Outreachy Internship Blog Series: Understanding GNOME

When I first encountered GNOME, I struggled a lot with understanding what it was. This was during the Outreachy contribution phase, and its description included the term “desktop environment”.

At the time I had no idea what a desktop environment was. While developing skills in user experience design, I learned that a digital product could be an application, a website, or something in between: a web app. However, I didn’t realize it could also be a desktop environment, because I was oblivious to the notion of a desktop environment being a distinct component of an operating system.

Nonetheless, I braced myself for the journey ahead and took the first steps towards contributing to this design-driven project that I knew nothing about.

And So It begins!

It didn’t take long into my search for me to realize that I was a complete novice in the world of computers as understanding GNOME required me to be familiar with it.

I had begun my quest for understanding with a quick Google search for “desktop environment”, this led me to answers that intensified my confusion, prompting further questions that developed as follows:

What is an operating system? What is a computer? What are the core computer software? What are the functions of an operating system? What is Linux? Why do Linux distributions exist instead of a single Linux operating system? And so on…

By the end of my search, I knew a lot more than I did at the start, but I still lacked a satisfying understanding of what GNOME was. To make things worse, I also couldn’t tell what I was missing.

My research had revealed that GNOME, in some ways, transcended the definitions I’d found for a desktop environment, but it was also not an operating system. And yet, you could run GNOME OS independently in a virtual machine. So, what was it? A family of products? A desktop environment? Or a quasi-operating system?

Finding Answers

The entire time, I was reluctant to seek help from the mentors. I thought the subject of my confusion was too basic to bring to their attention. This, and a fear of appearing inadequate. Instead, I buried myself in more research hoping to somehow figure things out on my own, only returning to the channel intermittently to check for instructions and updates.

Yet, it was during one of these brief returns to the matrix channel that something unexpected caught my attention.

Upon close observation, some of the questions and comments on the channel revealed that I wasn’t the only one unsure about what GNOME was, and the mentors, having picked up on it, were responding insightfully to the questions behind the questions being asked.

I found my missing piece in one of these responses, and just like that, this comment flipped a switch and connected the dots in a manner that put things in the right perspective for me.

Armed with this new-found clarity, I was able to revisit my notes from earlier research and properly answer my discovery questions about GNOME.

The Lessons

I came out of this experience with a few solid realizations that continue to shape my perspective on embracing new challenges.

Firstly, I recognized that I was getting in my own way. Feeling insecure about my struggles was keeping me stuck, to the extent that I might have given up on making contributions to this project, save for the courage of a peer who could ask for help when they needed it.

Secondly, I learned that struggling is a natural part of growth and something that everyone experiences. It really isn’t something to be insecure about.

Thirdly, I realized that I was in an enabling community. The mentors anticipated that we would need help in different areas and their focus was on helping us get to a place where we could make the contributions that we wanted to. Watching their interactions with my peers dissipated my fears, and I’ve never hesitated to ask for help since then.

My Understanding of GNOME

My understanding of GNOME has evolved considerably since that first encounter and continues to deepen.

I now understand GNOME as an ecosystem that provides an inclusive, free, user-friendly computing experience for computers and devices powered by the Linux kernel.

From a technical point of view, this means that it is both the GUI and its interactions (i.e. how the operating system looks and feels), the programs and applications that constitute the computing experience, and the stacks that make if possible for distros to integrate and customize this computing experience.

I sadly cannot fit all that I’ve learned about GNOME in this blog post. However, you can visit the official GNOME website to learn more about the software and discover its powerful features and intuitive desktop experience.

It’s a gratifying thing to witness one’s own growth. And I am deeply grateful for the guidance of the mentors, the platforms (Outreachy and GNOME), and the cultural factors within these platforms that have enabled this particular one.

Thank you for reading!


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