My FOSS Journey and Why I am applying for a Toptal Scholarship

When I graduated from my high school in India, our class had an almost 50-50 ratio of boys-to-girls. My graduating class in one of India’s premier engineering institutions had less than 10%. It was even more interesting to see that there were more than 20% girls enrolled in Bachelors in Design (which offered courses like Product Design, Human Computer Interaction and User Experience Research) while there were none in Mechanical Engineering since the last three graduating classes. Was it that Design was considered a relatively non-technical course ? While I have never been openly discouraged from pursuing a career in technology – a predominantly male-populated field – there has always been an unconscious bias even from within my family. When I wanted to apply for a degree course in Mechanical Engineering, I was asked to take some more time to think about my future – was gently nudged towards more female-friendly engineering fields like Computer Science which wouldn’t involve as much strenuous physical effort. Was it even sublte experiences like this which had contributed towards the gender gap ? This feeling of being an ‘outsider’ in a predominantly male field never left till I started contributing to Open Source.
I first learnt about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) via Outreachy, a program designed to increase participation of minorities in FOSS. I liked the fact that the program had no knowledge prerequisites so that anyone interested in contributing to FOSS could be a part of it. I started contributing to the Fedora Community Operations team and even though I wasn’t selected to be a part of Outreachy for Fedora due to some technical reasons, I had finally felt ‘included’ in a FOSS community and decided to stick around. My contributions to FOSS have mainly been in three areas :

1. Community Research involving Data Analytics

My contributions to Fedora Community Operations have been on developing metrics to understand and help the community. I have worked on developing metrics to understand contributor engagement in the community, analyze the impact of attending events on the activity of an individual contributor as well as in organization as a whole (resource utilization, number of newcomers onboarded etc). This has helped Fedora leadership in decision-making process. Recently, I have been working on metrics to improve contributor retention rates in the Fedora community. Newcomer onboarding in FOSS projects in important, but retaining them is critical. According to statistics I collected about Fedora Project community, more than half of the contributors (who made atleast one technical or non technical contribution to the project) drop out within their first three months. If these people are interested in contributing, why do they leave ? My research tries to identify the root causes behind these ‘drop-out’ cases. It also suggests easily adoptable methods for the organization, community and individual contributors so that more newcomers are retained and even existing contributors find it easy to contribute to the project.
You can find my talk about it at the annual Fedora contributors conference Flock  here. Link to the github repository for the project is here and link to blog posts about the work here.

2. Efforts to promote Diversity in Open Source

I am also involved with the Fedora Diversity Team where I collect statistics to understand diversity in Fedora community. I work closely with the Fedora Diversity Adviser and Diversity Team on identifying target areas and devising strategies to positively impact these identified areas. Apart from this, I recently started conducting a Diversity and Workplace Inclusion Survey about FOSS projects, organizations and communities. There are multiple ongoing efforts across different FOSS projects and organizations to improve diversity and promote workplace inclusion for minority groups in their respective communities. However, these efforts are not consolidated and do not look towards analyzing the impact of those strategies – about what is working and what isn’t ! With this study, I wanted to get an overview of diversity and inclusion practices across different FOSS projects, communities or organizations and learn from their success and failures too and share it with other FOSS organizations and projects so that the same mistakes don’t get repeated again and again !

You can find the link to the  Github project for Diversity study here. More interviews will be uploaded if interviewees dont mind making the interviews public.

3. Outreach Efforts

I am involved with FOSSWave, a mentorship program to help university students in India to contribute to FOSS projects. Contributing to FOSS organizations and projects seems pretty daunting to newcomers. FOSSWave helps to ease this process by providing mentors to interested students by conducting workshops and talks in universities across India. By being a part of FOSSWave, I hope to engage with the open source community as a female role model and plan to mentor more students and women into contributing to FOSS. In this direction, FOSSWave has recently started a program named Women in Technology to mentor more female students interested in FOSS. You can read more about programs by FOSSWave here and here.

Learnings from my experience in FOSS

It has been about one year since my first contribution to FOSS now. Within such a short span, I have not only immensely improved my programming and data science skills but have also learnt a lot about commitment, team work, mentorship and leadership, how to create a positive community and the joy of sharing and giving that is Open Source. Most importantly, I have gained confidence in myself and my skills. All this has further motivated me to continue contributing to FOSS, while also working on outreach and diversity efforts, so that more people – especially women – are able to be a part of this great experience.

What will I gain from a Toptal Scholarship ?

As a result, I have been desperately searching for a mentorship program which would not want me to compromise my dreams of pursuing research and doing a PhD (mostly related to understanding humans) one day while contributing to FOSS. That’s how less than eight hours before the application deadline, I stumbled across Toptal STEM Scholarship for Women. As a result, while all of the contributions I have mentioned are during the application period, none of my FOSS contributions were done keeping in mind the Toptal scholarship program but instead are about the projects or issues I deeply care about. However, the mentorship from the experienced Toptal engineers would be helpful in providing unique and helpful insights on further develop this research on FOSS communities, to maximize it’s potential impact and help apply it in industry by developing tools for FOSS organizations to understand and improve their communities as well as allocate their resources in a more efficient manner. I also plan to utilize extensive Open Source developer network of Toptal to understand diversity and workplace inclusion initiatives – including successes and pitfalls across a wide variety of tech organizations. This scholarship will also help develop the FOSSWave program by providing a wide an extensive network of role models in the industry, especially for interested female contributors. The mentorship from the Toptal community would be helpful to providing unique and helpful insights on how to further develop FOSSWave program too.