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The Evolution of Evolution: Steady Progress - page 5

Obtaining Evolution

  • December 4, 2000
  • By Michael Hall
A lot of what will make Evolution resonate with new users coming from the Microsoft world and more experienced users who are fond of the power they have with traditional UNIX mail tools will be how easily rather complex mail management tasks can be handled. With procmail, for instance, all the power's there, but a copy of Mastering Regular Expressions comes in handy and represents a body of knowledge many newbies won't want to deal with. The ease of use comes from good interface design, and that's where people like Helix Code's Anna Dirks come in.

Dirks works as a User Interface Engineer at the company, where she spends her days working out the best ways for users to deal with their computers. She's been involved with all three projects Helix Code has worked on to date: Evolution, Red Carpet, and Gnumeric.

According to Dirks, her primary responsiblity is to ensure that the user interface of software Helix Code turns out is "consistent, neat, clean, and usable."

To that end, she's contributed to several elements of Evolution's design, ensuring that keyboard shortcuts, dialog boxes and the software's search interface were consistent not only within the program itself, but with established GNOME practices across the project.

UI design, according to Dirks, sometimes suffers in the free software world for the simple reason that one of its bedrocks, consistency, is hard to come by:

"The GNOME desktop gets a huge amount of UI engineering ideas from all over the world," she says, noting that in addition to the many ideas about how to make software interact with users, hackers simply "think about the functionality of the code in a different way," which sometimes causes them to place other considerations over the needs of inexperienced end-users.

Dirks has an interesting set of tools with which to approach the far-flung community of GNOME hackers, too. She graduated from MIT with three degrees: Electrical Engineering, Creative Writing and Womens' Studies. Her programming background includes Scheme, LISP, and Java, and she professes some knowledge of a few other languages.

It was while she was programming with Java and developing user interfaces for an online stock trading company in San Francisco that she came to the decision to start working on Free Sofware:

"The work I was doing there was socially worthless," she says, though her initial interest in Linux was sparked by simply needing to figure out how to make the sound work on the Linux workstations at her job. She says that the personable and unaffected tone of the Linux community she discovered as she went about tracking down the solution to her problem resonated with her. No stranger to Free Software, owing to her years at MIT, she decided she wanted to work on it for a living.

She dropped the job in San Francisco, got a job with Helix Code, and settled in to work among friends. Both Nat Friedman, Helix Code's President, and Dan Winship, a hacker at the company whose work figures prominently in Evolution's Camel back-end, knew her from their time together at MIT. And at the "other GNOME company," Eazel, Rebecca Schulman, another schoolmate, is working on Medusa--a critical component of Nautilus.

Dirks says there are several ways to value the work she does with Helix Code. In addition to contributing to Free Software, she says her position as Helix Code's only female engineer provides her with interesting leadership opportunities too valuable to pass up.

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