Jessica Lord, open web developer—designer

Privilege, Community and Open Source

  • Jessica Lord
  • 2015-05-18
  • open source, talks

Note: This is the essay form of the talk I gave at OS//OS in New Zealand April 17th, 2015. It's the structured and grammar-checked version of my slide notes; most of what I actually said plus a few things I forgot.

I was asked to share my journey into open source. It is not a linear path and I'm thankful to be doing what I'm doing right now. But in talking about my journey I want to discuss how it highlights some of the inherent problems in open source and what we can—and ought to—do about it. Open source is too important not to.


Today I'm a developer at GitHub. This is a bit crazy since three years and some change ago I was an Urban Designer for the City of Boston.

Urban Architect

stuart street Height study for future development around Stuart Street in Boston

Urban Design is like architecture at city-scale and with my architecture degree, passion for urban systems and public sector work it was a dream to work for the City of Boston. I also love computers so I felt right at home as one of four in the Urban Design Technology Group.

I worked on 3D models, shadow and height studies, sustainable neighborhood regulations and even got to tell Dunkin Doughnut what their sign options were.

Despite 'technology' being in the team's title, I wanted to see more technology within the Planning Department. I don't mean shiny new things like infrared drones or something, I mean the technology that most of us take for granted. For instance, we were writing our own photo sorting software and shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a custom, closed-source CMS (Content Management System) for our department's website. Things like Flickr, Wordpress and Google Spreadsheets solve many of these problems and are used by millions everyday but haven't made their way into government, and it was disheartening to know we'd spend time on our own, lesser versions of them.

Common Knowledge

More than anything else, however, I felt cities should be using technology to share with each other. Every city is trying to do the same thing: Be the Best City. There would be so much we could learn from each other if we'd create a pool of common knowledge.

I tried to incorporate new ideas and make some change but I ran into wall after wall. Then, in 2011, after 3 years at the City, I learned about Code for America. This new fellowship program was in its first year and Boston was one of three cities they were working with. I saw the fellows at City Hall and thought their mission—building better software for government—was great, but wasn't sure if a computer job was right for me (despite most of my working being done on the computer anyways). By the time the deadline rolled around I decided to give it a go because it was free to apply, so why not.

ecab artboard Illustrator artboard of diagrams for tutorials

The application asked for web projects and at the time I didn't have much to show. I did however have a DIY blog I'd pressured my friend into doing with me. It took a lot of time to document and compose posts on projects and she'd ask, "Why is it that we're doing this?" and I'd say whole-heartedly, "Because we have to share what we know!" I believed we could, in this small way, also contribute to common knowledge.

I was a bit embarrassed to put my DIY blog on my application, but I also wanted to leave no text field blank, so in it went. Turns out this project stood out and helped me get the fellowship.

Code for America Fellowship

cfa 2102 team Me and my CfA 2102 fellow-mates in a completely staged scene

The first week of January 2012 saw me in San Francisco starting my fellowship at CfA. I learned the word open source. Finally, the term to describe the belief in common knowledge I'd had and finally, others who were just as excited about it as I was.

I also learned about GitHub and JavaScript and went to my first tech conferences. I was blown away watching presenters stand on stage and share actual code. It was so different than the architecture and design world I'd come from in which ideas are held close and work is very individual. I loved how freely people shared.

Put everything on GitHub.

Because everything CfA does is open source I learned early on that the one and only way to do things is to put all things on GitHub. So I did. I worked, I learned and I put it all on GitHub. I learned JavaScript because I'd promised to build an app for my city that required it. By the end of the year I'd talked and/or tweeted to a lot of people about what I was working on and had everything up on GitHub.

githubbers Myself among all the GitHubbers at our 2014 Summit

Someone at GitHub got wind of what I'd been working on and liked it. And that is how I became a developer at GitHub, a tool for and pool of common knowledge.

No computer science degree, no real production programing experience but a GitHub portfolio. These are things we often hear touted in the tech community—degree requirements are flexible and you can use GitHub as your portfolio.

Privilege and Community

On the surface they seem to be admirable and helpful for those trying to break into the field. In reality, however, these are not leveling the playing field.

I got here because I'm privileged.

I got here because I'm privileged. In order to do the Code for America Fellowship I took well over a $10,000 pay cut, I burned through my savings to move myself across the country to live in San Francisco (where CfA and fellows must be based for the year) where a one bedroom apartment is $3,500 and month and CfA gives you a $35,000 stipend (they have since raised the stipend).

In order to learn JavaScript and contribute to open source (getting that GitHub portfolio) I had to work nearly constantly. Wednesday mornings were the same as Saturday nights. For me all that suffered was my DIY blog. What if I had a parent, partner or child that depended on me? What if I couldn't move across the country or afford to take such a risk with finances? This dramatically cuts the pool of potential down to those who have monetary resources and little or no dependent obligations.

Making a living at open source is still more rare than the norm. How do people who don’t already have enough work constantly for nothing?

I got here because I had a community.

nodeconf Myself amongst many lovely people at NodeConf 2014, photo by Matthew Bergman

Another reason I am here is because I had a community. Through developers at Code for America I was introduced to a community of other developers. And they were great. They supported me, encouraged me, gave me their time and most importantly made me feel safe. And since I was living in San Francisco where a lot of developers live, I came to know many in my community personally. I wasn't afraid to ask questions in real life or in chat rooms where some of the same people I knew personally hung out.

Tech communities aren't exactly known for being welcoming and safe spaces. Without the personal introductions how long might it have taken me to find the right community? How much courage to ask questions to strangers? How many times would I be harassed or ignored before I found a safe space? What if I never joined a community because I never saw someone like myself there? How would I learn? How would I grow as a developer?

It's hard to break into tech without privilege or community, even harder into open source.

These barriers create a pool of sameness—typically white males. As a woman coming into the field from afar, I was shocked to find so few other women in open source. Women in open source are a tiny fraction of the already low number of women in tech. This smallest of pieces is then reduced even more when we talk about other minorities like people of color or non cis-gendered.

Value of Common Knowledge

In his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson describes the importance of new innovations on communities.

“…the adoption of any one innovation made adoption of certain others possible, which then, if useful, were more likely to spread. Bands and communities of bands with better combinations of cultural innovations became more productive and better equipped …Thus group selection drove the evolution of culture.”

This passage is actually about when our ancestors were leaving Africa but when I read it, I immediately thought of tech and open source.

More ideas lead to more ideas.

The value of common knowledge cannot be overestimated. We must to do better. We need all the ideas from all the people. That's what we should be aiming for.

We need an open source for everyone. Not just for the privileged and not even just for the developers.

We need an open source for designers (who make documentation easier to read and give an identity to a project), journalists and scientists (who share their data), polyglots (who make projects accessible to not just those who speak English), note takers and editors (who can make resources and documentation better), organizers (who can triage the many issues created in open source projects), mappers and data wranglers and ...

We also need an open source whenever. Not enough people can or should be able to spare all of their time for open source work, and appearing this way really hurts us.

We need everything we can get and are thankful for all that you can contribute whether it is two hours a week, one logo a year, or a copy edit twice a year. You, too, are a first class open source citizen.

So to be a place for everyone, we need to reduce the barriers to entry, for everyone, for as many people as possible. We need to change what open source “looks” like. The current image of an open source programmer needs correcting.

On my flight here to give this talk the person sitting next to me asked what I was traveling for. When I told him to speak at an open source programming conference he replied, "You don't look like a programmer."

If open source is for everyone, it can look like anyone.

Open source—the spread of ideas, common knowledge—is too important to not make changes for.


Let's talk about the privilege and community barriers and what changes we can make.


Privilege is about the advantages you have because of who you are—the happenstance of your birth—your economic situation, your gender and who you love. They’re hard to notice and they’re everywhere. The first and hardest step is to be aware of your own privilege and then to make changes so that less privilege is required from others.

Free events are not enough

Think about childcare, timing, transportation and locality. What if I have a child? What if I can’t leave work for a lunch time lecture? What if it’s difficult to get through or to the city without a car? What if I can’t afford to live in or near the city you host your events it (ahem, San Francisco). Thinking about these barriers will help us make better events for more.

Booze is not enough

I don’t mean more booze, but having an event center on an open bar or at a bar, as often happens, is not enough. This creates an environment that isn’t safe certain demographics. As a women, I don’t feel comfortable around a bunch of strange drunk men, especially if I’m likely to stand out as one of only a few women around. Additionally, take the focus off drinking—not everyone drinks and some people are in recovery. Beer isn’t needed to talk about what we do and removing it makes an event open to more.

Stack Overflow is not enough

Stack Overflow is not enough. A lot times you’ll hear people boast that everything you need to know is online and free. This, however, is only relevant if you have access to internet and a computer—so don’t just leave it at that. Provide sponsorships to conferences for those who’d likely never be able to afford to go, provide paid internships or donate physical resources like computers.

Work for free is not enough

Open source is too important to have it solely be free work in spare time—make it a viable way to earn a living for more people by proving paid internships, contracting out people who are already donating a lot of time to your project, by choosing a way to donate to the projects your company depends on.


Community should be inclusive, safe and empowering.

There is another great quote from the same book by E.O Wilson which illustrates so well the importance of community.

“Humans, it appears, are successful not because of an elevated general intelligence that addresses all challenges but because they are born to be specialists in social skills. By cooperating through the communication and the reading of intention, groups accomplish far more than the effort of any one solitary person.”

So even if we made it possible for every person to be able to contribute individually to open source, it still wouldn’t mean much if we couldn’t work together.

Use a Code of Conduct

And don't just make it a small link at the bottom of a site. Talk about it, have attendees confirm they've read it, and enforce it.

Promote diversity

So others can see themselves in your community. There are small things you can start being mindful of on the path to making your community more diverse. Think about how you portray your community in panels and photographs.

At GitHub I help with a community GitHub 101 workshop called Patchwork. Whenever we blog about an upcoming event we make sure to list the female Hubbers who will be attending. We also get female speakers (it's not that hard!). These are things that could be easily overlooked, but hopefully it enables someone else to see themselves there.

Celebrate beginners

Create frictionless ways to get started like ‘Help Wanted’ or ‘Beginner’ labels on GitHub Issues so that finding somewhere to begin is easier. Provide thoughtful code reviews on Pull Requests and write documentation as if the person reading it doesn’t know half of what you know. Have empathy; remember you were once a beginner too. We all were!

Another thing we do at Patchwork is have two short talks. One is from a GitHubber talking about how they first got into open source, sharing stories of their first Pull Request or first time using GitHub. We want to everyone to realize that we were all beginners. It’s easy to look at a programmer today and think they’re so smart and they’ve been doing this forever. But everyone started somewhere.

Get involved

Host or attend and mentor a workshop. Improve resources like documentation. Teach people who don’t look like you. Do some of the suggestion here, do other things.

Let's make an open source for everyone.