The journey to becoming a maintainer with Jessica Tegner
In her own words: 'Hi, I'm Jessica, a 23 year old woman currently living in Denmark. I'm studying CS and a part of the first GitHub Accelerator program. I love traveling, meeting new people, telling stories and of course programming and open source. I do all of this while blind, but hey, that hasn't stopped me before from archieving my goals so why stop now!!!'
amanda casari: Hello, my name is amanda casari. I use she/her pronouns. Today is May 12th, 2023, and I’m speaking with Jessica Tegner. I’m recording this conversation for Open Source Stories on a very sunny morning where I am on the East Coast of the United States. It’s quite nice outside and I’m very excited to get out today. Jessica, would you mind introducing yourself?
Jessica Tegner: Yeah, of course. My name is Jessica Tegner, as amanda said. I use she/her pronouns and I’m currently in Denmark where I grew up, and it’s a very sunny afternoon and very nice weather. I am probably going to go out and eat something outside for dinner at an outside restaurant, and I’m really looking forward to just a really sunny weekend we are going to have here.
amanda casari: Lovely. Do you get to go outside very often where you live or is this something that’s newer for the season?
Jessica Tegner: Well, we can go outside whenever we want. We are really good at putting appropriate clothes on, so to speak. There’s nothing stopping us from going outside at all days of the month, but I’m personally a bigger fan of the summer. I love the summer. When everyone else is dying of heat, I love being outside.
amanda casari: I’m the same way. I think everybody else in my family melts to the ground, but I kind of go out and just start bathing in all of the sunshine and fresh air.
Jessica Tegner: Yes, same here.
amanda casari: Well, I am super curious–when the summer months come around, as folks who like to work or who do work in front of technology, does that tend to change your pace in how you engage with things for your work, or do you tend to keep a steady flow?
Jessica Tegner: I keep a steady flow mostly because I have set my workspace up in such a way that I can work from anywhere as long as I have an internet connection. So I can sit indoors, I can sit at the pool, I can sit at a picnic table, I can be in the forest. I can be anywhere and work really. So, I wouldn’t say my pace changes much. It’s just the location really.
amanda casari: That’s probably a very nice way to make sure that you can set yourself up for being able to wherever you can do your best kind of work or your best environment.
Finding the fun in technology
amanda casari: I’m curious, do you remember your first impression of someone else using a computer?
Jessica Tegner: I think my first impression was really at school when we had these big whiteboards that had Windows XP on them or something like that. That was my first impression and how cool it was. But other than that, I’ve always grown up with technology and gaming, not from an early age, but from, I wanna say, like 8, 9, 10 years old.
amanda casari: Which game do you remember being your favorite that you would still play now?
Jessica Tegner: So, when I was little, it was very much a lot of children’s games. Also, side note, if you can hear a dinging outside, that’s the ice cream truck coming by.
amanda casari: Oh, Lovely.
Jessica Tegner: It’s like, that’s an unfortunate timing, but nice. But gaming, I sadly don’t do as much gaming anymore, partly because I’ve lost the rest of my sight, and partly because, my friends I used to game with, we just have busy grownup adult lives now. He’s working. I’m a student. I’m working, doing open source, speaking at conferences. We don’t really have time to just sit down and game as much anymore.
amanda casari: I think the ways that we describe fun change over time, which has always been, has been interesting to me in life. Do you feel like the satisfaction that you get from doing the different kinds of things you do now, is that similar to what you got from accomplishing different work or different kinds of levels in games?
Jessica Tegner: It’s definitely, I wanna say it’s even better. I figured out I love speaking with people. I love meeting new people. I am a very big extrovert, so I love traveling around to, heck, meetups and conferences and a bonus if I get to speak at them. It’s like, I love that probably even more than I love just sitting in front of a console or a computer to play a game.
amanda casari: So when you’re meeting people as you’re traveling, how do you describe the work that you do in open source to them?
Jessica Tegner: I usually just say I’m an open source maintainer and I’ve made projects of various success in adoption, and then I show them my GitHub profile with my pinned repositories so they can see what I’m currently working on and also most proud of.
The transition from contributor to maintainer
amanda casari: Do you remember when there was a time when you felt you switched to that place that you were describing yourself as a maintainer rather than as a different role?
Jessica Tegner: Yes, I remember that very clearly. It was when I took over my current project that is my biggest project called pypandoc. When I took over that from the previous maintainer, that really set in that I am a maintainer now. I’m the one at the top of the food chain. I’m the one responsible for all these to make sure it still runs. Like no one else… I can’t just complain to someone else and they’ll hopefully fix it at some point. I’m the one in charge in that sense.
amanda casari: How did you start that journey? How did you start the journey of becoming the lead maintainer for pypandoc?
Jessica Tegner: So it started when I was developing a markdown application for the blind and visually impaired mostly, but anyone could really use it. But it was targeted at those, the blind and visually impaired, for them to be able to convert markdown files between beautiful Word documents, HTML, PDF, PowerPoints and so on. And at that point, I wrote a lot of Python, still do. But at that point, that was my main language. And to that end, I used pypandoc as a dependency and I started reporting a lot of issues and feature requests to the current maintainers, and I started contributing code and documentation myself. And there was a point where I saw that the current maintainers, it was like they were pulling away or they weren’t as much invested in the Python ecosystem and in pypandoc anymore, and no one else had really stepped up to take over the project.
Jessica Tegner: And it wasn’t like they were actively calling for a new maintainer, but I sent them an email mostly because they seemed pretty inactive on GitHub. So I sent them an email asking, just very politely, I said, “Hey, if you are planning to pull away from open source or pull away from Python, would you mind if I took over the continuous maintainership of pypandoc, because I need it and I can imagine a lot of other people do based on their contributor list?” And they really didn’t have an issue with that. I think it’s partly because they were pulling away and also partly because they knew me, so it wasn’t just some random person messaging them. They knew me because they’d seen my name on issues where I would help other people that had either markdown related or pypandoc related questions, even if it didn’t have anything to do with pypandoc. And they saw my name from pull requests where I’ve submitted a code as well, so they kind of knew me already.
It’s getting critically serious
Jessica Tegner: So they said yes, and I got ownership, like maintainership of being able to publish packages to the package index, and was the only maintainer of pypandoc from that point forward. And then I said, I told them, “Yeah, I can imagine a lot of people use it.” And then after they gave me a maintainership of it, I found the package index statistics site where you can view downloads and such, and I figured out how many people used it. And that was really when it clicked. I was like, “I feel like I have a responsibility now because it seems a lot of people depend on it to not break.” So that was the thing. And then also the PyPI, the package index sent me an email saying, “Hey, your project has so many downloads that it has been assigned as a critical project.” I said, “Okay, this sounds pretty serious.”
amanda casari: With the, “sounds pretty serious”, did that feel positive or was that something that felt like it was a little bit more of a weight than you thought you had signed up for when you asked to take over the package?
Jessica Tegner: No, because I saw that a lot of people were using it, so I knew that it was already adopted, and it was the de facto standard for interfacing with pandoc from Python, that was pypandoc. That was the de facto standard. And I knew, from seeing the downloads, how many downloads per month, how many used it, but I had no idea that it was in the top 1% over like a six month period, which is the requirement to become a critical package on the index. But it wasn’t really, to be honest, it wasn’t really a bad thing. It was a good thing. I like responsibility. I like having something to do. So for me, it was really positive. And then there’s the added bonus of, well, when you tell that to people, that kind of does that, your opinion, just you carry a little more weight and you can talk to people on a more… You’re not just… You don’t just have a little pet project that no one uses. This is an actual thing. They know you and can see you are actually serious about what you’re doing, programming-wise.
amanda casari: I talk with some folks about the different kinds of ways that folks make investments in open source. And when I hear you talking about the weight that being a maintainer for something that is a critical dependency gives you, it also sounds like it gives you a little bit of a boost because you get that kind of like techno-social connection with people in a way where when that’s not a responsibility, maybe you don’t get to have that connection in the same way in the community.
Jessica Tegner: There’s that, and then also, I get to be able to go to companies and say, “Hey, I am a maintainer of this. It has this many, downloads, unique downloads per month, and it has been marked a critical project by the Python Foundation.” And that usually, saying that sentence usually get companies to listen to at least what you have to say because you’re not just some random person that study computer science. You’ve actually done something on the side.
Impostor syndrome never goes away
amanda casari: Yeah. So, I’m curious, from the journey you’ve described, are there any lessons you’ve learned that you would like to share with others that you feel like you either didn’t know before you started it, or you wish that someone else had talked to you about?
Jessica Tegner: That really depends on exactly lessons. What do you mean by lessons?
amanda casari: Yeah, maybe what kind of… So from moving to being someone who was an active contributor in a community to someone who’s now a lead maintainer and a lead maintainer for a critical project, are there things along the way that that you didn’t know before you started that journey that you definitely know now?
Jessica Tegner: The biggest thing that comes to mind is that impostor syndrome is real.
amanda casari: Oh, yeah.
Jessica Tegner: I always feel like that I… I’m sitting with people in the GitHub Accelerator program that started in April where pypandoc was one of the 20 selected projects. And I love it so far. I really, really do and I’m really grateful for that opportunity. But sitting with those people, those great maintainers, and learning all that we do, I feel I have such an impostor syndrome because I feel like they are doing really, really cool stuff that has potential to be really huge and has a much bigger scale. And I feel, compared to that, my project, even though it is a critical project, it’s pale. It feels like it’s really small compared, and I feel like I… Yeah, so that whole impostor syndrome is real. Once you really get into it, at least in my case, I feel like I’m never doing enough. So that’s why I’m always sitting and trying to find new projects, new things that I can code. But that’s also part of just in my DNA. When I’m bored, I go to tech. When I’m happy, I go to tech. When I need a distraction, I go to tech. That’s just my life, is open source, tech, programming. But yeah, imposter syndrome is real.
amanda casari: Yeah. Is there anything that helps you when that feeling starts to build, either when you’re with that specific group or just in general?
Jessica Tegner: So typically, the imposter syndrome builds because of a specific sequence of events. So I just, I tell myself that, as an example, with the GitHub Accelerator program, I tell myself I wasn’t the one that chose me. Someone else did. Someone else that has years of experience chose my project over thousands of others. That was not my call. So they have must thought that pypandoc was worth a spot. So that’s what I tell myself. And it’s the same, when the imposter syndrome start to build up, I just, I keep telling myself that, “Well, people like what I do, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have chosen me to do these things. They wouldn’t have picked me over so many other people.” So that’s what I keep telling myself. The same with my upcoming internship at Uber. It’s like, they could have hired somebody else, but they chose to hire me. So I’m trying to tell myself that they picked me, and that kind of helps the imposter syndrome subside a little, but it’s still hard.
amanda casari: Yeah. No, I’ll be super curious if it ever goes away for anybody. I experience it consistently and constantly as well. And I’m glad that you label it too as impostor syndrome because I feel like that also helps identify that you recognize that your work and your contributions and your experience are very valid. It’s an emotional feeling as opposed to something that’s rooted in not having experience and not having that work that you’ve been really dedicating, it sounds like, so much time and energy too as well.
Jessica Tegner: Yes. I’ve spent most of my teen years doing tech stuff, because that was what was fun for me. So going from just doing whatever I want in tech space to something actually using it to now sitting here talking with you, talking with other people, doing talks, being at the Accelerator program, like it’s going from that small thing and then it has just accelerated really, really fast, and that can… I feel like when you start growing faster than you expect, that that’s when you start having a lot of impostor syndrome. And then it’s just really important to keep yourself grounded and remember that you’re growing fast because people like what you’re doing. If they didn’t like what you were doing, they wouldn’t use what you’re making. So that’s what I’m trying to tell myself with this whole impostor syndrome and growth.
Open source opens the world
amanda casari: Yeah. I’m curious that you mentioned that you really like to travel and give talks and visit communities. Are there any special moments for those that have stood out in your mind where you felt the most connected?
Jessica Tegner: So I say I like traveling. I haven’t actually, of the time of this recording, I haven’t actually traveled physically to any conferences, but I am working really hard on it. It was just a couple of weeks ago that I submitted my first call for a proposal paper to a conference. But I know I like traveling in general, and then combining that with tech conference, the thing I love to do the most, that sounds to me like a perfect combination. But I’ll probably even still have doubts and impostor syndrome even when I’m standing on a stage in front of thousands talking about what I wanted to talk about.
amanda casari: Yeah, I’m very excited for you. I’ve found, and I will say, I hope all of the joy and confidence before you give your first talk for you, because it is, for me, something that continues to be something I have to overcome, even though I agree with you on the part where I really do enjoy it. I really enjoy talking with people and sharing ideas and having a chance to get feedback on the ideas that I have. So I’m very excited for your CFP submission and hope that you keep submitting them.
Jessica Tegner: Oh, yeah. I have. I’ve already planned six different conferences just this year that I wanna submit CFPs to. Probably not all of them are going to be accepted.
amanda casari: Sure.
Jessica Tegner: That’s just the nature, I think. But I am really hoping for as many as possible. Half of, I get to go on stage and talk about what I really love and people. It’s the same imposter syndrome there. It’s like people chose to listen to what I had to say compared to why would anyone listen to what I have to say, but I just have to remember that they chose it. I didn’t force them to. And the same, just meeting a lot of people. Well, not really necessarily meeting a lot of people, because I don’t know that many in the wider open source community, but getting a lot of maybe some new networking opportunities or really anything. I’m really looking forward to traveling all over Europe to different conferences.
amanda casari: Oh, awesome. Exciting. Well, I mean, I would love to eventually be at the same one, but I hope I get to catch up with you too and find out how those went at some point. I’ll be watching your site. Are you gonna be able to post? So for when things do get accepted, are you going to be uploading those on your website?
Jessica Tegner: Yeah, every talk that has a recorded version, which most of them do these days, it’s gonna come up on my website, along with all the other interviews like this one or live streams. I’ve been on GitHubs, really anything public where I’ve gotten a chance to be on and speak, it’s going to go up on there, on my website.
Start from a place of accessibility
amanda casari: Okay, fantastic. We are getting close to the end, and before we do, I just really… I am really curious, is, do you have any strong opinions that you wish would come up in a conversation like this, but almost never does?
Jessica Tegner: Really, it’s really, that can be a long-winded conversation of its own, so I’m going to try to keep it a little brief. Because I have a disability, I’m fully blind, so the whole designing of open source and designing products, the whole accessibility for people with disability sometimes seem to be something that’s shoehorned in at the end. So having those conversations early on saves a lot of headache for everyone involved because it’s easier to put in accessibility from the start than it is to just shoehorn in it at the end. And I feel like not enough open source… I feel like we get really lost in our own little bubble. I have the same issue with, I’m trying… When I ask my friends or when I think about new projects, most of them are very blind or visually impaired specifics or something that only that group most of all would be interested in.
Jessica Tegner: And I feel like it might be the same for a lot of other open source maintainers and really any form of project lead or developer. You get really stuck in your own little world and you have… So branching out and seeing how other people with different backgrounds and disabilities and stuff can use your product is really helpful. But yes, there’s nothing worse when I see a cool new tech thing in open source and then I try it and it’s just like, I can’t use it because it’s not accessible to me.
amanda casari: Yeah. No, I’m glad that you bring that up. Thank you for calling that out. And now, I wish I would’ve asked it much earlier in the conversation.
Jessica Tegner: That’s what I said. It can be a whole conversation of its own.
amanda casari: Yeah. No, well maybe we could have you back then again in a little while to check in or for the next maintainer month.
Jessica Tegner: Yeah, that would be cool. Then if it’s for the next maintainer month, at least I could tell how many of my CFPs get accepted and what has happened there after the Accelerator program and stuff.
amanda casari: Yeah, that would be excellent. I will make sure to follow up on that, Jessica, ‘cause I would really, really like to get the chance to see how everything worked out for you in the next year.
Jessica Tegner: Yeah, I’m excited too. I’m excited to see what happens in my life too. It’s really a whole journey right now with a lot of crazy things happening. I have no idea. Like if you would have asked me half a year ago, I would’ve no idea at all.
amanda casari: Well, that’s very exciting. Thank you so much for taking time out of that, out of your schedule and chatting with us. And I wish you the best of luck in the plans that you have for the next year and I’m excited to find out how they turn out.
Jessica Tegner: Thank you. And thank you so much for having me. It’s been wonderful.