I’m trying to bring the second pilot of the Ascend Project http://ascendproject.org to New Orleans in February and am looking for a space to hold the program. We have a small budget to rent space but would prefer to find a partnership and/or sponsor if possible to help keep costs low.
The program takes 20 adults who are typically marginalized in technology/open source and offers them a 6 week accelerated learning environment where they build technical skills by contributing to open source – specifically, Mozilla. Ascend provides the laptops, breakfast, lunch, transit & childcare reimbursement, and a daily stipend in order to lift many of the barriers to participation.
Our first pilot completed 6 weeks ago in Portland, OR and it was a great success with 18 participants completing the 6 week course and fixing many bugs in a wide range of Mozilla projects. They have now continued on to internships both inside and outside of Mozilla as well as seeking job opportunities in the tech industry.
To do this again, in New Orleans, Ascend needs a space to hold the classes!
Space requirements are simple:
* Room for 25 people to comfortably work on laptops
* Strong & reliable internet connectivity
* Ability to bring in our own food & beverages
Bonus if the space helps network participants with other tech workers, has projector/whiteboards (though we can bring our own in), or video capability.
Please let me know if you have a connection who can help with getting a space booked for this project and if you have any other leads I can look into, I’d love to hear about them.
Today, post PyCon conference, I spent the entire day immersed in an incredibly dynamic and educational workshop by Software Carpentry “Learn to Teach Programming“. I’m going to do a mix of dumping my notes in a play-by-play fashion with possible sidebars for commenting on what I experienced personally so that I have a record of this to look back on as I move forward with Ascend Project planning and execution.
Meet Your Neighbours
The event started off, as they always do, with a go-round of people introducing themselves in short form. As we started taking turns our teacher, Greg Wilson, asked for the person who just spoke to tap the next person to speak before sitting down. This proved to be our first of many small applications of the science behind learning and how it can play out in real life. While it apparently takes a room of kindergarten children 3 reminders to do this extra step during intros, it took this room of ~25 adults 14 requests before we mostly started doing so without prompting from Greg. By the way, during the intros I learned about Dames Making Games which I can now add to my mental list of awesome women-in-tech groups and if you’re reading this and are in Toronto, check them out!
Teaching Is Performance
It raises your adrenaline, brings out your nervousness, and it’s something you need to work at. A few quick tips from Greg on preparing for your ‘performance’ as teacher: always bring cough drops, and figure out what your ‘tell’ is. Like with poker, everyone has at least on thing they do when they are nervous. I suspect for me its likely that my ‘tell’ is talking fast and/or having trouble not smiling too much (at least in poker, it is). This was our first introduction to how we should be reflective about our teaching – even go so far as to record yourself if you can’t get honest feedback from people around you – so that you can spot these things about your manner and work on adjusting them to ‘perform’ teaching in a more confident and reliable manner.
Improv came up as a way to work on this where you can get feedback on how you perform and also learn to keep other people engaged. I used to do improv when I was an awkward teenager and didn’t feel like I was a superstar at it but I wonder what it could be like now that I have more confidence. I’ll be looking for classes in SF to try it out. What’s there to lose?
Why Don’t We Teach In Teams?
Greg pointed out how teaching, unlike music and comedy, is such a solo activity. Musicians typically build up their experience and skills by playing with others. The best comedians by and large spent a significant amount of time in some sort of comedy troupe before striking out on their own as a stand-up or as major film stars. Teachers though? Often alone in their classrooms and if my partner is an example of the ‘norm’, definitely alone while grading and preparing lessons. This is something worth exploring: what could teaching be like for the teacher if there was team teaching? What could we do with more feedback, more often, and with someone helping us track measurable progress towards our goals as agents inspiring learning? Finland has an excellent system of teacher feedback and peer/mentoring for their educators. Teacher’s college is harder to get into there than medical school (not sure that’s a good thing, but it’s what Greg told us).
Key Points About Teaching & Learning
People have two kinds of memory layers – short and long term – and short term memory (which is what we are working with in classroom environments) can hold ~7 items +/- 2 so really we should aim for 5 in order to teach to our students’ capacity
We have to balance on/off time – we lose some time switching between tasks or concepts in the teaching but working with memory limitations as mentioned above, we must let people take breaks to reset & refresh
Avg person can take in info for about 45 minutes before their attention wanes from exhaustion. For me, this is more like 30 minutes. Hearing this from Greg reminds me that I want to propose that all meetings I’m involved with at work move the default length to 30 minutes and that we have a set of rules for how to deal with ‘overage’. Either email or mailing list post, etherpad, set up a follow-up meeting, or make a proposal and request feedback so that we are not taking an hour because we *have* an hour.
Apparently the military has a lot of research and effective solutions for human performance. Greg mentioned being at a naval academy and the grad students he was lecturing to dropped into doing pushups when a bell sounded on the hour. This sounds like a great practice for anyone trying to learn and be engaged with others – get your blood pumping and change your position. Reminds me to get that automated rest-taking app running on my laptop again and to actually pay attention to it for a while instead of dismissing over and over.
Continuous ‘flow’ – oh that elusive state for programmers. There was some sort of quote about coffee but I missed the first part, the gist was that when we are immersed in something and truly engaged we can override that 45 minute intake limitation from before but if we do more than pause (without switching contexts) we could end up breaking flow and it takes at least 5-10 minutes to get back into it. This is key for people who work in environments full of distractions and interruptions. I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately as I’d like to work on breaking my very unproductive cycle of checking IRC and email in a loop as though I am event-driven. I need to make times to get into ‘flow’ and do bigger tasks with more focus.
A sidebar of the distraction mention was the fact that, in programming, syntax can be the distraction. That is, errors in. When you get stuck trying to figure out where your semi-colon or indentation is off you break out of ‘flow’. In a language/framework like Scratch this is not possible as the blocks cannot be dragged and dropped into any order that creates errors except in ways that are related to logic and program flow – worth stopping to think about (and keeping you in your engagement ‘flow’)
There are roughly three types of minds out there to work with in teaching: a) Novice b) Competent c) Expert. The Novice doesn’t know what they don’t know so the most important thing to do when trying to teach a Novice is to make sure their mental model of the concept you are teaching is correct. This is to become a lot of the focus in the rest of the day – methods of determining if our concept is getting across correctly. The Expert is such because they have more connections between all the facts they know about the concept/skill and so they can leap from point A to point J in one move where it takes a Competent mind all the dots in between – executed well, but with thought and intention – to complete them. It is *as hard* to get Novices to become Competent as it is to get Experts to see the concept they are trying to teach as a Competent person does. Think about something you might be and Expert at and see if you can tell what steps you assume other people will know.
Another key point about the Expert is the idea of reflection. Being able to reflect on your skill is huge for honing it. An example would be how I went to a hockey skating workshop where they video taped us skating our fastest and when I saw that video, saw how knock-kneed I was and how my internal map that I was using wide leg strokes did not actually look like that in the tape I was a) horrified but also b) it’s a reminder of how far I have to go and how much more work I need to do in order to reach a higher level of expertise, such as that reflected to me by the instructors.
Accepting Feedback and Critique
We spent some time talking about critique. In architecture, art, music, and many other disciplines there is a built-in system for critique. It helps the student to build up their sense of self, to know their strengths and weaknesses. We do not always have this in teaching. In our workshop, Greg had people write down one piece of positive and one negative feedback on two sticky notes (yellow for positive, pink for negative) and he asked us to put them on a piece of paper at the front of the room before we headed out on our first break (just over an hour of instruction had occurred). When we returned we discussed what the anonymous feedback had provided Greg with and what he could actually work on in the moment vs. what was useful for later. He mentioned doing this, and letting it be anonymous, was a great way to build trust with your students. Also we talked about how to get better at accepting feedback, working with it, not letting it paralyze you or derail your lesson.
One of the key takeaways for me here was the idea that the most senior leader/teacher should model this for others. Show that you can hear feedback, both good and negative (hopefully constructive), and be able to move forward without crumbling under the pressure. While I’m nervous about feedback, I will do my best to ‘fake it till I make it’ on this point because it’s definitely more important to correct course and create a better experience for students than to be proud and lose their interest and especially, trust.
Our next major concept was the concept map. This is a way to help yourself understand what you are trying to teach. It’s also a way to check yourself for the 7 items +/- 2 factor. If you have more than 5 main concepts in the concept map, it’s time to evaluate it for what can be put aside for now or what can become the next lesson. The concept map can also be shared with students as a way to make sure everyone is on the same page or at least starting with the same page. Greg recommended handing out a printout of the concept map so that students could doodle and expand it in ways he might not have thought of.
We learned how the concept map should never be used for grading. It’s mostly a tool for the teacher to know if they have managed to get across the mental model well enough for the novice to reflect back a matching map and feel comfortable moving on to the next concept. It’s also a way of preventing the “blank screen” where students can be frozen trying to come up with what to put down (in programming or in writing) and having a scaffolding there in the form of map, or hints, any form of guidance can basically jump start the student and hold their hand until they need less and less of it to self-start, self-direct, and truly *learn* autonomously.
We did an exercise where we drew up concept maps for how to teach a for loop. This was my first time doing a concept map and it was hard. Definitely will take practice and likely some more reading/looking at other concept maps to drive home the concept for myself.
Key points from Greg:
Make your concept map look ‘cheap’ so that people aren’t afraid to give you honest feedback
Write and share maps with each other – try this with your team at work on a project you’re starting – you might see that others have a *very* different sense of what is being attempted
Try not to need things in your concept map that you will “explain later” – if you can’t explain it now you’re going to disrupt the ‘flow’ of maximizing the short term memory limits
Transfer your map into a list of bullet points as it will help you put the most important concepts first
Think of concept mapping like couples dances. You both want to be doing the same dance or there will be a lot of bruised shins
Sticky Notes as Invaluable Teaching Tool
We used sticky notes at several points in this workshop. While we only had two colours today, Greg recommends three colours to be used as follows:
Green: Students can put this up in a visible place when they have completed the exercise currently being done
Yellow: Students can put this up when they have a question. Also this is a great tool for ensuring more participation in the classroom setting. Some people talk more than others, there are definitely certain types of people who take up more space, and the deal with the yellow stickies was: You get two, when you ask a question put one aside. Another question? Put the other aside. Now you have no more questions until EVERYONE in the class has used at least one of their yellow stickies.
Red: Students can pop this up in a visible place when they need help on something. This is great for two reasons: 1) the student can keep *trying* instead of worrying about holding a hand up and waiting for eye contact with a teacher and 2) the student can request help without drawing too much attention to themselves. This is great for classes with people who might have learned it’s best not to speak up, ask questions, or draw attention to themselves out of fear and/or shame.
Know Your End Goal
This probably shouldn’t have *blown my mind* but it did. It’s so obvious yet I’ve never once designed curriculum with this approach. You can bet that’s all changed now. Here’s the key point:
DESIGN YOUR LESSON BY WRITING THE ‘EXAM’ FIRST
Ya. It’s maybe obvious. You want to make sure the students leave knowing what you intended to teach them? Well, figure out how you’re going to measure that success *first*, then build your lesson up to that. “They understand the for loop” is not enough. Be specific. Have a multiple choice question that tests the output of a for loop and gives 3 plausible answers and one right answer. Use this to check if you are teaching well – their failure to choose the right question is your failure to teach the concept correctly. This doesn’t have to be for actual grading (unless you want to grade yourself). Think of this like Test Driven Development for curriculum. Teach to the goal. You will develop lessons faster and more efficiently. Your learners will appreciate it. They can tell when they are learning vs. having a lecturer do a brain dump on them that goes nowhere in particular. Backwards design works. Greg’s book plug related to this section: “Seeing Like a State“
Another tip? Create one or more user profiles for your lesson. In our workshop we created Dawn: 15 year old girl who is good at science and math, learning programming in a one-day workshop. Then we did an exercise in crafting a question that would confirm if we had successfully taught how functions work to her.
We learned about Allison Elliott Tew‘s work and about “Concept Inventory” which is a way to use common mistakes in mental modeling to create multiple choice questions where the incorrect answers can help you understand *how* someone has misunderstood the concept you are trying to teach. Multiple choice is great because it’s quick to get you an assessment (teacher grading time).
Related to multiple-choice as test of understanding is Peer Instruction. This is a method that uses a multiple choice question in a really interesting, and engaging fashion.
Developed by Eric Mazur in the 1990’s this method expects students to have done some pre-work on the material before coming to class so that the entirety of the lesson can be used to compare and correct conceptual maps and understanding of the material. It goes like this (at least Greg’s interpretation – it differs in Wikipedia as to how Eric designed it):
Provide a multiple choice question based on the pre-work content. Ensure 3 plausible answers and one correct
Students select and *commit* to an answer (there is not yet software for this, though there are clickers) – you can also ask people to hold up the number of fingers for their choice and have classroom helpers count
If everyone picks the right answer you can move on but otherwise you ask people to talk in groups with their neighbours to examine each other’s choices and what the correct answer might be and why. This is great for having people explain their mental model/map
Vote again and have students commit to the answer
Instruction reveals the answer as well as perhaps a single sentence explaining why
Groups discuss again, this time they can explore their understanding with the correct answer alongside people who, likely, had the correct model
This teaching technique was proven in 1989 but is still widely unused (esp. in MOOCs). Greg told us that he can usually do about 10 of these types of questions in a 1 hour class. We did an example of one in the workshop to test out the method and it was a lively exercise. This was also an opportunity for Greg to help us notice how noise in the room helps a teacher determine when a good time is to check in, continue the lesson, or make sure people aren’t stuck. Active, engaged learning is boisterous and noticeably relaxed. Quiet can mean focus, and then as people complete the exercise you can hear some discussions start up as those who are done talk with each other about the exercise. I look forward to getting a bit of expertise at this level of listening and was impressed by Greg’s skills in classroom energy level reading.
F*ck It, I’m Outta Here
I have several more pages of notes but it’s getting late and this is a long post. There’s one more part of the workshop that I’d like to write about: The moment when you decided you didn’t want to learn something anymore.
This is a really great piece of advice for teachers. Greg started by saying that he used to ask students what motivated them to learn, what great experience in learning they had so he could tap into that motivation as a teacher. Now? He asks people what DE-motivated them. You get a lot out of people this way. Ask someone (or think of your own experiences): “What was something you were curious about, working on, getting into, and what happened that made you say ‘f*ck it’ and drop it? If you could go back in time what would you change?”.
For my example I spoke about returning to gym class at 12 years of age after recovering for many months from a very physically traumatic incident where I was hit by a car while on my bike (15 bones broken, 6 months in a wheelchair). Being immobilized *and* being a pre-teen caused me to put on a fair amount of weight and I was no longer very physically active or able. I also had yet-to-be-diagnosed asthma. Not only did I have to endure a gym class where those with natural talents were help up while the rest of us were discarded but I also continued to fail tremendously at getting more than a “Participation” certificate(! Every other result got a very nice badge) for the Canada Fitness Test.
My “F*ck it” moment was when I got so frustrated with never getting a badge that I stole someone’s gold badge when no one was watching. I also ended up eschewing all sports and athletic pursuits for many years if there was any hint of tryouts or actual talent needed. Years later, at 29, I taught myself how to run by using a couch-to-10K program that did repetitions of running and walking in order to build up endurance. Not only did I succeed at that but I learned to *love* running and feeling healthier in my body. If I could go back in time I would become a Physical Education teacher and make sure every kid in my class knew that it’s not about natural talent at anything. It’s about setting achievable goals for yourself and comparing your results against your OWN RESULTS. Never mind some test, and other kids. We’re all very different but no one should be denied a sense of accomplishment. It’s what keeps you coming back to learn & build on what you’ve learned.
Now Go Read More: Keep Learning How to Teach
It was an amazing day. I have more notes to transcribe for myself but I think I’ve managed to capture the major concepts I learned today that will all be invaluable in my work on Ascend and beyond. Greg is an experienced, passionate, driven teacher and his enthusiasm for *knowing* what works in education is contagious. I want to be a better scientist and educator too. The Software Carpentry movement is picking up momentum. Look for workshops, blog posts, and opportunities to participate in a town near you. See their site for up to date information and also check out their materials page for additional resources. I’ve got a few new books to read on the plane home tomorrow.
Last year I approached Debbie Cohen, our C-level People person, and made a proposal. With all these Hacker School/Dev Boot Camp/Hackbright accelerator programs popping up, I had an idea to create an open source version and specifically target participants who come from underemployed, LGBTQ, Latin@, and African American populations – aka: people who are terribly underrepresented in tech but also very much more so in Open Source. The idea was that instead of people paying to come learn to become developers in the capitalist, Startup-focused, feeding-frenzy the Silicon Valley promotes we could instead seed other towns, other communities with open source and create an in-depth technical contribution training program that more mirrored the experience I had with Dave Humphrey at Seneca College. Imagine my surprise when Debbie clearly, and without hesitation said to me “Great idea! Do it!”. I’ve been building up to something that is more sizeable through running local events, hack meetups, participating in community building in several ways so I saw this proposal as the next step for me, as an organizer. This time I’m going to do something that is bigger than what I could do alone. I will have Christie Koehler working with me as well as several community building team members in advising and mentoring roles.
The populations I want us to reach out to have resulted in certain adjustments to the typical setup of those for-profit accelerators which I see as being key to the potential success of our cohorts. Attendees in the Ascend Project will benefit from taking this course in the following ways, which are intended to remove many barriers to participation in Open Source:
a $50 per day honorarium will be provided to encourage regular attendance and help ensure participants can afford to focus on being present to learn & develop
laptops will be provided to use during the course and upon completion, graduates will get to keep theirs
food (breakfast and lunch) will be provided every day
where needed, childcare stipends are available to participants who need additional care in order to put in the time this course will request of them
transit passes for the whole 6 weeks
The purpose here is to not only acknowledge that we know we’re missing people in our open source communities but that we’re willing to put our money and time where our mouths are to go and explicitly invite people who like to solve problems to come and see what it is like to get to just focus on learning, developing, fixing a bug, getting hooked, being a part of a bigger community with a mission for global good. I see this as a solid way to counter the manner in which many of these populations are pushed away from participation in computer science and open source contributions.
We can’t expect every person who might be a strong, longtime, and impactful contributor to Open Source to find us based on passion alone. That leaves all the systemic issues in society to decide for us who gets here. If we can remove some barriers and provide an environment where participants in a program get a chance to feel confident, trusted, strong, and *wanted* then we can see how that might blossom their abilities to learn and contribute to an open source project that has a ton of pathways for potential input and impact.
The project is currently still in the kickoff phase so this is the first public post. Mostly I’m braindumping, trying to work backwards from September when the course will start, and getting my head around who will do what so we get everything ready in time. I’ve got a budget for the first pilot, which will take place in Portland, OR in the Fall of 2014, and it’s almost approved. Next up I will be designing the curriculum while Christie works on partnerships locally in preparation for our call for applications. We’ll be doing our best to reach far outside the typical degrees of separation to get word out and to attract applicants. I’ll be in Portland next week to meet with local orgs and gather information on where we can promote the project.
The first session, as a pilot, will have certain ‘training wheels’ on it. Mozilla has a great space in Portland. Portland has a wonderfully large open source community I fully expect to tap into for networking and partnerships. We’ll be using this first pilot as a way to test the participant selection process and the curriculum itself. I really want to be setting people up for success. This is measured by committing at least one patch to production code (in any area of Firefox) before the end of the course. Our first course will focus on Mozmill automated testing because we can get our participants to that level of success with independently-written JS tests for several of the Firefox products.
Following Portland we’ll be reviewing, updating, improving, and then taking the next pilot to New Orleans in January of 2015 where we can test “what happens if we don’t have an office, a large community already in place?” with our tightened up selection process and curriculum. The two pilots should give us lots to go on for how to scale up an initiative like this going forward and hopefully it can become something that happens more frequently, with more teachers, and in many more places (like in some of our Firefox OS launch markets).
That’s the gist for now. I’ll be posting more frequently as we hit milestones in the project and also am happy to take people up on offers to review curriculum.
Last night I helped hold the third local meetup of trans and genderqueer people who are interested in getting together to hack on our projects. This is the third event since the amazing Trans*H4CK Hackathon (the first one of its kind!) that took place in October 2013.
When I heard through the grapevine that there was going to be a trans-focused, trans-organized, local hackathon I was beside myself. Finally I would get the combination of identity and technology in one space that I have been dreaming of since going back to school as a mature student in 2004-5 in order to get a degree in Software Development. My lofty goals in going back to school can easily be summarized in two ways: 1. I wanted to get a better job than being a brunch chef or a non-profit artist-run center, contract employee with no job security or dental benefits and 2. I hoped that whatever I could learn about technology and software would become tools I could bring back to my queer/trans/genderqueer/arts community and help anyone who wanted it at whatever level they ask for. This has come to mean hosting websites for people, helping build websites for people and small orgs, and also doing some random consulting. It has also led, funny enough, to a certain amount of fixing people’s computers. That’s nothing I learned in school, it’s just something I seem to have the right combination of lucky and chutzpah to try — ratio of success lies at about 85-90% so far (some things are unfixable, by me at least).
Anyway, I got into tech and got through a grueling 4 years of school with all its associated stresses. No need to go into details because I finished that thing AND I got a pretty amazing job right out the gate. Health benefits (specifically the much-needed dental)? Check. Ability to help my communities with tech stuff? Yes….ish.
Turns out it’s not that easy to still be people’s go-to for tech help when you start working more-than-fulltime at a fast-paced company. Also when you move across the country from the majority of your closest friends and aquaintance community. I made that decision though because I wanted to take the opportunity that existed for me to come here, to SF, and be in the heart of it all. Little did I know at the time I was walking on stage at a very precarious time (that’s a whole other post).
Skip forward. I’m lucky enough to have one woman (self-identified to me as a feminist on our first meeting) on my team of 8 people. So I think tech is pretty awesome. Then she leaves, goes to another team. Then I go to my first PyCon and swim in a sea of homogenous men I don’t know. Then I meet a handful of really exciting people who put the words “Queer” and “Tech” on a scrap of paper for a DIY session in the basement of that hotel in Atlanta, 2009. That is one of the *big* moments. It’s when I started, with that group of people, to promote teaching Python to women. Based on the success of RailsBridge‘s workshops teaching Ruby on Rails to women (I went to one, Ruby and Rails are not my thing for now) and also the Boston Python Workshop which did a lot of the groundwork for adapting the RailsBridge-style weekend material to a Python version, I ended up starting PyStar with a few people. Our goal was similar: make it possible for more women to feel comfortable learning Python in a non alpha-male space. We had a few workshops in SF and Mountain View (Mozilla office space was easy to get and use for weekend workshops). There were groups creating workshops in Philadelphia (still, to this day, the most active city for this project) and in Minneapolis. I even threw one together in Paris for a night when I was living there for 3 weeks and working from the Paris Mozilla office.
I’m sharing this with you, reader, because this is the backdrop for what comes next. For me, teaching women to code was…OK. Don’t get me wrong – it’s important work and I’m glad it’s happening. For me though, I still felt kind of lonely. Since the majority of attendees were middle/upper class, young, heterosexual women I wasn’t really connecting on the levels that I do with people who share other similar identities and life experiences with me. Or at least ones I am more familiar with, if not my own.
I got a bit disheartened by organizing events that I no longer felt I truly connected with and I took some time to try and figure out how to best spend my time and how to be the activist I wanted to be. Enter GeekFeminism, having several of the people I met through that hired on at Mozilla, PyCon drastically improving its ratio of women attendees (speakers, still being improved), and meeting Leanne. Over the past couple of years, again keeping it short, I’ve managed to go to conferences and meet lots of people and dream big with them. The LGBT lunches at Grace Hopper have been fascinating. Getting to attend AdaCamp – huge boost. Finding people and connecting with them on all the things that are big problems we want to be a part of solving — the one is often comes down to is “How do we get more diversity in tech?”.
At Mozilla I end up making that a second full-time job that is not what I am paid to do (working on that). Instead I got discretionary funding that I could use to help leverage women in open source which eventually grew into supporting anything with diverse populations that were not prominent or numerically well-represented in open source. This looked like me being able to offer up the Mozilla office(s) if and when I could be there to hold the space. It looked like being able to sponsor a variety of events with amounts less than $2k who were promoting, retaining, or otherwise engaging people in tech & open source more specifically.
One of the events I ended up directing money towards was Trans*H4CK because, as I mentioned at the start – I was so frickin’ excited that this was going to happen and I wanted to help it happen. I reached out to Kortney and offered money, asked if (while I was planning to attend regardless) I could talk for 5 minutes about open source. I did that. I went and talked and gave my, now usual, talk about why open source is important (think: View Source on webpages and how you might have benefited from being able to do that). Then I hacked on stuff and met people and generally soaked up what it felt like to be in a space where I felt seen, whole, and just surrounded by people who were also being seen. We exist, in numbers more than the one or two at your day job! What a fun weekend.
Then I wondered – why just one weekend? This was in the Bay Area and while a handful of people traveled to the event most were local. In the style of user groups and meetups, why not continue to have a monthly get-together of this particular blend of nerdgeektransgenderqueer fabulousness? I proposed this to Kortney, offered up the Mozilla SF space to hold it, got food for the attendees, and we had one in November that was probably attended by about 20 people. Pretty sweet. There was a lot more socializing than actual hacking but that happens when people are still so new to getting to be around each other. With the success of that, I wanted to hold more but I think the holiday period got in the way so the next one I helped put on, this time at the Double Union maker space, was February 18th, 2014. It being closer to my house and not at the office I rarely go to anyway was awesome, btw. Also I bought snacks with my own money to bring. That night I thought: we need a regular night – say, the third Tuesday of every month, so that it can be something people just *know* is on and can show up to. No need for invites, mailouts, or headcount – keep it simple. I proposed this to the people at the meetup, and thought this was generally agreed upon.
With that in mind, and with a pretty busy schedule coming up, I wanted to get the March date on the Double Union calendar sooner rather than later so a couple of weeks ago I reached out to the membership list asking if the Tuesday night circuit class would be up for sharing the space with another trans hacking night (as that was the best date for me, as the organizer). They were open to it and all seemed fine but another email thread started up about whether or not the trans hacking nights would be trans-only or not (if they should, even). This is something, btw, that the TransTech community participants will be chatting more about so as to determine what guidelines and priorities to have when choosing space or setting up meetings. In that thread Kortney expressed concern about not being able to make the date and I said that I was trying to set up the every-third-Tuesday nights, as discussed at the February meeting. No further response came and I went ahead with booking it (circuit group moved to another night to give us the whole space, thanks!) and setting up an invite. Double Union still doesn’t publicize their address so the invite was needed to have a way to reach people who said they would attend. My goal was to use this next meetup to set up open communication tools that could be used by any member of this nascent “we get together and hack on stuff with other trans/genderqueer people” community. So we did that.
Last night I was at Double Union with some others and I set up a mailing list, a wiki, and IRC channel, and a Twitter account. I shared all the admin/login details with the others because this isn’t *my* thing. This is, to the best of my knowledge and experience in open source, how we start communities that are as free of bottlenecks on getting things done as possible. Then I put that information out there. The goals, again, are to have spaces where trans and genderqueer people who are in technology (or want to learn to be) can meetup to work on their projects or even work on each other’s projects. I hope we’ll also get to work on projects that help our communities, for example I’m trying to figure out how to help Homomobiles get an app as it drives me nuts to see people using Uber and Lyft when we have this opportunity to put even a sliver of our collective queer and trans money back to a queer and trans organization and help grow it.
All that to say: There’s always room for lots of ways to bring people together. This is my expression of how I do it. Mozilla, while being my employer, does not dictate what I do with my spare time and yet I am fortunate in being able to book our office space(s) when available for events.
I’m being told on Facebook and Twitter that this is stealing, that I’m stepping on Kortney’s toes and please believe me, I tried to do everything I could to avoid that. I intentionally sought another name out of respect for the way that I see Kortney branding and promoting Trans*H4CK and how he is doing great things with that. I see TransCode (teaching coding), Trans*H4CK (hackathons and speaker series), and then TransTech (local community building, mentor/mentee finding, getting things done in a room with people you have that certain connection with) as all being part of the building blocks for continuing a trajectory of making and taking up space in technology for those of us who are outsiders, underrepresented, or just plain want to put our efforts into working with other social justice activists in building trans & genderqueer focused space.
If you’re in the Bay Area and want to know about meetups, be part of shaping this community, or otherwise lurk about to see what might grab your interest down the road then please follow us on Twitter and/or join our mailing list: https://mailman-mail5.webfaction.com/listinfo/transtech-discuss
I’ve been in Release Management for 1.8 years now and in that time we’ve grown from one overworked Release Manager to a team of 4 where we can start to split out responsibilities, cover more ground on a particular channel, and also…breathe a bit. With some of the team moving focus over to Firefox OS, we’ve opened up a great opportunity for a Mozillian to help Release Management drive Firefox Desktop & Mobile releases.
We’re looking for someone committed to learning the deepest, darkest secrets of release management who has a few hours a week consistently available to work with us by helping gather early feedback on our Nightly channel (aka mozilla-central or ‘trunk’). This very fabulous volunteer would get mentoring on tools, process, and build up awareness of risk needed for shipping software to 400 million users, starting at the earliest stage in development. On our Nightly/trunk channel there can be over 3000 changes in the 6 week development cycle and you’d be the primary person calling out potentially critical issues so they are less likely to cause pain to the user-facing release channels with larger audiences.
A long time back, in a post about developing community IT positions, mrz recalled a post where I stated that to have successful integration of community volunteers with paid staff in an organization there has to be time dedicated to working with that community member that is included in an employees hours so that the experience can be positive for both parties. It can’t just be “off the side of the desk” for the employee because that creates the risk of burnt out which can lead to communication irregularities with the volunteer and make them feel unneeded. For this community release manager position I will be able to put my time where my mouth is and dedicate hours in my week to actively shape and guide this community Release Manager in order to ensure they get the skills needed while we get the quality improvements in our product.
So here goes with an “official” call for help, come get in on the excitement with us.
Are familiar and interested in distributed development tools (version control, bug tracker) typically used in an open source project of size (remember when I said 400 million users? Ya, it’s not a small code base)
Want to learn (or already know) how to identify critical issues in a pool of bugs filed against a code base that branches every 6 weeks
Have worked in open source, or are extremely enthusiastic about learning how to do things in the open with a very diverse, global community of passionate contributors
Can demonstrate facility with public communications (do you blog, tweet, have a presence online with an audience?)
Will be part of the team that drives what goes in to final Firefox releases
Learn to coordinate across functional teams (security, support, engineering, quality assurance, marketing, localization)
Have an opportunity to develop tools & work with us to improve existing release processes and build your portfolio/resume
Mentor and guide your learning in how to ship a massive, open source software project under a brand that’s comparable to major for-profit technology companies (read: we’re competitive but we’re doing it for different end goals)
Teach you how to triage bugs and work with engineers to uncover issues and develop your intuition and decision making skills when weighing security/stability concerns with what’s best for our users
On-site time with Mozillians outside of Summits & work weeks – access to engineers, project managers, and other functional teams – get real world experience in how to work cross-functionally
Invitations to local work weeks where you can learn how to take leadership on ways to improve pre-release quality and stability that improve our Firefox Desktop/Mobile releases
provide references, t-shirts, and sometimes cupcakes
I’ll be posting this around and looking to chat with people either in person (if you’re in the Bay Area) or over vidyo. The best part is you can be anywhere in the world – we’ll figure out how to work with your schedule to ensure you get the guidance and mentoring you’re looking for.
Look forward to hearing from you! Let’s roll up our sleeves and make Firefox even better for our users!
In a couple of days you will, en-masse, get your first peek at the high level agenda of the 3 day MegaMozillaFest you’ll be cannon-balling into this coming October. As someone who feels very fortunate to have been part of the planning processes (more multiple threads than you can shake a stick at) I thought I’d take some time during my layover en-route to Toronto and fill you in on what got us here in the hopes that:
I can shine light on how much hard work and sincerity went into the organization so that participants can get a lot out of this experience
You can see how many different voices and teams come together to plan an event at this scale
You’ll become as excited as I am (or close) for the journey we’re about to go on together this fall
It started, for me, back in June when 70 ‘delegates’ were brought together at the Mozilla Paris office to begin the conversations that were intended to bubble up the big issues and tensions that our community needs to address at Summit.
Wait. It started before that.
For delegates going to the Paris Planning Assembly, we were asked to go out and interview people in our ‘functional areas’ and query them about the story of how they got engaged with Mozilla, what they perceived our challenges and opportunities to be, and where they see Mozilla going in the next 10-15 years. I reached out to our Homozilla list, WoMoz, and also to the Firefox Team – a nice, diverse group of people to try and drag up some feedback to bring.
Sidebar: We often get asked to seek feedback from others in preparation and most recently I did this for a TRIBE workshop. From doing those interviews in person I now plan to commit to doing all sorts of info-gatherings in person/vidyo rather than over email. It’s too easy to send out an email blast and then just pick up what comes back to you. I get so much more from talking with a person face-to-face (video chat counts) and as you’ll see later in the post about Summit planning, it’s important to go a little further trying to encourage feedback than just a one-way missive over email that can be easily ignored or missed.
I got less feedback from people than I would want or expect. It’s a part of our culture to be cycling rapidly on our work and that results in a general air of being overwhelmed and too busy to do anything out of the usual routine so I largely attribute the low response rate to that. For my part I could have framed the questions differently, reached out to individual people instead of group lists, held a vidyo ‘office hours’ to talk with people in person, and followed up more (ie: nagging, a RelMan’s #1 skill).
Minimal feedback aside, I went to Paris feeling very much like I could bring a certain voice to the discussions as someone who wears many hats in our organization and who’s been involved with the project since 2006. Also, as a former unpaid contributor, intern, then full time hire I can imagine some of the realities of what it’s like in the shoes of many Mozillians.
I’ve alreadywritten a bit about what happened at the Paris Summit Planning and how it impacted me so I’ll sum up by sharing that when we left Paris the “what’s next?” action was that we each put our names to one of 5 groups where we could be called upon later for ideas/session planning/accountability for that area: People, Process, Product, Strategy, Purpose
Those groups then got turned into three track themes and were assigned two track leads who would work with Steering Committee members on refining the sessions for each as well as with the other delegates from Paris who had signed up to be accountable for those topics. The entire breakdown of this process is handily in a wiki page, but here’s the high level of who’s involved so you know who I’ve been working with for the past month or so:
Purpose & Strategy – Track Leads: myself and Michelle Thorne, Steering Committee: Mitchell Baker and Mark Surman
Products & Technology – Track Leads: Dave Herman and David Ascher, Steering Committee: Jay Sullivan and Brendan Eich
People & Process – Track Leads: Michael Coates and Zbigniew Braniecki (Gandalf), Steering Committee: Debbie Cohen and Jim Cook
The above listed people, along with Dino Anderson and Dia Bondi (and then a whole host of people behind the scenes like Kate, Mardi, and outside contractors) shepherded us through the last month while we did 3 iterations on an agenda in order to get the results you’ll all see this Tuesday. We held a TON of meetings with each other, in our small Track groups, and with our body of delegates from Paris. In our group, Purpose and Strategy, we kept circling back to the Nature of Mozilla (NoM) and how to best transmit that message so it can be held as the core of every Mozillian’s understanding of who we are, why we are, and what we do. We’d have to ask ourselves: Do our sessions have NoM aspects to them? If not, this isn’t the time. The very core of what makes us Mozillian is the key to this experience because it’s at the heart of how we will move into the future with our new projects as well as continuing to properly steer our existing ships in the waters of the open web.
During this process of multiple hour-long or more meetings each week with some serious thinkers & planners at Mozilla, several things happened for me:
I worried sometimes that we had become too narrow, that as such a small group we weren’t getting enough input, yet at the same time I saw new, and very engaged people at the table taking on leadership roles and bringing up strong points. I had to trust that this part of the planning process (similar to with the Paris planning) was for the best and that we’d get the right pieces cobbled together – always with the larger group who will attend & participate in the final product foremost in our minds.
It was reinforced for me many times over how it is for me to participate in meetings that are over 30 minutes long. I’m really going to need to work on that for my own professional development and opportunities in the future. I’m most definitely open to suggestions on how I can ‘game’ my own self to be better at meetings. In TRIBE we learned about the forms of listening and I’ve been aware of/practiced active listening for 2 decades but there’s something about meetings – the group factor, the agendas, getting off topic. Perhaps some training in facilitation might help understand this area better.
At the beginning of our meetings Dino asked all the Track Leads to speak a little about how we work best and I stated that I always prefer *doing* and am at my best with a list of clear steps to take. While I still enjoy talking/dreaming big, at the end of a rousing brainstorming I need that list of “now what?” and it had better be clear what is expected from me next. This planning process was definitely done in a way that met & exceeded my needs in that area. I applaud all the people who are at the top of the accountability chain for the Summit on their skillful communications and guidance throughout the last few months.
I felt incredibly fortunate to be a part of the creation of this next milestone in our shared Mozilla experience. We were *creating* a journey for (almost) all Mozillians to share. Having these touchstones within a project is so important. Being at the table to dream up and then turn into actuality the plan for complete engagement, alignment, and inspiration of what will get us all to the next billion web users is a heady task and I truly believe we’re very much on the right track to providing a creative and engaging space in October that will change all of your lives in good ways.
At the end of our last agenda review, I was filled with excitement about our schedule: Science & Culture Fairs, lots of Open Sessions, something called ‘Speedgeeking’ which I suspect will be like lightning talks, and then the overall story we’re going to learn about but also build into over 3 days. I’m sad that I’m missing almost 2/3 of Summit due to a prior commitment to the Grace Hopper Conference Open Source Day but I’ll join many of you on Saturday evening in Toronto and go deep Sunday so I can get the most out of it.
I hope this explanation of the process helps you understand how many people put in a lot of time to create what you’ll be participating in. Please join us with an open heart to the goals of this gathering – whichever location you end up in – know that we brought in as many of your voices as we could, that we want more than anything for you to get as excited about Mozilla’s future as we’ve been while dreaming about how we’re all going to build it together, aligned and re-energized. See you in October!
If anyone else at Mozilla has a project that can be done in 3 months time (or at least give the contributor a sense of accomplishment and get them very engaged as a Mozilla contributor) feel free to add a project (and a mentor) to the wiki. Applications are being accepted via GNOME until May 1st.
One of my favourite things about this program is that it allows someone to ‘intern’ with Mozilla without the requirement of being a student. If you can help tweet/share the project, that would be much appreciated too. This project has been growing exponentially every session and is making a significant impact to FOSS community and culture.
Dare 2B Digital is an annual South Bay conference that brings 300 young women ages 12-16 together to encourage them to consider STEM fields in college by coming together for a full day of inspiring talks and workshops showcasing women’s work and relevance in technology. For the past three conferences I have signed Mozilla up as a sponsor and created a workshop that is run 3 times that day and reaches about 80-100 attendees. Last year I created kits for participants to learn about soft circuit hacking and lighting up felt foxes, the year before I taughtUniversal Subtitles and Popcorn before it was even a 1.0 product yet. I’m always trying to keep our workshops current and, if possible, on the bleeding edge of whatever Mozilla is working on. The participants get a taste of one exciting aspect of what is happening RIGHT NOW in open technology.
In the past year I’ve been really inspired by Mozilla’s outreach around web literacy and at the same time there’s been all this work done around our upcoming Firefox OS for mobile devices that will allow apps to be built entirely of the web and installed/sold/shared outside of the silo-structures such as Apple’s App Store and Google Play. At MozCamp Asia in November of 2012 I watched the Mozilla Taiwan reps showcase a fairly simple card matching game they had made of browser icons and they turned it into a Firefox OS installable app in only a couple of hours. All of these snippets and ideas led to my proposed workshop for the girls being about hacking their own version of the browser-pairs game and installing/playing it on a Firefox OS device.
Now this was all before the Firefox OS phones even existed, and it was also before I went away on a 3 week vacation to Vietnam over the holidays. I mentioned it to my co-worker Margaret before leaving and she said she’d be up for working on it with me but when I returned from vacation I lost about a week just on jetlag & minor flu-like symptoms then another on my birthday and having my family in from out of town. Next thing I knew it was February 1st, the workshop was on February 9th, and I had NOTHING ready and there was no public Firefox OS device yet, either.
So I called up Ruth who organizes the conference and tried to beg off this year. Would it be so bad if Mozilla didn’t do a workshop this one time? Thankfully Ruth very calmly returned my panicked email with a phone call and asked me what I needed to get this workshop on track. What did I need? Mostly just to buck up and finish what I started, me with my big mouth. The pieces were all out there. I had code (thank you Mozilla Taiwan!), Chris Heilmann had recently posted some inspiring slides about HTML5 and mobile for Firefox OS App Days, and Hackasaurus has plenty of youth-focused resources.
Hastily, I organized a couple of lunch time meetings during the week leading up to the workshop with Margaret and we hashed out who would do what. We made an exciting discovery in our first meeting, which was that we could host the game from a github page and this meant every girl in the workshop could hack on her own customizations of the game in github’s web interface code editor and see their changes reflected on a mobile device immediately. No need to deal with the minutia of web hosting, no server-side code, and minimal development setup – the freshly imaged laptops we borrowed from Mozilla IT would be good to go in minutes!
I drove to Redwood City on the day of the conference with: 20 laptops, 15 Firefox OS test driver devices (thanks to my co-workers who let me borrow their phones!), and some slides about why hacking HTML5 is the future of mobile apps. One thing we realized as we were setting up was that there would be some delay between when the participants created their GitHub accounts and when they would see their github pages live with our demo code. We ended up front-loading that and having them start right away as they arrived at the top of each time slot then going into the presentation after they had forked the repo which had the gh-pages branch set to default. We later learned (through Margaret’s chatting with GitHub support) that it was likely the delay could be caused by not having edited anything yet on the gh-pages branch so in later workshops we had the girls follow along with Margaret and change the <title> of their index.html and commit the change.
The presentation portion was about 10-15 minutes and started out with asking the girls to shout out what comes to mind when I say the word “HACK”. Answers included “death row” and things along the lines of breaking or sneaking into someone’s computer, mostly things associated with dark or criminal activities. A few did mention things like ‘nerd’ or ‘creative’ too. When I showed them my examples for the talk we had a brief discussion about not asking for permission, being curious, creative, and taking ownership. After that we talked about Apple/iPhone and Google/Android. Most of the girls had one or the other we explored how non-interchangeable they are, how much it might cost to be a developer for one or the other, the need to play by someone else’s rules in order to get your ideas out there. My favourite part of this talk is repeating over and over how using open web technologies and the web itself is all about NOT ASKING PERMISSION. You put your stuff up, tell people where it is, and they can go use it. It can (and should) be that easy.
After the talking was done the young women had about 45 minutes to hack on their github sandboxes and test out making customizations to their matching game. We modeled it after Mozilla’s Thimble project which uses comments in the code to explain various areas of the code and gives ideas on what to change. Our take was to suggest they try (in increasing levels of difficulty):
changing the background color/images (of the page, game box, card backs)
changing the images on the cards when flipped
change the music (few got to this part in the allotted time)
We saved 15 minutes at the end to do demos of what people did to their code and to come up and tell us what they did to achieve their end results. Some of the customizations led to a newly themed game like pigs, magic, twilight, book covers, and other things the designers liked. A few girls went further and took snapshots of themselves on the laptop camera and used their own action shots in the match game, one girl had her own laptop and drawing tablet so she drew her own card faces and intro screen background, and another girl removed the card backs to make it look like the game box was all black – when I started to click during her demo and cards flipped I was surprised since I had thought the game was broken but she laughed and said it was on purpose. It’s hilarious to me that she made a simple match game into a much harder challenge by hiding the discover-ability of the game.
All in all the three workshops went smoothly, everyone got to do some hacking and see their results during the time we had allotted, and all the girls left with a new github account and code they can keep hacking and learning on over time. During the course of the workshop we went around helping and answering questions and taught them about commit history, rolling back changes, and also using “Inspect Element” to figure out where to look in the code to make changes. I should mention that at the beginning of every workshop I asked “Who here has touched HTML/CSS before?” and there were never more than half the hands in the room raised. This comes up every year in the workshops I run. Some girls are getting this knowledge from parents, friends, self-teaching, and now things like CoderDojo (as one participant bragged) but there’s no indication that any of them are learning this in school where they spend a majority of their time. The thought that some girls are being left behind on this is sad to me, and I want to do all I can to help change that. Every single one of these young women left our workshop with a new spark in their eyes having now had first-hand experience with the power of creating web apps that can run on ANY WEB-ENABLED DEVICE. It was powerful to see.
So, what’s next? I think this workshop should become another Webmaker and/or Hackasaurus project that can be taught anywhere, to anyone who wants to have a first-time experience with mobile app development. We’re 80% of the way there, I’d say what’s left to do is:
* Spend a bit more time, if you have it on basic HTML/CSS editing, using Inspect Element, and having cheat sheets printed up for participants.
* Have options for what to do next – getting off of github pages and hosting your own app, possibly with some server-side code.
It won’t take much to turn this into something more generic and useful for introducing people to the power of Firefox OS and HTML5 app creation and I look forward to continuing to develop this sort of material whenever I can. Thanks to the Desktop Support staff who prepped laptops for the conference, SF co-workers who lent their phones, and most of all to my coworkers who lent their time and their expertise: Margaret, Larissa, and Amy*. Without all of you this would not have gone smoothly and because of you it was the best day of 2013 so far.
* At lunch we had a little Q&A with the 30 or so girls from the first workshop. They got to ask all of us questions about what we do and how we got there. The four of us had such different paths & connections to technology. I love that we got to show these young women a variety of ways to engage with tech and to be in open source.
Poll individual Bugzilla bugs for an autoland token (currently using whiteboard tags, future Autoland has an extension & webservice that makes polling the entirety of bugzilla no longer needed). When an autoland request is found, the serviced does an automated landing to try for you of all non-obsolete patches attached to the bug if they can be landed cleanly on tip of mozilla-central and either the patch author or a feedback provider have appropriate hg permissions, otherwise it reports back to the bug what the issues were. Upon completion of the try run, a comment is left in the bug stating the results and if a final repo destination (or destinations) was specified (the hg permissions must match up between requester/reviewer and the destination repo(s)) the service can continue on to autolanding the patch(es) to the destination repo. A comment would be left on the bug when the push to final destination(s) is done. There would be no reporting back of final build results, that would be handed back over to human eyes on TBPL.
What is Autoland’s status now?
In April of 2012, right before Marc’s second internship ended, we launched a very experimental public-facing version of Autoland and announced it a bit so we could get more people testing it. This had varying degrees of success. We got more bugs ironed out but also discovered that Autoland’s daemons for hgpushing and bugzilla polling tend to fall over a bit too often. When we moved Autoland off it’s staging VM to a more permanent home we lost the status page that would tell us (and developers) what the modules were doing and that really made the workings of Autoland quite opaque. With Marc leaving at the end of April and my switch over to help with Release Management in Feb 2012 I had kept meeting regularly with Marc and driving the project to completion as much as possible but hadn’t been able to pull my weight on coding for the last 3 months of our time together. This left us with an Autoland that stopped working and no one available to continue to massage it into being the robust system we needed it to be. I took mention of Autoland out of our trychooser page, try server docs, and have generally tried to downplay it’s existence while still keeping a plan on the back burner for how we will resurrect it as soon as there is some time.
What does Autoland need to be publicly usable again?
A status page that can show what modules are running or down, display what’s in the queue, and give a quick visual to users if Autoland is up or down as a result.
Nagios alerts on the Autoland modules that let me (and other people interested in helping to maintain Autoland) know when things fall over.
At least one person, if not several, who can access the Autoland master VM and ‘kick’ it as needed
This is what’s needed for a short term solution. I know that we have some bugs with our hg pusher module as well as some trickiness in our message queue that, once fixed, would make the overall system more robust. We need people using the system to be able to catch more of those bugs though, so in the meantime having as close to on-click restoring of the system would be a huge win here.
What does Autoland need to be truly ‘production’ ready?
Security review on the code and the BMO extension so that we can move away from whiteboard tags and let people use the BMO extension instead — this gives much cleaner input to Autoland of what is being requested.
More VMs to run hgpusher modules on so that Autoland can handle a larger load. Each VM can run 2 hgpushers max so we’d want to be able to grow our pushing farm as the usage of the system increases.
Being able to push to repos other than Try.
There is no clear plan to be able to get the system beyond Try landings, but I see automated try landings as still being a huge help so I’d be super happy just to see that part get back to a working state. This project is no longer a RelEng priority now that I’ve permanently moved to Release Management and Marc has gone on to other internships and more schooling. I can’t promise anything time-wise, but I wanted to provide some clarity into what is needed and put out the “patches welcome” call. I see Autoland as being a great option for a community-managed project and I want to keep working on it when time permits. If you are looking to become a Mozilla contributor and are interested in automation and web APIs – this might be a good starter project for you. Please get in touch.
Last Wednesday David Eaves presented the results of the multi-tiered contributor lifecycle audit (watch the video). A few points really grabbed my attention and as someone with a background in arts & education non-profits I feel the need to share my experiences alongside my reactions to this talk.
David pointed out that as we are growing, we can hire people to solve problems, so what exactly do we need volunteers for? Survey results showed that contributors often don’t feel their contributions had much impact on the project and that as our paid staff pool grows in size, there is less clarity about what exactly a volunteer’s importance is to the critical path of Mozilla’s mission. I wish we had this data prior to the 1+ year push to releasing Firefox 4. My hand-waving hypothesis would be that as we were cramming to get a product out the door we forgot to be leaders of volunteers and instead unconsciously pushed them aside so that things could get done on a schedule. It was a stressful time, but now that we’ve moved on to regular, rapid releases perhaps we paid staff can all take a step back and really assess how we incorporate the work of volunteers into our individual areas.
For many Augusts I have worked at a women’s music festival in the woods of Michigan and at that festival there is a kitchen that has pumped out 3 vegetarian meals a day for 5 days to 4000-8000 attendees depending on the year. This festival relies on a core group of ‘workers’ who are in fact volunteers but let’s pretend that group of 500-600 people is like the paid staff of Mozilla. The main kitchen work crew gets about 30 workers to run the kitchen. You might think to yourself “but 30 people cannot produce enough food for 4000-8000 women” and you’d be very right. The way it works is that all attendees of the festival are asked to do two 4 hour workshifts during the week they attend the festival. The majority of workshifts center around the main kitchen and creating the meals which range from burrito night to pasta putanesca to nutloaf (a vegetarian version of meatloaf). All these meals involve preparation of pounds upon pounds of vegetables as well as cooking of pasta, beans, sauce. Did I mention this was all in the woods, over a massive firepit? Yup, so 30 women are in charge of making that entire process work and they do so by wrangling hundreds of volunteers per day into shifts around each meal and constantly leading and dividing up the work so it can be done by many hands yet results in one huge meal – 3 times a day!
So let’s go back to people who are volunteering not feeling clear about how Mozilla works and whether their time and effort has impact. How can we make sure that the smallest task makes that person feel like they’ve contributed? Some areas of Mozilla do this very well to name a few; AMO, SUMO, QA, and Personas. These teams manage tons of volunteers and have tasks with measurable outcomes (tests run, filing bugs, approving an add-on, answering a question in the knowledge base, shrinking the queue of pending Persona submissions) and sometimes they can use scoreboards or themed days to get volunteers mildly competitive for the respect of their peers and accomplish larger goals in a short burst. I’d encourage people interested in having volunteers participate in their team’s work think about how to make sure their volunteers have tools to measure their impact from the get-go. In Release Engineering I would measure the number of bugs that we have yet to fix, many of them labelled “simple” or “old”. If I had volunteers doing RelEng work I could keep track of their progress and post reports (as blog posts) of who fixed what when and how as the number of bugs shrank.
Another interesting result from the survey: older folks (34-55!) aren’t on-ramping as much as younger ones. At first I wondered how much of this was about access to the muscle memory of being a student. I think it’s fair to assume that many students/youth can have a lot more time to contribute to projects like Mozilla as certain adult responsibilities may not be required of them yet. Over the past week though, I have started to visualize another take on this. In the arts & social justice organizations I have been involved with there have been plenty of adult volunteers but those organizations have a different need for volunteers. The music festival I mentioned would not happen if it wasn’t for volunteers. The fact that the volunteers want the community of the festival to exist for them every year becomes the carrot drawing women of all ages to come to the woods of Michigan and build a music festival every year. People quit jobs, take unpaid leave, and make plenty of other sacrifices of their time to participate in creating this community. The thanks for this 2-4 weeks of donated work is an amazing live/work experience camping with 5000 women on private land, having workshops, parties, and dances all in a very natural, safe, and ad-free environment and watching incredible performances all day and night for 5 days.
In a different example, let’s look at a the Toronto International Film Festival. Volunteers have to make it through the rigorous screening and application process in order to ‘get’ to volunteer for the festival. They are rewarded with behind-the-scenes access to the festival, sometimes a quick run in with a movie star, and free tickets to festival screenings. The festival shows entirely world-premiere films so this is a huge deal for a volunteer. Several films will see theatrical releases after the festival but seeing the premiere, often with the star in attendance and with a director Q&A post-screening really sweetens the experience. The volunteers also get thanked before every screening with a cute trailer from the sponsor for the volunteer program and there’s always a fantastic party post-festival as the final thank you.
At Mozilla we do thank our volunteers with tshirts and sometimes bringing them to summits, MozCamps, or other parties. For older volunteers though, I wonder if that’s enough. What does it take to get someone in the 34-55 range to donate their time? I’m really interested in this one since I fall in that demographic as well. For me, I need the time donated to do at least one of the following things:
be social, meeting new people in the community I chose to volunteer in is a big part of why I’d do it in the first place
provide a networking opportunity (similar to above, but might apply to folks on the job market a bit more accurately)
get me free access to an event I wouldn’t attend if it wasn’t
be something my friends are also doing so we are visiting with each other while doing something interesting
be for a very good cause so I feel good just helping that cause regardless of the tasks I perform
Let’s look at that last one. The good cause is certainly in the eye of the beholder but I can honestly say that sometimes I have no idea why I would want to encourage a friend who volunteers for hospice care, homeless shelters, AIDS awareness, or other non-profits where the staff is small and the operating budget miniscule to come and contribute to Mozilla. In the circles I travel in outside of my job Mozilla seems right up there with Google, Apple, and of course Microsoft. Sure, a lot of people don’t know we’re a non-profit. I tell people that all the time and while it’s of interest to them, it doesn’t generate an “Oh! Can I volunteer there then?” kind of response. We compare ourselves sometimes to the Red Cross or Boy Scouts – large organizations with volunteer bases – but I think we should start to re-think ourselves more like the film festival or the music festival. We pay competitive salaries to our employees, we throw amazing events, and we don’t have to write grant applications every year to the government (like in Canada) or to private funds (like in the US) to ensure we can keep operating on a shoestring budget. So even though Mozilla is a GREAT cause, I don’t think that’s the bait for the on-ramping of volunteers – especially non-students and people in the 34-55 age range.
What’s going to encourage 34-55 year olds to engage with Mozilla? In my opinion it’s going to happen with targeted events where they can do something in a few hours that leaves them feeling connected and fulfilled and even better if it makes something in their life easier. A while back, in Toronto, we did a day of service and set up an info table at the local library so people could come and ask anything about Firefox and even though by some ironic twist the library’s internet died we still had an amazing day just conversing with people and answering questions about Firefox, the web, security, and even general computing questions. According to David “having good experiences in the project helps one to want to find others and pull them in” and “age and gender have no impact on the willingness to on-ramp, but the longer you volunteer with Mozilla, the less you on-ramp”. My approach with trying to on-ramp then, in light of this, would be to look at getting a lot out of that short interaction. Help someone help themselves on their computer. Teach them a few keyboard shortcuts or how to install an add-on that helps them do what they already do faster and with more confidence. Then encourage them to come back and teach someone else what they learned. This can spread like a pyramid scheme and it’s no longer about getting a single volunteer to stick around for a long time, it’s just about having a good experience and carrying that forward. Potential volunteers can be motivated by the mission and/or by practical considerations it’s important to remember both have tremendous value to the Mozilla project. I think it’s important to encourage 34-55 year olds by believing it’s OK for a contributor to do a one-off in a few hours as long as they walk away happy.
In conclusion of this very long post, I want to circle back to measuring. If we are going to make community a core part of what we do then we need to measure it we currently do not have an institution-wide measurement of contributions, volunteer performance cannot be evaluated, there is no structure for including volunteer engagement during strategic or operational planning. Until we require Directors to create annual and quarterly goals that
include measurable goals around volunteer growth, retention,
participation, and effectiveness we will only see people (like myself)
trying to do this “off the corner of their desks” which means it’s not a
part of your paid work and thus less likely to be sustainable and
effective. The Toronto International Film Festival is a great example of what we could do here. They have paid staff who organize the volunteers each year. They have a clear path for volunteers to follow to be accepted – training sessions are mandatory. Each year returning volunteers are given roles depending on performance from previous years. The record kept of each volunteer’s performance allows paid staff to request certain volunteers for specific tasks based on that information and a volunteer’s history with the organization. Teams of volunteers will sometimes have “Captains” who are also volunteers but with more experience and they are thus given more responsibility. Each area of Mozilla that can accommodate volunteers should keep an eye out for their current or potential “Captains”. David also suggested that, while we avoid it, we should really look head on at guidelines for when to rely on volunteers and when to not – this seems to fly in the face of open source “free for all” mentality but if we compare ourselves to other non-profits like TIFF there is proof that having some structure for volunteers allows staff and teams to develop stronger relationships and the work gets done smoothly, which was really the point all along.
Don’t forget to throw them fabulous parties, share with the world the importance and impact of their contributions, and remember you can never thank a volunteer too much.