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Modern Developer, Oracle OpenWorld | October 26, 2018

How Do You Make Open Source a Better Place? Oracle Groundbreaker Award Winners Share Their Secrets

By: Alexa Morales

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“If a year ago someone had told me I would be onstage at an Oracle conference, I would not have believed it,” said Guido van Rossum (pictured above), creator of the Python programming language, as he received an inaugural Groundbreaker Award at the 2018 Oracle Code One conference in San Francisco. “But seriously,” he continued, “I think this award goes to the entire Python community—all the users, all the developers—because I certainly could not have done all that by myself.”

Van Rossum was introduced as “probably the only ‘Benevolent Dictator for Life’ in the audience” by awards-ceremony emcee Stephen Chin, director of the Oracle Groundbreakers Team. One of five honorees for the evening, van Rossum lent a gentle spirit to the fireside chat with the other award winners, all luminaries from the open source world. What followed was a delightful discussion of how to make the open source community more inclusive, with inspiring career, work-life balance, and productivity tips as well as revealing insights.

First Inspirations

“Reading source code as an undergraduate, which you can’t do unless it’s open source” was how Groundbreaker Award winner Doug Cutting, founder of Apache Lucene, Nutch, Hadoop, and Avro, described getting hooked on open source. “I remember reading two different versions of Emacs,” comparing the early 1980s version of the venerable Emacs text editor by Java creator James Gosling to Richard Stallman’s version for the GNU operating system. "They were these large, well-written programs by amazing developers which were fun for me to read and try to figure out how they did what they did.”

Groundbreaker Award winner Neha Narkhede, who cofounded Confluent and co-created the Apache Kafka logging system, remembered how a commercial software company’s focus on open source led her into that world. “Back when I joined LinkedIn, they had a whole web page listing all the open source projects that the company invested in. Project Voldemort, which my cofounder [Jay Kreps] created, was on that list. That’s how I made the decision to work with Jay. Later on, he created Kafka, and that ended up becoming successful.”

Charles Nutter’s first open source project showed how open source software can jumpstart a career—or at least one’s responsibilities. As a Windows user in the 1990s, he was a fan of LiteStep, a desktop replacement. Nutter, now JRuby project lead, wanted to improve LiteStep, “so I just went and cleaned up a bunch of code and submitted it back. About a week later…I was the lead developer of LiteStep,” he said, to audience laughter. “This was my first lesson of how deep you can go when you start contributing to open source. You can be the lead of the project the next day if you find the right thing to fix.”

Learning the Apache Way of open source has had life-changing effects on Groundbreaker Award winner Graeme Rocher, who created Grails and the brand-new Micronaut, which launched on October 23. “The first project I was exposed to was an Apache project called Cocoon. I happened to know one of the contributors. He taught me a lot about contributing in the Apache Way. That really inspired me, everything being out in the open. I learned a lot browsing source code.”

Work-Life Balance

The fireside chat took an unexpected turn when Chin asked how these dedicated developers, many of whom admitted to spending all their free time on their open source projects, managed to find balance in their lives.

While none of the tips was surprising, it was perhaps a reflection of current culture that these founders all emphasized self-care such as getting a good night’s sleep, exercising in gorgeous environments—Narkhede is partial to SCUBA diving with sharks, van Rossum likes bicycling past fields of flowers, and Rocher enjoys paddleboarding—and generally not overworking oneself.

While he remains very much a part of the Python community, van Rossum famously stepped down from his BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) role at Python just three months ago after a punishing Python update that was fraught with uncharacteristic drama, especially on social media. He emphasized the importance of turning everything off and trying to work less, revealing that he has begun to work only four days a week, taking one day as a weekly minivacation with his wife.

Narkhede echoed that sentiment, but in the direction of not being so perfectionist about self-care. “I’ve noticed that reducing the commitment I make to myself, whether it be meditation or exercise, lowering the bar a little bit, saying, ‘well, it could just be 10 minutes’—that has helped me to stay on schedule,” said Narkhede.

Inclusive Communities

The discussion also made it clear that welcoming more women and minorities of all kinds is a priority for open source. “Be aware of unconscious bias,” said van Rossum. “If your current developer community is mostly white and male, like it almost seems to be—do something about it.” He noted it’s critical to actively mentor women if they are missing from the project, establish a code of conduct for mailing lists, and enforce it to show you’re serious. “It has made a huge difference in how the Python community feels,” van Rossum said.

“Being aware that men are generally evaluated more on potential and women are evaluated more on experience—that will go a long way,” said Narkhede. “Communities that have role models are more likely to have more diversity in the community, because of that implicit acceptance.”

Nutter noted that while conferences and projects can do a lot right now to diversify monocultural communities, it’s also critical that young developers start doing this now. “If they see kids being marginalized, they need to start saying something about that. I’ve heard things even in the last five or ten years like ‘girls don’t have a head for math.’  These ideas are still out there.”

Ultimately, given the ongoing power of open source to create the cloud-native stack that is redefining how world-changing applications run, the Groundbreaker honorees all agreed: It’s well past time to create communities that reflect the diversity of humanity. 

Alexa Weber Morales is director of developer content at Oracle. Morales is the former editor in chief of Software Development magazine and has more than 15 years of experience as a technology content strategist and journalist.

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