Shreyas Kutty “Eventually, you reach a point where _you_ are that person who becomes the reason for someone else’s story.”

Shreyas is an open source enthusiast with a fascination for tech and the web. He spreads the word about Mozilla and other open source products and approaches. He loves teaching kids and initiated KidZilla, a project that aims at teaching underprivileged students about computers, the Internet, privacy, and how the web works. A Webmaker Super Mentor, he has organized 700-person gatherings and also participated in setting up Webmaker Clubs in various schools in India. Writing and community-building are his passions — engaging new contributors and giving people a better understanding about Mozilla projects.

Evidence

Shreyas’s Story

Can you tell me a bit about the work that you do, both with Mozilla and outside of Mozilla?

I started contributing to Mozilla about five years back. I am a computer science engineer. Back in university we had this Firefox Student Ambassador program. I initiated the club in my university, and that’s how I got involved with the community.

We started building the local community, in terms of volunteers, offering mentorship, be it technical or non-technical. That caught on and then we were doing a lot of events and sessions.

Afterwards we focused on web literacy and, more specifically, the Webmaker project (which has now evolved into the Mozilla Learning Network). That’s how it all started. Now, I am a Regional Coordinator for Mozilla Clubs as well as a Mozilla Representative.

That’s what I do for Mozilla. Apart from that, I work as the Community Evangelist at Belong, a startup in Bangalore, India. We are building an application which connects neighbors and local communities.

Do you find there’s a connection between your Mozilla volunteer work and your job?

There is a lot of learning that I get from the community building part of my Mozilla work. The best part is the amount of knowledge that you get from running communities. Learning how to resolve issues that happen in the communities, especially online communities.

These are people you’ve not met in person, but you’re connecting with them on a day-to-day basis. These are people from different backgrounds, different cultures, etc., from all across India. You learn that, “Hey, you know what, there is no one-size-fits-all in communities.” You have to strategize and evolve as things go on. So yes, that’s been a big learning that Mozilla communities has given me, in terms of what I am doing in my job.

Can you tell me about a time where you felt a sense of success?

With respect to Mozilla, I think that was during my final year in university, we had this campaign called the MakerParty, where participants learn by tinkering with technology, hacking, and making or building things. You learn something by breaking things, and then you know that does not work.

We organized MakerParty Chennai and had different organizations participate, including Wikimedia and Google. There was cross-collaboration between communities. Seven hundred participants attended.

700? I just wanted to check the number. That’s huge.

Yeah. We had a lot of press coverage, as well. We explained that Mozilla is a community, they have volunteers, and you can volunteer too. There was a divide between the community and the platform. People only relate to Firefox when we say Mozilla. They did not know that they could contribute. We bridged that gap. That was a big personal success for me.

How did you connect with your partner organizations? And how did they contribute to the MakerParty?

There were a lot of organizations, big and small. The big ones include Google and Wikimedia. The small ones were local start-ups.

There was a lot of hardware hacking, drones, Arduino, Raspberry Pi — all the fancy stuff.

When it came to the big organizations, those are also communities of people. It was easy to reach out to them, saying that, “Hey, you know what. We’re doing something really huge, which has never been done here before. Would you like to be a part of this?” We were not ready to take a no for an answer. They said, “Yeah sure, we would love to do that.”

It’s was an opportunity for them to reach out to a new set of potential contributors. Wikimedia, as well as Google Developers Group, gained a lot of contributors from our event.

Your partners saw participating in the MakerParty as a way for them to build engagement and tap new people?

Exactly.

Aside from the astounding success of bringing 700 people together, what would you say was different after this MakerParty, compared to before?

Of course there was a lot of exposure to technology and tech communities for the participants. We also created a lot of social media buzz.

Since then, people keep getting back to us every year, saying that “Hey, is this thing happening again? We would love to be a part of this.” They think of the event as a college fest that happens every year. We had been struggling with that. Will we get the same level of interest now? How do we again go and do something on that scale — and meet the expectations set by us at the last event?

You set the bar high.

Exactly. It’s a challenge. But, at the same time, you know that people are interested, so you reach out to them and tell them, “Hey, you know what? There are local pockets of these communities, which you can reach out to and contribute individually. Even if there is no such big event happening, you can contribute to projects. You can get recognition that way. You can get your personal goals fulfilled.”

You’ve brought up a great example of a challenge. I’m wondering if you can give me another example of a challenge you’ve faced recently, and how you’ve approached solving it?

When you think about communities, there are always a lot of challenges. We had a Mozilla India community meet-up over the weekend, to discuss restructuring.

Initially, we had a small community, so it was easy organize events. You could just call everyone up and tell them “hello, this is what we’re planning to do. Can you join us?” Everything was easy when it was small, at that scale. But over the last couple of years, because of projects like the Firefox Student Ambassadors, Mozilla Reps, etc., there has been a lot of involvement in Mozilla and open source at large. There are a lot of students getting to know about the opportunities, which resulted in a massive growth of the community. The old structure we had in place did not work for this large community. So, over the weekend, George Roter from the Mozilla Participation Team came to facilitate sessions. He was joined by Konstantina and Bradley, all of whom did a amazing job in facilitating, in helping us to restructure.

The best part was this restructuring process was that it was done with maximum involvement from the community, so that no conflicts that arise. There is no one having a complaint that, “I did not get my say in the decision-making process.”

This was not my effort. I would say this is a collective effort, as a community, that we have done. That’s a great way to solve future problems and conflicts — ensuring that we have a functioning structure for the community, a structure that is scalable.

What are some of the structural changes you made to accommodate the growth of the community?

We’ve not yet finalized it, but are looking at setting up focus groups and functional groups. Functional groups are contribution areas or pathways. Focus groups are time-bound campaigns, MakerParty for example, and other small time-bound Mozilla projects.

Apart from that, we are giving a lot of importance to diversity and inclusion, which was been lacking. I would say, more on the lines of, “How can we get people from various backgrounds come in?”

At the restructuring meet-up we had a good amount of women contributors. We also had teachers. These are some of the ways to diversify in terms of gender and expertise. Also we had participants from all across India. So we had a mix of cultures, age groups, and genders. We got the collective inputs from all of these people, which is a great way to ensure that we have more participation from others like this in the community.

Shifting now to thinking about the open Internet. For you, what does “open Internet” mean?

For me, the open Internet would mean a place where there is no monopoly. It’s like the democracy of the country. It is the only place where you have the ability to reach out to people from all across the globe, without any barriers. There are no bounds on the number of people you can reach over the Internet. It’s really important — really crucial — that we educate people about this.

When people are aware, there is a lesser possibility of them being used by multi-national corporations, corporates, or other organizations. It’s really important that we keep the Internet open, and fight for the open Internet.

Can you think of a time when the open Internet has been important to you?

For India, for the entire country, the biggest example is Free Basics by Facebook. In a way, this issue helped us. I would actually thank Facebook. Because of the efforts that went into popularizing Free Basics we, as a community, were able to generate a lot of interest. We were able raise awareness about net neutrality, about the open web, and to explain very technical concepts in a simple manner. We were like, “OK. They’re doing something wrong, and we should go against it.”

That has been a big achievement for the Indian community, as a whole, when we saved the Internet from Free Basics invading into India.

You mentioned that you got involved with Mozilla when you were still in university. What has it been like to be part of Mozilla? What do you think that you’ve gained from it?

If I were to put it in one word, I would say, connections — connections that I’ve had with people all across the community, all across the globe, because the Mozilla community is everywhere.

Now I have a close-knit network. And they are not only people I work with — they are people I have relationships with. You know someone very close to your heart, because you’ve been working with them and they’re very open to collaboration, and they invite you over. Any place that you go, any country that you go, you can go visit them.

It’s more about the personal relationships than anything else, for me. That’s the power of the Mozilla community. In terms of personal benefits, the first job offer that I got was because of Mozilla.

Tell me a little more about that. How did you get that job offer?

Mozilla was written all over my resume. In India, companies come to recruit after your final year of engineering. That’s when they look at what you’ve done, apart from your studies. What are your extra-curricular activities? What sets you apart from other students?

Mozilla really played an important role for me in this way, I’m one of the Mozillians featured on the Mozilla website contribute page. Whenever people ask me what I do for Mozilla, I just go type the URL — https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/contribute/stories/shreyas/ — and tell them, “That’s what I do.” That was something really cool for me.

My recruiter asked me what I did at Mozilla. I told him about Firefox OS, which we had that time. Then he asked me to show me a device, if I had one. Then he asked me to find bugs, he asked me, “What kind of bugs do you file? What are the patch or pull requests that got merged and all of that stuff.

I think the entire conversation went from the computer science-related topics to what I do at Mozilla. He had questions like “Why is Mozilla so important?” and “Why does Mozilla do what they’re doing?” I was able to explain that to him, and then he seemed interested. That was a great moment for me.

Thinking more about Mozilla — because part of this is also collecting feedback to improve — can you tell me about a time when Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations?

That’s the tough one. There’s a lot of experimentation. We do things, and then we realize that we’ve not done it right. We’re open to admitting that, “Hey, you know what? We did this, and it failed.” We do not try to cover up. I think that’s the best part about it. Firefox OS was one such example, where the community had given feedback.

When it was launched in India, Mozilla’s strategy was to penetrate into the common man’s smart phone space. To provide a transition between a feature phone and a smart phone. So they they produced devices in the lower segment, and some of these devices had hardware faults — some phones headed up, sometimes the software was glitchy, and all of that.

Because of some poor choices that we made in terms of partnerships, there was a lot of criticism from tech reviewers, and tech community as a whole said “Hey these are the exact same people who fought against Internet Explorer when they had a monopoly, and they produced an open source browser. Why they’re screwing up so much?”

We heard that and then eventually, although it was late at that point of time, we knew that this was not working. We were ready to acknowledge that this was not working, that this was a mistake on our part, as the whole of Mozilla. I think that’s great.

Stepping back and thinking about the questions you’ve just answered, how might some of the stories we collect be useful to you?

Story-telling is a very important part of what we’re doing at Mozilla. From a community perspective, a lot of the contributors have come into Mozilla because of stories that they’ve heard about the people who are currently mentoring them.

It’s a circle that completes wherein you tell someone that, “Hey, this is my Mozilla story. This is how I came into contributing to Mozilla. These were my mentors.” Then, eventually, you reach a point where you are that person who becomes the reason for someone else’s story.

They get inspired from whatever you are doing at Mozilla. It just grows on from there. That’s how a community is built out of just a few individuals. That’s the power of storytelling.

Is there anything more you want to tell me, or ask me?

I would love to see how we go ahead with StoryEngine. What are we planning and how are we using feedback? That can be possible when you have many such stories. Also, there should be a lot of diversity, in terms of stories.

We’re being careful to get a people with diverse backgrounds, then also in terms of the different Mozilla programs and issues, We’ll have to get a critical mass of stories before the themes start to bubble up, before you start to see the commonalities.

In terms of the feedback loop, that will get more clear. We’re now experimenting, figuring it out as we go. I expect it will be more clear in early 2017. For now, we’re posting all the stories as we go.

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