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Celebrating Newcomers at the Grace Hopper Conference

Grace Hopper Conference

Technology conferences happen nearly every day of the week — even during a pandemic. But the number of technology conferences dedicated to women and growing their skills in the industry are few and far between. The Anita B Foundation, host of the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC), strives to reach women at all levels of their technical careers. The celebration results in networking and collaboration between GHC presenters, open source leaders and beginners in the field, introducing active female maintainers to newcomers in a comfortable, judgement free environment. Anna Jung, Nisha Kumar, Rose Judge and Tracy Holmes represented the VMware Open Source Program Office and enthusiastically welcomed all types of newcomers to open source. Anna, part of the GHC Organizing Committee, was highlighted during the event’s kick off presentation for all of her hard work and dedication to the foundation and conference planning. As part of the planning effort the GHC decided to host a one day, open source focused workshop, Open Source Day and VMware’s open source leaders were there to make it all happen.

Who is Grace Hopper?

According to the Anita B Foundation, Grace Hopper was a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and one of the first women to receive a doctorate in mathematics. Grace also helped create the first compiler for computer languages, and was the first female recipient of the National Medal of Technology in 1991. In 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her many contributions to the field of computing (for more information about Grace Hopper or the Anita B Foundation visit 

The Tern Project

The container packaging team of Rose, Nisha and Tracy submitted Tern as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” project to the Grace Hopper Celebration – Open Source Day event. The team mentored several new Open Source contributors in setting up their development environment and helping them submit and merge their first ever pull requests. With unending patience and good humor, Tracy brought her sys admin skills to the table, helping to ensure everyone was technically ready to contribute. Participants, new to open source, needed to acquire new skills quickly, and with the help of the VMware team, they emerged from the event more confident in their Open Source contribution skills

Viewing the Project Through a Newcomer’s Eyes

Even after a year of Zoom meetings, virtual exhaustion didn’t seem to affect the conference attendees’ participation in Tern. For this conference, there were around 1200 people registered and 50% of those attendees actually came to participate, around 50% of that group actively submitted pull requests. Rose spoke about the comfort of the participants, noting that working directly with a female maintainer allowed collaborators to ask all of their questions without feeling intimidated by the perception of judgement women sometimes feel in mixed company. Aside from having different experience levels, many of the participants felt excited and satisfied when they submitted their pull requests, and were often asking for more bugs to fix. Nisha added, “Contributing to open source is particularly scary because there is no face at the other end of it, making a pull request is like taking a shot in the dark, but most maintainers are quite kind and excited to accept you as a contributor.” Even after all of the troubleshooting and slow start to the day, Tracy stated that even the newbies fixed all of the bugs the Tern team had flagged for the day. Rose noted how fun it was to watch a lightbulb go off in new contributors’ heads and to witness proud moments and hear them say, “Oh my gosh, I can do this!”

Lessons Learned for Both Mentor and Mentee

Although there were many successes at this event, some of the best successes were the problems identified. For Rose, Nisha and Tracy, they encountered attendees working on Mac or PC, rather than Linux, which invited new challenges considering the project was written for a single coding environment. This allowed the Tern maintainers to rethink their project documentation, in order to create easier on-ramping for collaborators working in different environments. Tracy believes that documentation is much more important than most open source contributors believe, and that it can make or break a project. For the upcoming conference in the fall, the Tern team realized in order to have a more successful day, they need to create step by step instructions in various environments, rather than assuming everyone is comfortable using Linux. Rose believes writing and editing open source is like baking a cake and you have to follow the recipe to get to the final treat. 

Making Connections

For the next conference, the Tern team wants to highlight offerings of the conference to each participant, while still having them join the Tern breakout session. The conference provides introductory sessions such as GitHub 101, specially designed for newcomers. Participants in their breakout session were submitting their first pull requests, so the team spent a lot of time teaching the basics of GitHub. Although there were many first timers, and many nuances to work through, the Tern team felt that this event was extremely successful, and gained some long term interest from contributors who are likely to join the Fall conference. Survey results published by the GHC Committee revealed most teams will return in the Fall and enjoyed introducing new contributors to their projects. Anna, who worked on the committee side, noted, “Open source is all about people, and if you like the project but you don’t like the people, you get turned off by it, and making that connection can help increase the project contributions.”

If you’re planning on attending GHC in the fall, here’s some light homework to set you up for a successful conference. 

Come see the Tern team in September at the Fall Grace Hopper Conference. We’re always looking for new Tern contributors and welcome you to participate. If you’d like to learn more about Tern, or join one of their community calls that occur every other week, view the Tern GitHub page, and if you’re interested in how contributing to Open Source can boost your career, see our recent article here


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