F Yeah!

TL;DR: Give The Ada Initiative $128 today (or $10/month), and you’ll get the coolest sticker I’ve seen in ages!

F-Word: Feminism

For a long time, I was afraid to use the F-word. I studied CS, linguistics & German at university, and got into open source as a user and documentation contributor, more than a decade ago. I pretty quickly moved on to more community- and event-organisational things in my hobby/open source work, while continuing as a tech writer in my professional work (which has been a mix of open source and not).

And throughout my education, and my early open source days, I really tried to be “one of the guys”. It was hard, but I got good at it. I was elected to the board of the Apache Software Foundation, and appointed Executive Vice President of the Foundation. I remain the only woman to have achieved either of those distinctions. And when I did, I was told–on a mailing list!–that whether or not I was comfortable with the choice of imagery, I had big balls.

By then, though, I had realised that something was broken. Why should I need to have balls, whatever their size, metaphorical or literal, to do something I loved and was good at? Why should I have to adapt myself to fit an environment that was built by and for people who weren’t like me?

The Ada Initiative was still just an idea, without a real shape, or even a name, at that time. But as that shape emerged, from the two awesome women who founded it, through the group of role models and inspirations who advise and continue to run it, to the innumerable supporters who make it possible, it has made real and lasting change. It has provided a welcoming environment of its own, and has given many other groups the tools they needed to adapt the environments they had built, to be inclusive of people who weren’t like them.

Right now, I’m working–and being paid!–to help organize AdaCamp Berlin. This is literally a dream come true for me: volunteer work is amazing, but it has to be singing in a choir or it very quickly leads to burnout. Seeing the huge demand for AdaCamp Berlin, as well as the interest from other folk in running similar events in the future, is incredibly rewarding. And being paid for the value I bring is an important act of feminism.

The Ada Initiative is doing amazing work, but it needs individual donations, not just ethical corporate sponsors, to keep it going. Donate today to help us run more AdaCamps and Ally Skills Workshops, and develop more programs like our Anti-Harassment Policy and our Impostor Syndrome Training.

And, if you give $128 (or $10/month), you can get an awesome sticker pack, including the F-Word sticker designed just for this campaign! Stick it to your laptop, or to the man–it’s up to you :-)

My new job's not so new, but it's still incredible

I’ve been meaning to write about my new job for a while: in fact, almost a year.

Fifty-three weeks ago today, I got permission to work in the US. The following Monday, my Social Security Number arrived in the mail, and I started work at Eucalyptus Systems. A year ago today, I flew down to Santa Barbara to get oriented, meet (some of!) my team, and start in on what’s been an absolutely fantastic adventure.

Eucalyptus’s official tagline is “open source software for building AWS-compatible private and hybrid clouds”. I describe it to my techy friends as “open source, Amazon-compatible, private/hybrid cloud solution, fully buzzword compliant”. I describe it to my non-techy friends as “the dullest technology I’ve ever worked on, with the best people”. If you’re not working in infrastructure or operations, it might not be obvious, so I follow that up by explaining that in this case, dull is a Really Good Thing. If you’re working on consumer products, sure, “exciting” is great. My ops friends, on the other hand, would rarely choose to work on “exciting”, given the option!

My introduction to Eucalyptus was through Anne Gentle, who I worked with at the Doc Sprint Summit, so I started out favourably inclined. I talked with Scot Marvin, who was already working there as a writer (you’re a startup? Looking for a second writer? How fast are you growing!?), and it sounded good.

Before I went to interview in person though, I looked at their Team page. I freaked out. This was not going to work out. Scot recently described what I’d been wearing when I first met him as a shibboleth. I had to ask him what I’d had on, and we agreed that unintentional as it was, it really was: a test of whether these were my people. And looking at the team page, I was pretty sure that they weren’t.

My flights were bought, though, and I was mostly killing time waiting for US immigration, so I went down. I met almost the whole office that day, and was reasonably impressed. They made me an offer before I even had work authorization, and after negotiating on the details (and getting my work authorization!), I accepted.

It definitely wasn’t love at first sight. There were problems, there were stumbling blocks. But for the first time in my professional life, none of them had anything to do with my gender. None of them even had anything to do with the fact that I was writing documentation rather than code. And all of them were handled. They were handled in a timely manner, they were handled well, they were handled with care, and respect, and a view to a resolution that worked for everyone.

And as I read (and nod along with!) what Shanley has written about culture, as I see what continues to go on in our industry, I fall more and more in love with my employer and my colleagues.

I work with truly excellent people. We hire the very best people, even if it means going without or finding a backup or substitute for a while. We’re able to do so in part because we’re not just open to remote workers: we’re set up, and we work hard, to do distributed teams and do them well. It’s not always easy: working with people who mostly appear as words on a screen just isn’t. It’s not necessarily cheap: if we need to meet up in person, we’re encouraged to do so. It’s probably not the most efficient: I know I spend time trying to figure out who to ask, or writing up a question, that would just have been a matter of shouting out in a busy open-plan space at previous jobs. But it’s really, really worth it. Every single person I work with, I would choose again given the chance. I’m one of the few who hasn’t worked with any of my Eucalyptus colleagues previously, and when I first started, that seemed a little odd. Now I understand why: these are really great people, and I’d follow them to the ends of the earth.

I work with people who have passions, and responsibilities, outside of their jobs. Some are parents, certainly, but those whose outside activities are not family-oriented are equally respected. We recognise, and appreciate, that these things are important. Much of our recent All Hands meeting was made up of lightning talks from people across the company, on everything from children (and story books!) to provision management systems, from the Honor Flight Network to storage area networks. And many of the best-received, the ones we were talking about for days and weeks afterwards, were not the technical talks.

I work with people who care. And in caring about each other, and the people around us, we create better software. We work reasonable hours, take time off when we’re sick, switch off on vacation. We’re expected to do these things, we’re encouraged to do these things, and we’re supported by our colleagues when we do these things. And in return, we bring our very best to work.

These qualities don’t come from the top down, or the bottom up. I think they come from the inside out. Our software came out of a research group, was built by people who believe in these things, and that has been written into our DNA as a project, a community, and a company. Our CEO talks eloquently about managing a distributed organisation, and how important it is to manage through vision and culture. Simon Sinek talks about the Golden Circle. And at Eucalyptus, we live in that. We believe challenging the state of the art, we believe that we can do better, and we care enough to try.

My CV has a lot of recognisable names on it. I’ve worked at Microsoft and Google, at MIT’s Media Lab Europe and Trinity College Dublin. But I can say, hands down, Eucalyptus is the best place I’ve ever worked.

Eucalyptus-Goer Five!

(I’m spending my birthday in hospital, and on regular doses of opium. No really! This may not be as entertaining to you as it was to me.)

‘Eucalyptus’ runs on computers and lets you make pretend computers out of the real computers. You can make pretend computers appear when you need them, and you can make as many as you need. This lets you use your real computers better. You can use lots of real computers, or just a few. You can even use other people’s real computers.

People who want to use your computers can make a pretend computer when they need one, and when they’re finished, they can make the pretend computer go away. They can save pretend computers, so that they can check how things work as they make changes, without having to keep a computer waiting for when they want to check. They can make pretend computers that look different, without having to change the real computers. Other people can make different pretend computers out of the same real computers. People can make a pretend computer that’s as big or as small as they need. You can add more real computers at any time, and it won’t change anything for the people who use your computers.

‘Eucalyptus’ lets you make pretend computers on your computers, but it also works with other people’s computers. If you don’t have enough real computers, you can use computers like the ones that ‘Amazon_Web_Services’ has. ‘AWS’ works like ‘Eucalyptus’, and if you have computer words that work with it, they should work with ‘Eucalyptus’ too.

The computer words that make ‘Eucalyptus’ work are there for anyone to look at, or change. Anyone can make ‘Eucalyptus’ better, or look at how it works and make something that can work with it.

The people who make ‘Eucalyptus’ are nice people, and they want to hear what you think. You can write to them at If ‘Eucalyptus’ isn’t working for you, there is a way to tell them what’s broken so they can fix it, at

Advice from my own meandering experience

(I recently posted a beta version of this advice to the Google Summer of Code mentors list. By popular demand, it now appears for the first time in public. With thanks to Mary Schmich!)

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Open Source community, PARTICIPATE!

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, participation would be it. The long term benefits of participation have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your community–oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your community until they have faded.

But trust me, in six months you’ll look back in your version control system and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous your roadmap really was. You’re not as buggy as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the number of contributors you have, or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to fix a bug by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your project are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing everyday that you didn’t think would work.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s patches, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.


Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, you have all the features you can handle.

Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults; if you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old design docs, throw away your old flame wars.


Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your code. The most interesting projects I know didn’t know in ’99 what they wanted to do about the Millennium Bug, some of the most interesting projects I know still don’t.

Get plenty of peer review.

Be kind to your wrists, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll release, maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll be forked, maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll be obsolete by 2015, maybe you’ll be powering the White House in 2052. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either–your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s. Enjoy your community, use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it, it’s the greatest asset you’ll ever have.

Communicate, even if it’s only with the two other people who care about your code.

Keep the README up to date, even if no one ever reads it.

Do NOT read IT magazines, they will only make you feel angry.

Get to know your fellow communities, you never know what they’ll be contributing to your project.

Be nice to your fellow contributors; they are the best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that committers come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on to. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when your codebase was young.

Write a web framework once, but quit before it makes you hard; write a parser once, but quit before it makes you soft.


Accept certain inalienable truths: code will get tangled, managers will misunderstand, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young code was clean, managers understood tech and your C64 was user-friendly.

Respect your peers.

Don’t expect anyone else to maintain your code. Maybe you have a docs team, maybe you have some great maintenance programmers; but you never know when either one might get carpal tunnel.

Don’t mess too much with your website, or by the time you’re out of beta, it will look like Geocities.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the bitbucket, wiping it off, putting interfaces over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the participation.

Meme seen everywhere

Pick up the nearest book to you. Turn to page 45. The first sentence describes your sex life in 2012.

“Instead, after organizing the transport of water, food and ammunition up the hill, he took a nap.”
–General Warren and the Battle of Spion Kop, in Military Blunders, by Saul David

I LOL’d.

BBC's Faces of the Year

I’m pretty sure I complained about last year’s version too, but I didn’t write it down, so I’m saving this one for posterity.

The BBC has published four “Faces of the Year” articles this week: “the men” and “the women” for the UK and international markets.

Removing gender references, here are the lists:

January UK: An undercover police officer: infiltrated activists then changed sides.
Intl: A produce vendor: self-immolated when produce was confiscated, which sparked riots.
A politician: was shot.
February UK: An acting professional: won an Oscar.
Intl: A screenwriter: won an Oscar.
A singer: achieved two top-five hits simultaneously.
March UK: A rubbish collector: made a rap video that went big.
Intl: A prime minister: resigned.
A protestor: spoke up about being assaulted.
April A police officer: was killed in a sectarian bombing. UK: A designer: designed a wedding dress.
Intl: A party planner: was part of a wedding party.
May An admiral: planned the attack on bin Laden’s compound. A hotel worker: accused a politician of rape.
June A golfer: won the US Open. UK: A college administrator: had photos misrepresented as part of an identity fraud.
Intl: A tennis player: won a Grand Slam.
July UK: A news editor: was investigated for scandals.
Intl: A right-wing extremist: killed 77 people.
An Olympic athlete: got married.
August UK: A student: was mugged by people who had initially seemed to be helping him, after he was knocked off his bike by rioters.
Intl: A Tottenham resident: was shot by police, which sparked riots.
UK: A campaigner against gang violence: spoke out against looters in the local community.
Intl: A politician: won a straw poll in home state.
September A farmer: suggested that Rihanna and her entourage acquaint themselves with God. UK: A nurse: was arrested on suspicion of administering poison.
Intl: A politician: opened a debate at the UN.
October UK: A business owner: was accused of exercising undue influence over a politician.
Intl: A soldier returned home after being held captive abroad.
A wealthy aristocrat: got married.
November UK: A football manager: committed suicide.
Intl: An economist: became Prime Minister.
A marine: went on a date.
December A politician: was accused of sexual harassment. A panda: was a panda.

Now, I’m sure by now you’ve worked out which list is the men and which is the women. In case you haven’t, here are the original articles:
Faces of the Year 2011 – the men (UK edition)
Faces of the Year 2011 – the men (intl edition)
Faces of the Year 2011 – the women (UK edition)
Faces of the Year 2011 – the women (intl edition)

I’m not going to add much more commentary, because the rage is making me less than wholly coherent. But seriously, of the sixteen women featured, FULLY 25% of them are featured for their involvement in a wedding (and that’s assuming you accept the panda bear as a woman). That number is the same for both the UK and the international editions. And, in both editions, one more woman is featured for having gone on a date.

Despite the fact that all of these weddings (and the date), were between a man and a woman, and despite the fact that, across the two editions, more men are featured than women, not ONE SINGLE (or married :-p) man is featured for his involvement in a wedding or date. If you want to count sexual harassment, assault and rape in with those things, which I’d really rather not, we get one man (1/19), and another two women (making 7/16 in total, or 7/15 if you don’t count the panda).

Did I mention that of the 16 women featured across the two editions, 6.25% of them ARE PANDA BEARS!? There are more panda bears on BBC’s “Faces of the Year – the women” than there are women in Open Source. As Schwern pointed out last night, this stuff is much funnier when you don’t have to live it.

As a woman, I hate the idea of being applauded for something that’s just normal when a guy does it. I can’t stand the idea of special treatment. But if the women who are being lauded as “Faces of the Year” are being featured for their romantic lives, or their being a cute cuddly animal, maybe it is time for a women-focused “Faces of the Year: people who actually did cool stuff”.

Anyone want to put that together? I’ll send something nice to the first three people who compile one :-)

Keep The Ada Initiative Open!

The Ada Initiative is raising money for their 2012 activities. They’re primarily funded by donations, and can’t do it without us! To support their full-time work on supporting women in open technology and culture, donate now! And if you can’t donate, please do what you can to help spread the word :-)

I love being part of an open culture. Adore it, believe in it, treasure it. But how can I work in an industry where long-standing members of our communities think I should expect to be assaulted at professional conferences?

Regularly, I ask myself “what about teaching? Or hey, maybe go into publishing?”. Or hell, just go back to Microsoft, get out of Open Source. Proprietary IT is still sexist, but my Microsoft colleagues always stayed within the bounds of decency.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in life. I come from a wonderful family who afforded me every opportunity. I’ve worked hard, pushed forward, tried for the impossible, and had some amazing strokes of dumb luck :-) But I haven’t, and I can’t, do it on my own.

For the last year, The Ada Initiative have had my back, and the backs of women in a cross-section of open, technical cultures. They’re the reason I haven’t quit the industry entirely, even as I’ve stepped down from my more visible roles. They’re the reason I continue to contribute in quieter ways, to smaller projects.

They are, as I said before, dedicated to a simple vision: a world in which women are equal and welcome participants in open technology, open data, and open culture. Their strategy for change is equally simple: give concrete, straight-forward advice to willing and eager audiences. They focus their effort on programs that are scalable, reusable, and effective, and they are committed to providing their work completely free of charge.

But this is a full-time job for two highly-qualified tech professionals. This isn’t a job that can be done on volunteer time. And although they’ve had seed funding from companies and major individual contributors, they need ongoing support in order to keep up the good work. It’s up to us to make sure they can stay open.

And that’s where you come in. The Ada Initiative has launched a campaign for donations to keep them running past the start of next year! If you want to support their vision, if you think women should be able to attend conferences without fear of being assaulted, if you want to help make sure that the next generation of women are welcomed into computing, you can donate at And either way, don’t forget to spread the word!

Last week, I wrote a book!

Three of them, actually :-) And, of course, in the finest traditions of Open Source, it was a (very!) collaborative effort.

Back in July, only a week or two after I’d given notice at Google, the Open Source Programs Office there published a Call for Proposals for a Doc Camp to be held in association with the Google Summer of Code program. I applied, with very little real idea of what was involved. We’d write a book in a week. Freely licensed, on some aspect of Open Source… stuff.

I misread the application form, and thought that proposals would be selected by August 5th. So, when I hadn’t heard anything by the second week of August, I assumed I was out. Not so! A week or two later, I got an email to say I’d been accepted! Google organised the hotel for me, and I booked my travel (train down from Portland, a whole new adventure, and flights back up). I knew that four projects had been accepted, and that there’d be a handful of individual contributors, but not a whole lot else.

I arrived in Mountain View on Sunday night, and met up with some of the other contributors. It was a quiet night, with an early start the next morning. Monday was spent in an unconference’y format, although we explicitly didn’t take notes during our sessions (preferring to focus on the moment than to document for posterity), and there was more structure than a typical unconference (including two pre-scheduled presentations, and some planned exercises to get us ready to create our masterpieces!) The “free agents” rotated among the various teams, and I spent some time working with the Sahana and OpenStreetMap contributors.

Tuesday morning started bright and early, with a meeting to assign the free agents to teams that they would stick with for the day. I’d been wanting to give OpenMRS some love for quite a while, and was very grateful to Anne Gentle, who let me swap with her in order to do that!

The first hour of work was focused on creating a table of contents. We based ours heavily on that of the CiviCRM book created over (several) previous Book Sprints, and were pretty much finished within the hour. Some of the other teams had a harder time, but like many of the deadlines over the course of the week, this one was set more to focus us than to limit our collaboration.

Once we had a table of contents, we split the chapters up based on interest and knowledge, and started writing. I was a bit terrified at first, knowing essentially nothing about the product, but I started out with the “Installation” chapter, and with only a small amount of TIAS, managed to build a reasonably coherent narrative. The rest of the people in the room were all heads-down in their own writing, and I am deeply indebted to the folk in the IRC channel for their help and reviews!

The book sprint took three days, and I’ll freely admit that my recollection of exactly what happened when is hazy at best. We were doing 13+hr days at Google, plus extra work in the evenings when we got back to the hotel. Everything was, of course, catered for us, and mealtimes were a welcome break but we were always keen to get just a bit more work done! It was intense, and exhausting, and exhilarating.

But by Thursday night, each group had written a book. I had worked with three teams (OpenMRS, OpenStreetMap, and KDE), both writing and editing. Every single chapter of each of those three books, I’d done at least one editing pass over.

Friday was a short day for the Doc Sprint, but I’d gotten talking to the OpenStreetMap crowd about helping out during the Grace Hopper Celebration, so I joined some of them on a trip up to San Francisco. We had a fabulous time visiting Langton Labs, and catching the opening of an exhibition at The Intersection (Here Be Dragons–get to it if you can!), but by the time we got back to Mountain View, the Mentor Summit had clearly descended :-) That was, of course, a fabulous event in its own right, but one of the highlights was definitely getting the printed & bound copies of the books we’d worked on.

I’m exhausted, as I said, but also inspired. The Doc Sprint is clearly a well thought-out and thoroughly refined process (even if it feels very experimental as a first-timer!), and I’m incredibly proud of what we produced. It would be a respectable outcome from several weeks of work, and we managed it in barely three days. I’m looking forward to talking to other communities about the idea, and already hoping that Google will run it again next year–I know I could pull a team together to write a book about The Apache Way, and based on the requests we already get for resources on the topic, I’m confident it would be well-read!

All in all, the Doc Sprint was an amazing event. Huge thanks go to all involved: Google’s OSPO, the project teams, Adam Hyde of FLOSSmanuals and Gunner of Aspiration Tech, as well as all the other facilitators and free agents.

Conferences and dark alleyways

I’m scared to go to OSCON or the Community Leadership Summit this year.

After I was assaulted last year, an awful lot of people pointed out that if I go into dangerous situations, I should expect bad things to happen, and that if I don’t want bad things to happen, I shouldn’t go into dangerous situations.

I was harassed at OSCON & CLS last year. I got a lot of grief after I wrote about my experience at ApacheCon. And I fully expect that some of the people responsible for both of those things will be at OSCON & CLS this year.

I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that I’ll be able to get through this year’s conference without being harassed again, and O’Reilly don’t seem to be willing to assure me that I’m wrong. But worse, I genuinely get the impression that if anything does go wrong, if I do get harassed, that O’Reilly don’t want to know, they don’t care, and they won’t do anything to help me, to help prevent it happening again, to help prevent it happening to someone else.

A very smart friend of mine reminded me that fear is not a good driver, and suggested that I consider whether OSCON is valuable and whether I can send a positive message by attending.

I’ve been looking forward to speaking. My slides have been rewritten from a previous version of this talk that was very well received, and I think they’re a really good deck. It’s a topic I care about, and I love being able to share my knowledge. Plus, I’m expecting a couple of potential employers to be there, as well as many friends.

And aside from that, there are so many talks I want to see, often several at once! There are people I want to catch up with, and parties I’m looking forward to. So yeah, OSCON is valuable to me.

Can I send a positive message? I’m not sure. I’ve seen the research, and I know from my own experience, that open source events and projects need more role models, and need more women as role models. And frankly, I don’t want people who’ve gone through things like I did at ApacheCon to think that it’s “ok, game over, I can’t go to industry events any more”. That’s not true; I’ve been to and enjoyed many conferences since then. But OSCON is a big event, and it’s a big message to send.

On the other hand, I really don’t want my attendance to be taken as a message of “everything is fine here”. I don’t want to be held up as a statistic, as an example of “plenty of women speaking at OSCON”.

So, on that front, I don’t know if I can send a positive message. I’m just not sure.

I don’t feel safe going to OSCON, and I want your advice.

Is this a dark alley that I should stay out of? Or is there some reason you think I’m wrong, and that I’ll be safe at OSCON?

And to those of you who’ve offered to join my posse, I’m grateful, but I was assaulted at ApacheCon in a bar with dozens of my friends, so I don’t assume that even the best posse will keep me safe.

ISO: Adventure, opportunity, a chance to make a difference

In other words, I’m looking for a new job. I’m currently wrapping up things in Zurich, and planning to take a few months off to volunteer with a few projects I really love. I’ll be available from the new year for sure, but am willing to negotiate for the right opportunity :-)

I’ve spent the last few years as a writer, working in Google’s European engineering headquarters in Zurich. For most of that time, I’ve been the sole writer in that office (or even timezone!), so I’ve worked on everything from UI text to API references, from user help to operations documentation. I’ve also been continuing my work with the Apache Software Foundation, providing a new voice on their Board for the last year, and I’ve only recently passed on the mantle of their Conference Planning leadership.

I’m passionate about Open Source, community development, documentation, and communication. I’m at my best when I’m teaching people about the things I love, facilitating
individuals and groups in learning how to do things for themselves, and generally connecting people with knowledge and information. I love travel, but I definitely have a preference for working with or near other people. Distributed is fine, but I’d rather not be the only remote member of a centralized team, especially if there’s nine timezones between us!

You can find my contact details, and more information about some of the things I’ve done in the past, in my CV. Feel free to give me a call or send me an email if you’re looking for someone, or know where I might fit in. In particular, if you’re looking for a community builder, user advocate, happiness engineer, or just a great communicatrix, please get in touch!