julia ferraioli: Hi, everyone. My name is julia ferraioli. My pronouns are she/her, and I’m recording this for Open Source Stories. I’m here with Emma. Emma, would you like to introduce yourself?
Emma Irwin: Hi, julia. Hi, everyone. My name is Emma Irwin. My pronouns are she and her and I am coming from Vancouver Island here today to talk to you. Thank you.
julia ferraioli: Exciting. I’ve never been to Vancouver Island.
Emma Irwin: Yes, you’re invited.
julia ferraioli: Excellent. I’m in Seattle, so not too terribly far.
Emma Irwin: Yeah, we’re neighbors.
On joy and garden tending
julia ferraioli: Before we get into the heart of the conversation here, I was wondering if you could share what’s a hobby or something that brings you joy right now?
Emma Irwin: That question is answered with kind of a simple word around gardening and plants…and I never used to be a gardener. I think the pandemic really made it something that I cared about. But over the last two, three years has become something that really brings me joy. Especially this year, I planted all my own seeds. And I have a window seat in my living room where no one’s allowed to sit there anymore. It’s like an inside garden, a hot house and so I have planted all – I call them my babies. My children will say, “look out for Mom’s babies”, because they’re all sort of growing.
I’ve tried all kinds of things this year that I hadn’t had success with before. So it just brings me joy everyday seeing how much more they’ve grown and I’m thinking about getting out to the garden when it’s warm enough.
julia ferraioli: I’ve been recently trying to get back into gardening as well. A lot of cleanup to do over here, though.
Emma Irwin: Mother Nature’s always coming for anything to clear away.
julia ferraioli: What is one of the plants that you’re growing from seed?
Emma Irwin: Some of the ones that I’m trying to grow this year that I haven’t tried before, are just green beans. And they’re growing really fast. Maybe that’s where Jack and the Beanstalk story comes from? I’m just realizing. Also red peppers and spinach. I haven’t tried those before. The red peppers might be a bit of a challenge. But I’m hoping the spinach does well, because my kale seems to do well out here.
julia ferraioli: Kale’s super hearty.
Emma Irwin: It’s so good from the gardens. When you get it from the grocery store, it’s quite tough. So from my garden, it’s really quite tasty.
julia ferraioli: Apparently we are Pacific Northwest stereotypes. But we’re here to talk about open source. Let’s switch tacks a little bit, although I anticipate there’s a fair amount of overlap between gardening and open source. So how long have you been involved in the open source community?
Emma Irwin: That’s a really good question. Because I think it was definitely a journey where I discovered open source early in my developer career, which would probably be close to 20 years ago.
As a developer, I got my first job working in what would now be a startup and a lot of the technology that we were working with and programming languages were open source, we were trying to kind of help those customers and organizations that couldn’t afford some of the expensive, pricey solutions. So I was kind of introduced to it through my first job, and then slowly learned about communities of some of the technology and programs we were using, and found a couple that really felt comfortable.
It’s kind of history from there. I just became really passionate about open source, but also helping others get involved in open source, which has been really rewarding.
julia ferraioli: Was there an “aha!” moment that you can share about when the potential of open source really solidified for you?
Emma Irwin: Definitely. One of the first open source projects that I worked with that also came with a visible community was Drupal. It was really a pivotal time for me because I had written at least a couple of content management systems by that point. So I knew just from that history, how much goes into building software that can manage all the things people want to do with their webpages. We had one client that actually wanted to work with Drupal and I remember thinking to myself “Oh my gosh, like 90% of the stuff that we charged our last customer for is built into this open source project” and how I was really struck by how that was going to be game changing for some of the customers that were nonprofits and others who would otherwise have been shut out of having a content management system. So that’s just the solution.
But I remember going into the community and asking a question about (what is now) single sign-on between multiple Drupal instances. And someone answered and shared their solution. I was just like, “wow, like, somebody helped me; this has sped me up” and so I started also trying to answer questions. That was really, for me, the first kind of, “I feel like I can be a part of this.”
julia ferraioli: It’s really exciting when it all clicks into place, and you get that great dialogue between users and contributors and maintainers.
Emma Irwin: It was something else, really. Reflecting on that, that was definitely the moment where I felt like I wanted to be a part of this.
julia ferraioli: Drupal is such a great example of a lasting community as well; they’ve definitely stood the test of time.
Emma Irwin: I think so. One of the things that Drupal has done really well is enable local communities and local developer meetups and that kind of “people coming together locally”, but also around specific solutions. I’ve worked in education a lot. So there are Drupal developers focused on education or finance, and that’s helped grow communities of communities.
julia ferraioli: Communities of communities. It’s not turtles; it’s communities all the way down.
Emma Irwin: Exactly. Yeah. That’s a good one.
Maintainers, maintainership, and mentoring
julia ferraioli: Let’s talk about maintainership of projects. In your experience, what makes someone a good maintainer, either officially or unofficially?
Emma Irwin: Well, that’s a really big question. What comes to top of mind is, obviously, someone needs the skill set to effectively like triage things like PRs, and understands the technology they’re working with, but it’s really the people side that makes a good maintainer. That’s things like understanding the maintainer’s role in bringing in new leaders. For example, it’s not all about being able to solve all the problems, people or technology. That’s a little bit of a recipe for burnout, which we see a lot in open source.
So definitely about bringing people in, building inclusive spaces, which can be hard, and it requires learning and understanding what that means. Just being curious [is] probably the theme, and all of that is being curious [about things like] “how can I help people be more successful? How can I help people step up into leadership roles? How can I not be the blocker for all the things that need to happen to make this project successful?” Those are ways of working than any specific attributes someone might have.
julia ferraioli: That’s something we see, oftentimes, the successful projects are the ones that lift people up, and don’t necessarily feel a sense of ownership over specific tasks.
Emma Irwin: Something I’d like to see maintainers think more of is… that we talk a lot about good first tasks or good beginner tasks, but what are the good first tasks for someone that really wants to support a maintainer and the things they need? We have a contributor, a triager, on one of our Microsoft open source projects, and how we’re encouraging him to grow in leadership is by teaching him how to review PRs so that he can validate this works, this doesn’t work, validate this fix works.
That kind of stuff, instead of being at this journey, that nod to the meritocratic background where it’s like you have to do this and then you prove yourself and so that’s something that I’d love to see more of in the ecosystem. How do we help people step into leadership? They’re ready for it. They have the skills and that can only help both sides.
julia ferraioli: The mentoring aspect; so crucial. Especially working in the open, which can be nerve-wracking, at the best of times.
Emma Irwin: I’ve heard that over and over again, no matter where I work, or whether someone is hired to work in open source or they’re a contributor, that worry of not being perfect continues to be a big challenge for folks. And it’s understandable, we’re trying to build our careers, or we really want to represent the companies we work for well, and so it does definitely take practice to be able to share and have confidence that feedback is for your benefit.
Of course, if you experienced that someone is being hostile, that’s different…but for the most part the great projects, like – Rust always comes to mind – that the type of feedback you’re gonna get is the type that will help us move forward.
Legacy and missing maintainers
julia ferraioli: So we’ve spoken briefly in another context about the current state of maintainership, and I believe the word that you used was “legacy”. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit towards that.
Emma Irwin: You and I have talked, and there’s others talking a lot about sustainability and open source. There are some really strong themes around funding maintainers. And there’s a big open question, or questions, around what are other ways we could be sustaining the ecosystem? And for me, there’s a curiosity again, around who are our maintainers now, and who are we missing?
That meritocratic history where you have to have this sort of an availability that enables you to work on open source full time, there are certain privileges…maybe you have a lot of access to internet bandwidth. As an only parent of three children, I always think about the availability of free time. So in the past – not to take away from anyone that is a maintainer and has been successful in that – but in the past we really have had an open source that hasn’t optimized for us to have a lot more maintainers than we do right now.
The availability of free time, being physically able to contribute for many hours during the day is, is another…there are just so many attributes of inclusion that just haven’t been on the radar until recently.
One of the projects that I think is doing a good job of addressing that right now, the Rust Foundation, has an initiative right now to help fund people who work on Rust. The key word for me there is “people who want to work on Rust”, it’s not folks that are maintainers, necessarily. It is focused on bringing in diverse people, no matter their background or their abilities, or where they are to make them successful where they are.
I’m not sure if I quite answered your question. But something really interesting for us to think about is how do we (maybe we don’t need to reflect too much on how we failed to do that so far) bring in more folks to work on open source, where they are based on their capabilities, available time, and their goals? And open source sustainability really hinges on that approach as much as just trying to give money to the maintainers that are making it so far.
julia ferraioli: It’s about the social structures that support them.
Emma Irwin: Exactly.
Dynamics, motivations, and barriers in open source participation
julia ferraioli: Thank you for elaborating on that. As a bit of a follow up, how do you see the interactions between the people who are paid to work on open source full time and the people who contribute to open source in their spare time? Because not all of us get to get paid to do that, right? What are the dynamics at play there?
Emma Irwin: These are such good questions. I’m probably going to think of really great answers after this call, but I’ll definitely take a shot at it. It’s such an interesting question.
First of all with the lens of folks who are paid to work on open source, some including myself came from having contributed to open source and sort of gained visibility that way. And that’s a really hard way to get a job sometimes. Right? And I think that sometimes it’s not intentional. But that’s one way people come into the role. Another way people come into work in open source is that they have a specific skill set that an open source project needs. And I think those folks sometimes have an interesting journey, and that they’re kind of put into an open source project.
They might not understand all that that means as far as their role in building healthy and inclusive communities, something that I’ve done at Microsoft and I do at Mozilla is I run code of conduct – inclusive governance training, I call it – just to help people who are new to open source or curious how interacting and creating those spaces, what it looks like, and what our obligation is. So those are two things that come to mind when somebody is working for an open source project.
For those that are not, I think that it can be really rewarding, depending on what the project is. And I’ve worked with some great projects that really seem to care about my success and set me up that way. I’ve also worked for those where I kind of went flat out and never really gained the skills that I was hoping to or the mentorship that I was hoping to. So I guess I’d say that those who are not paid take a lot more risk, there’s a lot more risk and working.
That can be, from a safety perspective (we’re talking code of conduct), it’s a risk, just stepping into an open source project and trusting that folks have your best interests at heart, it can be a risk, and that you’re donating time that may not be appreciated. But the flipside is also true, finding a community of people where you feel like you belong, where you’re so excited to see them every day. And where you’re working is valued and recognized. So it’s a risk, but it’s also like huge opportunities that I think some projects are getting a lot better at really demonstrating to folks which projects those are.
Luna: [Bark bark bark]
Emma Irwin: Hoping to answer your question with a bit of mulling over.
julia ferraioli: That was excellent. Thank you. I know we only have a couple of minutes left. Is there anything else you’d like to add today as some parting thoughts or wisdom?
Emma Irwin: I’ll just add on to the last bit that we talked about, and that I think there are also some folks that really can never contribute to open source, that their livelihood does not make it possible.
Fulfilling the promise of open source
Emma Irwin: But something to leave with? I guess I would say that I’m still one of my favorite things about open source is the opportunity to learn and grow. I personally had a one year developer, I guess they’re like a boot camp, but not really. And I did a lot of open source in my career, I sort of hit that glass ceiling. And I would consider what I want to learn and what projects are building that software, and I would head over there and just learn and watch. And so I just love to think of open source as a great place to learn, and for those who are curious about pretty much anything, to learn and kind of get past any glass ceilings you are hitting. Good projects, of course, being the places to learn.
julia ferraioli: It’s kind of the world’s university in some senses.
Emma Irwin: I think so. I definitely feel very, very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with great projects and mentors, and hopefully it can be that for other people as well.
julia ferraioli: Awesome. Well, thank you, Emma, thanks so much for joining us on Open Source Stories.
Emma Irwin: Thanks, julia.