The GNOME Outreach Program for Women

Gee, where to start??  I have so much news to share!  (It just won’t all sound like good news at first, heh.)

I suppose I should begin by saying that the ongoing dearth of jobs within my traditional line of work (sysadmin and computer repair, mainly) has caused me to do quite a bit of soul-searching regarding my chosen career path.  These days, I’m expected to know a lot more and do a lot more than I did in the 1990’s, often for less pay than I got back then.  (!)  Despite years of hacking away on Commodore 64 BASIC as a little girl, and a couple of classes on the LAMP stack and web programming in college, I’ve never really considered myself much of a programmer.  Some recent discussions with a programmer who is near and dear to me, however, made me realize that I’ve probably underestimated my skills in this department.  I decided to give it another look.  After some in-depth research on job prospects, pay scale, necessary skills, and so on, I decided it was time to make a career change and go into programming.

I soon began looking into what kinds of internships and scholarships there might be for women wanting to study computer science (CS).  When I did, I was amazed, pleased, and bewildered to discover that there seem to be plenty.  Why bewildered?  Because CS is apparently crying out for more women, offering abundant aid in an attempt to improve the lopsided gender ratio… and meanwhile, there are almost no women in my own field and no one seems to care much.  Strange, that.  Maybe female hardware/network geeks are so rare that there aren’t enough of us to decry our own rarity with sufficient volume. Maybe people see the lopsidedness here to be so far gone it’s beyond repair.  Maybe too many people just take it for granted that all such geeks are bound to be men.  I don’t know.  What I can say for sure is that when the bubble burst in 2000-2001, it took many of our would-be jobs with it.  Perhaps it’s a moot point, at this stage.  In any case, the apparent wealth of programs to get women into CS was and is very encouraging.  I began joining mailing lists for female developers and taking an online CS class from Harvard University.  (I’ll post the link for this and many other free online courses in a separate post in the near future.)

On a mailing list aimed at women programmers interested in FOSS (which must unfortunately remain nameless due to privacy rules), some members posted information about full-time internships available through the GNOME Foundation called the Outreach Program for Women (OPW).  It’s a worldwide competition for a limited number of internships.  If you win, you get $5000 USD for a 3-month internship from January 2 to April 2.  In order to apply, you have to submit a small contribution to a FOSS project with one of the participating organizations.  The description said you don’t absolutely have to have coding skills to complete a project and apply.  Unfortunately, what little background I have is mostly obsolete (C64 BASIC, anyone? {cue crickets}), with a smattering of PHP and some mostly-forgotten JavaScript. Knowing this, I decided I’d likely have to start off with a web design or documentation task instead, and perhaps that would open up an opportunity along the way to take on a minor programming-related task or two, should I happen to be awarded an internship.

I read through the list of organizations, and the more I learned about the Open Technology Institute (OTI), the more I liked what they were about.  I contacted them and was greeted by Georgia Mullen, a very nice and friendly gal who presented me with several good options for contribution, including some web design and documentation tasks, but also a coding project to write a search engine in PHP. I thought I’d give it a try, and fall back on web design or documentation if it was over my head. She put me in touch with Jonathan Baldwin, the mentor for the TidePools project (it’s philanthropic and very cool – check it out).  They have both been wonderfully supportive.  As my mentor, Jonathan was ever helpful, and always went above and beyond to try to ensure I had everything I needed. The more closely I examined the proposed task, the more I thought, “Hey, I might just be able to do this.” It took a whole lot of time, hard work, and hair-pulling, but I figured out it all out, even the most difficult part: geospatial query of a Mongo database from PHP.  There is precious little documentation for this complex task on the web (there shall be more soon, I assure you, in an upcoming post!), and my searches for more uncovered a number of complaints in various forums about the scarcity and inadequacy of existing documentation for this. Nevertheless, I doggedly hammered away at it, as is my way.  When I finally got it working, I felt like a rockstar! 🙂 I’ve worked in IT for 16 years, and been an enthusiastic advocate of FOSS for about 10 years… but this is the first time anyone has ever “commissioned” me to do programming (something I’ve always thought of as my weakest skill), and I was amazed to discover that I am much better at it than I ever imagined! It may sound cliché, but it was truly a transformative experience.

I never expected to make the cut, quite honestly, because I’m sure at least some of my competitors are CS majors and/or expert programmers who just happen to be new to FOSS.  Still, I figured the application project and process would be good experiences for me, and of course, you can’t win if you don’t try.  I submitted my application last week, along with my project, and just learned on Tuesday that I’m one of the fortunate few who have been accepted into the program!!  W00T!!!  I jumped up and down like a crazy fool, and I’ve had a mile-wide grin on my face ever since!  🙂  I’m quite certain that this is going to be a huge turning point in my career, and I’m so thankful for the women who posted about the OPW program on that mailing list, without whom I wouldn’t have known about it.  It’s the perfect program at the perfect time.  You just never know when sharing one piece of information can change a person’s life.  I am deeply grateful for GNOME and all of the other organizations that sponsored and/or participated in this program, for all of the program organizers and mentors, and especially for the awesome folks at OTI for mentoring me and giving me this invaluable opportunity to learn and grow into my new career!  Congratulations to the other 23 winners, if any of you happen to be reading this, and best of luck on your endeavors!  I can’t wait to get started!

FYI, this blog, and those of the other interns, will be aggregated at Planeteria: Women in Free Software.

More soon!


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