Getting Women Hooked into Open Source

By Lukas Blakk

Lukas Blakk

Lukas Blakk

I’m a late-arrival to the booming tech scene in the Bay Area. Due to many reasons including being raised by a working-poor single mother, leaving home early, finishing high school while collecting welfare, and then having no knowledge of Canada’s student loan program culminated in not following a direct route to higher education.

I was always interested in computers and jumped on them whenever there was a chance. In grade 6 we would be bussed once a week to a nearby high school that had a computer lab with Icon computers and I have journal entires from that time – written to my teacher – where I beg her to let me switch lab partners because “Roxanne and I fight over the mouse, we’re both too good with the computer”. I find it hilarious that my proposed solution was to get partnered with someone who was less skilled so I could grab more time on the controls. This is very much the opposite of what I try to do now.

Skipping forward to the bright future I never could have imagined: I returned to school in my 29th year. After working as a nanny, a brunch chef, and at non-profit artist-run centers in Toronto I knew I needed something more akin to a ‘career’ and that I would like it if computers and technology were involved. Thanks to parental support I was able to work part time and attend Seneca College full time doing a 4 year bachelor’s degree in Software Development. Along with the usual classes I detoured into Open Source which ended up being the most important part of this degree to my life today.

Two of the school’s professors, David Humphrey and Chris Tyler were extremely enthusiastic proponents of free and open source software. While I was in the early years of my degree, they crafted new courses that engaged students with the Mozilla project (and later Fedora) to teach us about working in the open, working on large projects with real-world impact, and ultimately teaching me to teach.

The way this course was organized and the fact that it was so new meant that students were learning right alongside their teachers. I was drawn to this way of immersing myself in the material. It was so different than much of the top-down way that subjects are taught and that as a feminist, anti-authoritarian activist, I tend to rebel against. Instead, in the open source world, I found that you could take something and make it your own by *doing*. That you could develop even the slightest level of domain expertise by being willing to investigate, dig into problems, offer solutions, and ultimately take on the ownership of maintaining what you implement. This was the start of the ethos I took with me into my first tech industry job, as a Release Enigineer for Mozilla and it stayed with me as I moved into Release Management. Every day I get to solve problems and put my ideas into actionable automation tools and scripts that improve our ability to ship high quality software to millions.

I was incredibly fortunate to have a female teammate on the team I started with. On the engineering side of Mozilla, there is still a fairly low ratio of women to men. Moving out to San Francisco I started to glean (through sites like which my teammate shared with me) that there was quite the disparity of women in open source projects more so than in the proprietary software companies. This came as quite a shock to me since as a feminist and activist, I had found open source to line up much better with my existing belief system than the profit-driven manifestos of the Apples or Googles of the world.

My growth and experience in the open source software world has been so positive and encouraging that it biases my activism towards developing ways to engage other women and marginalized groups with participating in open source. I want to share how our collaboration and creativity can become tools & systems that can have a tremendous impact in our communities. Working at Mozilla has been a huge help. I’ve been able to leverage a familiar, large-scale, open source brand that people already think of as a force for good. Mozilla’s spaces and sponsorships helped me organize events where I could teach hacking workshops while also getting the chance to proselytize about open source. These events placed me in networking situations and led to an ever-growing community in the larger open tech & culture communities who have similar goals to mine. After a couple of years at Mozilla I approached Mitchell Baker – the Chair of the project – and asked her if I could have a yearly funds earmarked for pursuing opportunities to engage and empower women’s continued involvement with or introductions to open source.

With Mozilla’s support and the community of other activists I have continued to create events for women and girls to introduce them to open source and programming. It has also been possible to just sponsor the existing innovation and hard work of other organizations like Black Girls Code, the Ada Initiative, or partnering with the Gnome Outreach Program for Women where sponsors make it possible for internships where women can learn to be contributors to various open source projects.

Paying women when they participate is a very valid way of engaging them in this community and the open source world needs to resist the notion that work done for free is a more valid show of commitment to a project (1).

In the last couple of years I have had the chance to step up my game and grow Mozilla’s commitment to several annual projects such as the Dare 2B Digital conference for girls 12-16 which encourages young women to consider STEM fields in college, the Gnome Outreach project for Women, Grace Hopper’s Open Source Day (and a booth during the conference), Black Girls Code, and new this year – a feminist hacker lounge at PyCon US in Santa Clara. Read about 2013 Dare 2B Digital workshop.

Contributing to open source, as a woman, isn’t about increasing the ratios per se. Empowering women and other disadvantaged groups to participate helps grow the technology and applications for open source, so that it can have an even broader impact. We have not yet found all the people for whom the combination of open tech & culture ‘clicks’ and helps them move something forward in their community. When I went back to school to get more knowledge about technology one of my main goals was to bring back whatever I could to people who did not specialize in this area and open source has been the best way I’ve found to keep showing people what they can do with technology without having to ask anyone’s permission. I certainly don’t.

3 thoughts on “Getting Women Hooked into Open Source

  1. EM Wilkinson says:

    I’m very impressed with your story and am so glad there are women like yourself discovering and making inroads in the open source world who can tell the rest of us about it. Since you’ve had such a wide array of experiences, perhaps you could suggest a resource for me, and people like me, who would like to evolve an open-source project but doesn’t know where to begin. I developed a community-based environmental behavior change approach using a website that has been proven to be effective that I’d like to share with anyone and everyone. I’m just unsure how to engage the open source community, identifying next steps, viability of my vision, etc. Can you share any resources or are you available to provide feedback about such a project? I live in RWC. Many thanks! And keep up the good work!

  2. Barb Gee says:

    Lukas, I love your story and would love your thoughts, especially about engaging women in open source projects. Might you be available to have coffee? I’m the VP of Programs at Anita Borg and am always looking for thought partners who help me innovate our programs to support our vital mission.

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