If She Can Do It, I Can Too

Leslie Hawthorn has just made another huge career change and will begin life as a consultant shortly after speaking on FOSS mentoring in Turkey and accepting an award from the National Center for Open Source and Education. Oh yes, and some vacation. :)

You can find her on identi.ca and Twitter.

A little over four years ago, I made a huge career change. While I loved talking to geeks all day, recruiting just wasn’t the right role for me. When Chris DiBona asked if I was interested in joining his team to help make Google Summer of Code happen for the second year, I was elated. I knew I had great organizational and project management skills. I knew I got along really well with programmers and loved to talk tech. I knew what the Summer of Code was – an awesome program to give jobs to students by giving them a chance to work on Open Source projects, and a great way for those projects to find new contributors. And I knew what open source software was in a general sense – everyone shares their code with everyone else. Sounded beautiful and idealistic. I was in!

What I didn’t know was, well, everything else. Sure, I used Firefox, but I was running Windows. I’d used GNOME about, oh, four years previously, but never to do anything but play music files and it wasn’t ever running on a computer I owned. I had never been on a mailing list before joining Google, and had never been on a mailing list outside the company. I hadn’t used IRC since high school. And did I mention that I don’t write code?

Now consider that the team I was joining consisted of the dude who used to talk about Linux on TV – oh yeah, and he’s now my boss – the then Chairman of the Apache Software Foundation, two of the lead developers of Subversion – those guys whose Poisonous People talk has more than 120,000 views on YouTube, and a dude who is an IP attorney in addition to being a compiler developer. A few months later, I’d be sharing a cube with the guy who literally wrote the book on Open Source software. No pressure, right?

Needless to say, I was intimated. Really intimidated. But I was also passionately excited about the chance to help people do good in the world, and that pushed me to get out there and get things done. I talked to some lawyers, knocked on the doors of some accounting types, wrote some documentation, kicked mIRC until I could figure out how to connect to Freenode, and created a channel called #gsoc. And the games began.

I spent the first few days hanging out, seeing who was there and trying to answer questions quickly and effectively. There were a lot of people in the channel who had participated in Summer of Code the year before talking about what a great program it was and how it really helped them become better coders, get a good job, and meet great new programmers for their projects. I knew I’d made the right choice in taking on this job. I also knew I had no idea what I was doing and that I was going to be found out for the Impostor I was at any second.

Suddenly, this amazing person burst into the channel, filled with praise for the program. I didn’t know who she was, but I surmised from her handle webchick that she was, well, a chick who worked on web stuff. She was infectiously enthusiastic about her work on Drupal, which I quickly Googled. I still didn’t know a Content Management System from a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but I quickly deduced that it was software that helped you make websites. Cool beans. I had played around with DreamWeaver a little bit back in the day. I could understand this stuff.

So I asked webchick if I was right and Drupal helps you create websites, figuring it was a stupid question but that I had to start learning sometime. She replied immediately telling me that I was right and that it was written in PHP – okay, good, I know what PHP is – and that she hadn’t worked on it before Summer of Code. I was astounded. I asked her to tell me more since I could only imagine that doing this kind of work required all kinds of experience, so she must had some really great classes at school or she wouldn’t have been able to learn so much so quickly.

To my surprise, she let all of us know that she had taken a few classes on web design at community college, but nothing that had really prepared her extensively for working on Drupal. She said that she’d been terrified of contributing to open source because it was just for geniuses but since she saw that Summer of Code was a program for students, she thought they’d be OK with someone who was a complete beginner. She’d been sucked in completely by Drupal and now spent morning, noon and night working on it. If I remember correctly, she’d already been hired by a Drupal consulting shop when we had that first fateful interaction.

I know webchick was just telling her story, but I can’t even begin to tell you how much what she said gave me confidence. I too attended community college and after walking through halls filled with Stanford PhDs for three years, I had a little bit of, um, degree shame. Sure, I graduated from Cal at the top of my class, but I only had an English degree and couldn’t possibly be as awesome as all those people around me who had only attended universities and had done advanced studies in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. Hrm. Maybe not.

I walked away from that IRC chat feeling so inspired. I knew if webchick had been successful, I could be too. She had passion for her subject, unbridled enthusiasm and the willingness to share her experiences. I had all those things, too. If those were the indicators of success, I could make it work, even if I didn’t know a darn thing yet.

One year later, I was promoted to be manager of the whole Summer of Code program. I started traveling the world to share stories like webchick’s with people so that they would be just as inspired by the wonder that is participating in the FOSS community. I started inviting the public to Google to hear about all the great work being done by famous open source developers who’d joined the company. Two years later, I launched one of the most widely read developer blogs at Google soon after and kept it fed with regular content. With the help of webchick and an awesome team of mentors, I then went on to create and launch the world’s first global initiative to get pre-university students involved in open source development. I might have had zero experience then, but now I was making things happen.

Four years after that chat in IRC, webchick, a.k.a. Angela Byron, is now the maintainer for Drupal 7. Even if you don’t know what a CMS is, you’ll be impressed to know that the software that Angie is currently in charge of is what powers whitehouse.gov. Angie was the recipient of one of five Google O’Reilly Open Source Awards for Best Contibutor in 2008. Being able to share that stage with her and put the award figurine in her hands remains one of the most shining moments of my life.

If you’re intimidated, you’re not alone. Don’t let that stop you. We all have to start somewhere and FOSS people who seem like deities to you were all new at this once, too. If Angie can do it and I can do it, you can too. Cease procrastination and begin your application for Google Summer of Code 2010.

And remember, even if you fall flat on your face, at least you know you’re moving forward.

See you in #gsoc on Freenode.

4 thoughts on “If She Can Do It, I Can Too

  1. Angie Byron

    (OMG. I have been so heads-down the past week that I completely missed this! So sorry for the late reply. :)

    Wow. I totally remember that conversation, but had no idea that it had so profound an effect! I’m so happy that I could help you to get past the cursed “Einstein complex.” It’s very inspiring to hear you put your own journey into words… obviously you went from there to an amazing leadership role that has fundamentally transformed so many lives, including my own.

    She had passion for her subject, unbridled enthusiasm and the willingness to share her experiences. I had all those things, too. If those were the indicators of success, I could make it work, even if I didn’t know a darn thing yet.

    I think this quote really encapsulates what makes contributing to open source so fun and rewarding. It’s not about who or what you know, it’s not about having done this since Linus Torvalds was in diapers. It’s about bringing everything you have to the table, collaborating with others who do the same, working your ass off, and together building something awesome that in some way makes the world a better place. And the more diverse the skill-set and experience of those people, the more awesome the end result is.

    Leslie, thank you too for the many a time you’ve helped me with sound advice, laughs, and of course sandwiches! ;) Best of luck on your new endeavour! I can’t wait to see where it takes you! :D

  2. lsblakk

    Coincidentally, I was just tagged to write about how I got involved in Open Source and Angie Byron is one of the reasons – blog post here: http://crashopensource.blogspot.com/2010/03/i-got-tagged-open-source-contributors.html

    I’ve always found it easier to get involved with stuff when I see people I can identify with doing it. The flip side is also true. I know that anything I speak about passionately to my friends is more likely to become something they will try/use/engage with. Attending Angie’s presentation at the Ontario Linux Conference where she spoke about her GSoC experience made me feel less nervous about my plans to try and get a Mozilla internship (which I did). I had worked with Drupal before but didn’t really know much about the community behind it. At that conference I had equal lack-of-knowledge about Joomla and Drupal who seemed neck and neck. Drupal quickly pulled ahead in my mind mostly because of hearing how Angie connected with it where the Joomla workshop I went to became way too “insider” too fast, and I quickly became disinterested in getting to know it more. I ended up creating a Drupal site and currently maintain another. I feel more comfortable interacting with the Drupal community when I need to because I feel like it’s a welcoming environment.

    When I used to work at 7-11 we were told that someone who has a good experience will tell 1 person, someone who has a bad experience will tell 10. So I always strive to share my good experiences more than the bad, to do my part in tipping those scales and encouraging people to support stuff that is awesome. Angie certainly does that for GSoC and Drupal, and I do it for the projects I care about. More important (to me) than just seeing women involved in Open Source, is hearing their experience getting started and picking up on the passion they have for particular projects.

  3. spz

    So I’ve been hanging around Open Source for several geological ages by comparison (wait a sec while I fold some sedimentary layers ;-P ), but I still regularily get to do something new that I’ve never done before, to learn something new, to find out if I have a talent for something new.
    To have fun with new shiny things. :)

    It’s easy to get into a rut in a job, you’re good at something, you’ll likely stick with it; you may go to greater challenges but that’s just more of the same, but harder.
    In Open Source, when you are a volunteer, your interest (and willingness to sink time into it) dictates what you do, so focus shift happens all the time (including shifting back to things that you did previously, but now look fresh and new because you learned other things and the context opened up dramatically).

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