly donations of people from all over the world and the total of those donations is hugely important. At the same time, I know there are wealthy people out there who would like to contribute to projects that bring good things to the world. And I feel pretty strongly about getting more of those on board as well. So we can grow as a project and do more. More devices, more users, more apps and more impact on the world. Will I/we succeed? There is currently no way of knowing. But I really want to try and dedicate my time to this.

Every day each of us is given 1440 minutes to spend. And it is up to each of us to decide how to spend those minutes. If you are lucky enough to have a roof, food and safety, what would you like to spend your limited life time on? I feel pretty lucky that I got this opportunity so I am pretty dedicated to this project.

One of your tasks is to spread the word about Ubuntu Touch. What’s the number one message you want to spread?

For me the number one message is to get people aware of their digital privacy. To tell them about data gathering companies, about how people are being tracked on a very detailed and personal level simply for pushing products to them. And when individual persons are targeted as a “voting product”, then that is something that makes my blood boil! I like to think we are more than consumers.

And the number two message would be to look at every person in the world as an individual. As soon as politicians start talking about how a “group” is responsible for something evil, you know that is a bad politician. Groups don’t do evil, individuals do. Well, not all individuals of course, but you get the picture. I can’t understand how somebody can hate somebody from another group they have never met before? And I think that if we would look more at the individual and talk and discuss with each other we would have an actual chance at world peace. Sure, you can disagree with another person, but then you just do things differently. If you’re nice to me, I’m nice to you.

Simply look at our project! We have people from all over the world working together to create a secure operating system for mobile devices that respects privacy. And I think that is a very important thing to do.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve heard about Ubuntu Touch?

That would be “I installed it on this old phone and it doesn’t work”.

Yes, we have an open source operating system for mobile devices. And yes, we have a lot of individuals who put a lot of effort in porting Ubuntu Touch to their device. And yes, some of those ports are, despite the efforts, not at a level to be used as a daily driver. But that is completely beside the point. We are building an open source operating system for mobile devices. That’s the point! And we are seeing increased interest from phone manufacturers. And yes, those companies are relatively small, and yes, our full-time developer group is relatively small. But we are growing, and there is interest, and we are building, and we are getting better at everything. The code we use, the organisation level, the (dare I say?) marketing efforts.

Look at everything open source has changed in the world. Closed source operating systems for supercomputers: almost gone. Other Unix products: almost gone. Other embedded software operating systems: almost gone. Other web server software: gone. Open source is currently the only go-to option for any innovation that is happening in the world. Governments, albeit very slow, keep increasing their efforts to use open source software in the things they do. Sure, there is still a lot to do, but seeing what we have reached after the last 20 years and extrapolating that into the future I am very optimistic on what we will achieve.

You’ve had quite a career in the open source world, so you can probably make some comparisons. What’s special about the UBports community?

Well, the one thing that makes our project special is the width of it all. It is an embedded operating system, it runs on many devices, it supports many languages, there are numerous apps for it and it has a very high bar set on user-friendliness. That is totally different from, say, an open source web server or database that only runs on a few different Linux distros and supports a few languages. And where user-friendliness is only a distant goal. And I absolutely think we’re doing something amazing. Did I say that already?

In which domain could the UBports community use some help?

Simple, in every domain. Our project has an ambitious goal and we are constantly looking for and welcoming people who like to make an effort. I talk to new community members every week (about 10 new members every week) and try to help them become active in a field they like to do work in. We have the 20.04 porting challenge, we have apps that need bug fixing, we have core development challenges, documentation challenges, courseware challenges. Really, there is a lot that can be done.

Where do you expect Ubuntu Touch to be in five years?

Oh, this is a tough one! Well, I recently said to someone that the world is full of bullshit. I mean, there are so many people saying very weird things, and now you are asking me for a prediction? And no less than five years into the future? Well, I could try to come up with something, as long as people reading this understand that it is very uncertain whether these things will actually happen. So, with some hesitation, let me fantasize for a little bit.

In five years I think we have around ten devices that can be bought with Ubuntu Touch pre-installed. Just like the Volla Phone. Today they are already supporting two devices (the first model, and the model X, a rugged edition), so we are already getting there!

We have increased in world-wide recognition of our existence as a viable alternative to the existing duopoly.

Consumers are much more aware of how important privacy is. Due to the very lucrative business model in the criminal exploitation of software bugs, people tend to understand that open source offers better guarantees towards quick bug fixing.

There will be online videos, workshops and training where people can learn to develop Ubuntu Touch apps.

And, if some of the current projects work out, there will be a bachelor level IT university where Ubuntu Touch is a major part of what students learn.

What are your interests outside of Ubuntu Touch?

Hm, answering this would probably fill the same amount of lines as all of the above. So I’ll try to be brief (not that I can, but I can try (yeah, do or do not, there is no try, I know)).

So I love programming, and during the last few years that would mainly be Python. I love to tinker with stuff so if you have seen my mainframe presentation mentioned earlier you see that I have gathered some stuff to play with. This also means I find this project amazing. I also mentioned earlier that I own a few AS/400 systems that I like to take for a spin during a vintage computing festival.

I love to do talks so there’s that. I am part of a Dutch podcast team called the “Angrynerds”. Sometimes I record a podcast myself for Hacker Public Radio. I love to organise stuff, like meetups. Meet people and be amazed at what some people come up with. I love to find amazing projects on Kickstarter. I once sponsored a small board called the Pine64 and I like very much how they have grown, as well as the things they create these days.

I started 3D printing a few years ago. First on a Creality Ender 3, but after 2 years of increased enthusiasm and usage I switched to a CR-6SE. With my background in mechanical engineering and knowledge of CAD systems in general, I was able to design a UBports sunglasses thing so people can have their picture taken without me needing consent forms for publishing those photos. I wrote about this in the UBports newsletter.

One of my latest projects is called “Chateau IT” where I want to help people switch to a career in IT in a small training facility in rural France. That is a project I can luckily balance with my current work on UBports. It is still in its infancy but I feel really passionate about telling people about computers, programming and open source. I can honestly say that all things UBports for me is one of the highlights of projects I have ever been involved in and I truly hope I can continue in this project for the foreseeable future.

Sorry it became such a long story. But I did warn you when we started, right? :-)

Test fixes and new features with ubports-qa