Chris (Spike) Foote “I believe that we should be working to lower the barriers — to give more people the power to use and create the web.”

Recently retired from being an electronic engineer working in the UK aerospace industry. Early user of computers (punched cards anyone?) and supporter and user of open source everything.


Spike’s Story

Tell me a bit about your work.

I’m an electronic engineer and have recently retired after working with same company for almost 50 years. I’m also a serial volunteer.

We try to organise meet ups in London between MozFests as well as trying to introduce things beyond MozFest. Subjects such as: Raspberry Pi, Privacy Labs “snoopers charter,” SUMO and wider aspects of what’s going on with Mozilla.

I learned originally about MozFest through my friend, Heather, who is from Toronto and was an intern at Mozilla there. We got to know each other by working on online humanitarian stuff after the Haitian earthquake.

Heather got very much involved in Mozilla and went to the first ever MozFest — or Drumbeat, as it was called back then — which was in Barcelona. She was the one to suggest I attend the UK one in 2011, so she put me in touch with the London Mozilla community and I volunteered at the first ever MozFest in London.

I found it a fascinating event, but was conscious that there wasn’t a great deal of management of the volunteers going on. I identified who I thought was doing all the organising and saw that they needed a bit of help — that was Alex [Alex produced Mozfest 2011 in London].

I saw that she was being pestered with trivial things like someone needing more Sharpies or Post-It notes, so I offered my help.  I even took her radio away when it was time to have lunch, because I knew she’d never sit down. Taking the trivial stuff off her back meant that she could concentrate on the more important stuff.

The second year, Alex got in touch with me and asked me if I’d like to get involved and what I’d like to do. So I decided to take on the job of looking after the monitors and AV stuff. We have 50-odd stands in the science fair that all need monitors. During the event, I was looking after 50 monitors displaying things like the scheduling information, and 147 laptops that were scattered around the place. It meant that I could deal with that side of things and Alex didn’t have to worry.

There was a bit of reorganization the third year — I think a contractor handled the volunteers the first two years. Again, I was asked what I’d like to do and was offered a paid position as the volunteer coordinator. I decided to do it as a volunteer rather than actually being paid for it, because I thought it might be easier — easier because I was at that time in full-time employment. If I got another salary, I figured income tax and the like might be more complicated. From my point of view, it’s easier to do it as a volunteer.

I just finished my fourth year as the volunteer coordinator. Over the last couple of years I’ve built up a small team of managers and organizers. So instead of having to be in charge of everything, I can delegate.

Dan look after the monitors and other AV kit — he and his team know what they are doing, so I didn’t have to worry about it. Ziggy and Robby looked after the other volunteers and the other functions, and a couple of other people were looking after the help desk. Delegating the jobs to people you like and trust, makes your life a lot easier.

What did you find so fascinating about the first MozFest that you attended that made you want to give so much?

What was fascinating about the first MozFest was that it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting it to be a technical-based event. Although I’m an engineer, I’m not a software engineer and I’m not really a web designer any more.

The content of Mozfest went way beyond what I was expecting — very much into the policy and politics, into art, and into security. It covered a huge array of ideas and aspects of the Web. Over the years, the breadth and depth has extended even more.

This year specifically, we had an art exhibition running, which is not the sort of thing you would expect for a technical conference event. It’s very difficult to explain to somebody exactly how broad the coverage is at MozFest — it can be all things to all people really.

People who volunteer at MozFest are not necessarily geeky or techies — likely only 40% exclusively technical. But all seen to find things to get involved in: privacy, art, or journalism — I wish I knew what was drawing them in. A professor of computing at Queen Mary’s (no idea who it is) encourages their students to volunteer . Another guy sends his interns and gives them the time off to come.

We generally have 90–100 volunteers every year, about half of those are first-timers. Difficult to keep in touch with everyone and there is a limit to how many emails I can send out to ask them for help again. My feeling is that the volunteer gender ratio is about 50/50 — but that is just a guess. None of our forms or records ask for people’s gender — does not matter — the fact that they’re interested is what counts.

Not only was the event itself fascinating — the people are just as fascinating. The first year seemed to be very American-oriented — most seemed to be from North America or Canada. Over the years that has changed as well. It seems to be much more of an international event.

There was an openness and acceptance of people at Mozfest — certainly the idea that there are no wrong questions and no wrong answers. Mozilla has a non-hierarchical vibe. The first year I was there, I was an ordinary volunteer in a volunteer T-shirt wandering around talking to people — chatting as you do. I was on the side of a presentation and started chatting to this lady standing next to me with an interesting asymmetrical haircut. Bear in mind I didn’t know much about Mozilla at this time. It was only later on I found out who I was talking to — it was Executive Chairwoman of the Mozilla Corporation, Mitchell Baker.

The fact that you can talk to somebody high up in the organization, in person, was quite a shock to me as someone who comes from British industry where you don’t really get to see the directors very much. The openness and friendliness of people was quite a shock.

Tell me about a time when you felt a sense of success.

I love the huge contrast in personalities that we get with volunteers. People pick their challenges — for example: when we are breaking down everything at the end of the event, some of they guys try to beat the time from the previous time year. Gamify it.

And most people work together — people pull their weight.

The other way where I find a big sense of success is when we get the same people back year after year. Volunteers don’t get paid to do the job, but they choose to give up their time — to come along and take part. For most people, the costs are out-of-pocket — people pay their own travel expenses. Some people will travel quite a distance to volunteer. The fact that they come along, year after year, even though they don’t necessarily get a thank you — that is a sure sign that we’re doing something right.

Another way I see success is when you see people go on to do other things. Only yesterday one of our volunteers applied to become a rep. She’s volunteered for three or four years now and now wants to get more involved. She has applied to go on to the ReMo track, which I think is brilliant. The fact that someone can enjoy their time at MozFest so much, and love what they see and get out of it that they get more involved — it’s utterly gratifying, I must say.

Christine: How about an example of a challenge?

Long drawn out challenges and instantaneous ones.

From June onwards continuously answering questions.

Non-locals apply to volunteer and want assistance with travel. 300 apply and 80 show up. That is a big challenge. I must say it’s total guesswork — I was aiming for 100 people this year, because it was a bigger event and I thought there was going to be more demand on volunteers. There were a couple of tasks we had expected to do, that in the end were taken over by other staff, so it reduced the need for volunteers.

I’m always hugely conscious that we need to balance the number of volunteers with the amount of tasks required. Of course, the tasks are hugely variable — we start on Thursday and finish on Sunday, and there’s not a constant demand. There’s little jobs that need to be done and big jobs that need to be done.

For example, assembling the swag this year took substantially more effort than previous years for various reasons. We had to devote more people to that. I’m always trying to balance not asking too much of the volunteers and not giving them too many boring jobs to do, with having volunteers sitting around with nothing to do. Either situation would be bad from a volunteer’s point of view.

Not only am I trying to balance the type of work, but also the number of volunteers over several days — you’ve got to try to match the work that’s needed when it’s needed. It’s quite tricky — a task that you cannot possibly get 100% right. All you can do is hope you do not get it wrong too badly.

It’s total guesswork — every festival is different from year to year — the festival design and the festival details change. For example last year, we had the Sunday night demo party on the ground floor, which was great because it meant that while the attendees are down on the ground floor, we can start clearing the building from floor nine down. This year, the demo party was on the fourth floor, so it wasn’t quite so easy. We had to change the way we worked. We couldn’t really start clearing all the other floors until everybody had gone.

What would be nice is to have the demo party outside somewhere, so we can really get everything taken down. Changes like that affect how we staff, and how we organize the volunteers. I don’t think it’s possible to get it 100% right, but it’s one of the many things I try to bear in mind when I’m guessing how many volunteers we’re going to need, and when we allocate roles and tasks to people.

We used a volunteer scheduling system this year, an online thing that actually worked very, very well. It’s called Engel System — Engel is the German word for angel, and implies all the volunteers are angels. It’s the volunteer scheduling tool that was used by CCC — the German Chaos Computer Club. They’ve been running camps for the last 30 years or so, and they have a huge outdoor festival.

The way that they work is quite different. The volunteers are attendees. You buy a ticket, and you come along for the three days, or whatever it happens to be. You’re expected, as part of that, to spend a bit of time volunteering. Hence angel, because you’re doing a little bit for the community.

I discovered the software earlier this year, because I had attended (and volunteered at) an event in the UK back in August called EMF, Electromagnetic Field, which was a three-day event. About 4,000 people attended this on a campsite near me, down near Guildford in Surrey. They were using the Engel software — it’s open source and you can get it from GitHub.

We used it for the first time this year and apart from a few little niggles, it seemed to go quite well. If I needed volunteers to do registration from 6 o’clock until 10 o’clock, I’d create a shift from 6 o’clock to 10 o’clock and say I need five volunteers. Then, when people can see what jobs are available and add their name any available shifts or jobs. Rather than allocating people to jobs as we’ve done in the past, people allocate themselves.

When volunteers sign up, they indicate the kind of jobs that they want to do — whether it be running the registration desk, looking after the AV equipment, or dressing up as the fox. There’s about seven or eight different volunteer roles we fill. Not only could the volunteers search and allocate themselves where needed — they could also see the details of the job.

It takes away some of the work from me as an organizer, having to allocate people jobs. It meant that people picked their own jobs, which I think makes more sense. All of the feedback I’ve had from people has been quite positive, so we may well use that system again next year.

As I mentioned before, most of my work is done before the event starts, by setting up the event, so I could sort of sit back and do nothing for three days (joke).

I have to say, I don’t think I saw you doing nothing.

I did a little bit.

Listening to your experience, you came to this work because you noticed someone having a hard time. It’s empathy — you were sensitive enough to see what experiences or challenges Alex was having, and dove right in.

Likewise, when you’re talking about the challenge of volunteers, it was about empathizing with what it’s like to be a volunteer. You don’t want to be crazy busy, but you don’t want to be bored or do nothing. I’m just wondering, where do you think that sense of empathy comes from, and do you see that trait among others at MozFest?

Now you put it that way, I suppose so. I haven’t really seen it that way before. As I mentioned before, I’m a very bad passenger — I’ve never been one to sit back and accept a ride. I always like to get involved, and know what’s going on behind the scenes. I’m dreadful — if I go to a theater, I’m looking around, looking for the lights, and the PA, and how the scenery works.

I like to know how things work. It’s the same with events. I’ve been to lots of events as a participant. I’m dreadful at attending them, because I always find things that I think need to be improved. I did health and safety quite a bit as part of my former day job.

I’m always looking for a mains cable that needs to be taped down, or things that are dangerous, or things that could be done better. As for empathizing with people, I guess I do. It’s probably because I’ve had some dreadful volunteering experiences myself — times when I’ve helped at events where I felt totally useless because I was not given meaningful work to do, or where I felt I wasn’t listened to or valued.

A particularly bad example, I won’t mention what it was, but it was a huge international sporting event that happened in the UK some years ago. I signed up to be a volunteer, and there was a communication problem between the volunteers and some of the paid staff. We had a volunteer coordinator who was employed by the organization to run the event, and look after the volunteers. She was absolutely useless. She never took anyone’s complaints or concerns seriously. You would go and talk to her, and express a genuine concern and all she’d say was, “What a lovely day. Isn’t it a nice day today?”

I learned a lot from her — how not to do it. In some respects, I can understand why she did what she did — she was employed by the organization to do this job. When I was talking to her, her contract was going to finish in three days’ time and that was the end of it. She didn’t actually care, it was a job to her.

Whereas in my situation, if I do a bad job, I’m still here tomorrow. People can always leave feedback. If I’ve done a bad job, we try and improve it the next year. I try and I care about the volunteers — I try to make sure they have a decent environment. I try to make sure they are looked after — to make sure they are fed, and have an enjoyable fest.

To me, the most important thing is that volunteers enjoy their time and what they do. Not only that, the festival represents Mozilla. If people have a bad experience, it will affect the way they think of Mozilla. It’s a responsibility as well — to reflect the ethos and the beliefs of the organization.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe — keeping the web open and free —  What is the “open” Internet for you?

Content and access belongs to the everybody as a right. What I see and do and put on the internet should not be controlled by government or corporations or big business. A lot of it is about being a producer vs being a consumer.

I believe that we (for a given value of “we”) should be working to lower the barriers — to give more people the power to use and create the web.

As I mentioned, I am an electronic engineer and have been all my life. I have spent a LOT of time learning how to “do” electronics — starting from the age of five when I wired up a mains light bulb and asked my mother to plug the flex it into the power socket (as I was too short to reach it). I have learnt enough about electronics to make it do what I want or need.

Some years ago the Arduino was introduced. This (plus the multitude of add-ons that followed along) enabled people to use electronics without actually understanding what they were doing. Picking and mixing the hardware and software to do what they wanted it to do  without having the knowledge to build it from the ground up. This would not have been possible without the immediacy of the web — in my day we had to rely upon printed monthly magazines and technical articles written by a handful of highly-skilled and qualified engineers. Now anyone can write-up their project on a webpage sharing their successes and indeed failures.

Can you give me an example of how the open aspects of the web have been important for you?

At work, I’ve had to use computers more and more. I’ve always preferred open source software. People who create free and open source software have different drivers. They are often more motivated it tackling a problem because it is an interesting challenge rather than the means of making a living.

Along the same lines that I’m not a good passenger — I like to be involved in things. If I’m going to use a browser, I’d like to be involved in the organization behind it. In my bones I’m a hardware engineer. As a kid I was always taking things apart to see how they worked. The idea of getting a box, a black box that you can’t take the cover off of it, that you can’t undo the screws and see what’s inside, is totally alien to me. It’s no different than taking the back off a record player to see how it works — I want to open up software to see how it works, and see how it could be improved or made to do something it was not originally intended to do.

It’s very much a case of seeing how something is made. You can learn about it, and you can learn how to improve it, or learn how things work. It’s taking the cover off, and having a look inside. That’s really what appeals to me, and being involved in the community that works with it.

You’ve already told my how you got involved with Mozilla, is there anything you would like to add?

Not really.

Can you tell me about a time that Mozilla had some sort of impact on your life, work, or organization?

As I said, I’m the bass player rather than the lead singer. Also, I don’t like large crowds of people, because I’m a little bit deaf in both ears. I find it difficult to actually hear what people are saying. If the noise level goes above a certain threshold, I can’t actually hear. I can talk to people one to one, or one to four, but much more than that, I can’t actually track that number of people.

Although I’m naturally a shy person, a couple of years ago I decided I wasn’t going to say no — if I was offered an opportunity that took me out of my comfort zone, I was going to take it. I made a vow to say yes.

I’ve had to do a lot of speaking. When we have the volunteer get-togethers — it’s only 20, 30, 40 people — it’s nothing scary, and most of them are friends. But for a shy person, that could still be quite a barrier. At MozFest two years ago, I was asked to do part of the opening ceremony on a Sunday — to do a speech about one of our volunteers that was tragically killed, a chap called Simon.

I didn’t want to do it, but I thought, “Well, I will do it.” I spoke about the spirit and contributions of Simon, because it was important to me that we could make that something to celebrate in, but also it took me out of my comfort zone to stand up in front of 800 people, to prepare a little speech and give it. It would have scared the life out of me 10 years ago, but it’s something I felt I should do.

I prepared a speech, but when I stood up on stage, I did something unforgivable and busked it. It was well-received, which surprised me — I don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to do something like that, but I was able to do it. It’s something I never would have tried otherwise — I never would have attempted it. And it’s all thanks to Mozilla and the opportunity to speak.

This confidence has carried forward into my everyday work. I didn’t used to get nervous about running doing my training courses every month. Also, although I’m an engineer in my day job, I’m not really a manager. It’s not something that comes easy for me, and it’s not something I like very much, to be honest — my natural instinct is to do everything myself.

Being a manager at Mozfest — having to deal with people, it has helped me as well. The ability to listen to people — to listen to what they say and what they don’t say, that’s important. That’s something that I’ve gained from my volunteer experience with Mozilla.

Can you tell me about a time that Mozilla did not meet your expectations?

Certainly. I was quite disappointed that the work and effort I put into MozFest over the last four or five years hasn’t really been recognized. I suspect it’s because I wasn’t really one to “engage” with the community — I’m not great at blabbing about what I do.

It seems like the more you actually shout about what you do, the more you get recognized. At MozFest, I’m backstage — I wasn’t visible enough. The fact that all the work I was putting in on MozFest, and had put into MozFest, hadn’t been noticed by the people that were responsible to vet my application to be hired as a Mozilla Rep.

I’m not going to bother to apply again — the only benefit to being a rep is having access to expenses, to be able to fund meetups and goodies for my volunteers. That was really my motivation to apply to be a rep — that and the cool T-shirts (joke).

Also, Mozilla is still a little bit of and us and them. They are working on it — to remove the barrier between staff and volunteers. A few years ago there was an incident at MozFest that involved one of my volunteers that was dealt with by staff — I had not been told about it and had to hear about it third hand. This is a barrier — if you give someone responsibility to do something, then you need to give them the benefit of the doubt. You shouldn’t keep things from the volunteers. Telling me isn’t making it public, I can be trusted.

Part of the problem is a lack of trust. At one time I had access to the database of 2.5 million contacts of contributors. I was trusted enough not to spam them, but not enough to be trusted in other capacities. I understand that we can’t tell everything to everyone, but I’ve felt left out of the loop of things that are my responsibility.

I know that I’m, by no means, perfect as the volunteer coordinator. We always ask for feedback from the volunteers at the event to learn what we did well and what we did badly. A core group of volunteers is using an EtherPad to communicate these ideas so we can learn from that and do better next year.

We don’t seem to be able to learn from mistakes. We seem to have the same old problem year after year with particular things. A lot of it is down to communication. We’re not very good at communicating information downwards. There always seems to be various layers or filters — someone who thinks you don’t need to know something, or that it’s not important, or that it’s too much detail. Instead, they give you the nice fluffy bit. It’s the people transmitting information who filter the information.

It could be down to pushing information rather than pulling it. Maybe it’s down to me how much information I grab as it whizzes past, rather than how much information is pushed at me. I understand people try and limit the amount of information put out for fear of overloading people — but there is information that we need to know.

I primarily use emails to communicate with the MozFest volunteers. According to the stats on the platform though, only about 63 percent of emails actually get opened. It’s no surprise, really, when people claim they don’t know what’s going on. If 40 percent of people will not open emails, it’s quite bad. I don’t know how I can improve on that. Even putting “important” in the subject line doesn’t seem to help.

I do my best to tell everybody what’s going on, but if you don’t open the email, you’re not going to know. I even use the Wikipage to keep people up-to-date.

These are great pieces of constructive feedback, thank you. How might the stories we collect might be useful to you?

I’m conscious that I only see the festival through my own perspective, so I would find it useful to learn about other people’s experiences. I know there are things going on that I’m not aware of.

Anything more you want to tell me? Anything you want to ask me?

Every year I try to do something different — try to improve over the year before by learning from mistakes and by what went well. I love that you can come up with a random idea and have it become real. We’ve always asked volunteers if they speak languages other than English, but it wasn’t my idea to make the 2016 event multilingual — that was brave. I had the idea to have badges for the languages that people spoke — to add stickers in local text and in English. I was happy the idea was adopted more broadly. I love the fact that if you have an idea, you can try it out.

This year for the first time I created an Etherpad and shared with core volunteers just to debrief virtually. There has been some brilliant ideas dropped back in there today. Etherpad has low barrier to adoption — it’s people’s thoughts — less formal. Those ideas will go to Erika and Sarah — the MozFest Program Designer and Executive Producer.