At the top of 2020, I observed my fifth anniversary of being a sponsored contributor to WordPress, and am proud to say I led the first all-women and non-binary release team in our project’s history. When I applied for the position I was an advocate for diversity in technology, and I hoped this was a chance to make my time more impactful. I came to the work without any preconceptions of what open source was or should be. I didn’t even have a strong concept of the “best ways” to increase diversity. I just had my experience, my self-taught notions of leadership, and a desire to bring people together toward something bigger.
During my first year I met so many people, but especially sought out other women and people of color. WordPress had always seemed to be an oasis of welcoming in a field that is known to be the opposite, and I wanted to compare my experience with others like me. I felt that I had found a community with the contributors I met, that we had common ground.
And in 2017, I had this startling moment of doubt.
Chairs at the Table
I responded to a hashtag on twitter (#WITBragDay) this way:
I don’t know if I count as “in tech” but I fight for and inspire women to be in tech.
Amid the support from fellow contributors, I got a message asking why I thought I didn’t count. And I had too many answers.
- I’m non-technical (in an OSS project).
- I’m a woman (in a male-dominated field).
- I’m a person of color.
- I “just work with people”.
- And countless more.
Which led right to the question: “Why do you want to inspire other women to be in tech… if you feel like you don’t belong in tech?”
I assumed I was alone in feeling like I didn’t have a place at the table. I assumed that everyone else knew their value, and skills, and could advocate for themselves once they arrived. And my role was just to make sure we had enough places for people to be.
But when I’m leading others, I always encourage people to ask their questions publicly, because you never know who else is too shy to ask the same question.
So I started asking questions.
Place Settings at the Table
I asked my mentors about their early experiences of WordPress contribution. I asked rising contributors when they felt they’d had their first success. I asked long standing contributors about their journey. And I asked people who stopped contributing what led to that decision.
I approached this problem like any project I plan: by getting all the info in one place, looking for risks, and making plans to avoid risks.
So I asked people to start making small changes with me. Little process tweaks in one team, a borrowed welcome wagon concept from another. Nothing major, just being a tiny bit more proactive with our burden of proof so that when diverse voices joined us, they knew they belonged and had some idea of where to go. And contributors took these little changes, modifying them to fit their teams like any good open source community would do.
More Tables and Chairs and Settings
The community kept building on those changes and kept inviting others to join in. Small training cohorts were attempted. There were people who loved documentation (lowering barriers to entry); people who loved mentoring (helping others find their way); and people who just wanted to help any way they could. Then late in 2019, I shared that I hoped for an all-women release by the end of 2020.
It honestly made me nervous. We aren’t perfect, and there were so many things that I thought were missing.
But there were also so many people who wanted to participate, from brand new contributors to OG developers. So we did it. And the release team for WordPress 5.6 was massive. Not because I wanted volume, or because I was playing to the numbers, but because I had observed that our community enjoys learning shoulder to shoulder. Learning by watching, then doing, then trying again when we fail is a key part of how open source works, so it’s a key part of how I wanted to be able to introduce this team to the work.
A Great Dinner Party?
Did I do everything right? Definitely not.
Would I do it again? Maybe.
Was it worth it? Without hesitation, absolutely.
The latest release of WordPress, while a massive undertaking, was the culmination of years of work by hundreds of contributors. Not all of them knew that their contributions would lead to this, and certainly not all of the release team know about the work that came before them.
But isn’t that the beauty of open source in the end? That we benefit infinitely from the work of everyone who came before us, yet can still find ways to bring new benefits for those who come after us? And if this long labor of love encourages even 10% of the release team to return, I will consider it a truly great dinner party. 🙂
This post originally appeared on 24 Days in December, which hosts a series of reflections from PHP and open source community members.
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