2012/Keynote by Sumana Harihareswara

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Sumana Harihareswara gave the opening keynote, "Be Bold: An Origin Story".

Speaker: Sumana Harihareswara

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Contributed notes

Sumana Harihareswara delivered "Be Bold: An Origin Story" on June 26, 2012, in the Sanctuary of the Eliot Center. The video is available.

Tweets and memorable quotes

  • Free is better than safe.
  • noirinp: No, they actually do have a keynote organist, WOW! #osb12 #mindblown
  • larissashapiro: Sumana - compassion demands we help new people in open source - moreso, its how make projects succeed - wisdom and organ music too!? #osb12
  • vmbrasseur: The warm up act for @brainwane's @osbridge opening keynote is a pipe organ performance. Nice! #osb12
  • adron: #osb12 jerkitude <- "don't be this"
  • jarichaust: Sumana is giving a fabulous keynote. #osb12 #osbridge
  • kalium: "Help these kids fight their parents!" #osb12
  • eknuth: #osb12 "abundance instead of scarcity"
  • railsfitz: "It can be tough to learn that free is better than safe" - Sumana Harihareswara #osb12
  • adron: I love that understanding the difference between the maker schedule & managers schedule is baseline knowledge. #osb12
  • cesar_pinera: I honestly hope the sessions will not be as bad as the keynote at #osb12
  • cesar_pinera: @li3n3 Dull and uninspiring. Interesting perhaps as a coffee chat, but definitely not up to the keynote level.
  • larissashapiro: to change open source girls have to be able to say about the local open source event "its okay mom, there will be other girls there" #osb12
  • harborjournal: #osb12 free is better than safe
  • teknotus: #OSBridge freedom is better than safe.
  • noirinp: Git commands: the geek equivalent of Hindu chants, that many of us repeat without understanding :-) #osb12
  • adron: OH "I was a strange obsessive kid..." told to a room of these kid, we all smile & laugh in agreement. #osb12
  • pullingshots: "It's tough to learn that free is better than safe." #osb12
  • noirinp: "Empowerment is kind of like turtles: it goes all the way down" --@brainwane #osb12
  • fool: Empowerment is like turtles; it goes all the way down - Sumana Harihareswara (@brainwane) @osbridge opening keynote #osb12
  • thatryana: "vulnerability is strength" @brainwane #osb12 keynote
  • adron: #osb12 "It's tough to learn that free is better than safe…" One of the things I love about TRUE open source. More than meets the eye.
  • ElizabethN: "I ask you to practice disciplined empathy to the newcomers to your community. Hospitality & disciplined empathy." -@brainewane #sotrue
  • larissashapiro: amazing keynote @brainwane… where are you coming from? Use your *empathy* and your *hospitality*, open source citizens! #osb12
  • noirinp: Got @brainwane's message about empathy but not sure how to do it in practice? Join @Schwern & me 2:30pm, B202! t.co/EVP8yLG7 #osb12
  • coined: Enjoying #osb12 so far -- Sumana's opening keynote was excellent.
  • adron @coined ditto. yeah @brainwane's keynote was really good. I enjoyed it.
  • emililix: @brainwane your @osbridge keynote really resonated with me! it was awesome!
  • gchaix: @osbridge was Sumana's fantastic keynote recorded? I'd love to share it with some folks who didn't come to the conference. @osb2012
  • dukeleto: @brainwane awesome keynote at #osbridge ! Keep livin' the dream.
  • gchaix @brainwane fantastic #osb2012 keynote. You rock!
  • adron @brainwane Did I mention great job on the keynote? Great job. #osb12 Cheers!

Speech as written

(These are the speaker's notes as written; changes occurred during the presentation.)

"Be Bold: An Origin Story"

I want to tell you a story.

I am Sumana Harihareswara. I am a successful open source contributor. I've done testing, documentation, marketing, and community management for several projects.

No big deal

I learned how to do community management before I knew what it was called.

My parents came to the US from Karnataka, in south India, in the 1970s. They spoke Kannada, and they arrived in Oklahoma and found that they were about as lonesome as a Linux user in Redmond. They saw that the Kannada-speaking diaspora wanted to talk to each other but couldn't, and so they made that happen. How do we get Kannada speakers together? Kannada Koota local organizations (like user groups). "Koota" means "meeting." They basically started a grassroots network of Kannada speaker meetups. How do we get these folks talking to each other, all across the country? They started a bimonthly magazine, Amerikannada, and ran it for 7 and a half years, until their money and energy ran out. It had great fiction, and articles from the literary magazines back home. And It included ads for those Kannada Koota meetups, "how I started a Kannada Koota" articles, and tutorial exercises for "how to learn Kannada", for your kids. And I helped staple them, and stamp the envelopes.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your children, your employees, the people to whom you are a role model, is the knowledge that some field of endeavor is in a sense No Big Deal. Knowledge -- belief backed up by experience -- that they can do interesting and rewarding projects in it without fear of public embarrassment.

I grew up thinking that writing, editing, publishing, public speaking, and community leadership were No Big Deal.

I use these lessons in my open source work all the time. We know how to do this. It's the standard best practices & due diligence:

  • documentation, gardening, well-run events, responding to people who show up, having junior jobs, not putting up with sexism or racism or jerkitude
  • I treat my own attempts like No Big Deal; compassion demands that I recognize my privilege and help others build their skills and confidence.

Safe is better

But all that writing and editing stuff was a hobby. My mom told me: it doesn't work to try to make money at what you love, because you'll get sick of it. So instead, you should get a good job doing something else, and then have your hobby on the side, music or writing or something like that. They wanted me to be a doctor or engineer, or possibly a lawyer, preferably going into a government job, because government jobs are safe and stable. And of course they believed this was the best way; they'd grown up pretty damn poor. And my dad got laid off a few times, and times got tough. They wanted better for me.

And I was pretty interested in programming. My dad and I did some basic programming -- and I do mean in BASIC, like, GW-BASIC. "GOTO considered my childhood." So they thought that for sure, SHE WILL BE AN ENGINEER! But I didn't feel like I could play around with the family computer and break it, because it wasn't mine to break. And then, they wanted me to learn to program for real, and so they had an uncle come over and tutor me in PowerBuilder, THE LANGUAGE OF THE FUTURE, in which I had no interest. So, instead of messing around with a computer and learning on my own, my parents thought of a very structured, hierarchical uncle-based approach.

Another way to put this is: Whenever my parents left me alone in the house, even when I was sixteen and a senior in high school, my dad would say, "don't do anything bold," by which he probably meant, don't burn the house down. Safety first. But now I work for Wikipedia and one of our mottoes is "be bold." Take that risk. Edit that page.

It can be pretty tough to decide that free is better than safe.

And I was lucky! I had the privilege of growing up in the US, so even though my family was stability-oriented and wanted me to achieve traditional success, I had a more independence-oriented mass media surrounding me, and educational system that encouraged independent research projects, and I got to go to a US university where I met hippies.

And it's even harder for some other people. They might live at home till they get married, even during college, so their parents' doubts can still influence them. They might not have time, because they have to do a lot of babysitting. They might have no teachers who encourage critical thinking -- just memorization.

So they might believe that their time is not their own to spend, and that risks are not theirs to take.

But in all sorts of places -- wikis, filing a bug, mailing lists, spending your free time learning something that isn't on the curriculum instead of studying -- we ask people to make the choices that expose them to risk. Risk of public mistakes, risk of ridicule, risk of doing worse in school. To this day, I have a lot of anxiety about messing up. There's that voice that tells me, with the best intentions -- safe is better than free.

I think about how this applies to open source, especially when we talk about trying to get more global and gender diversity in our projects.

  • When you do outreach, help these kids fight their parents. And of course that's a bit strong -- we don't actually want fights. We want to help kids persuade their parents that we're legit and that this hobby is worthwhile. Honestly, strong brand names like Google and Wikipedia will help convince them.
  • Teach this stuff in schools so the parents trust that it's a real thing, and what's more, make up for schools that do not promote creativity.
  • Meet folks halfway, with structured tutorials and internships and the trappings that they're used to. Then, once they start trusting you, you can show them how to think in terms of abundance instead of scarcity, and how vulnerability -- public bug reports, questions on IRC, and playfulness in general -- is actually strength.

Boys are trouble

My parents wanted me to be safe, not vulnerable. And that's one reason they were overprotective when it came to boys.

My friendship with Levi Tinney probably would have been my gateway into software development. He was this guy at my bus stop who was one grade above me, and he was the one who slipped me a copy of Wolfenstein 3-D. But would I have been allowed to hang out with Levi? To invite him over or go over to his place? Absolutely not! Inconceivable! He's a boy!

Of course my parents believed this. In their experience, the only kinds of men and boys who want to hang out alone with unmarried girls are dangerous and only bad can come of it -- my parents were specifically protecting me from sexual violence. They had to be careful -- better safe than sorry. This was not just about "you need to concentrate on your studies" -- this was a fear, based in their experiences growing up, that I would get harrassed, assaulted, or raped.

I run into this in my open source work, and it's one of the barriers we have to address.

  • Providing random low-key social time is important ... and it's worthwhile to work towards diversity in the participants, so that girl can tell her mom, yes, there will be other girls there.
  • Meet people halfway, with Indian/women's stuff (like that issue of GNOME Journal, FOSS.in), telling them they're wanted ... do what Mairin Duffy did and run a class with the Girl Scouts!
  • We have to stand behind our words, and stand against harrassment and assault when they happen in our communities. Four words: Geek Feminism, Ada Initiative.
  • Provide ways for people who have never heard of open source to hear about our role models, including our female role models, and hang out with them and learn with them. You cannot admire or learn what you can't see!

Teaching the "why"

And people do want to learn. And if you love what you do, then you want to teach it to people who want to learn.

My late father was a Hindu priest. Now, on weekdays he was a civil engineer, but on weekends Dad performed pujas, Hindu religious rituals, like weddings and housewarmings and baby-naming ceremonies.

And he wanted participants to know what the rituals and Sanskrit mantras meant. So he'd write up articles in Hindi, Kannada, and English -- he explained what we were doing, the Sanskrit chants, and then a transliteration into Kannada and Roman characters, and then a translation into English, then some background, history, theology, and comparative religion. He typeset them in MS Word on the 486 running Windows 3.1 or 95, run off 200 copies at Office Depot, and have me staple the brochures together. For a lot of people I'm sure it was TL;DR...

  • but for my colleagues in the audience, now you know where my taste for documentation comes from. It isn't enough that people just repeat "Om shuklam baradaram," or for that matter "git push origin master" - they have to understand why.
  • No matter what you're teaching or leading, even if you are literally a priest in sacred clothes, you show people why they're doing what they're doing. Empowerment is like turtles, it goes all the way down.

Family vs. self

Dad was totally fine with me endlessly asking "why?" about, like, the origin of the Satyanarayana prayer ritual. But I didn't quite get enough time and space to geek out on stuff like that on my own.

It was expected that, like, of course you want to spend most of your free time in public spaces of the house with your family around! And they understood the idea of getting into the zone regarding *writing* -- you know, it's obvious that you're making something. And both my parents were writers, so they got that. But fiddling around on the computer seemed like just timewasting to them -- they let me do it, some, to play video games and explore the web and Usenet, but it certainly wasn't something they considered edifying. In general, I didn't get a lot of privacy or sustained time to just do my own thing.

OR DID I? You see, *I* remember not having enough, but my sister remembers me constantly doing my own thing, holed up in my room. The truth is probably both -- that I had a lot, actually, but that it wasn't enough. Because I was a strange, obsessive kid. Much like many of you. And of course they were socializing us, trying to teach us to be social. From their experience, it was crucially important that their children be able to get along easily with nearly everyone; meetings, dinners, interpersonal relationships and being liked are how people decide everything!

In 1996, my parents would not have understood what we're up to. They trusted their friends and their families, and they trusted school, and they thought they knew best for me. They believed they were giving me a lot of freedom, but it was along the lines, of, "which school clubs will you belong to?" Like the old joke, "We got both kinds of music here: country AND western." If you think you're not in charge of your own life, then you're going to do what your parents say, and that's not going to be "lurk in #drupal".

So, how can we fight this? This might be the hardest thing to fight that I've mentioned in this talk.

  • But maybe you can start by giving them a tiny, tiny task that they can start with. That first free taste. Manager time versus maker time...
  • The biggest thing that gave me the confidence to start contributing: The Participatory Culture Foundation had a really clear "how to test our software" page on their site. And I wanted to learn, and to geek out, and so I started learning how to test Miro. That was in 2007. And here I am today, five years later.


So you can see how I feel bittersweet about all this.

I was born in the US to these awesome, brilliant, community-building parents. These were Indians who had daughters and were happy about it! They wanted their daughters to get excellent educations and be able to stand on their own two feet. So - my parents were actually really comparatively good. And I am one of the people who actually made it into open source! I work for Wikipedia. I told my mom. (And immediately had to say, "no, that's Wikileaks.") (And yes, we're hiring developers, just like everyone else here.)

But they had a streak of conservatism that they could not see. And my family was constrained by money -- we weren't rich enough to buy me a 486 to break; and by our fears, as I've talked about; and by just not knowing about opportunities.

Their questions and ours

So when you are talking to a teenager who's starting to get into open source & open culture, remember that on the other side, in their home, they might be hearing messages like:

  • But how is that going to get you a job?
  • This is not going to help us get you a husband.
  • But you need to be careful, doing things like this on the internet and letting everyone see your name. It can be dangerous.
  • You have time to do that and you don't have time to come to the temple?
  • You don't really need that computer, do you? Your cousin needs it.

So we have to be able to answer those questions. And here are some ways to bootstrap the answers:

  • What is no big deal to them, and what is an intimidatingly big deal?
  • Have they grown up thinking safe is better than free?
  • If their parents think our environment is unsafe, can we prove them wrong?
  • Are we demystifying our processes, or is it all Sanskrit to them?
  • And how can we help them get more maker time, or contribute in the little time they have?


So this is my origin story as an open source contributor. My anxieties and my skills.

And there are no accidents. There are no miracles. Everything is caused.

Seeing that causation, seeing the connection between what someone's doing now and all the causation that went before it, is empathy. It's a little like reverse engineering, except you're not trying to solve them, you're trying to unlock the DRM that's stopping them from solving cool problems with us.

I am asking you for something weird, something that might sound contradictory at first. Because when you think about "empathy" and you think about "discipline," those might seem like opposites. But I ask you to exercise a disciplined empathy. I ask you to not just use your empathy when someone you know and like is going through a tough time. I ask you to think, "where are you coming from?" when that wannabe Summer of Code student asks for directions because he's too scared to poke around for himself.

I'm asking you for the kind of hospitality that my parents showed new arrivals, sometimes on zero notice. Sometimes they were a little tired, from raising two kids and working their jobs and making a magazine. But this work of hospitality, of disciplined empathy, is how we get to a more perfect union.

Thank you.