advice

Recently I was asked two very good questions about being involved in free/open source software: How do you balance your paid/volunteer activities? What sort of career advice do you have for people looking to get involved professionally?

I liked answering these in part because I have very little to do with the software side, and also because, much like many technical volunteers, my activities between my volunteer work and my paid work have been similar-to-identical over the years.

How do you balance paid/volunteer activities?

My answer at the time was, effectively: I set aside clearly defined time to work on my different activities, usually once a week — generally on Sundays. I check my email a few times a day, and respond to things that are immediate within a few hours, but I handle the bulk of my work at one time. The Anti-harassment team has a regularly scheduled meeting/work time during which we handle the bulk of our necessary labor. I’ve learned to say no, I’ve learned how to delegate, and I’ve learned how to say “I’m not going to be able to finish this thing I said I could do, how can we as a team make sure it gets completed.”

This works for me because 1) I’ve put a lot of work into developing my confidence and the skills needed for working collaboratively; and 2) my biggest responsibilities outside of my job (and free software, in general) are taking care of plants and having bash. (Note: Bash is my cat.) I don’t have children or a partner. I have a band and climbing partners, but these things, much like my free software activities, are time constrained. My band meets for practice at the same time each week; I sneak in moments to play a song or run through scales during the rest of the week. I climb with the same people at the same times each week. With my fancy new job, I work remotely and am able to now even work at the climbing gym, and take little breaks to run through a few bouldering problems.

Because of all these factors — my limited and optional responsibilities towards others (I travel a lot for free software, and miss band practice and climbing sometimes, for example) — I have been able to take up leadership positions in Debian and the open source community at large. Because of my job, I was able to take on even more responsibility at the OSI. I’ve held leadership positions in my unpaid work for over ten years now, since I was a student and able to use my lack of responsibilities beyond my studies (and student job) to focus on helping to stack chairs for open source. (Note: “Stack chairs” is Molly for “perform often unseen labor, often for events.”)

As an aside, one of my criticisms about unpaid project/org leader positions is that it means that the people who can do the jobs are:

  • students
  • contractors
  • unemployed
  • those with few to no other responsibilities
  • those with very supportive partners
  • those with very supportive employers
  • those who don’t need much sleep.

I’ve slowly been swayed into the belief that many (not all) leadership positions should be paid, grant funded, come with a stipend, or be led by committee. More on this in a future blog post.

In summary: learn to tell other people you can’t do things and work on those scheduling skillz.

What sort of career advice do you have for people looking to get involved professionally?

This question was asked in an evening of panels and one thing that really stood out to me was many of the panelists saying — in response to completely different questions — that they no longer cold apply for jobs, or that all of their jobs have come from social connections, or that they just don’t apply to jobs (and only go work for places where they have been given soft offers or are invited to go straight to an interview stage).

An acquaintance of mine once said to me: I don’t believe in luck, I believe in social connections.

Our social connections form complex causal graphs, which lead to many, if not all, of the good things that happen in our lives. I got my first job in free software not because of my cool skillz, but because I happened to hang out with a friend of someone who had a friend looking for an intern.

I actually have gotten (two) jobs where I cold applied — but in both cases the people were interested in me because of a certain social connection I had — whether they realized that or not. Even my job in college, at the school library, came because I had a friend who worked there.

Telling people to network really is general job advice that works for everyone in every field of endeavor.

If you’re an introvert (like myself!) one of the best ways to form social connections is through public speaking. When you give a talk at a conference not only are you building up your personal brand and letting other people know about your skills, competency, and expertise, but you’re also giving people something to talk to you about — and they will talk to you. Giving a talk is like putting a sign on yourself saying “Come talk to me about X,” when X is something you’re actually passionate about. It’s great because you don’t have to put yourself out there to talk to strangers — strangers come to you!

Public speaking also increases your visibility in the community — this is good if you want a job. That way, when someone sees your CV/resume your name will stand out because they’ll remember seeing it before. They might not remember your talk, or maybe they didn’t even attend your talk, but they will remember seeing your name. Having a section on your CV that lists presentations you’ve given helps you stand out from everyone else because it shows you can share information well and are actually interested in what you do. Where you speak and have spoken is a shibboleth for where you see yourself in the community and what values you have: Seeing “Open Source Bridge” tells me that you’re interested in communities and building spaces where everyone is a welcome participant; OSCON and PyCon convey confidence because you know you’re opening yourself up to a potentially big audience; local meetups and conferences share a value of wanting to participate in and build up your local community; international events say that you really understand that we’re looking at a global scale here.

We also just learn to communicate better when we speak publicly. We learn better ways to share ideas, how to turn thoughts into a cohesive narrative, and how to appear confident even if we’re not.

Building off of that, learning to write is extremely, extremely important. There is an art to written communication, whether it’s a brief letter between colleagues, presentations, comments in code or other documentation, blog posts, cover letters, etc. Communicating well through writing will take you so far, especially as more jobs, especially in tech, become increasingly focused on using chat tools for collaboration.

All of the things that are true for public speaking are also true for writing well: it helps you become a recognized and valued member of your community. When I was a community manager I loved the developers (and translators and doc writers and…) who were interested in writing blog posts, participating in community Q&A/round table sessions, etc because they were the ones who made us an approachable project, who made us a great place that included people whether they were getting paid to work on the project or not.

Anyone can learn to be a passable developer (or fill in your specific role here), and anyone can learn to be a passable writer. Someone who chooses to do both is special and who I want on my team.

In summary: Learn to talk to strangers, learn public speaking, learn to write.

The people asking me these questions were, I believe, developers or at least people with technical skill sets rather than administrative, community, organizational, social, etc skill sets. This advice holds true across the spectrum of paid labor.

One person came up to me later and explained that they had been working in generating content, but wanted to switch to a more organizational role managing the aggregation and sharing of content. They asked me how they could make that transition, and my advice was exactly the same: learn to talk to people so you can learn who has opportunities and learn to communicate well because it will help you stand out and also just make your life a lot easier.

I’d also like to briefly point out that ehash gave some great answers geared towards technical roles, and I hope will share them in some public forum.