June 5th, 2017

Armin Ronacher: Diversity in Technology and Open Source

Programing, Python, by admin.

It’s a topic I generally do not talk much about but a recent Wired

made me think about finally writing down my thoughts on this topic. The
title of that article was “Diversity in Open Source Is Even Worse Than in
Tech Overall” and that is undoubtedly true.

When you start an Open Source project today, in particular one which is
further disconnected from frontend technologies there is a very high
chance the organic community development will be everything but diverse.
The highest form of diversity you can naturally expect to form is people
from different countries but even there you might have a bias.

There are many arguments that can be had about this, but it’s my personal
opinion that at least in the longer run it’s not healthy for a project or
a community to lack diversity. I think it’s natural for like-minded people
to group together but the longer that process continues the more of an
echo chamber it becomes. What’s worse is the longer you wait to try to
get people involved in the project that would naturally not try to join
the harder it will be. When your team is 4 men, the first woman which
joins will make a significant impact. When your team is already 20 men
you need to get a lot more women on board to have the same impact. But
it’s not just gender that is making a difference, it’s in particular
cultural backgrounds. The reason Unicode is hard is not because Unicode
is hard, but because a lot of projects start out with a lack of urgency
since many of the original developers might live in ASCII constrained
environments (It took emojis to become popular for people to develop
a general understanding of why Unicode is useful in the western world).

A lot of the criticism that comes against the diversity movement is that
it undermines the idea of “meritocracy” and that it does not mirror the
realities in the real world by artificially balancing teams. Both of
those arguments are weird in a way because they are very hard to defend
if you look at larger parts of society. Tech for recent historical
reasons is very male heavy but society is not. Meritocracy in many ways
is just sourcing the best from the pool of naturally available people
in your environment. Sure by some measurements you will get the best
but is the best really what is lacking in an Open Source project? We
don’t need more of the best, we need more of what is actually missing
and what is missing in many ways is not more strong alpha males but
people that are good in de-escalating arguments in bug trackers and
mailing lists, people that take care of documentations, people that
make software work in new cultural contexts (localization, globalization,
internationalization, etc.), people that care about user experience

If you look at Open Source projects in comparison with commercial
software you can quickly see where this lack of diversity is noticeable
the most: consumer applications. While we’re doing reasonably well with
low level technology that never translated well to things that consumers
care about. The most successful consumer products that came out of the
Open Source community are probably things like The Gimp. A project that
not only has a ridiculous name for a consumer product, but also one that
is everything but user friendly. If you do a Google auto complete search
for “Why is Gimp” it completes to “slow [on mac]”, “bad”, “complicated”
and “unintuitive”. In many ways I think the answer is probably a
reflection of the developer community lacking focus in some key areas.
There is no reason that Open Source software has to be user unfriendly.

In particular some of the infamous Open Source communities like the
Linux are (almost?) proud of their harsh culture. Often documentation
is so bad that it became a rite of passage to decipher it or fill in
the blanks by reading the code.

The only way to achieve the (in my mind) necessary change in Open Source
and tech in general is to go out of ones way to involve people that do
not come naturally.

So when someone cancels a conference because the speaker lineup after a
blind selection was 100% male it just shows how bad the imbalance in the
developer community is. It’s not unfair to try to artificially bring
balance a conference because the fact that the community is this
imbalanced to that extend is a problem that needs fixing and will not fix
itself naturally.

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