Career Nav #55: How Open Source Can Help Elevate the Careers of Those Who Have Been Historically Marginalized
Vanessa Vun, Front-End Engineer at SciShield, interviews AmyJune Hineline, Drupal Core Mentor, Drupal Project, and a co-lead of Accessibility talks. They discuss how open source can elevate careers for those who have been historically marginalized. They speak about mentoring as well.
How did you get into open source?
I'm a nurse by trade. Certain things were going on in nursing that made it more difficult as time went on. I've been in hospice nursing for a long time, and there's a lot of emotional toll that comes with hospice nursing. I had been doing some content entries on a website. It was a content management system of Drupal. I went to a Drupal camp, Stanford camp. The people were amazing, and they were so inviting. That jump-started my career in tech. These people resonate with me. Drupal is open source. I understood the value of open source from the beginning.
What were some of the challenges that you faced early on when you started?
The number one challenge I faced early on was I took these classes in Drupal, and at the end of the 12-week immersive program and taking an internship, I'm like, Hmm, I don't think code is for me. I had a set of mentors that said, well, you don't have to be a coder. You can be a project manager. You can do this. You can do that. I was in a world of coders, developers, and designers, and did not have that skill set, not realizing there are more skill-sets involved. Another challenge was the gatekeeping that happens in tech. That prompted me to mentor and improve documentation. All of those challenges I faced helped me build my career.
How did that lead to accessibility talks?
In one of the consultancies I worked for, one of the packages we gave people was accessibility. Accessibility means that everyone can access your digital goods. It means that people can choose whatever technology they want to get to your PDF, read your website or download something on their phone. Being a nurse and having to read emails to people, I understood there's a lack of privacy. When I first got into tech and had this program with this consultancy where I learned that you could make websites and digital assets accessible, it made no sense to me that it wasn't happening. There's no reason why I should be reading an email to someone. There's no reason why someone with Parkinson's can't use their phone. It started first with accessibility in Drupal, but now we've become agnostic. We have these once-a-month meetups where we talk about accessibility in general. It helps me feel fulfilled when we're teaching inclusion. Accessibility is inclusion too. Where would we be without our disabled content consumers or disabled developers?
With that involvement in accessibility and open source, how has that helped you so far? What have you been mainly teaching everyone about accessibility and open source?
My niche is open-source when it comes to accessibility. I do a lot of beginner workshops and presentations. I have the privilege of traveling to camps and giving talks. My employers have sponsored me. I have the economic privilege of being able to travel and the privilege of time too. I've given talks at various open source spaces, whether the Linux Foundation, WordPress, Drupal events or wider open source events. I give workshops on writing accessible, alternative texts. I give beginner talks too, “What are the five things you can do to your website right now to make them more accessible?” I'll do a live audit and show people how to test things manually. I work on the Drupal project in the backend, making the interface for the people who build the tools. That needs to be accessible too. Sometimes people don't think about that. They think about accessibility on the front end, where we're looking at the website, but what about those building the tools? That's important too.
What have you seen in historically marginalized people treated differently by the industry so far?
I've been pretty privileged. I talk about that a lot. I want everyone to know that coming into Drupal and WordPress are pretty inclusive spaces to begin with. They need work, but they're pretty good about having a good code of conduct, inclusive meetups, and things like that. I do see some of the challenges when it comes to open-source contributions for excluded communities because time is a privilege. You need the time. If your employer doesn't sponsor you, you need the time to give back to open source. Also, historically disabled people don't have the same resources and time. Once people are in open source, it's a lot easier. But getting into it and becoming established that's where the difficulty comes in.
How were you able to start mentoring people with their first open-source issue?
I moved from being mentored to being a mentor and then being a core mentor. We mentor the mentor. We have mentor orientations and build a network of mentors.
Besides finding mentors or having a mentor for mentors, what are some other ways that we can lower the barrier to entry in contributing?
I tell folks that you need to be a little bit vulnerable. When you're in an issue for the first time, maybe be vulnerable and say, this is my first time contributing. Join the accessibility channel, and you introduce yourself.
How would you start if you want to change the open source community within, like the one you're contributing to?
When I came to Drupal, there was already a mentor program. We've iterated on it in the seven years I've been a part of it to help with different things. Every project has different goals, and it's not all just code. As we talk about our open-source projects, we talk about how do we bring more contributors in. That's through marketing. There are a few communities out there that have mentoring playbooks. Contribution days and hackathons are where that first starts. You'll see those natural leaders who will go and help people. Those are the people that you sort of recruit for your mentoring projects.
How can people get involved in open-source projects?
What is the tool that you use? What tool do you want to use but something drastically wrong with it or you want to feature request? Look at your project page, and at the bottom, there'll be a place of how to get involved or their GitHub repository. Match your skills and passion with the project you want to participate in. If you have the privilege, go to a local Linux event or open source event and go to their booth and introduce yourself. Hackathons are good, even though they're not necessarily your passion project, but you learn the skills. You learn how to make a patch. You learn how to create an issue. You learn how to do a merge request. Sometimes those local hackathons are good for skill-based stuff you can take to your passion project.
What advice would you give someone looking to enter into tech, especially if they're historically marginalized?
Tech is a hard place to break into, especially right now there's a lot of layoffs. For those from marginalized communities, being creative about your contributions and taking some of those non-tech jobs, soft skills and wording them in a way that applies to tech. It's about that creativity. You might not have ever been a project manager at a tech company, but you've maybe managed something at your church. You've run the fall coat drive every year. Build up your open source profile on GitHub and GitLab. You can build up your resume by using your volunteer work. My drupal.org profile shows that I helped accessibility on Drupal 9. That's a skill that I did not learn at a tech shop. That's a skill I learned in open source.
Tell me a little bit about how you broke into tech with your background.
I took some coding classes, and they provided me with an internship. And I worked at an agency doing support work where it was clients who were primarily nonprofit. I did a lot of support work, like feature requests or updating websites and things like that. I'm a big advocate of networking. It's a lot about who you know. I came into another agency that said, you're a people person. I can see that you don't like doing what you're doing. How would you like to work on a community project for us? This company took me on and they paid me to contribute to Drupal. I moved to another company that paid me not only to give back to Drupal, but to go to conferences and teach first-time contributor workshops. I've had a very unique career.
How did you network?
I'd go to events and I'm just a people person. I talk to a lot of people. I started volunteering at events, like at the registration desk, because I don't know anybody, but hey, if I'm at the registration desk and checking people in, I meet people as they come in. Later at the party I'm like, oh, hey, remember me from the registration desk. I would moderate rooms. With organizing events, I would meet the speakers, trainers and sponsors.
Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Open-source projects can be used to improve the tech industry as a whole. Open source drives innovation because it's collaborative and everyone can contribute. If more voices are in the set up and the features of a product, the better the product will be. The more accessible the product will be, the more people can use it. Open source is also great because it is low cost and lowers that economic barrier.
Any final thoughts you want to share?
There is a place for every skill set, role and passion. There's always a place for everyone in open source. You don't have to be a coder or write a patch. You don't ever have to do any of that to feel like you're part of the open-source community. Your knowledge is a great way to give back to open source because your perspective differs from someone else's.