What Does “Open Source” Even Mean?

Progressive HackNight edition

Jen Kagan
Jen Kagan
Sep 11, 2017 · 13 min read

This interview is part of an ongoing investigation into what open source even is.

Previously, I talked to Mozilla engineer Eitan Isaacson about the history of open source and the politics of patents; and I talked to artist, programmer, and UCLA professor Lauren McCarthy about building community around p5.js, the open source Javascript library for artists.

This time, I talk with Vesha Parker, an organizer of Progressive HackNight and full stack developer at Etsy, about the intimacy of open source and creating a space for progressive technologists in New York.

Jen: I recently saw you speak at AlterConf about open source, but you said that your background wasn’t in open source. What has your trajectory been?

Vesha: I started in computer science. I went to engineering school at Cornell for mechanical engineering and then found that I was really bad at physics and didn’t like it. I switched into computer science because I took a programming course and loved it. From there, I followed a pretty traditional trajectory within CS before interning at Etsy and then joining Etsy full-time.

I’d heard of open source through school, but didn’t really understand how I could contribute. And a large part of why I didn’t try harder to contribute was that I suffered from debilitating inferiority complex, or, sorry, impostor syndrome… well, impostor syndrome and inferiority complex, frankly! I didn’t think open source was something that was meant for me. And I didn’t put in a lot of effort to contribute because it seemed really intimidating and like it was only for people who were on the breaking edge of technology. That was my view of open source and open source contributors.

Open source: intimidating.

So I left open source alone for a long time, not really thinking about it until the election happened.

The election was really my moment to spring into action. I started out going to marches and going to in-person meetups for technologists to see if I could do anything. I was sort of grasping at straws to try to fix whatever I could get my hands on.

The more I would interact with these communities in person, the more I would hear about open source projects and meet contributors. That was really my first taste of open source in a way that was palatable to me and had a purpose. When I was able to see how my work could make social or political change, that’s what really put a fire in me to work harder to get into open source world.

J: Had you tried contributing code before or you just started in November?

V: November. I was convinced that if I tried to just cold send in a fix for something, I would be knocked down. Honestly, I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone. I just assumed that it was a not an open community, which, from my experience, isn’t true.

But again, I think the motivation wasn’t necessarily there for me to overcome that hump of “maybe I’m not good enough” until it became necessary.

J: That reminds me of the slide in your presentation that said: “For me, open source is a moral thing.” Can you tell me more about that?

V: So, first of all, that wasn’t my quote, and I already forgot the name of the man that I took it from! [Editor’s note: the man is Matt Mullenweg, one of the creators of WordPress.] But it really is a moral thing to me. One of the things I love about being a programmer is, okay, yes, there is some barrier to entry: you need to at least have a keyboard and a working machine to run whatever you write.

But once you have that, you can honestly do pretty much anything and it can have super far-reaching consequences, good or bad.

That’s what I love about open source: you can dedicate your time to improving something you want to fix. You don’t need a ton of infrastructure. I can’t think of another career path where you can work as an independent agent and shape the world into what you want to see.

“You need to at least have a keyboard and a working machine to run whatever you write. But once you have that, you can honestly do pretty much anything.”

Like, maybe your local dog shelter is poorly organized. You can write software to help them. Just these super small things that really don’t take much of your time, but could completely change other people’s lives and workflows. That’s something that really draws me to open source — that I can live out my morals and give some real life to them through code.

J: Something that was really baffling to me about open source and being exposed to GitHub for the first time was this realization of: “Wait, there are all these projects in various stages of completion and you just pick one?” There’s really not an analogue in the physical world. It would be like if there was just a bunch of cool stuff lying around and you could just go up to it and add some paint and walk away and someone else…

V: Someone else comes behind you and says, “Oh, I like that paint. I’ll add something else!”

Yeah, I’ve never heard it stated like that and it’s really true. It’s also weird because you’re working in this intimate way, you’re spending your free time with these people you maybe have never met, never really seen, working toward some common goal, some betterment of society, putting your heart and soul into it, and talking to them all the time, but you don’t really know each other.

And I like it.

It’s a very human type of interaction. Sometimes, people think of programming as a cold thing, but an open source project can almost feel like a family.

J: Contributing to something together even if it’s not IRL?

V: Exactly. The organizers I work with for Progressive HackNight… we talk about the hack night as our collective child, and it’s this thing that we’ve raised from its infancy. It was super small and sort of clunky. Now, we’re trying to get it through it’s awkward adolescence. You develop this pride in what you can build.

And when I say “open source” right now, I work as an organizer and I try to get people to where they need to be in it, and I still consider that a contribution even though it’s not a contribution to source code.

Progressive HackNight steering committee. Photo courtesy of Progressive HackNight.

J: That reminds me of another slide from your talk. You said: “Find your contribution style.” You talked about your contribution style not necessarily being source code but being organizing.

So I have two questions: it seems like organizing works with open source in a way that it doesn’t work in some other corners of tech, and I’m curious why you think that is.

And then I’m also wondering how you came to feel that there are many different ways to contribute. Because I do feel like there’s a story that goes: “If you’re not writing code, then you’re not actually contributing,” which is totally wrong.

V: Part of the reason you can organize around open source projects is because everyone can see the source code, but I also think the motivation is different when you’re contributing to open source in your free time versus working on a closed source project for work: what drives you is different, what controls you is very different.

Say I’m an engineering manager at a company or a CTO. I am held accountable, in large part, to money: making sure we’re keeping stakeholders happy and making sure that we’re also keeping our employees happy — just trying to finely balance all these needs that are not necessarily aligned.

With open source, it’s a little more straightforward.

The motivation of all the stakeholders, at least within the tech activism scene, is to fix things. It’s not to make money. It’s not to satisfy some investors. So you have more freedom. But you also have to figure out how to motivate people to work on these things for free that won’t make them money — and to be passionate about it.

“It’s this thing that we’ve raised from its infancy. It was super small and sort of clunky. Now, we’re trying to get it through it’s awkward adolescence.”

I think the problems are just different. I also really like that, through the hack night, we can interact with so many different open source projects that touch so many different causes.

That was part of my motivation for switching away from contributing directly as a programmer. There’d be so many amazing projects that would come across my desk. It was kid-in-a-candy-store syndrome: I wanted to do all these things but I literally couldn’t; I didn’t have the time. I really like that organizing allows me to help in all of these spheres.

Remind me what your second question was?

Vesha talking about contribution styles at AlterConf NYC in August 2017.

J: Realizing that you could contribute in that way, and that that could be your thing.

V: Yeah, it was a bit serendipitous. I had been trying to balance several open source projects at the same time.

One was Code Corps, and they’re amazing. Everyone there is so freaking nice! They are the best open source project I could have started with: it was crazy well-documented, everyone was so kind. At one point, I broke my foot and they were messaging me, checking in on me. They’re such a family. So I was with them, and then I also started working on a project called Project Swimmy that no longer exists.

I always felt so guilty because I had to balance my work life with my social life with my open source life. I ended up not doing a great job at any of those.

I felt really conflicted during that time. Through Project Swimmy, I met Rapi and Tino, who are both part of the Progressive Coders Network and helped start Progressive HackNight. So I learned about Progressive HackNight through them and went to that.

I’m a person who has opinions about everything, so after the hack night, Rapi took me aside and asked, “How did you feel? How did it go?” And I gave him some constructive feedback. He asked me to attend a meeting to discuss my feedback, and it turns out that was the first steering committee meeting. I just sort of fell into it.

By now, I’m trying to juggle two open source projects and the hack night. Over time, I just realized, “I really love organizing this. I feel great every time I meet with them, I feel like I’m doing important work.” I dropped Code Corps and then Swimmy died shortly after. And, yeah, I decided to dedicate myself full-time, in my free time, to organizing.

J: You’ve mentioned the hack night a few times. Tell me more about what exactly it is.

V: Progressive HackNight is a space where we try to bring together organizers, activists, technologists, creatives — honestly, anyone who wants to donate their time to work on projects and problems together.

The motivation for Progessive HackNight was to bring together all these progressives in New York City and all these people who want to dedicate their time to something they believe in. There wasn’t really an active space to do that in, so we wanted to build that space.

Think what we all may about the Tea Party — and I have my thoughts — they succeeded in building a space for people with shared beliefs. That space was missing for progressives. There was no big movement. The closest thing I really saw was support for Bernie Sanders. There wasn’t a place for you to just go, so that’s why we wanted to build it.

When we started, we noticed that there were a lot of different groups trying to do the exact same thing. One of my favorite things about Progressive HackNight is being able to watch different groups come together and talk about the problems they’re facing and how they could collaborate and support each other.

Progressive HackNight is cathartic for a lot of people. Every morning, we wake up to the most ridiculous, surreal, horrifying headlines you can imagine, but being with a group of people who want to see change that you also want to see, and hearing about how people are working to make that change — that really gives me hope. Part of Progressive HackNight for me is just keeping my sanity in this landscape.

J: How does a typical hack night go?

V: In line with trying to develop a community, we typically start every hack night with either a panel of activists, technologists, organizers, or just have a speaker come and talk about the work they’re doing. We’ve found that people really love hearing about work that’s actively being done, it really jazzes them up.

The other day, we had Kei Williams from Black Lives Matter come speak, and we were really stoked to have them. We’ve had a bunch of people talk about SMS — you know, text organizing. After the speaker, we break out into groups where the actual work happens.

How a typical Progressive HackNight goes.

Different people can come and pitch. You can say, “I’m an activist and I really think this tool needs to exist, but I don’t know how to build it.” And then you can work with people to build it.

That’s the part of the process we’re trying to improve the most now — the actual action portion.

Basically, we’re working towards being the space where people who want to help and people who need help can find each other and form organic, close bonds, since they have the chance to see each other face-to-face and get to know each other. And hoping that that helps people continue to contribute after the one hack night ends.

J: It’s cool that there’s a back and forth: coming together in person, then going away and working separately, then coming back together again — instead of either all online or, on the flip side, this sense that people can only do work when they’re all in the same room together.

V: Yeah, I think there’s something to it. I mean, it totally depends on people’s contribution style. Some people love working alone and they may not want this work to be a social thing. But if you want a community to actively contribute to… I really like being able to see open source contributors in real life. You realize it’s not all people with neckbeards sitting in a basement — nothing against neckbeards! It helps change the perception of what open source is and people realize, “Oh, some of these people look like me. I can totally do this.”

J: Does the HackNight have a code of conduct?

V: Yes, and one thing I love about the steering committee is that we’re very diverse. Usually, when people are like, “We’re diverse!” it means there’s one woman involved somewhere, but this is actually the most diverse group I’ve been a part of.

That’s something I really love. I didn’t even think about a code of conduct, but Ilona, a steering committee member who went to the Recurse Center, shared that code of conduct and it’s great and we based ours largely on theirs. We go over the top points every single hack night, and then at the end we say,

And we let people know how they can contact the steering committee if something is wrong.

The code of conduct is really important to us, and it’s exciting to finally have the ability to try to avoid the things I’ve seen done elsewhere that made me feel unwelcome. In line with what I mentioned earlier about the hack night being our collective baby, this is part of making an organization we always wanted to see and have for ourselves.

Black Lives Matter organizer Kei Williams. Photo courtesy of Progressive HackNight.

J: This seems like a lot of work on top of a full-time job and, you know, life. How do you do that?

V: Sometimes I ask myself that!

We do use a ton of tools to stay organized. One of our steering committee members brought the modified consensus decision-making model to us from the their time at the Recurse Center. We use a tool called Loomio for all of our decision-making. We used Doodle polls to set up meetings. We use Zoom to do video conferences so we don’t have in the same room because we do meet every week. We use GitHub issues. We use ZenHub, which is like GitHub issues on steroids. And then we use Airtable to track our finances because we’re currently going through the process of being established as a nonprofit.

“Part of Progressive HackNight for me is just keeping my sanity in this landscape.”

J: Dreams and plans for open source world?

V: I’ll start with my vision for the hack night. One thing I’d really love for it to become is something people can come to when they’re at the beginning of their journey with code — college students or high schoolers or people who are older and just want to learn how to program while doing things they believe in.

And I also want to see us help when the midterm elections come around. The next big milestone, assuming nothing catastrophic happens before then, would be to really get people out to vote and decrease the influence of money in politics.

In terms of open source in general, I actually recently got coffee with the founder of RailsBridge. They have huge quarterly events where people with no programming background come in and learn how to program with Rails. They have teachers and teaching assistants and people in the industry who donate their time. They try to make it a really open place to dive into programming with Rails.

I would love to see open source in general have something like that. It’s obviously harder with open source because the projects are all different, but it would be dope to see React, for example, come together with other open source projects, see the people who are using their software, meet them face-to-face, really form a bond.

The way a lot of open source works now, it’s easiest for one type of person to dive into. I would love for open source to develop a way to meet more people where they’re at. There are so many people who would be great contributors but whose style isn’t, you know, hopping in a Slack channel and saying, “Hey, I’m here and I’m gonna fix some stuff!”

I would love to see open source broadening how it sees itself and becoming more accessible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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