Mark Shuttleworth, engineer and entrepreneur, founder of Canonical Ltd.

«Space unlocks people's imaginations, about what is possible, about how they can push back the frontiers of exploration»

  • Elkarrizketa

First publication date: 02/03/2017

Mark Shuttleworth is known primarily for being the founder of the company Canonical Ltd, which has developed various products related to free software, in particular the well-known distribution of Linux Ubuntu, and other projects geared towards the average user. He also became the world's second space tourist in 2002, when he participated in a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Mark Shuttleworth being interviewed. Photo: Tere Ormazabal. UPV/EHU

Recently, the School of Engineering in Bilbao has gathered together nearly 200 experts from around the world at a conference of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). "Mark actively participated on the board as one more developer, discussing technical aspects with other participants," said Eduardo Jacob, organizer of the meeting. We had a relaxed interview with him, during which we got to know his way of understanding the development and advances that make open work possible.

You are just 44, and you have had a really meteoric career. What helped you to rise so fast?
I hope that doesn't mean I'm crashing to the ground! I have just always been interested in how the world is changing. And so I've always tried to be part of changes that are interesting. And I have been very lucky with some of the opportunities that have presented to me, and which I took advantage of.
On your trip as a space tourist, were you more a tourist or an engineer? Did you contribute anything to that mission?
Sure, I am always an engineer, and I am always a scientist. So, I brought 4 experiments, associated with physiology, protein crystallization and metabolism.  It was very interesting to be part of a science program like that. And so a big issue for me was getting lots of people excited by the Earth and excited by space. Space unlocks people's imaginations, about what is possible, about how they can push back the frontiers of exploration.

Let's move on to the openness philosophy. This philosophy goes far beyond the mere development of open source software. To what extent does it influence your company?
The company behind Ubuntu seats right in the middle of the ladder in this respect, because we both need other people's open work, and we enable more open work in an effective way.  At the end of the day, we can unlock a tremendous amount of innovation by making sure that ideas can flow very, very quickly. Historically, the only people who could influence the tools that we use every day were those working for the companies that made those tools. What is effective about open work is that if you want to change what is possible, you can do it from anywhere. And that is very important.  At university, and in science, for example, knowing that science moves faster when it is open is something that goes back a long way in time.

Open source software has changed the world. Did you imagine in 2004 it could see the spread it has achieved today?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I was convinced that this approach to software would make more innovation possible. No, in the sense that I couldn't predict the kinds of innovation. Today, we are having a conversation about telecommunications. 
I think the very exciting frontiers right now are the public clouds, where the platforms that everybody uses can be made ready for us. But at the other end of the spectrum is the internet of things; most facts are in the internet of things now. And we want to innovate in that area, and we want to create business around that.

Open source software reaches everyone. Linux, however, is limited to advanced users. Can Linux be used by people in schools, at home?
Linux helps people who want to innovate. Similarly, physics is indispensable for developing devices, but you don't have to be a physicist to use them. Now, with regard to schools, the question we must ask ourselves is this: Do we want people who can do a Prezi, and a Power Point presentation, or do we want to train people who can innovate? If we want to train people who can innovate in technology, we have to get them into a position in which they can change on a daily basis. So really that is the choice. If we feel like we want to create leaders in technology, we must give them the tools to lead.

When people buy an electronic device, do you think they pay attention to whether the software that runs it is open source or not?
Yes, I think at the end of the day, people are motivated by what they want to do, and so you should always focus on helping people do things they are interested in. As a scientist and as an engineer, I think open source is very important. As a user, I think engineers shouldn't forget that it has to be useful and easy to use.

And is it also important to convince the manufacturers about the devices?
They tend to be pretty pragmatic. They use open source wherever it works, wherever it sells, wherever it's useful. And I think that's perfect, I think that's fine.
These days I am attending a conference that is being hosted at the university, and the conference is focusing on the standardization and creation of telecommunications technology: how to enable telecom operators to be much more flexible in their operations. So that telecommunications can improve more rapidly.

It is not very usual for a university to participate in or to host these kinds of meetings. What do you think about that?
I think it is an opportunity for students to pay attention to things that are happening in the industry, and also it helps industry to get away from some of its commercial pressures, and focus again on things that are more academic and intellectual, on what is possible. And I am pleased and very grateful that the university is hosting the meeting.

Should this kind of participation be a natural evolution in the research done at university?
I think generally research that is grounded in real problems and aims to produce things that can be products is an important discipline. And I think engineers derive particular benefit from that. I think you should make engineering students see their time at university as an opportunity to think commercially and freely. I think engineering must be a commercial exercise. But also an opportunity to think freely, by not be bound by the immediate constraints of a particular product for a customer.

How would you encourage young people to choose a career in Telecommunications Engineering?
It is difficult, because the future is unpredictable. I think if they want to influence change, they must know that change is influenced by technology. Even as far as society is concerned. Society changes because we find better ways of expressing broadly what we would like to be. So, for better or worse, Twitter, Facebook are societal changes. Also those things in society are attractive because of technology. People should do what they like, what they are interested in. Whatever people do, they should to be ambitious, not be afraid of pressure. I don't think people are ambitious enough, and that is the problem (laughing).