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Meet the New RIPE Chair - An Interview with Mirjam Kühne

Ulka Athale — 02 Oct 2020
Mirjam Kühne succeeded Hans Petter Holen as the RIPE Chair this September (although “the Internet” is yet to be handed over*). We caught up with her to chat about her long involvement with the RIPE community and ask her a few questions.
Could you tell us a about your involvement with the RIPE community over the years?

I studied computer science in Berlin at the Technical University and soon afterwards I got a job at the RIPE NCC in the early 1990s. We were about five or six employees at the time. My very first title was something like Junior Administrative Staff Member and it basically meant that I did a bit of everything. I looked after the mailbox and replied to general queries. The Internet grew quickly, and basically exploded, and we also grew in staff and members and our structure developed. I took on more responsibilities too - I was setting up the Registration Services department. The registry and database were being built. Over the years, I became responsible for our outward facing services like the RIPE Database, Registration Services and I set up the Communications department. We hired our first Communications Officer and built up the team. I then started the training services, we set up the first LIR Training Course with one of my colleagues. That colleague then went on to help set up APNIC. And then I also started working on External Relations and was one of the main faces for the community. I was also there to support the transition from Daniel Karrenberg, the first CEO of RIPE NCC to Axel Pawlik, who took over.

 Mirjam taking minutes - on paper - during an early RIPE Meeting (source: Peter Löthberg)

After I left the RIPE NCC, I worked at the Internet Society where I organised technical workshops for developing countries in collaboration with other Internet organisations like ICANN, the RIRs, NSRC and others to help engineers. I also worked very closely with the IETF. I set up a magazine for them – the IETF Journal – reporting from developments at the IETF. All this helped me to further expand my professional network. Then the RIPE NCC wanted to do more community building and started the RIPE Labs platform and they asked me if I would like to come back to set that up. So I became the Senior Community Builder at the RIPE NCC and I’ve been involved in many sub-communities like Computer Security Incident Respond Teams (CSIRTs), Network Operators Groups (NOGs), Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) and the IETF as well. Over the last few years I’ve also been one of the main contact persons for the RIPE Chair and I’ve been supporting Hans Petter Holen and liaising with him to ensure that he got the support that he needed from the RIPE NCC.

 

What led you to stand for the RIPE Chair nomination and then eventually accept the role?

To be honest, when people approached me some time ago, I went “Really? How is this going to work?”. I had very similar concerns to some people on the mailing lists – I’m working for the RIPE NCC, how is this going to work out? I would have to leave my job in order to take on the RIPE Chair role. Many said not to worry about it, but to let the Nomcom do their job of finding the best candidate and then figure it out (and this is what we had to do).

Since I got nominated, I realised that a lot of the tasks that the RIPE Chair needs to do, and the skills the Chair needs to have, I’ve developed over the years as a Community Builder. I’ve built a lot of relationships with people and learnt how to listen to different communities, so I feel like I’ve been prepared for this role.

 

The RIPE community is self-organising, so how do you see the role of a leader? What values do you think the RIPE Chair and Vice Chair stand for?

It’s a good question – I don’t see the RIPE Chair as ‘the leader’ of the community. It’s a facilitating role, to be a steward of the RIPE community. It’s such a diverse community (well it could be more diverse, we’ll get to that). It brings together so many different people with varying backgrounds, interests, countries, types of organisations and skill sets. I think it’s really important for the RIPE Chair and Vice Chair to listen well, be open, to engage with everyone, build consensus, to work with people and respect people with different backgrounds and opinions. It’s a community with shared goals and principles and not just a bunch of individuals. The RIPE Chair can help guide the community along without injecting too much of their own opinions in there. That’s the balance the RIPE Chair and Vice Chair have to strive for, to guide the community to make sure it’s a strong community and stick to its own principles and values.

 

There’s been a lot of community introspection recently, and you’ve also seen the community evolve over the years. Do you see any noteworthy trends or developments within the RIPE community?

I think the good thing is that the RIPE community has always been open to new ideas and initiatives. Sometimes there are BoFs and informal discussions that are one-offs and don’t go anywhere. In other cases, a BoF becomes a Working Group or Task Force, or there are more discussions about a topic like IoT, automation or sustainability in networking. It’s good that the RIPE community stays open to new ideas that come along. On the other hand, I think it’s great that there were so many new people who joined in for the Virtual RIPE 80. This is really an opportunity for us to welcome newcomers and make sure that we’re open. We pride ourselves to be open, but we have to actively work on it to ensure that we are inclusive and welcoming to new people who are interested in IP networking and the work of the RIPE community.

 

Is there any change you would like to bring about in the coming five years?

First of all, the outgoing RIPE Chair Hans Petter has been handing over a list of ongoing activities. We’d like to continue the good work that he’s started, to follow in his footsteps. Obviously having a Chair and Vice Chair in itself is a change, and that will add or bring a different dynamic to things. High on our priority list is a review of the nominations process, and a review of the relationship between the RIPE NCC and the RIPE community, and the role that RIPE NCC staff can have or should have in the RIPE community. That might be introspective again, but I’m definitely happy to facilitate that discussion. Apart from that, the community is facing a number of challenges and changes such as increased security and health threats that it needs to respond to.

 

How do you plan to work with the new Vice Chair?

It’s the first time in a very long time that there is a Vice Chair, and I think it’s great to have two people. We haven’t exactly figured out how we’re going to split the work, but it’s good to know that we’re in this as a team. It’s not like the Vice Chair is just going to sit around, waiting to step in only if something happens to the Chair. Some discussions might be more suited for one person than another. It’s great that Niall and I complement each other. We approach things quite differently and have different backgrounds and that will hopefully be of value to the community.

Geoff Huston and Mirjam at RIPE 79 in Rotterdam

 

And one last question – what do you prefer – virtual or physical RIPE Meetings?

I haven’t really thought that through yet. I thought that with all the complications that we had, and the short notice, the RIPE NCC did a really great job of pulling everything together for RIPE 80. And RIPE 81 is also going to be a virtual meeting. 

There are pros and cons for both. I totally understand that a virtual meeting cannot emulate everything that a physical meeting offers. You could already see this in some of the interactions at RIPE 80, it’s not possible to have the same discussions and interactions as when you see the same people face to face. We might still be able to facilitate that more on a virtual platform. Personally, I hope to have some physical meetings again in the future and not just the RIPE Meetings. I miss meeting people, hanging out, all the hallway chats. However, it’s still important to have a good virtual platform to facilitate all the people who cannot or do not want to travel and to help them participate in a similar way. They should not be second class citizens if they cannot be physically present.

Mirjam and Niall took over from Hans Petter Holen on 1 September 2020.

You can follow Mirjam on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MirjamKuhne

*Wondering what we mean by "handing over the Internet"? Watch this video from RIPE 68! 

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