Over 2009, two women worked to bring more people into their programming language meet-up group. Their RailsBridge effort has lessons for community building in free software as a whole.
RailsBridge began as an effort by two women to bring more gender diversify to the Ruby on Rails meetup in San Francisco. Their strategy: teaching Ruby and Rails to women and their friends. (“Women and their friends” means anyone who identifies as a woman may attend, and anyone else must find a woman to bring him as her guest.) As I looked into it more, I read the slides of Sarah Mei’s talk at SCALE. I learned:
- At the start of 2009, the Ruby meetup was 2% female. By the end, it was 18%.
- The Ruby meetup ran three outreach events to women (and their friends) in 2009.
- There was no shortage of prospective attendees. The events fill up sixty slots within 24 hours, and then the waiting list starts.
I believe that in-person programming meet-up events are structurally similar to free software projects: both are totally open, in theory, to anyone who shows up; both usually have appallingly bad diversity characteristics; both are communities where over time, attendees form bonds of friendship; both are highly visible and yet comprised of a small number of people. Finally, in both, attendees often invite their friends to join. So when thinking about how to grow and diversify free software communities, the success of RailsBridge deserves a solid look.
In the case of RailsBridge, over 2009, about 180 people attended workshops; by the end of the year, the meet-up had grew from about two women in attendance to about 18.
Even though they only retained 10%, Sarah and Sarah succeeded at the stated goal: to improve gender diversify at the Ruby meet-up. Because so many attendees came, they needed to retain only small fraction to make the leap from 2% to 18% diversity-wise. By casting a wide net, and limiting the time investment of teachers to a short event, the RailsBridge organizers are achieving their goals without massive burnout.
Originally, I thought the 10% retention was a sign of inefficiency: if the RailsBridge organizers wanted to find more women to attend their meet-up, I thought they could have just personally invited some female friends of theirs. The RailsBridge effort is a dragnet approach, scouring the entire Bay Area for women and their friends who are interested in day of technology demystification. But it is efficient in a crucial way: it created the volunteer enthusiasm that it needed to run the events. In terms of energy expenditure, it seems to be positive-sum.
Here in Boston, in January Deborah Nicholson and I decided to start the Boston Python Workshop for women and their friends. Our goal was to improve gender diversity in the Boston Python meet-up group. The workshop is continuing apace: Boston Python Meetup events are seeing about 16% attendance by women, and our third workshop filled up in three hours.
It’s part of OpenHatch not just because it aligns with our mission of helping people get the skills they need to contribute to free software; it is also an exercise in community organizing in a context quite similar to any given open source project.
The success of RailsBridge also honed my thinking about the Introduction to Open Source workshop that OpenHatch ran at Penn last year. We found local, enthusiastic volunteers to help teach, and the result was a demystification of open source. However, I wasn’t sure if the students went on to become long-term contributors to projects. RailsBridge has the smart strategy of attaching new, enthusiastic people to an existing community; in their case, the Ruby on Rails Meetup group. That’s a lesson we’re carrying forward with the Boston Python Workshop, and one that I’m mulling over for future iterations of the Intro to Open Source workshop. (Focusing on existing communities also led to the Build It series of events.)
Finally, on July 15, we are running a Scala Crash Course for women and their friends. Attendees are expected to participate in Scalathon, a weekend hackathon oriented around contributing to open source Scala projects. As a meeting of open source contributors, Scalathon offers a unique experience to attendees; we hope that the newcomers who learn Scala will enjoy their time contributing over the weekend and find themselves a new hobby.
To bring about our goal of more people contributing to free software projects, OpenHatch isn’t going to be exclusively web-based. We now understand that growing the free software movement is a bigger task than building some web tools. Keep an eye out for more in-person OpenHatch-affiliated meetings and events in the future.