Woman Force In Open Source: Eilidh McAdam Interview


We recently started a section in Muktware called Woman Force In Open Source where we interview female executives and developers playing an important role in the Free Software world. This week we are interviewing Eilidh McAdam who forayed into contributing to open source software through LibreOffice. We talked to her about her experiences with the free software community as a female developer/contributor.

Swapnil: Can you tell us more about yourself?

McAdam: I’m a graduate student at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland. I got my BSc in Computing then was accepted for a PhD studentship in 2008 – I’m currently writing my thesis on biological metaphors for critical infrastructure networks. I also work remotely part-time for the open source consulting company Lanedo. I believe that open data and communication can have a massively positive impact on how the world connects, so a job programming open source software is a dream come true.

I’m fascinated by coding (C, C++, Python, Ruby, Java), music (composition and consumption), physics, mathematics and more generally, learning how things work. FLOSS is a fantastic bridge for all of these things and has the additional benefit of bringing people the world over together. I also like functional programming languages, reading (particularly but not exclusively sci-fi and fantasy), gaming (Valve’s recent porting efforts are very hopeful), electronics, writing and drawing.

Swapnil: What was your first computer?

McAdam: Besides the Acorn computer we had in my primary school, the first computer I remember using at home was a Commodore 64. I had a game called Toki, a platformer about an ape trying to regain his manhood. I was bought a second-hand Sinclair ZX80 and was very excited to learn you could input BASIC commands – unfortunately I found the membrane keyboard too difficult to use, so it wasn’t until my family got a PC that I started playing with Qbasic.

Swapnil: When was the first time you came in contact with Free Software/Open Source?

McAdam: My father, who introduced me to computers, had informed me that that free alternatives existed to Windows and we gave SUSE a go when I was a young teenager. Unfortunately, it didn’t stick so the first time I really played with Linux was at around 15 when a high school friend installed Red Hat on a school computer for a project. I was almost disappointed at how easy it was to perform basic tasks. The first open source projects that I used extensively were Firefox (in the heyday of the browser wars), PHP, Python and Dev-C++ (and therefore MinGW) while I was learning about web and desktop development at around 14-15. The idea that I could see exactly why and how software behaves the way it does was, and still is, immensely exciting.

Swapnil: You are currently working on LibreOffice, can you tell us about the ‘environment’ at LibreOffice for female developers?

McAdam: The LibreOffice developer community is a fantastic environment for anyone who is willing and able to contribute. When I chose LibreOffice as my first foray into contributing to open source software, I was intimidated by the size and complexity of the codebase. However, mechanisms such as LibreOffice’s Easy Hacks and the ease of communication over mailing list or IRC made ramping up into the community far less painful than I expected. With respect to being a female developer, I’ve never been made to feel that it’s an issue – plus there are several women already associated with the project.

Swapnil: What are the areas where you see LibreOffice needs improvement?

McAdam: The beauty of open source is that it can always be improving. From a user’s perspective, I’m very happy with the recent versions of LibreOffice. I think that Base (the database component) could use a little love and polish – recent work to put in a PostgreSQL back end has made fantastic inroads, but speed and compatibility (particularly with MS Access) improvements would definitely be welcome. As a developer, the codebase can take some getting used to and improvements in documentation would be very useful. Lately, I’ve been working on the OOXML import filter and it’s another area that would benefit from some attention.

Swapnil: Can you tell us more about other FOSS projects you are associated with?

McAdam: My work has led to using Wine for generating Windows installers for LibreOffice. Some of the utilities I needed were missing and I actually had a lot of fun using the Wine libraries to (re-)create them.

Swapnil: At the LinuxCon Europe last year, during a Q&A session, Alan Cox admitted that gender gap is a big challenge for the Linux community. Linux mailings lists and forums are known for bad language, which can be harsh for males so how do you, as a female contributor, think of this environment?

McAdam: I’ve never had any negative experiences with language/flaming, although of course I’ve seen it as part of hacker lore. The language and terseness seen in open source mailing lists/forums doesn’t put me up or down as long as I can extract the information I need from the posts in question. However, perhaps finding a way to argue a point without resorting to ad hominems would be beneficial for everyone who wishes to be part of the open source community.

I do strongly dislike the notion that the environment has to be changed dramatically for women. I’ve read suggestions such as avoiding typical programmer adornments (such sci-fi memorabilia or games) to make environments more female-friendly and find these types of suggestion nothing short of insulting. All that’s required is a basic level of human decency and respect for one another, regardless of gender.

Swapnil: Did you ever feel uncomfortable on the mailing lists or within the Linux community, if yes what were the reasons? How did you overcome these challenges?

McAdam: I’m quite a shy person, so approaching any new group of people makes me nervous. I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by anyone though. I’ve only had one situation which could be remotely considered inappropriate, but it was conducted by private email and concluded civilly.

Perhaps I’m fortunate in my experiences, but I think that perhaps the drive toward encouraging women to get involved has led to better manners all around.

Swapnil: How friendly is the Linux and Open Source environment, in general?

McAdam: The parts I have been involved with have revealed a compassionate, supportive and talented group of very diverse people. When I was younger, I did observe a slight geekier-than-thou attitude among Linux and Open Source users. I’ve not come across this in any of the developer communities I’ve participated in – there seems to be a general acknowledgement that no single person can know all things and that criticism should be dealt out constructively and taken graciously. The open source conferences I’ve attended have been so much fun, it’s been amazing to put faces to names of developers associated with the software I use on a day-to-day basis.

Swapnil: Unlike scientific world where women have impressive presence, we never hear of an open source project founded/created by a woman, what do you think is the reason?

McAdam: It’s difficult to speculate on the motivations of such a diverse group of people, but taking on a project is a not only a responsibility but a time sink too. It’s also a matter of numbers – if proportionally less women are programmers, it would follow that fewer get into open source and fewer still have the motivations to create or found a project. Personally, I’ve considered chucking a few of my personal projects up on github, but am usually prevented by doubt as to their usefulness and constraints on my time. We do have several of women developing and maintaining important submodules of the Linux kernel and it’s not unheard of for women to have started smaller, niche projects. We don’t hear about every person behind the software we use every day and few open source programmers rise to prominence unless they speak or act controversially, so it stands to reason that we don’t hear so much about female founders.

Swapnil: What is your advice for those women who want to contribute to the progress of open source and Linux?

McAdam: Come on in and I’m sure you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Programmers are highly valued but it’s not just coders that are necessary to a modern project – also of importance are maintenance, documentation, art and design, quality assurance and testing, among many other things. The nature of open source is to value any member who can contribute and one good way to do so is to find a project you use often and seek to improve it. Personally, I chose LibreOffice to contribute to because I’d used it for so long (as OpenOffice prior to the changeover) and it had provided so much value to me that I wanted to give something back.

Gender, just as race, age or any other arbitrary physical characteristic, shouldn’t be considered a barrier to entry. Most projects have websites with some sort of developer section where mailing lists and IRC chat rooms are listed. Listen and learn how the community operates, and when you have relevant input or questions, don’t hesitate. If you don’t get a reply immediately, don’t be put off – many open source developers are very busy people, but will get back to you when/if they feel they can. Figure out the community and how you could fit into it, and once you get started it’ll be difficult to imagine how you weren’t involved before!

Swapnil: Can you name those women who are your role models?

McAdam: I don’t aspire to anyone else’s specific role, but I have been inspired and motivated by Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Sally Ride and Mary Shelley.

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