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OMG! Interviews: Alex Chiang, Canonical OEM team member

Alex Chiang is an American software developer who works for Canonical’s OEM department – satisfying the needs of customers all around the world and helping bring Ubuntu into the mainstream!

I had the opportunity to meet Alex at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Brussels, and it was the first UDS for both of us. Alex worked for HP  for a number of years before joining Canonical earlier this year and joining the large OEM team where he develops drivers, works on packages and the kernel for various OEMs.

So, Alex, tell me a bit about yourself – where you’re from, what you enjoy doing and what sort of stuff you do for Canonical.

I was born and raised in New Jersey, with the typical east coast edge taken off after having spent the majority of my adult life in the midwest, deep south, and now the mountain west, living in Colorado since 2003. In my copious spare time, I’m either outside playing in the mountains or dabbling around with my camera. Or eating. I do that a lot. Seriously. Inappropriate amounts.

I work for Canonical’s OEM group, working on custom solutions and helping our customers create great, Ubuntu-based products.

The OEM team is one of the largest teams at Canonical, but they’re often not heard about (especially on this blog) as we tend to focus more on design and eye candy. OEMs are super important in helping bring Ubuntu to the mainstream. Could you elaborate a bit about the OEM work Canonical is doing in general?

The OEM market is critical to Ubuntu’s success. One of the most frustrating aspects of Linux is installing onto your machine, and then wasting hours fixing all the little niggling warts. By partnering with the OEMs, our team helps ensure an excellent Linux experience for the customer, right out of the box because we’ve done the hard work of getting drivers working, ensuring BIOS sanity, and other bits of plumbing that need to be just so. And in general, if a customer wants to build a solution using Ubuntu as the foundation and then adding their own special sauce on top, we help them with that. In summary, the OEM team does quite a bit of work, but as you say, much of it is behind the scenes.

The OEM market is critical to Ubuntu’s success.

So you personally have worked on Linux stuff for quite a number of years, originally with HP. Why are you interested in Linux, or, more widely, programming?

I think most people interested in Linux are some blend of pragmatist and idealist. Certainly I think of myself that way. On the pragmatic side, I enjoy the ability to fix my system when it breaks, as all software inevitably does. That’s very difficult to do when the system plumbing is closed and opaque. I think many people reading this blog have found themselves, at one time or another, helping a friend or family member using a different operating system and been frustrated at not being able to fix a problem because it’s either actually impossible or so opaque as to be intractable.

I think most people interested in Linux are some blend of pragmatist and idealist.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that Linux can break in spectacular and surprising ways, but the difference is, when it does, at least you have a chance of solving the problem. All you need to do is read the source and think really hard about it, and theoretically, your hard work is rewarded.

The idealist part of me likes to think that I’m contributing to an ever-growing body of knowledge that can benefit anyone with the means and motivation to learn how the most complex machines humans have ever created actually work.

Much to my mom’s chagrin, I’m either not smart enough or just too darn lazy to be accepted into a doctoral program and write fancy dissertations, but I feel that contributing to the body of work known as a Linux distribution is my way of doing what I can.

You worked for HP for a few years – what made you choose Canonical? In your first few months, is there anything you’ve noticed that makes it fun to work there?

Canonical were appealing for several reasons. It’s much smaller, first of all, and I wanted the experience of working at a smaller company. They have an extremely modern view of the contemporary company and have embraced the idea that it’s possible to be a productive employee no matter where on the planet you might live. And finally, my background at HP was all in giant, big-iron servers. I wanted to work for a company making a product that actual human beings purchase and use.

Everyone I’ve met in my first few months here have expressed the same opinion I did when I first joined — the breadth and depth of Canonical employees’ experience is simply astounding. And being surrounded by such talented people is perhaps the biggest attraction to me.

Being surrounded by such talented people is perhaps the biggest attraction to me.

So where would you like to see Ubuntu be in two years? Do you believe we can fix bug number one?

Clearly, I’d love to see more people using Ubuntu, especially on the desktop. My interest is both personal, in that it’s always great to see people use something you helped create; and it’s professional — there are real, concrete advantages to using an open operating system like Ubuntu versus a closed one, and anything that results in fewer emergency tech support calls from my mom, is something I’m in favor of. The implication being, of course, that Ubuntu runs better than any other operating system.

I’ll note that “runs better” is quite different from “feels better” though. I suspect that if we continue to focus on usability improvements and make Ubuntu actually “feel better” than any other operating system, then bug number one will fix itself.

1. Browser of choice?

Google Chrome, dev channel. I’m not a heavy plugin user and so it works well for my purposes.

2. Guess for 11.04 code name?

Neon Narwhal, ftw! It’s shiny and poky!

3. And, lastly, what one application is your “must install” on a fresh copy of Ubuntu?

In my old age, I actually try to customize my OS as little as possible from the default. But I find myself issuing “apt-get install git-core” on almost every fresh install I do.

A big thank you to Alex for taking the time to chat with us!

You can catch Alex on Twitter as @_achiang, IRC as ‘achiang’ or read his blog, http://www.chizang.net/alex/blog/