Openness in OSS communities at CoreOS Fest Berlin

I was part of a very interesting session at CoreOS Fest Berlin today. The folks from CoreOS will prepare a proper blog post highlighting results of the discussion, but I wanted to write down some of my own impressions from the session. Apart from that, the thought process that led us to the chosen format might sound interesting to some.

This was the description of the session:

Join Marta Paciorkowska, DevOps at Acrolinx, Matthew Garrett, Principal Security Engineer at CoreOS, and Meghan Schofield, Product Designer at CoreOS for an interactive conversation about how to provide more openness and inclusiveness in open source. Marta, Matthew and Meghan will share the necessity of this conversation and will help brainstorm a measurable plan to help increase diversity in open source.

We were wondering how to make this particular event memorable for its participants. Our conclusion was that there is a lot of material online on why it is important to improve diversity in tech communities. These are widely accessible in the form of blog posts, articles, conference talks, and so on. We decided to focus on the how by engaging the conference participants – members of the community around CoreOS – into thinking what actions would they find feasible, realistic, most useful.

After a short introduction we shared a few stories of how a few communities improved their diversity and also one-two examples from our own lives on how a lack of openness combined with the habit of making assumptions about people can be discouraging. The focus of the discussion, though, was developing a set of ideas from participants in a way that they don’t feel pushed to participate (not everyone will feel comfortable sharing their ideas in front of people they don’t know) and that they don’t need to “censor” their ideas, if you will, meaning that idealistic, small, and big solutions should all be written down. I guess it was a classical brainstorming session. :) We distributed post-its and sharpies and gave people a few minutes to write down their ideas. After that we collected them, grouped them by sticking them on a wall and discussed them. It was amazing that even more ideas appeared during the discussion! Meghan and Matthew collected all of them and an in-depth idea list should appear in the near future.

Some of the ideas have already been implemented in a lot of other communities, but others seemed to not be popular.

I liked that we focused not only on women in IT – a lot of stress was put on engaging beginners; we also talked about people from varying age groups and non-programmers: because designers, translators, writers might also want to get involved in OSS, and a focus on programming skills might make them feel that they have nothing to contribute.

I am very happy with the session and I could see the participants looked happy, we heard a “thank you” here and there. It’s heartwarming to see a community that tries to actively improve itself.

By the way – if you don’t count Meghan and me – the remaining 12-15 people were all men of varying age. Now, after the discussion was over, one participant expressed concerns that having an all-male audience talking about women’s issues without women being there wasn’t the best idea. But first of all, two out of three people facilitating the activity were women; second of all, the initial idea came from an email discussion between three women; thirdly, it was not a discussion just about women’s issues, because that’s not the only axis that lots of tech communities could work ok. And – what I honestly consider the most important – all the participants had their own ideas and had a chance to see that they can do something to improve the situation. Like I mentioned before, there are countless materials on discrimination available on the Internet and our participants were most probably at least vaguely aware of the problems. Improving openness and fairness in tech communities should not be the work of underrepresented groups. I do think their/our input is essential, but burdening them/us with fixing a problem that’s not their/our fault is not really fair.

I am excited to see what CoreOS decides to do next.

PS. Earlier that day I was looking around booths when one person from a monitoring company approached me to pitch their product to me. He did not ask what I do, he didn’t ask if I’m marketing, QA, design – I felt he assumed he’s talking with an engineer/developer. I was wearing a dress and jewelry – I definitely didn’t fit the nerd stereotype – so I was (positively) shocked when we ended talking. It was a refreshing experience to hear a guy say “I’m only doing marketing… so I can’t get into the technical details”. It’s funny (and sad at the same time, I guess) that I consider an experience that should be perfectly normal to be a positive change that’s worth mentioning in a blog post.