Get to Know Julia Nguyen

Julia Nguyen headshotJulia Nguyen’s keynote speech is Exploring Mental Illness With Open Source, on using technology to share mental health experiences with others.

Julia Nguyen is a web and mobile developer, writer, speaker, and computer science student. She organizes mentorship events and workshops at the University of Waterloo Women in Computer Science Undergraduate Committee (WiCS). She also volunteers with Write/Speak/Code, an organization empowering female thought leaders in technical writing, conference speaking, and open source.

We asked her a few questions about her insights on open source via email.

What got you into open source?

For a long time, I didn’t know I could contribute to open source. I imagined an open source contributor as someone who hacked on the Linux kernel and looked nothing like me. My father installed both Linux and Windows on our family machine. Watching him use it, I thought Linux was something only “elite computer nerds” could use and understand, so I never inquired much about it. We always used open source software because it was often free. We used a lot of products from Mozilla, so I grew up admiring their work and mission.

In high school, I filed bugs for the developer console in Firefox and Thunderbird. Back then, I didn’t think that counted as an open source contribution. I also designed themes for desktop environments like GNOME and KDE. I also did not think that counted as an open source contribution because it wasn’t “intense” low-level programming.

At the University of Waterloo, I studied computer science and was part of the co-op program. When I interned at Communitech, I was tasked to creating an office hours app. While using an MVC called Geddy, I ran into problems and decided to reach out to their developers for help. It felt intimidating using IRC, but the Geddy contributors were friendly and helped me out. They asked me if I wanted to help write documentation. I said yes, but I felt too intimidated later to actually work on it. It wasn’t until my next internship at ThoughtWorks did I feel more confident about contributing to open source. There, I contributed as a developer to the Democracy Now iOS app and the RapidFTR rails app. Until then, I didn’t know it was possible for open source projects to have a social impact. This truly changed the way I thought about open source. Although I was contributing as a developer, I realized that all the prior work I had done in open source was just as valuable. It made me realize that anyone can contribute to open source, not just people who code.

What’s been the best advice you’ve gotten and given over the years?

A culmination of great advice from inspiring friends and mentors I’ve had: “It’s ok to be vulnerable and acknowledge it to those you trust. Everyone fails, struggles, and experiences low moments. The people who use it against you aren’t worth surrounding yourself with. You deserve love, respect, and compassion.”

What do you want people to take away from your upcoming keynote?

I want people to take away is that community is the most important thing we can build. Community isn’t about competition, it isn’t about uplifting one person over the other. It’s about creating safe, nurturing, and inclusive spaces for people to do the best they can and get support along the way. Mental health is part of being human, and sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner people can make the most of communities.

What sessions are you excited about?

I’m looking forward to Taking no as an answer by Terri Oda and The Ability to Disable: Who Did You Forget When You Designed Your UI? by Rebecca Jennings!

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