Talks Tech #43: Being a Technical Evangelist in the Open Source Ecosystem

Talks Tech #43: Being a Technical Evangelist in the Open Source Ecosystem

Written by Divya Mohan


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Bhavya Batra, Product Manager and a Web3 Evangelist at Xponents Ventures Private Limited, and Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code Blockchain Track, sits down with Divya Mohan, Senior Technical Evangelist at SUSE. They discuss, “Being a Technical Evangelist and a Developer Advocate in the Open Source Ecosystem.”

Can you tell us how you first got interested in tech? 

In school, I was naturally inclined to the sciences. I was inclined to the arts as well. I generally had an inclination toward physics in particular. I wanted to take my PhD in physics. I first graduated in electronics and then pivoted to software engineering. It was a matter of tapping into the interest. I don’t think I’ve had a very straightforward journey into tech, the industry as I know it right now. It’s been a very interesting journey so far.

What were the formative experiences or the turning point that led you into tech? 

The very first encounter that I had with programming, coding, or development, was before what we call, a junior college in Maharashtra. It is 11th and 12th grade, for the rest of India. The summer vacations between the two, I ended up enrolling in Java and C++. At the age of 14, I barely knew anything about coding, but I was like, “This sounds interesting.” I pivoted into engineering, which was not software. I was like, “I’m not really good at writing software or developing software.” It was electronics for another four years after my 12th grade. I eventually pivoted back to software.

Tell us more about the first project that pulled you back into engineering in software.

After I graduated in electronics, I ended up doing a lot of systems engineering. For a major chunk of my career, I was doing all sorts of systems engineering work. I got the opportunity to work on my development skills. It was just basically writing shell scripts and batch scripts for automation. I started onboarding myself into the front-end side of things. I learned HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. I’m not going to say that I’m really great at coding or programming even today. I think I’m fairly good with the basics and I can easily translate between languages. I can figure out what works in one language and how to actually carry that into another language framework. I have that mental model there. I think that’s what matters in the whole of the industry. That’s the basic concept that you need.

Did you have any important role models that helped you through your journey and motivated you to take on tech? 

My very first role model with respect to tech was my sister. She’s actually a Ph.D. She now lives in London. She’s doing cancer research and cures for cancer. She was my very first inspiration to say, “Ah, this is possible. You can actually do things.” As women, you are not really encouraged to take science as an option. My parents and my whole family have been very encouraging, but in general that’s not the case. It was nice to have a role model. I read a lot. I am in awe of all the women who’ve come before us in tech, who’ve paved the way for us in tech. Marie Curie was the first person I came to know about in that regard. I also read about Ada Lovelace, who was the first programmer.

What was your relationship with open source when you got started? 

I knew about open source. I knew just one open-source project, and that was Linux. I worked on Linux because I was a systems administrator. The turning point came when I actually got exposed to Kubernetes as a project. That is how I entered into the whole open-source ecosystem as a contributor.

What was the role of the community in developing your career?

I genuinely think that without the support of a lot of people within the open-source community, I wouldn’t have been where I was. I did not know a lot about this community when I was working in the silos. I did whatever I was supposed to do and went back home. When I wanted to start learning, I found the type of people that I wanted to learn alongside and grow alongside. They have played an invaluable part in who I am today.

How did you ease into the community structure, how did that transition happen for you? 

I was very intimidated, I lurked a lot. I did more research than actually speaking up at places I should have spoken up in retrospect. From my perspective, when I tried entering open source, I was already an experienced professional. I had six to seven years of experience under my belt. So it was like, “People will think I’m stupid.” That’s the first thing that comes to your mind. People will judge me. People are going to say, “Oh, you know what? Maybe she doesn’t deserve to come this far or maybe she doesn’t deserve to be in the community.” Because of the pandemic, I had a lot of time to do my research, to attend virtual conferences, to ease myself into a community of people I had never met before.

How did technical writing play into your career? 

I did not have any formal plans of making this my career. Before I joined open source, I finished my major in engineering. I did this really short stint for social media management where I was a content writer for a digital media company. I was also a social media manager for their brand. I also wrote for a newspaper after that. I covered the general elections of 2014 for TNA, which is a newspaper in India. I read a lot and write a lot. I am crazy about books. Technical writing was not on my radar. I knew I was good at writing, I knew I was good at reading. The open source actually opened this door for me. When I realized that in the community there were documents and websites that needed to be edited, I was like, hey, that sounds like something I can do. I ended up applying to CERN. They made me go through the technical documentation that they had for a data management system named Rucio. That data management system actually collects data from the Large Hadron Collider. They basically told me, “You know what read through the entire documentation of Rucio and just a summary or a document about what this particular aspect of Rucio does.” That was my first stint at formally and technically writing alongside my day job, which was doing work at HSBC. I started looking out and luckily, there was a technical writer position available with my current company. That is how I ended up being a technical writer.

Is it important to have mentors on your journey? 

Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of it is associated with mentorship. I wouldn’t say that you call everyone your mentor, but there are going to be some key people in your life who are going to teach you more, who you are going to interact with more, and whose input you are going to seek out more. There are mentors and I believe that you should seek them out.

You are a developer advocate and a technical evangelist as well, so reader and writer to a speaker. How did that journey begin? 

My passion for tech came about because of my sister and then a lot of mentors and role models along the way. Via advocating for tech, I felt like I could also empower other minorities in tech to come on board. I thought, “I’m actually good at tech and I’m also good at communicating. Maybe I should see if there’s something for me that combines this.” When I started out, there was not a role that actually spoke to this. Developer advocacy was not really a fad or a trend back in 2013. I get to hang out at conferences and I get to talk to people about technology, which I love. I get to learn new technology.

You discuss how it’s important to be understandable by everyone. How do you usually communicate between product and development? 

That’s definitely a challenge. We all use different ways to say the same thing. When it comes to balancing or talking to either side, I do not know what your pain points are unless I actually communicate with you. It’s absolutely essential that I speak your language. It’s absolutely essential that we’re on the same page. It could be as simple as a coffee chat. It doesn’t necessarily need to be this actual meeting with 10,000 people in attendance. You connect with other people in your organization, you talk to them over coffee chats. You put yourself in their positions, write up summaries of your meetings, see if that checks out with the other person.

How did open source continue to play a role in your career throughout all of this? 

I work in a company that’s primarily open-source. I’m a maintainer for documentation on the Kubernetes project. I’m also an ambassador for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation which houses a lot of the open source, cloud-native projects. I have been consistently involved with the Kubernetes project and other projects in the ecosystem in different capacities.

What do you think is the most important thing for someone in your position to always have in mind? 

The mindset of learning. Be a nice person. We have too much negativity and hatred in the tech industry. When you’re a nice person who’s not a doormat, and you know how to advocate for yourself, I think opportunities do find their way. Keep your eyes open to the opportunities around you. Do work and do a brilliant job, but also talk about the stuff that you do because that’s extremely important.

What do you see in the future of open source? What’s the next big thing coming through? 

A huge, huge thing around licensing and security. With AI and ML and more complicated structures coming into the picture, there is a human component involved. There are so many potential licensing loopholes that need to be addressed. That’s another sphere that is going to take prominence when it comes to a lot of these complex technologies that are evolving side by side.

Do you have any advice for women in tech while looking to move into a leadership role? 

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t learn to advocate for myself. That is the major takeaway I’ve had across my journey in tech. A lot of us really do a really good job of whatever roles are assigned to us, but we somehow don’t get a seat at the table.

Host: Bhavya Batra, Product Manager and a Web3 Evangelist at Xponents Ventures Private Limited, and Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code Blockchain Track
Guest: Divya Mohan, Senior Technical Evangelist at SUSE
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Content, Women Who Code