Interview with Ken Starks
It’s fairly common knowledge that if anyone on the planet eats, drinks and breathes Free/Open Source Software, it’s Ken Starks. A tireless advocate for FOSS and Linux, Starks is the poster boy for walking the FOSS walk after talking the talk. In the Austin, Texas, area he provides underpriviliged kids with Linux boxes through the HeliOS Project, which takes donated hardware, refurbishes them and gives them to needy children in the Austin area.
Starks had overcome a cancer diagnosis in the past, but he is now engaged in fighting a new battle with throat and neck cancer. While the HeliOS Project is the sum of its parts, Starks is the voice and face of the organization he founded. With a health condition possibly sidelining him for the time being – and possibly longer – this interview provides the most current information on his medical situation, and also provide a report on the direction of the HeliOS Project going forward.
In this interview, we take a look at where Starks and HeliOS has been, where it is now, and where it’s going.
Q: Let’s go back to the beginning and bring us up to where we are today at HeliOS Solutions. How much of an impact has The HeliOS Project made in the Austin area?
Ken Starks: Statistically, we have placed just under 1,500 computers to underpriviledged kids since 2005. Over-all impact is honestly hard to measure. Sure we can give the tools to build but how many use them to their full potential? We are just not big enough or funded enough to track that info with any science. However, If the weekly feedback we get from our kid’s parents us any indication, we can measure ate least some empirical evidence of an increase in both math and reading skills.
Outside of cold, hard statistics though, you really need to take into account that “aha” moment. That moment when a child glimpses the possibilities at their fingertips. I cannot measure that Larry, and I don’t think anyone can. Still,that does not make it unimportant.
Q: You’ve won local awards, you helped organize the Lindependence Project a few years ago, and you’ve keynoted last year’s Texas Linux Fest. You’ve had a very busy few years recently.
KS: Thanks for noticing and it really was accidental notice. I take some pride in being awarded The Dewey Winburne Community award more than anything but the rest of it has been fun, too … but onward. Laurels wear out quickly in this business and resting upon them just crushes them to the ground.
Q: The HeliOS Project is all about providing Linux boxes to kids. Can you explain how the concept of providing children with technology resonates with people and why it’s a necessary goal for HeliOS?
KS: It’s really the only goal for HeliOS, Larry. When I first got involved with this project, it was something to do while I healed from a work-related injury. But when I began placing the computers, and seeing the huge “digital divide,” it rang a clear, concise and commanding bell within me
Q: Over the years, you and the HeliOS Project team have grown the project to where it stands today. In large part, the project has flourished under your leadership. How does this change with your current health condition?
KS: It leaves much unanswered, Larry, and to this point we’ve always had a pool of great volunteers to rally and help us get the job done. However, out of all of them, should I have to step aside for any period of time, I can’t think of anyone that could take a full lead position. I’m not saying that it’s that hard, but if you have other things pulling you in other directions, you are not always going to be focused where the project needs you.
I was in the hospital for just under two weeks and in that time, we have fallen 20-some installs behind, we have received machines for donation that are just lying about without triage and our landscape has grown to jungle proportions outside of our facility. I am amazed the City of Taylor hasn’t contacted us. I am receiving both chemotherapy and radiation Treatments and to be honest, Larry, I am mostly dead inside. I just don’t have the energy to
go from the bed to the bathroom until I can complete this treatment. And hopefully, we will kill this frickin’ monster forever.
Hopefully, we can gather a small pool of volunteers to go do the installs but if not, it’s just going to have to wait until I can get better. Honestly, the last thing I want people to imagine is that HeliOS is languishing.
Q: Is there a real chance of that, Ken? Languishing, or worse?
KS: Larry, I think so. When you have a project who’s vision and dream are guided by one person, then if that person disappears, the void takes its toll. Again, I don’t know anyone that is in the position to step in and take it over. It is an unpaid position at this point and even with some upcoming funding, the Facility Administrator job will pay tops of 28K. I can work for that but most people can’t or won’t. I do have some very real concerns over HeliOS lasting this health problem. I have to balance my life right now with the needs of the project and the demands on my health.
Q: You mention upcoming. How are you funded now?
KS: Except for donations and things we sell through the HeliOS eBay store, I pay for most stuff out of pocket and and then request reimbursement if there is any money in the SPI donation fund. I work small contracts to pay my bills. If there is money in the donations fund, I submit for reimbursement. The biggest problem I have now is that I lost two working contracts while in the hospital due to lack of my ability to go forward with the work. That’s going to prove to be a big short term problem but hopefully, we will get by this with a little help and we can move along.
I’ve come to the community often in the five years we’ve needed help, and once before when my health was bad. And to be honest with you, I’m not real comfortable with doing so now so verbally, I won’t. It’s just where I/we are at the moment. I have no doubt that if I can regain my health, we can get back on track again. And to be honest Larry … I’ve had a full, interesting life, full of things from all sides of life’s spectrum, both good and bad, innocent and evil, and as I come to realize that my life’s clock may actually be showing the last quarter, the most I could ask for is another five years of productivity so I can make HeliOS a self-surviving entity.
If you care to, you can contact Ken at his prime mover email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)