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Standing out in the crowd.
July 30, 2009 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Standing out in the crowd. Kirrily Robert's keynote from OSCON. She discusses diversity in opensource communities and projects.

Her follow up post links to some 'interesting' discussions.
posted by chunking express (20 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nobody likes change and it's usually a painful process.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:29 AM on July 30, 2009


I know that when I'm trying to make an important point about sexism, I always throw in pictures of Star Trek slash.

Also, the central thesis she seems to come up on is: open source projects don't have women because open source people are elitist jerks. Except, that's not sexism! At least, it's not sexism if that elitism is based on the condescension-for-all that coders have mastered, which seems to be the case.

Further, the two cited projects with hefty female involvement are fan-fiction and blogging related. Women code for things that women are interested in! For the most part, OSS projects are about things which do not garner much female interest, so why should it be surprising that they don't attract female coders? No number of diversity statements nor hand-holding IRC channels will change that fact. It's (perhaps) a problem with the culture at large, not with individual open source projects.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:30 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I should say that I'm not denying sexism in tech, but this was just an awful talk that doesn't really say anything directed or useful.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:34 AM on July 30, 2009


A previous mefi thread about one extremely bad demonstration of sexism in (one segment of) the open source community.
posted by ardgedee at 7:34 AM on July 30, 2009


For the most part, OSS projects are about things which do not garner much female interest, so why should it be surprising that they don't attract female coders?

Because, like the talk says, open source projects sometimes drive women away, so you have no way of even gauging the interest. I've known women who have no desire to put up with the bullshit that crops up on LKML, for instance, but that doesn't mean that women don't have an interest in kernel development.

Also, I should say that I'm not denying sexism in tech, but this was just an awful talk that doesn't really say anything directed or useful.

It wasn't a very good talk, true, but it keeps a discussion going that needs to happen. Up until the last few years, most of the discussion around sexism in computing was framed in the broader context of the tech industry as a whole. But it's important to bring it up specifically about open source projects, too.

If this leads to tech conferences banning scantily clad booth babes, I will be very happy. That shit is just demeaning to everyone.
posted by cmonkey at 7:56 AM on July 30, 2009


(not that I'm pointing to LKML as a hotbed of sexism - the bullshit there is of a different stripe)
posted by cmonkey at 7:57 AM on July 30, 2009


She had me, a female who's been involved with OSS since the 90s, until she gave an example in her comments about how a slide containing a naked woman will probably cause a woman to leave that presentations which then meant that woman was not put on a particular project which then led to that woman not being asked to go to conferences the next year which led to the woman being laid off with less job skills than the male developers. *facepalm*

Yes, there are fewer women in OSS than men. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there is a certain chest-thumping, domineering attitude amongst men in IT in general (not just OSS) and yes that can be daunting for n00bs and women alike. But, this was, and still is, true for a lot of other fields (like medicine for a nice non-IT example) and women since the 60s were able to carve their niche in male-dominated fields without whining about how a single slide that offended them caused them to leave a presentation that ultimately destroyed their life.

Does this discussion need to occur and need to occur often? Yes. Does it need the melodramatic bullshit that women are stereotypically associated with (whether in the presentation or the comments thereafter), IMHO no. Because at that point, men and the women who have been around the block a few times on this issue will more than likely tune out. And that's the real tragedy.
posted by gloege at 8:05 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Women code for things that women are interested in! For the most part, OSS projects are about things which do not garner much female interest.

You don't think that the 20% of women who are already in the tech industry are interested in things like web servers, operating systems, etc? I think you're helping make her point, no?
posted by chunking express at 8:07 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


cf. scott page's The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies...

oh and tyler cowen on cognitive neurodiversity :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 8:11 AM on July 30, 2009


If you’re working on a desktop app, recruit desktop users. If you’re writing a music sharing toolkit, recruit music lovers. Don’t worry about their programming skills. You can teach programming; you can’t teach passion or diversity.

Although I agree that this is a good idea in theory, programming skills are really what hold an open source project together. In my experience, most small open source projects consist of one or two guys who do almost all of the coding, and various other people who contribute minor things that help them use the app the way they want to. That's why open source projects die so quickly when one or two of the biggest contributors stop working on the project. And from those guys' perspective, novices aren't much of a help to the project because they just ask basic questions and request features that they can't actually help implement. In practice open source is more about putting the code out there for dedicated people to be able to use than it is about getting a big group of random people organized to share the load.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:29 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Don’t worry about their programming skills. You can teach programming; you can’t teach passion or diversity.

what

While I agree that having people who really understand and feel passionately about the product you're producing, you cannot "teach programming" to someone who doesn't know what they're doing, within an ongoing project, and hope to produce something decent on a reasonable timeline.

I've seen a lot of projects where there's a high ratio of passionate non-programmers to actual coders, and they usually degenerate into lots of people bitching and making pony requests to the coders, or generally criticizing the coders' work, and then the coders get fed up and leave, and you end up with a bunch of people who can't read code staring at a half-finished pile of source. Complete failure.

What you need to do is figure out how to make your idea, whatever it happens to be, interesting to a one or more really talented programmers. If you can get someone who's really good excited about a concept, chances are all you need to do is step back and get out of their way. If you can't — if your problem is one that you can't interest any developers in working on (in the case of a volunteer project because it's not interesting, or in the case of a commercial product, because it's not interesting and/or you're underpaying) — you're screwed. End of discussion. You can have as many passionate people as you want, and maybe you'll develop a nice pile of specifications and UI mockups, but you won't have a product.

This isn't to say that rockstar-ism should be tolerated to the point where it destroys a project (volunteer or commercial), but anyone who doesn't understand that developers are the center around which everything else in a software project must orbit is doomed to failure. I've seen it happen, more than once. Really good developers, the kind of people who can look at a problem and see elegant, efficient solutions where lesser developers just wouldn't see them, are worth their weight in gold, in some cases almost literally.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:21 AM on July 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


@kadin - You are missing the point somewhat. It's not that coding skill is unimportant, just that it shouldn't be the sole marker of how you are treated in the community. You shouldn't have to be a kernel hacker to participate.

FTA:
"Like AO3, Dreamwidth makes a point of encouraging new developers, who they call “baby devs”. For instance, there is an IRC channel called #dw-kindergarten where they can go for non-judgemental help. Dreamwidth also provides hosted development environments called “Dreamhacks” for anyone who wants them."

That's a great idea to get more people involved, help your Mel-type coders concentrate on the bigger issues, and generally make the community a more useful and friendlier place.


In my experience, most small open source projects consist of one or two guys who do almost all of the coding

This post seems to be a suggestion on how to change this.
posted by anti social order at 10:14 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


In my experience, most small open source projects consist of one or two guys who do almost all of the coding

This post seems to be a suggestion on how to change this.


I think that's pretty inherent to how software development works. If you want to have a small team of people work on a project, you need most of them to be extremely good at what they do, and there won't be much for people with limited or very specialized skills to do on such a project. If you want to include a lot of novices, you need to do a lot more work around teaching and planning things out for them and you'll need a much larger team. That's pretty much the way it's always been and there's not much anyone can do to change it.

An analogy would be that most bands have one or two extremely talented musicians who write the songs and contribute the most, and the rest of the band members need to have at least an average level of skill at playing their instruments. It wouldn't make any sense to add in a bunch of random people who like all kinds of different music but can't play, sing, or write songs to a band, because they would just get in the way. Sure, you could start a project where you take a bunch of non-musicians, teach them to play, and have them perform together, but that would never be the best way to create good music.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:38 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you want to include a lot of novices...

It's a shame her talk seemed to focus on this, because she glosses over the fact that there are actual real live women out there who aren't novices when it comes to software development, but who nevertheless don't get involved in opensource projects. I went to school with plenty of ladies who programmed just fine. One of the quotes from the article was, "I considered getting involved in Debian, but the barriers to entry seemed high." Do you think people interested in helping out with the Debian project are going to be clueless when it comes to software development?

Obviously very small open source projects are less likely to be diverse. The fact that gigantic projects aren't is kind of disappointing. Or it should be, anyway.
posted by chunking express at 10:54 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'll contribute my own n00b anecdata here. Wikipedia circa 2002, welcomed in, eventually became an admin. The first time I was ever welcomed into an open project, and I became a long-term contributor. Not one of the core team, but definitely useful.

Large open-source project, circa 2001. Submitted comment on a bug report, received form email saying that if I cared about the bug so much, I should wreite the patch or get lost.

I agree that large projects are often carried by a small cadre of uber-contributors, but telling newbies to get lost is probably not the most successful path. Having a welcoming attitude and providing a little guidance at the start makes it possible to find those latent uber programmers who haven't decided whether to commit to your project.
posted by zippy at 11:23 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm perversely entertained by the "interesting" discussion, specifically Randy Schwartz's defense of his behavior. He's not "crazy" about Hooters, he's only visited them hundreds of times & considered opening his own franchise. And his personal attacks on his ex are nothing short of disturbing. Stay classy, Randy.
posted by scalefree at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2009


wreite -> write. ObNerd: I blame my rooted linux-based phone.
posted by zippy at 11:26 AM on July 30, 2009


Glad you link the 'interesting' link. I thought that discussion was too awesome not to point out. It's thoroughly bizarre. If you keep reading he eventually apologizes for being a dick. Sort of.
posted by chunking express at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2009


she glosses over the fact that there are actual real live women out there who aren't novices when it comes to software development, but who nevertheless don't get involved in opensource projects.

What? Her talk was about why most of the women in tech fields have nothing to do with OSS and how to recruit them. Presumably these are people that are new to OSS projects, not to technology. She goes on to detail why (rampant sexism, exclusion of outsiders). Then points to two different successful projects with high diversity (one a LJ fork, the other a fair-use fandom & slashfic thing).

I guess people have to decide if actually supporting and growing the OSS movement and community is as important as making a free widget that does X Y & Z functions.


I'm perversely entertained by the "interesting" discussion, specifically Randy Schwartz's defense of his behavior.

"Randy Schwartz" acts like a horny cock. that's eponi-something.
posted by anti social order at 12:00 PM on July 30, 2009


zippy: "Wikipedia circa 2002, welcomed in, eventually became an admin...

Large open-source project, circa 2001... received form email saying that if I cared about the bug so much, I should wreite the patch or get lost.
"

I think we're comparing apples and oranges a bit here. Wiki's, at their core, are a website anyone can edit (Wikipedia is, at least. Other wikis, not so much). In contrast, not everyone seems to be able to edit source code, and something of a power imbalance emerges. Granted, some of this power is grabbed by the project -- most projects start from a position of a small selection of committers, while Wikipedia allows nearly anonymous edits.

Or, to draw an analogy, filing a bug report without a patch is a bit like claiming a Wikipedia article isn't NPOV, and demanding the original author fix it. Then getting angry when asked what exactly should be changed. I won't defend your specific complaint, as sometimes people are unreasonable dicks. And sometimes you can file a bug report and get a reasonable response.

But there's also a class of bug report I'd label that gets labelled "pony request" or "bikeshedding". Sometimes people even write these angrily, dripping with insults about how developers are stupid for publishing software with a bug in it. I've seen even people who should know better behave that way, and it's never productive.

Even in the article (I can't watch it yet, wifi is crapping out), there's an expectation to teach and learn programming. I think it's a bit unfair to expect OSS to solve the education gap, but I suppose that's what its come to. At any rate, I don't think they or you would be better served if the reply would have been:
"Thanks for report. Let's fix this bug together. First learn Python enough to write an adventure game, then we'll cover debugging and stack traces. Finally, we'll review the 20k lines of code for all places where that might be calling that failure."
posted by pwnguin at 9:55 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


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