Behind the Scenes with Owen Taylor


This is an archive copy of Paul Cutler’s interview of Owen Taylor, maintainer of GNOME Shell and Sysadmin team member. Owen talks about how he became involved with GNOME, GNOME’s recent Git migration, and the GNOME Shell project. The article was originally published on July 1, 2009 by The GNOME Journal.

Short Intro

Age: 35
Located in: Waltham, Massachusetts, USA. (near Boston)
Profession: Software Developer
Nickname on IRC: owen
Homepage and blog:


In what ways do you contribute to GNOME?

I’m currently leading the GNOME Shell project. I act as a Red Hat contact point for the GNOME servers hosted at Red Hat, and also pick up various sysadmin projects when time allows, like the recent migration from SVN to Git. In the past, I’ve been a GNOME board member and chairman, as well as the maintainer of GTK+ and Pango.

How and when did you get involved in GNOME?

I was doing work on GTK+ and the GIMP before I started at Red Hat in 1998. I tried compiling an early version of GNOME, but it really didn’t do much: It was pretty much just a gray bar at the bottom of the screen with a clock on it. So, I went back to working on GTK+. After I started at Red Hat, I became more involved with GNOME; we had a big push to get GNOME 1.0 out the door, and to make it something we could ship with Red Hat Linux 6.0.

What motivates/keeps you motivated to work on GNOME?

After 11 years, the inertia is pretty strong… More seriously, GNOME provides a great opportunity for having a big impact. You make a change within GNOME, and it’s going to end up on millions of desktops. With that multiplier, even the smallest change adds up to a significant improvement to the world’s computing experience. (Assuming that the change is for the better; we only make changes for the better, right?)

You are currently working on GNOME Shell. How would you describe what GNOME Shell is? How is it different for a user from today’s GNOME experience?

GNOME Shell is a replacement for the parts of GNOME that go “around” the applications; it takes over the application launching, window management, and task switching roles currently provided by Metacity. Part of GNOME Shell is simply a refresh of the visual experience; taking advantage of the capabilities of today’s graphics processors to provide an attractive, clean, and smoothly animated user experience. But GNOME Shell goes beyond that to rethink some of the fundamental usage patterns; how can we provide a workflow that assists the user in efficiently moving between different tasks, rather than making them do busy-work to manage their files and applications? How should the desktop be different if the user is spending most of their time in the web browser and chat program, rather than in word processor documents and spreadsheets?

GNOME Shell is being developed in JavaScript. What advantages does developing in JavaScript bring?

One obvious advantage of JavaScript is that a lot of people are familiar with it from the web. But maybe even important for us was the fact that JavaScript has a very limited built-in library. That might sound like a disadvantage rather than an advantage, but GNOME already has a rich platform: the GNOME libraries, which are available to JavaScript code via gobject-introspection. Avoiding duplication reduces overhead and developer confusion.

What is the release plan for GNOME Shell?

GNOME Shell won’t officially be part of GNOME 2.28 but we’re going to have a preview release that is coordinated with the GNOME 2.28 release. Our goal for that is have a something that works well for day-to-day use so we can try it out with a broad spectrum of users trying it out and have real-world data about what works and what doesn’t prior to GNOME 3.0.

How can developers get involved with GNOME Shell?

GNOME Shell is really easy to build and try out: we have a self-contained “jhbuild” that allows building gnome-shell and all the modules it depends on with just a few commands. Build instructions are at At the same place, there is background about the design of the shell, and suggestions for easy introductory projects. You don’t have to be a coder to join the project. If you are a graphic artist, if you have a talent for working through the details of a user-interface design, if you’d like to help with end-user testing, there’s a need for that as well. If you want to chat or hang out and see what’s going on, you can find us on the #gnome-shell channel of

You recently helped with GNOME’s migration from SVN to Git. What went well? What was the most challenging part?

What went well is that we’re migrated over now, it seems to be working smoothly, and I think people are settling in and learning the ins and outs of Git. I definitely find it makes a big difference to the efficiency of my day-to-day work as compared to SVN.

The really challenging part was dealing with all the obscure things that had been done to GNOME svn repositories. Because SVN is very free form, you can do do all sorts of things to a SVN repository that aren’t really tags, or branches, or anything else that you can represent in easily Git. So, Kristian Høgsberg had to go through and figure out individually some sort of handling for these cases and make our conversion tools do that.


Favorite food?

My personal domain ‘’ gives a clue to one of my favorite foods. Give me a bowl of hot spicy broth teaming with different types of seafood, and I’m pretty much in heaven.

Favorite band or song?

How about a favorite fiddle tune composer? One of the things I do in my spare time is play traditional Irish music on the fiddle, and of the tunes that I come back to again and again, a disproportionate share seem to be by Ed Reavy, who was born in County Cavan, but spent most of his life in Philadelphia.

Favorite vacation spot or place to visit?

About 10 miles south of where I live, there’s a park (or “reservation” in local terminology) called the Blue Hills, which is a pretty nice place to go off and hike for a couple of hours. There are some excellent views over the city and Boston harbor, but once you get away from a few popular spots, you can also have the trails pretty much to yourself.