Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

Diversity in Technology and Open Source

written on Monday, June 5, 2017

It's a topic I generally do not talk much about but a recent Wired Article made me think about finally writing down my thoughts on this topic. The title of that article was “Diversity in Open Source Is Even Worse Than in Tech Overall” and that is undoubtedly true.

When you start an Open Source project today, in particular one which is further disconnected from frontend technologies there is a very high chance the organic community development will be everything but diverse. The highest form of diversity you can naturally expect to form is people from different countries but even there you might have a bias.

There are many arguments that can be had about this, but it's my personal opinion that at least in the longer run it's not healthy for a project or a community to lack diversity. I think it's natural for like-minded people to group together but the longer that process continues the more of an echo chamber it becomes. What's worse is the longer you wait to try to get people involved in the project that would naturally not try to join the harder it will be. When your team is 4 men, the first woman which joins will make a significant impact. When your team is already 20 men you need to get a lot more women on board to have the same impact. But it's not just gender that is making a difference, it's in particular cultural backgrounds. The reason Unicode is hard is not because Unicode is hard, but because a lot of projects start out with a lack of urgency since many of the original developers might live in ASCII constrained environments (It took emojis to become popular for people to develop a general understanding of why Unicode is useful in the western world).

A lot of the criticism that comes against the diversity movement is that it undermines the idea of “meritocracy” and that it does not mirror the realities in the real world by artificially balancing teams. Both of those arguments are weird in a way because they are very hard to defend if you look at larger parts of society. Tech for recent historical reasons is very male heavy but society is not. Meritocracy in many ways is just sourcing the best from the pool of naturally available people in your environment. Sure by some measurements you will get the best but is the best really what is lacking in an Open Source project? We don't need more of the best, we need more of what is actually missing and what is missing in many ways is not more strong alpha males but people that are good in de-escalating arguments in bug trackers and mailing lists, people that take care of documentations, people that make software work in new cultural contexts (localization, globalization, internationalization, etc.), people that care about user experience etc.

If you look at Open Source projects in comparison with commercial software you can quickly see where this lack of diversity is noticeable the most: consumer applications. While we're doing reasonably well with low level technology that never translated well to things that consumers care about. The most successful consumer products that came out of the Open Source community are probably things like The Gimp. A project that not only has a ridiculous name for a consumer product, but also one that is everything but user friendly. If you do a Google auto complete search for “Why is Gimp” it completes to “slow [on mac]”, “bad”, “complicated” and “unintuitive”. In many ways I think the answer is probably a reflection of the developer community lacking focus in some key areas. There is no reason that Open Source software has to be user unfriendly.

In particular some of the infamous Open Source communities like the Linux are (almost?) proud of their harsh culture. Often documentation is so bad that it became a rite of passage to decipher it or fill in the blanks by reading the code.

The only way to achieve the (in my mind) necessary change in Open Source and tech in general is to go out of ones way to involve people that do not come naturally.

So when someone cancels a conference because the speaker lineup after a blind selection was 100% male it just shows how bad the imbalance in the developer community is. It's not unfair to try to artificially bring balance a conference because the fact that the community is this imbalanced to that extend is a problem that needs fixing and will not fix itself naturally.

This entry was tagged diversity, opensource and thoughts