Amanda Casari: Hi, my name is Amanda Casari, my pronouns are she/her. Today is Tuesday, October 19 2021, and I’m speaking with Julia Ferraioli and Josh Simmons. Julia – I work with on the Open Source Stories project. And I met Josh, I think originally on Twitter and then we just have been fans of each other’s work. And now we’re getting to know each other better. I’m recording this conversation for Open Source Stories in what feels like a cave, but is actually just a room that needs more lighting in New England. My first time that I remember watching a spooky movie was actually Poltergeist which was released in the early 80s and I still find terrifying to this day. Julia, would you like to introduce yourself?
Julia Ferraioli: Hello, everyone. My name is Julia Ferraioli. My pronouns are she/her. I’m recording this from my office in Seattle. I want to say that my first spooky movie was actually Edward Scissorhands when I was four. Bad life decision. I’ve been afraid of scissors ever since. And I will pass it off to Josh.
Josh Simmons: Well, hello, everyone. My name is Josh Simmons, pronouns he/him. I am here in my office, my new office here in Petaluma, California, Miwok land. I…don’t remember what my first spooky movie was. But I remember the first movie that really left a scar, and that had to be Independence Day. Some of those really, jump out at you moments? Yes, those have stayed with me.
Julia Ferraioli: I have to admit that that’s one of my favorite movies.
Josh Simmons: That makes it even better.
Julia Ferraioli: But yes, it does have some pretty big jumpscares.
Amanda Casari: Excellent. Excellently executed for that movie. Awesome. So Josh, I’m really curious as to when you’re thinking about the work that you do in open source, how would you describe yourself, whether it’s my role, or the work or the thing that you think you’re most passionate about in the open source world?
Open source diplomacy and boundaries
Josh Simmons: Oh, that’s such a big question. You know, I think the word that I identify with is not one that I actually use very often. And that’s diplomat. Because I feel like a big part of what I bring to the community is being able to build bridges between different stakeholders, different belief systems, different this, that and the other. And that certainly comes with the community work that open source demands of me.
Julia Ferraioli: That makes a ton of sense. Diplomacy is a very hard thing to navigate, especially in a distributed environment, such as open source.
Amanda Casari: I also think it’s interesting. I remember talking with somebody about the word diplomacy earlier in the year and how it doesn’t necessarily always indicate a peaceful outcome. I’m curious as you feel that are you leaning towards that “always have a peaceful negotiation” side? Or is it also the part where you’re trying to maybe maintain boundaries around anything in particular?
Josh Simmons: I grew up as a pathological people pleaser. This is one of the many things that came baked in, as a Californian, and as a man who was formerly closeted. And so for a long time that diplomacy was really about, “let me just paper over all the conflict”, which is actually not a very good form of diplomacy whatsoever. By and large, my aim is to keep the peace, help people understand each other, and align incentives. In recent years, in order to do that, I have had to get much better at setting strong boundaries. And I never aim for a less than peaceful resolution. But sometimes that peaceful resolution is walking away.
Julia Ferraioli: So when you talk about boundaries, of those that you’re willing to talk about, what are some of the hardest that you’ve had to formulate? or enforce?
Josh Simmons: I think there are two things that come to mind. I think, first and foremost, as somebody who has been formally employed as a community manager, and has occupied positions of leadership, unrelated to the community management, both of those are roles that I’ve been in where part of the job is to take it on the chin, to take responsibility, to make sure people feel heard and validated, and to take ownership of situations that I may or may not have had a hand in creating. So for the longest time, because I didn’t value myself enough, I took that too far in my time as a community manager, and rolled over for a lot of abuse that came my way.
The abuse wasn’t always like, “oh, this person is attacking Josh”. No, it’s that there’s a situation, and somebody is being abusive of me in trying to respond to the situation. One of the things that’s been really difficult for me and setting boundaries is to draw that line between “look, I will hear you, but I am not here for your toxicity”. Sometimes being able to say, “come back, when you can come with a cooler head” – that’s been really challenging.
Amanda Casari: Was there a person or a moment or a specific time that really kind of helped change the way that you viewed your role in those situations, where you felt like you were empowered to set more boundaries for yourself?
Josh Simmons: I think it came in a couple of stages for me. The first was in 2015. Which, I get chills and goosebumps kind of thinking about it, because honestly, in 2015 I was on duty as a community manager for O’Reilly OSCON. And that was the year that we had a speaker on the program, the nature of her work was very upsetting to some people. Keywords here GamerGate you know, pre alt-right nonsense and toxicity. Being the public face of that event that was being targeted by these individuals with harassment and vitriol, you know, it occurred to me somewhere in firestorm that like, “oh, you know what? Some of these people are not engaging in good faith! Shock. I’m amazed.”
That was my first like, “oh, okay, does this pass the sniff test: is somebody just trying to waste my time, or somebody’s actually here to try to have a conversation”.
More recently, much more recently, in fact, as I served as the president of the Open Source Initiative – an organization that does very important work, but doesn’t always make everybody happy – I was in a position where I was being really sharply criticized for things that were pretty mundane. The attacks went extreme, really extreme, I can’t overstate the nature of the attacks compared to what was actually happening.
I finally had to assert myself and to say “well, this is not healthy for any one of us. And I will own my role and things. I will own this organization’s role and things, but there’s a line that’s been crossed. And you know, ad hominem once, shame on me ad hominem twice. Wait, no!” I just had to cut ties with some people. Because as much as I may have cared about them, and still do, they couldn’t separate me, the human from whatever conception they had of me in the role that I sat in.
Julia Ferraioli: So this is a pattern that I think is unfortunately common in open source. Is there something about how open source operates that that lends itself towards this hyper-personalization?
Josh Simmons: I think the dark side of one of the things that I quite love about open source, which is that, by and large, open source communities are self-identified Communities of Practice: people who show up because they want to, because they care, and not only care about the subject matter of like, well, here’s the problem we’re solving. But in open source, we also come to the table with philosophies, and the easiest, most obvious one to reference is okay, well, there are free software purists out there – and bless them and thank them for holding the line. Not all of us can live that way.
People come to open source for different reasons. It’s a philosophy of sharing, it’s a philosophy of freedom. There there are different takes that people have. It feels like there’s more of our personal identity on the line, when we’re here.
Philosphies, leadership, and progress
Amanda Casari: You mentioned a few different philosophies. I’m curious, what’s yours? If you were to describe open source to someone who’s unfamiliar with it, what do you use? What words do you use? What do you not use?
Josh Simmons: I struggle with this one. So I try not to mention the word – if it’s somebody who doesn’t work in software, I try not to even mention the word “licenses”. I try to use the framing of standards. Like, “Hey, open source is a standard of sharing. If somebody else has built a wheel, why would I reinvent it when I could just use that wheel. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you know, I can build the axle app”, I don’t know, hamfisted analogy. We can actually go further, faster, together by sharing. And that’s what open source is all about. That was actually a lot shorter and more eloquent than I ever actually achieve in conversation.
Julia Ferraioli: Well, it’s captured here for all eternity:
Further, faster, together with open source" – Josh Simmons
Josh Simmons: I’ll just play this recording next time I’m in a conversation.
Julia Ferraioli: There you go.
Amanda Casari: Be the easiest way. So you mentioned being a community manager for O’Reilly, working for the Open Source Initiative. These are years of being in fairly significant leadership roles in open source. I’m really curious – does it look the same now, as it did then? And if not, what are the changes you’ve seen? What major events have happened that have changed open source?
Josh Simmons: I am really pleased to say that open source doesn’t look the way it looked when I hit the scene. And I hit the scene more recently than not, to be honest. I may have been programming as a little tyke, messing around in a mud code base. But I didn’t realize that anything novel was going on under the hood and the fact that there was this existing code base that I could use and then redistribute, and modify and all that good stuff. It’s changed in a few different ways. I would say that the corporate adoption, the enterprise adoption has gone mainstream. And that is exciting to me. That is the goal. “Great, they like it!”
But that has also come with the challenge of how do we look after the hobbyists and the academics and the researchers and all these other stakeholders in the open source ecosystem? And how do we support this whole field of 800 pound gorillas on the backs of uncompensated labor? The corporate adoption has been phenomenal, and it’s the goal in my mind. But it has come with great structural disparities that need to be addressed.
Codes of conduct as helpful guides
Josh Simmons: The thing that has changed that has me most excited, though, is the attitudes towards inclusion and the importance that we’re placing on building communities that don’t just destroy people. It’s great to see how pervasive that’s become. In 2014, I think that was the year of the Code of Conduct pledge for speakers who went to conferences, and it was like “I pledge, I will only speak at conferences that have codes of conduct”. At that time, that was not entirely uncontroversial, which is just shocking to me. Because codes of conduct are, that’s table stakes. That is like my mall has a code of conduct!
Amanda Casari: But is it enforced?
Josh Simmons: Yeah, I don’t know about that.
Amanda Casari: And who gets to do the enforcement? And what are the consequences afterwards? It’s easy to put up that documentation. It’s easy to say, this is what we agree to, I think the challenge then comes actually integrating that into what you do and understanding how do people recover?
Julia Ferraioli: I would challenge that, because it wasn’t easy to put up a code of conduct. There were a lot of very, very vocal folks who were vehemently opposed. So I think it may be easy now. But it was a hard fought battle.
Amanda Casari: What were some of the arguments against it that you can remember?
Josh Simmons: One of the arguments that I remember, and I remember it because it hasn’t gone away, it’s this straw manning have the code of conduct as a punitive measure. When in my view, a code of conduct is is a restorative tool that clarifies the ground that we are all standing on when we are together. It is a structured way for us to share and align on expectations for how we will behave with each other, not just in, here’s what happens if something goes poorly, but also here are great examples of how we can interact with each other.
The best enforcement of the code of conduct, more often than not, is, “oh, I didn’t realize that this thing I said or did would impact somebody that way. Thank you so much for telling me. Now, I don’t have to hurt people that way, because I know better”. And more often than not, it’s just a wonderfully edifying tool for us all to grow together. But often it’s like, “oh, no, this is just how we weed out the undesirables”. This sort of tinfoil hat view of codes of conduct.
My favorite argument against codes of conduct was, and this one is out there still too, that it was a particularly US-centric ideal that we were exporting and projecting onto the world around us. On the one hand, I completely appreciate that every culture is different. On the other, that is exactly why we have codes of conduct to level set for us, because we all come from different upbringings. When we define and are explicit about the rules of engagement, we’re set up for success.
Julia Ferraioli: I love the idea of codes of conduct as tools of empowerment, and education. Because it kind of goes along the same lines as READMEs, or contributing instructions. It helps people participate in a way that’s healthy and conducive to relationship building, which is so fundamental for open source.
Josh Simmons: I think there’s, there’s really something to be said about making as much as possible, as explicit as possible. Both because we all come from different backgrounds, and also because our brains are all different. Some people cannot read between the lines or cannot read social cues in the same way. Hands being raised here!
The way that we all empower each other to succeed is to be like, well, this is how we succeed. This is how we can engage with each other, that’s really positive. Here are the paths for resolution. Here’s the path to making your way from contributor to committer, to maintainer, all the different ways that we can get explicit about how our communities function. It’s not just code of conduct, it is that contributing file, it is that governance file.
Amanda Casari: Collectively, it feels like all of these ways of making expectations of community, public and transparent. I love the way that Aja Hammerly says this: it boils down to allowing people to say somebody comes in, that’s new, and they may be using language or talking about things that that we don’t agree with, we get to say back to them: “We don’t say that here.” It’s this way that when people are new, or if they do have different understandings, or backgrounds, other people in the community have a way to be able to express and ground, “here’s what we do, and do not do when we’re together, because this is what benefits all of us the most and makes everybody feel the most welcome”.
Josh Simmons: It’s so key to have that defined, it is that tool of empowerment to every member of the community to say like, “hey, that’s just not how we do things here”. Whereas if it’s undefined, then it’s – “well, someone said something, or did something, and that makes me feel uncomfortable. We don’t have any rules around this, but I need to say something”. Then it just becomes this whole morass.
I think it’s important to highlight that these are living documents. The Open Source Initiative adopted its first code of conduct in 2007, for its mailing lists. That code of conduct (it’s a little long in the tooth now) does not live up to current best practices. Jjust the same, ones that were written in 2014 well, we know more seven years later in 2021. They can evolve with the community as we as we learn more.
Julia Ferraioli: Absolutely. So pivoting a little bit since you mentioned your work with the Open Source Initiative or OSI as you might hear it referenced, what led you to get involved in this governing body like the OSI?
Representation in open source
Josh Simmons: I am new to open source. I’m going to put it that way. I may have been using and consuming and building open source for the last 23 years. But for the longest time, I didn’t know what open source was. Sure I could work on WordPress and Drupal, whatever, I grew up with file sharing.
To me open source just felt like a natural extension of that. So I never really questioned that there’s an actual, novel legal instrument here. When I started as a community manager for open source at O’Reilly, that was eye opening to me, because suddenly I was in philosophies and decades of history, good, bad and otherwise. This is just my jam. I love people. I love empowering people and helping them be their best selves. But what I realized in my outreach, because that was part of my job as community manager, was there were some people who would never show up at OSCON.
There were, on top of the pure demographic, like racial, gender, orientation, socio-economic status, on top of those typical dimensions of lack of representation, I also found that anybody who developed with PHP, like I did, would summarily have someone thumb their noses at them. People were constantly looking down on me, as somebody whose expertise was in web development and marketing. I always been constantly othered.
When I tried to bring people in the PHP community into OSCON, sometimes people would come. Generally, they would not have a good experience. I have so much gratitude to Aurynn, who wrote the piece on contempt culture, which if you’ve never heard of it, or read it, search for it now on your favorite search engine, look for contempt culture, it is a seminal piece that is really informed how I view a lot of the gatekeeping and toxic behaviors that we see in our communities.
As a web developer, I did not feel represented in open source. I felt othered. It was so weird to me, because web development is probably the easiest way into open source, like view source! Write something in a plain text editor, you don’t have to compile it just open it in your browser, it’ll choke on it or not! It is such a massive, massive, massive crowd. For that crowd to be looked down on and not embraced as full members of the open source community, was just egregious to me.
So I ran for the Open Source Initiative board of directors for the first time in 2016, because I wanted to give back and I have a pathological addiction to volunteering. I also felt like I could help address the representation problem. I can’t say that I made a big dent in that particular representation problem. But I stuck with the organization because I have made a dent in other representation issues, and in bridge building for the organization, and in helping the organization get to this new transformational stage that it’s at now.
Julia Ferraioli: You mentioned that you don’t think you made a big dent in the representation problem for web developers. Do you think there’s been some improvement in that area, though?
Julia Ferraioli: It’s very true.
Josh Simmons: I think that’s I think that’s gotten a little better. But I think people who primarily work with WordPress, or Drupal or PHP… I suspect if you took the temperature, there’s probably still some hurt there. I don’t think that that’s problem has been resolved.
Bridge building, contributions, and societal change
Amanda Casari: We only have a few minutes left, and there’s one burning question I want to make sure I ask you. What do you see as the future, the next 20 years of open source? And more importantly, where do you see yourself as a part of that?
Josh Simmons: One of the things that has been most exciting to me, with respect to open source has been the way that open source has inspired more open culture movements: open data, open, access, open science, you name it. I am delighted to see a greater emphasis on sharing, on the commons, on creating a pool of things that we all benefit from, rather than hoarding things in our dragons lairs, and just enjoying them for ourselves. That has been one of the most exciting things for me with open source and I want to see that grow.
Where does it go? Gosh, I hope that we usher in a world in which being an open source maintainer is a viable career path. That isn’t contingent on finding a full time employer. To me, that’s as much about making sure people get paid for their labor, as it is about just changing the socio-economic systems in which we exist. I’m super opinionated about the economic system that we have here in the United States. This is too long of a conversation. And I want to see those change.
My role in it? You know, I’m not sure. One of the things I’m doing now is I’m managing a local political campaign, and just seeing what the world of politics is like, and seeing where my skills land there. I’m keen to dabble until I figure out what the next sweet spot is for me.
Julia Ferraioli: There’s definitely potential for overlap between politics and open source, more so than already has been, because we are seeing more adoption of open source by governments and commitment to actually open sourcing software as well. And data.
Josh Simmons: Absolutely. I’m hoping to drive some of those efforts here locally, and who knows, maybe that’s the kind of moving and shaking that I’ll do in a few years time.
Julia Ferraioli: Well, we have about five minutes left, before we get abruptly cut off. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us?
Josh Simmons: Yeah. I would like to encourage anybody who happens to listen to this, to think extremely broadly, about what it means to contribute. There’s a lot of ink being spilled, appropriately, about the different types of contributions that are made to open source projects. We need to get beyond the world of code on a pedestal. Because good software takes a whole lot more than good code. It takes marketing too, it takes all manner of skills. I’m really glad that that’s a conversation that is growing. And I’m grateful for the work that both of you have actually been putting into that – I want to I want to honor and acknowledge that.
Julia Ferraioli: Thank you.
Josh Simmons: What I would like to also see, and it’s it’s understandably not something we’re hearing as much about, because I think these organizations are a little more faceless, a little harder to sympathize or empathize with. But I really think that people should look at open source foundations, similarly to the way that they look at open source projects. Open source foundations need your contributions, open source foundations need you on their mailing lists, to help guide them through difficult conversations, so that they are the stewards that we as a community need them to be. But not only do I hope that people show up and converse and be opinionated and loud. But I also hope that people will join working groups and committees and run for the board of directors. These are roles that must be filled to keep this world moving and evolving. We need fresh perspectives all the time.
Julia Ferraioli: Thank you, Josh.
Amanda Casari: Thank you.
Julia Ferraioli: That’s excellent. Those are excellent notes to wrap up on.
Josh Simmons: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
Julia Ferraioli: Well, we hope to have you back at some point.
Josh Simmons: I would like that maybe in the after times – do this in that fancy StoryCorps booth that I know you’re gonna get.
Julia Ferraioli: That sounds excellent. Well, thank you everyone for listening. We will see you next time.