the illumos number that bothers me (and what we need to do about it)


I just got back late last night from Surge 2014 and illumos Day, which immediately followed Surge the next day. There were some great talks going on, which I’m sure I’ll also be writing about. But the first speaker in particular dropped something on me that’s bothering me, and it should bother pretty much anyone that hears it.

Garrett D’Amore, founder of the illumos project, crawled through all of the commits and made a really interesting discovery. This is a four year old project, and remains relatively obscure (though some very visible things have come out of it, like zfs). In those four years, about 150 unique contributors have committed code into illumos-gate, the shared core of the illumos ecosystem that distributions are built on. Now on the surface, this number sounds pretty wicked cool. illumos is a fairly unknown project, sadly, so to score commits from 150 engineers sounds like a really good thing. Or is it?

Of those 150 unique commiters, 0 of them were women.

Zero. Zilch. Nada. None.

While we all know that, for whatever reason, software development has developed a sad stereotype of being almost exclusively a male pursuit, we’ve made some strides over the last n years in being more inclusive on the gender spectrum. We’re seeing more women not just participating in technology, but leading the way. We get a lot of value out of having women involved in software, not just in the doubling of the size of the potential talent pool, but in having greater diversity of thought and perspective in how we solve tough problems together.

While we’re definitely still far from seeing a 50:50 blending of male and female engineers on software projects and at technical conferences, there is some movement and it’s good, and we need to keep getting better at it. But the dirty little shame of illumos, now brought to the surface by Mr. D’Amore, is we’ve managed to attract none of them into committing code to the crown jewels of the illumos ecosystem.

Now, to the credit of the community, the ~20 people in the room at the time immediately stopped the forward momentum of progressing through the slides and engaged in passionate dialog about contributing factors, a little bit of grasping about what we could do about it. We don’t really understand the full scope of the problem yet, so it’s hard to really identify effective solutions.

Bryan Cantrill of Joyent spoke very passionately about assholes being the bane of the Open Source community, and how effective they are at chasing good people away from the community. Part of the solution, it would seem, is to not allow alienating social behavior to enjoy influence. This line of conversation grew legs, and ran around the room a good bit. We’ve got some more to talk about here.

There was also a good deal of agreement that the illumos community is a friendlier place for new contributors to come and find ways to get involved than many larger (and more prominent) projects. As someone who has sort of nipped around the edges of this community, I have to agree, I’ve found it really easy to get help in a very collaborative way. What we’ve not done a good job at is marketing, at sharing this with people outside of the community, which is part of why I feel it’s important to tweet about what we’re doing, blog about it, speak, etc.

There was a sense in the room that we couldn’t really quantify, but that several openly suspected was there, that women have maybe tried getting involved in the Linux community and several (or maybe many) have been alienated by some of the bad behavior that can often go on in those communities. The question posed, but not yet answered, was how do we get them to come hang out with us and see that we want them to feel welcome and valued here?

I don’t think we really have the answers at all yet. I don’t think we have even asked the right questions yet. But this conversation is crucial to the survival of illumos, so it needs to continue, and it must result in real improvements to our gender diversity.

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3 comments

  1. I would have to agree that assholes are the bane of the open source software community. I would have code in ppp and likely Samba if it was not for people generally being jerks and assholes over the years. But it was the very fact that people were being jerks that drove me to open the code and see what I could do or what the problem really was. Maybe it is the way that I’m wired, but it makes me think that every community needs a good balance between the extremes with people in the middle to moderate and generally just play nice.

    Part of the problem may be that women might be looking at their problems with a different goal in mind because women tend to have different life priorities. Working in the OpenStack community, I’ve had to remind myself more then once that the nitpicks are not because of my gender, but for the betterment of final output and that the main driver of disagreement or the question of why is truly just because of differing context.

    None of this will realistically change until the sexism in the technology industry gets a major attitude adjustment as it simply drives women away. Even worse is the ageism that gets applied to women in technology. Most of the women I know that work in the technology industry simply don’t expect to have technology jobs by the time they are 45-50, and honestly, I feel that way as well.

    1. The ageism comment is enlightening. I hadn’t thought of the horrible intersection between ageism and sexism. We need to tackle this; I think it will be easier actually to tackle the sexism half of the problem.

      It is true that the open source community can be incredibly perfectionist (although I submit that there are plenty of projects that clearly are *not* perfectionist. Recent bugs (heartbleed and shellsock as examples), demonstrate that quite clearly. I think the Linux kernel largely does too, but I am biased there. 🙂

      Certainly when interacting within the illumos community, anyone who might be tempted to find discriminatory bias in the standard should simply look at our history and previous code reviews. Believe me, everyone gets picked on — but that goal of high quality is the real motivation.

      So, let me make it clear; if you’re a woman (and also if you’re not!), I have at least one opening in my company, and I also want to try to welcome you to illumos. If you’re already deeply technical, that’s great. But if you’re a woman and you’re interested in becoming more deeply technical, I’m willing to invest some personal cycles in mentorship to help you do so in the context of illumos. I think this will be good for illumos, but it can also be an opportunity to for you (whoever you are) to grow. You can find me at garrett -at- damore -dot- org. Google finds me easily too. 🙂

      – Garrett

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