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Diversity and Inclusion: Two Success Factors for Open Source

Diversity is the source of creativity and innovation. Where a myriad of different ideas and perspectives gather, the spark of innovation will catch fire. This is one of the tenets of open source: by removing artificial boundaries imposed by an employer’s badge or proprietary ambitions, the opportunity for new ideas, new use cases, and new solutions flourish. When you encourage and expect more people from different backgrounds to help design, develop and solve the result is invariably a better, more complete outcome. 

“Study after study reveals that diversity in participation produces better outcomes and more robust technologies—that diverse communities are simply stronger communities.”

– Linux Foundation

While the open source ecosystem may profess diversity and inclusion as a key enabler, what’s the reality? That’s what the Linux Foundation set out to discover with their recent study and subsequent report: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Open Source (December 2021). Their findings identified eight practices for improving diversity and inclusion. And what’s key here is inclusion: because diversity by itself is only a half measure. Diversity efforts may result in attracting new faces, but without inclusion, those new faces lack the opportunity to participate meaningfully. So what are the barriers to diversity and its twin, inclusion, that we can tear down? With DEI as bedrock operating principles for VMware’s Open Source Program Office, we decided to hold up a mirror and look at what we found and where tomorrow’s opportunities lie, for the work is never done. Here are some of our tips.  

The Language Factor

Good communication is the foundation for a successful community. And in order to have good communication, it’s critical that the open source community prioritizes inclusive language. According to the latest survey from the Linux Foundation, there are some areas for improvement when it comes to the language factor in open source. While 81% of those surveyed can read and write English well, there are others for whom language presents a barrier to participation or belonging in open source communities. 

Exclusionary behaviors like poor communication can have a cascading effect on contributors’ experience and retention. While toxic experiences are generally infrequent, issues such as aggressive language are more frequently experienced by certain groups. Furthermore, 18% of the total sample of respondents stated that they’ve experienced written or spoken language that made them feel unwelcome, with the percentage increasing based on certain demographics. 

The bottom line? Words matter. While words can lay the foundation for great team collaboration, they can also create an unnecessary barrier. VMware advocates for clear communication, unfettered by acronyms and “secret” insider phrases to prevent language from being a barrier to entry for new-comers to open source. Open source communication takes many forms: from meetups and chat rooms to README files, demo instructions, code of conduct, even pull requests and commit messages. All of these elements inform and teach potential users and contributors about the project. The clearer a project’s communication, the more informed and welcomed newcomers will feel within the community. Here are some open source communication tips to help ensure communication isn’t a barrier to contribution. 

The Path to Open Source Leadership 

Leaders have a tremendous impact on the culture of an organization and can influence a variety of outcomes. Diversity in leadership means greater breadth of experience and perspective, which allows for a greater ability to relate to team members of different backgrounds. But does the path to open source leadership help foster this diversity? 

According to the Linux Foundation, people’s backgrounds can impact equitable access to open source participation early in their careers, compounding representation in leadership later on. Only 37% of survey respondents agree that there are clear processes to becoming a leader or maintainer in an open source project. Furthermore, 22% of respondents disagreed that equal opportunity exists for people with different backgrounds to be part of the decision-making process in open source.

As noted in the report, improving diversity among leadership can also have a compounding effect, as Dawn Foster, Director of Open Source Community Strategy at VMware explains: “It becomes much easier for people to feel included when they can see people in leadership positions who are like them.”

Creating a robust pipeline of new open source leaders is critical to the sustainability of projects. New leaders infuse new ideas and can provide the added spark that a sleepy project needs. So – what’s needed to build that pipeline? It starts with knowing how and where to engage in open source communities. But it doesn’t end there: today’s leaders and maintainers need to lower the ladder even more to ensure today’s beginners can join, participate and learn. Tim Pepper, Senior Staff Engineer in VMware’s Open Source Technology Center, explains what it takes to be a good open source maintainer and what interpersonal skills are required to do the job well. 

“Maintainers are facilitators. They work to understand the skills, resources, and partners that the people on their project need in order to succeed and then help them secure them. Importantly, they also know that they are not expected to do everything themselves. As in many other walks of life, leaders like that burn out fast. Good maintainers understand when and where to delegate, when to explain, and even when to leave things for people to discover on their own.” 

 – Tim Pepper, Senior Staff Engineer, VMware

But what if you have yet to break into an open source community? If you’re interested in getting started in a source position, VMware’s Senior Member of Technical Staff, Carlisia Thompson, shares steps that you can take to start becoming a sought-after open source candidate, gain significant personal and career satisfaction, and accelerate your career in a way that only open source can. And to get started take a look at Anna Jung’s practical advice in her blog “5 Things you Should Know”. Bebe Landau, former VMware Marketing Co-op, said it best when she stated, “We need to constantly open the door for newcomers, or else we will be disregarded by all of the endlessly talented creatives and entrepreneurs that could be so influential to innovation.”

Evolving Open Source Education  

“Education is crucial for advancing inclusion because building awareness and substantiating it with research and scenarios helps to integrate best practices into communities.” 

– Linux Foundation

Education plays a huge part in increasing the diversity of open source. According to the report, there is a great opportunity to further open source diversity efforts by extending DE&I training programs into areas unique to open source. Some examples of these unique areas include defining what “good” code review looks like, or the qualities of “accessible” documentation or how to run a community project meeting or answer questions in online forums. Developing specific resources and trainings to answer these questions can help ensure that every open source community member is educated on how they can make the community a better, more inclusive place. 

VMware wants to ensure that our employees are well-versed in open source best practices. To that end, our OSPO acts as a central “brain” for VMware best practices and helps to mentor and educate employees as they enter into open source communities and begin their journey at VMware. Mentoring can be a powerful tool aiding in the balance of diversity and inclusion. Mentorship can provide more transparent conversation across the lines of generation, gender, disciplines, and lifestyles, providing the mentor with insights into the aspirations and challenges of people unlike themself. 

Additionally, VMware leaders such as Dawn Foster help provide broader access to useful open source information through her leadership in the TODO group. As a returning member of the TODO Steering Committee, she’s collaborated with other members to create best practice guides for open source community members on topics like licensing, forming an OSPO and more. For more tips on implementing open source best practices, check out the other guides by the TODO group, including Building an Inclusive Open Source Community

More Diversity, Better Technology

Open source was founded on the philosophy that source code should be free and open for all to use and contribute to. In an environment that thrives on collaboration, open source needs diverse perspectives to create better technologies, better products, and more inclusive digital economies. 

Stay tuned to the Open Source Blog and follow us on Twitter for more deep dives into the world of open source contributing.


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