Breaking Down Walls with Open Source Technology
Going to school in India, Srishti Sethi found little inspiration in the unyielding rigidity of her curriculum and teachers who prized rote memorization more than creativity from their students.
“Back then I was in a space where I had no guidance from my lecturers or professors. I was interested in what I saw happening outside of the curriculum — places where I could learn and grow.”
It was friends and classmates, not professors, who first taught her about open source software — software that anyone, not just the creator, can freely use and adapt. The concept of open source was a revelation.
“For me, the appeal of open source was freedom, collaboration, peer learning, and transparency.”
Srishti’s interest in open source led her to new communities. She writes on her blog about borrowing her mother’s laptop in 2009, her third year of college, to attend the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) conference in Bangalore. She continued to attend that conference and numerous others, and in 2011, participated in Google’s Summer of Code (GSOC).
“As part of GSOC, I helped develop educational software, which introduced me to this exciting intersection of technology and education. After working for a couple of startups back in India, I found myself wanting to enter a research program that would allow me to keep contributing to education technology.”
A friend told her about Mitchel Resnick’s storied research group, Lifelong Kindergarten, at the MIT Media Lab. That’s the group behind Scratch, the block-based programming language known for its child-friendly design. Reading about Lifelong Kindergarten online, Srishti immediately felt drawn to their work.
“But I was like ‘they’re not going to accept me, who am I?’ I applied to seven grad schools, including MIT, but I thought I probably wouldn’t get in.”
Despite that self-doubt she did get in, and completed a Master’s degree in Media Arts and Sciences. Srishti’s research focused on the intersection of education and technology, including designing online learning platforms to engage people in peer learning.
“When I was done, I asked ‘Where next?’ At that point I was adamant about going to an organization that was interested in free knowledge and shared my values.”
The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, was a natural choice. In her role as a Developer Advocate, Srishti supports new developers in the massive volunteer community that upholds Wikipedia.
“We run mentoring programs to draw in new contributors to Wikimedia projects. I help coordinate the Wikimedia Foundation’s participation in the Google Summer of Code and Outreachy. Those two programs help us bring in folks who are underrepresented in tech.”*
Srishti says it’s deeply fulfilling to see the GSOC and Outreachy mentees’ personal and professional growth, from the projects they complete at the end of their internships to their progress through jobs and grad school applications. She can relate to their journeys: her own experience of stumbling into the world of open source technology ultimately gave her a concept — and a community — that acted as guiding lights throughout her career.
Indeed, when Srishti reflects on her current role and the volunteers, collaborators, and interns she’s been able to work with, she reflects on her own past.
“Through my work, I see so many people like me, who may be in academic settings with very little exposure to opportunities or guidance, just like I was, craving opportunities and a sense of direction. These projects and open source programs that bring in new contributors make a difference in their lives.”
Srishti advises others thinking of careers in STEM fields to keep experimenting and learning in order to find their direction.
“Finding your passion doesn’t just come automatically, it comes with a lot of experiments. For me, the beginning was a bit challenging. I kept asking ‘what next, what next?’ Even now, I’m still thinking critically and asking how I can tie what I’m doing to the bigger picture of impact.”
*Google Summer of Code, which is open to university students, is accepting applications between March 25th to April 9th.
*Outreachy is accepting applications between February 18 to March 26. A few projects have extended deadlines until April 2. They recommend that applicants start on their applications a couple weeks in advance of the deadline.
This story was written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter.