Stormy Peters: the Open Source Advocate

As the popularity of Linux and open source software was rising, Stormy Peters was growing frustrated by the number of people working on similar solutions. She proposed putting GNOME on HP computers to free up people and resources for other problems.

Photo of Stormy Peters by Peter Adams,, @peteradamsphoto.

Photo credit: Stormy Peters by Peter Adams,, @peteradamsphoto.

Stormy Peters values smart people and resources too highly to solve the same problem twice. It’s one of the reasons she is an advocate for open source software.

The Rice University Computer Science alumna (B.A. ’96) loved her operating systems and programming languages courses, but grew frustrated that she and her classmates were working on problems the previous year’s students had already solved.

“I looked around the room and thought these 60 people could be solving bigger problems instead of replicating the work of others,” said Peters. “Later, I was leading a team at Hewlett Packard and went to a standards meeting with colleagues at IBM, Sun, and other tech companies. To my horror, I realized we all had our own teams working to solve the same problems in our own code bases.”

About the same time, the popularity of Linux and open source software was rising. Peters proposed putting GNOME on HP computers to free up people and resources for other problems.

She said, “Putting GNOME on HPUX turned out to be more of a business problem than technical problem. I had to convince our stakeholders that yes, we weren’t going to ‘accidentally’ give away all our software. Then I helped set up the office that advocated for its use. People using HP products all around the world could now use open source to solve problems with our products.”

Peters said she became interested in technology around age eight, when her school placed two Apple IIe computers in a hallway where everyone could use them. That meant each student could spend only a short time on the computer.

“My parents were both teachers and had to drop me off early, so I got a few extra minutes on the computers before most of the other students arrived at school. What I really cared about then was what the computers could do: the games, the problems they could solve, and what they could help me accomplish. Although when I calculated the odds of my neighbor winning the lottery, she got quite mad at me. She still let me use her tape-based Commodore computer though.”

When she had access to her own computer, Peters found she always tweaking the software to do something a bit differently. She said there wasn’t a lot of software in those days and it was pretty basic, with low barriers to fiddling with the code. You could change file names and impact people in the game – it was a fun way to figure out how things worked.

Learning to make software do cool things had whetted her appetite for Computer Science, but she also wanted to study Math. When Peters began looking at universities, her parents were teaching in Barcelona, Spain. The family flew to the U.S. and took a long driving tour of the States to explore colleges. Rice was the only reason they included Texas in the trip.

She was looking for a small college or university in a big city – a school that had no fraternities and sororities, but offered plenty of opportunities for her to change her mind and her major if she found something more appealing than CS and Math.

“Turns out I didn’t need to change my major, because I became intrigued by what makes the computer work. My operating systems class was taught by a visiting professor, and that was followed by Programming Languages with Matthias Felleisen. He offered me a spot in his lab that summer. Rather than reflect lines of code down the page in a column, I was coding by drawing recursive trees with a programming language his group was developing.”

That research work set her up for a successful application process with HP. Once she discovered open source, Peters sought career options where she could champion it.

“I wanted to ensure open source operating systems and software were available to personal computer users, even those with little tech expertise,” she said. “And I wanted to enable people and companies to collaborate on building open source solutions. When Microsoft approached me about helping them use open source more effectively --and working with other people and companies to create better software solutions-- I jumped at the chance.

“Not only do I love learning new things, I also really like working on projects with other people who are passionate about it. In my career, I’ve learned to say ‘Yes, that’s a great idea’ to people and then help make that idea happen.”

Once, her “yes” came just over a year after the idea was initially proposed. Peters was speaking at a conference when someone suggested shipping old computers to schools in India. She replied that she had experience trying to ship computers to India and there was no way they’d get through customs.

“Then another guy came up and said, ‘I’ll help you.’ The next year, the same guy came up at the conference and asked what I was doing to get computers to kids in developing countries. My parents were then teaching in rural Mexico, and I suggested we start there.

“My role is pulling interested people together and getting the synergy going. Helping other people realize their dream is just one of the benefits of saying, ‘Yes, let’s work on that.’ For that non-profit – Kids on Computers - the big win is getting tech to kids in rural areas.”

Peters models her leadership style after her first manager at HP. He told her his job was to make her successful, then asked what she needed to be more successful. “I told him, ‘fewer meetings,’ and he said, ‘OK.’ Then he went to my meetings for me. I've always remembered that lesson and strived to give the people doing the work the space to achieve awesome things.”

She is excited about the opportunities for awesome outcomes at Microsoft, which is making open source software a priority across the company. Peters said the cultural shift allows individuals more freedom to create projects around open source or incorporate open source in existing programs. At the same time, the open source community itself is evolving.

Peters said, “The problems we are solving with open source software are now problems that are much bigger in scale than one person. Open source used to depend on the contributions of volunteers, but now companies are sponsoring much of that work.

“Many of our cloud computing solutions have been made possible by companies working together in open source. I think Microsoft is positioned to help individuals and companies achieve more through open source. We have a good understanding of open source policies, good compliance tools, and solid open source offerings through platforms like Azure.”

The compliance Peters mentioned involves the legal use and distribution of licensed, open source software. Instead of shelving their open source initiative because licensing was too difficult, Microsoft created compliance tools to incorporate those requirements.

Peters has already experienced wide-spread support for open source throughout Microsoft. “Everyone here would like to embrace open source, but some teams have achieved better outcomes in this regard than others,” she said.

“VSCode, TypeScript and .NET are groups that have been really successful, because they had people on their teams who said 'We are going to make this happen.' We can learn from their experiences as we continue to incorporate open source software best practices into the strategies of products like Windows and Office, which were created as proprietary software.

“Those may take longer to figure out, but everyone here has already been extremely helpful --so I know it is just a matter of time. Microsoft has been an awesome place to come work. Everyone wants to meet me and asks how they can connect me with others. I am really excited to be here.”