Monica makes FOSS and takes our Twitter mic from July 15 to 22. Thank you, Monica!
I’m an enthusiastic newcomer to FOSS, and have been an active contributor since January, when I joined the Ubuntu MATE project - which is even exciting when it’s your daily driver! I come from a humanities background, and have a bachelor’s degree in Ancient Greek and a master’s in Maritime Studies. In my day job, I help college students with their writing skills. During the mythical Time Before, I loved trips big and small, but now it’s staying home and tending to my virtual island, perfecting my pizza dough recipe, and using the Interwebs for good to connect with friends old and new.
I’ve just gotten involved with OpenMRS, an open source enterprise medical record system used in thousands of clinics across the globe. One of their proposed Google Season of Docs projects is for an updated volunteer guide, which I’ve just recently submitted. So I’m familiarizing myself with the project and its community, and getting an idea of the guide’s potential content and structure.
OpenMRS is a project where their community health impacts global health! Their project has been a vital tool against malaria, and has been awarded a grant from Mozilla for their work against COVID-19. This project highlights the very real good in the world that open source can do, and I’ll be happy to contribute, whether through the Google Season of Docs or as a community member.
I first discovered FOSS almost 20 years ago, when I picked up a Linux title at the bookstore where I worked. But it fell off my radar until I married a Linux enthusiast, and we started commuting to work together. To pass the time in horrible traffic, we listened to Linux podcasts, especially Linux Action News and Linux Unplugged on Jupiter Broadcasting, and the Ubuntu Podcast, which quickly became my favorite. I began learning about Linux and the open source world, and began incorporating it more and more into my daily life, not just that hour/hour and a half in the car four days a week.
This past January, I interviewed with an open source company, and even if I didn’t get the job, it was a great experience. And then I had an epiphany - even if I didn’t get this job, I could still be involved with open source! I took stock of the abilities I had, and knew that right then, I could contribute my writing and editing skills. So I put a general query for projects in need of documentation help to one of my Linux-podcast-oriented Telegram groups. My friend Bill (@franksmcb) mentioned the Ubuntu MATE team could use help on website content, and that’s how I started contributing to FOSS and to my daily driver!
A few of the many great talks at the recent Open Source Summit - North America emphasized that better software is made by diverse communities. This not only includes things like race and ethnicity, gender identification, and social class, but levels of experience. Newcomers can see things in a completely different light, and can help communities get out of ruts. Also, many of the conversations we’re having in FOSS would benefit from a wider array of voices, especially those who have been hesitant to raise them. Lastly, getting involved with FOSS can and should have the element of fun. My LUGs have become a handful of Telegram channels centered on Linux podcasts, or Linux-adjacent people talking about food, and they’ve been a great community.
First, coding isn’t required! So if that’s been a barrier, go ahead and break it down. Are you a writer who knows how to break things down for new users, or can you help developers document their work for each other? Are you a people person who can help make our communities be healthier, more vibrant places to be? Have you discovered you’re great at online event planning? There are so many ways to contribute, so think of your current skill set and how you could put it to work. Next, find the communities and causes that pull you in - and find people who support you. In an interview I did on Linux Spotlight, I told Rocco what helped me immensely was finding my chz (@chzbacon from Jupiter Broadcasting) and Bill (@franksmsb from the Ubuntu MATE team and, well, everywhere), who gave me encouragement, support, and stickers, and recommended me for volunteer positions. I was also lucky to find the Telegram group for the Ubuntu Podcast, which has been enthusiastically encouraging. When you find your people, tell them you’re interested in getting started in FOSS, and see what they have to say. Also, take advantage of all the FOSS conferences and summits happening online! Registration is often reduced, if not free, and even if you won’t get the face to face time you would by attending in person, these are still fantastic events for newcomers. You can get a sense of the big topics in FOSS, learn more about the projects you’re interested in, and connect with people who share your interest, even if it’s in a chat or a Slack channel.
One major difficulty is a culture of exclusion that sometimes sets up in FOSS communities. Project A is morally superior to Project B. People who use anything other than Distro X are misguided. This is exhausting to newcomers and veterans alike. Other major issues are maintaining community health and preventing contributor burnout.
There’s certainly no easy solutions to any of these problems. We need to keep having hard but necessary conversations to make FOSS more inclusive, and to help convince naysayers that everything benefits, from community to software, when we make more people explicitly welcome. Community and contributor health are deeply intertwined, and we should work on processes that encourage open, communicative communities where burnout prevention is a main goal, not an afterthought. FOSS users can also play their part, by remembering and centering the people behind their favorite projects.
Getting started still seems to be the hardest part. This is both because of those mental blocks we build around contributing, either because we’re too new or we have the ‘wrong’ skill set. Even once we overcome those barriers, confusing onboarding procedures can derail us before we even begin. If the guides that tell us how to get involved are hard to find or follow, outdated, or missing entirely, we might give up entirely. A lack of good communication can also make contribution difficult once we’ve come onboard. This is certainly even more of a challenge, given the additional stresses many of us are under during the pandemic, but it’s a key issue to address if we want our projects and the people who contribute to them to thrive.
In the before times, I would take the bus downtown, letting whatever soundtrack I was listening to turn the trip into my own motion picture. I’d go to a little cafe in Midtown, and sip on a cappuccino and nibble on mini donuts flecked with cinnamon sugar. Then I would head to the Georgia Aquarium and say hello to the otters, watch the belugas play, and then finish with a long sit in front of the Oceans exhibit, watching giant manta rays do lazy flips while whale sharks floated by, and glimpsing the looks of joy and wonder in the tiny faces reflected in the glass. Now? Everything is much closer to home, but it would probably be a morning in with my husband, picking up donuts curbside or takeaway, eating said donuts on the top of a parking garage overlooking a nearby mountain, and coming home to craft, either painting or cross stitching, nap, and then make a delicious but easy dinner. Finish the day curled up in bed, maybe reading something by N.K. Jemisin.
One of my bucket list goals is to go on Jeopardy. My Nana and I watched it together when I was growing up, and even now, we’ll still watch when I visit. I was invited to an in-person audition in 2018, but only 10% of people who make it to that stage get on the show. But I’m not going to give up until I can get a respectable second-place on air!