Interview with Leslie Hawthorn of Elasticsearch

Elasticsearch director tells us how the magic happens

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Leslie Hawthorn is a well known figure in open source and chances are you've heard or attended one of her talks. To name a few:

Prior to her talk at the All Things Open conference, coming up in October this year, I asked her a few questions about her passion for open source and community management. In this interview, Leslie discusses big data, Elasticsearch, and more.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how you got introduced to open source?

I'm the Director of Developer Relations at Elasticsearch Inc, the company behind the open source ELK stack. I've been actively working in the open source world for just under the past decade, including creating the Google Code In contest, managing its sister program, Google Summer of Code, for several years and leading Red Hat's Community Engineering team. I even did a stint in academia at Oregon State University's truly phenomenal Open Source Lab. During that time, I've also volunteered for a number of open source projects and foundations, including serving on the Board of Directors for the Open Source Initiative and the Sahana Software Foundation.

I was introduced to open source nearly 15 years ago by a friend when I asked him what that foot thing was bouncing around on his screen saver. He then explained what GNOME was and what open source software was. I was hooked immediately; the philosophy and methodology made perfect sense to me. It took awhile for it to become the focus of my career, but it's been an incredibly rewarding path.

What’s your secret? How do you find time and energy to be a community manager at Elasticsearch, travel the globe to visit and speak at open source events, and sit on several boards?

It's all powered by love!

Seriously though, I choose projects that I am passionate about and teams I am passionate about working with, then I just find the time to make things happen. It's worth noting that my employer values my community contributions, which means it's easy for me to move fluidly between my various responsibilities. There's no context switch since it's all in the open source world.

I suppose the most valuable thing I have to say here is some sage advice I got from an old friend: "If you want to get something done, ask a busy person." I'm a busy person.

You have been into open source community management for almost a decade now. What’s it like being a community manager, what does a day ‘at the office’ look like?

That's a tough question. One of the reasons I love this role so much is how varied day to day life is. Days actually in the office are a mix of content generation and executing on community outreach initiatives, interspersed with the usual calls, meetings, and air flight traffic control. (We're a globally distributed organization, and I love helping our teams stay abreast of what's going on so we collaborate most effectively.)

Days on the road are a mix of giving talks, having meetings with various open source projects, and helping to nurture the Elasticsearch community in real life. Sometimes that’s visiting a user group or distributing heartfelt thanks and hugs for community contributions. Handshakes are also available, whatever your preference.

Why do you think open source technologies are vital to big data challenges, as it says in the excerpt of your talk for All Things Open?

I'll try to be brief, because the answer to that question could fill several talks. Simply put, very large, data driven companies, e.g. Amazon, Google or Facebook, have built their success atop incredibly powerful analytics engines, allowing them to best understand their users' behavior and use that information to improve their products and business processes.

View the complete All Things Open speaker interview series

With the proliferation of open source big data tools, there's a democratization of the power of big data; any organization can use open source tools to get these fine grained insights into each aspect of their business, from each user click on their website to machine utilization metrics.

We're just now getting to the exciting times where we're moving beyond big data tools that are most useful to these huge organizations—let's not forget that Apache Hadoop was created to meet the needs of Yahoo—to tools that can meet the needs of a small start up, but still effectively scale up and effectively when said start up grows up to be a large enterprise.

How does the Elasticsearch ELK stack meet today’s challenges in big data and analytics?

We’re obviously very proud of the fact that we’re an open source company. We offer developers a wide variety of choice in language clients for Elasticsearch, so it’s easy for them to speak to our search & analytics engine in their language of choice. We’ve also got an open, RESTful API that makes it easy to build applications on top of our stack. Our stack can process both structured and unstructured data, so you can derive insights from log files to Tweets to plain old CSV files, all in near real-time. Best of all, you can ingest data from all these disparate sources easily into Logstash, then search and analyze across all of these types of data with Elasticsearch, visualizing the results using Kibana. Our stack makes these insights available to anyone in your organization through Kibana’s dashboards, which are shareable and don’t require programming know-how to use effectively.

These features – plus many more - make the ELK stack so flexible that it meets the big data challenges of a wide variety of verticals. One of our customers is a major financial company using the ELK stack to do anomaly detection and root out credit card fraud. Another of our customers uses ELK to perform analytics and sentiment analysis across social media data. Yet another customer uses ELK to detect hacking on their networks, and yet another for full-text search across e-commerce sites with billions of entries. The possibilities really are endless.

You have seen open source evolve, including communities, adoption rates, and and reach into the enterprise. Where do you see open source 5 or 10 years from now?

"Software is eating the world, and open source is eating software."

Enterprises that are engaged in project communities now will deepen their investments where it increases their competitive advantage. More and more enterprises will begin contributing software patches, financial resources, and human power back to the open source projects they consume I don’t feel like that’s news, though, when even Disney has a GitHub page.

I think the more interesting impact of open source in the next decade won’t have anything to do with source code but rather its impact on human processes. As more organizations use open source software and interact with open source communities, I think we'll see more defaulting to open within companies, breaking down silos between departments, and encouraging more cross-pollination.

Can you give our readers a sneak peek into your talk for All Things Open? Maybe some advice you will share for open source community managers?

Celebrate and measure your successes early and often. Measuring ROI on community matters can be a difficult process, but I'll show off some of the data we collect at Elasticsearch to measure the health of our community and the impact of our community efforts on our business.

See the full series of All Things Open 2014 speaker interviews.



Thanks for the interview Robin. I watched some of her videos and presentations and one thing I still remember she said: "on top of data we have science". That's great as normally people either have "data" or "science" exclusively. That's impressive she used both.

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Thanks for the articles Robin

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