open source development: women and Asians last

“Why aren’t there more Asian open source developers?”, people are wondering. From Japan to India to Thailand, Asian programmers just aren’t representin’.

As both a market and a source of talent, Asia’s importance to the software industry keeps increasing. But open source contributions from Asian programmers are not keeping pace.

My friend Muriel, who is also interested in culture and technology in South-East Asia, pointed me towards Gen Kanai‘s blog, who is in charge of business development for Mozilla in Asia.

Gen points out that one big factor is that Asians feel uncomfortable in the very confrontational culture of open source development, which exactly what we came up with, years ago, when we were wondering “why aren’t there more female open source developers?”

Asian programmers face additional issues, according to Gen, like language barriers and lack of spare time in which to contribute, but as a female programmer, I wouldn’t be surprised if this culture of confrontation could be the biggest deterrent.

Fear of confrontation doesn’t affect established, confident programmers as much as beginners. When you see how much abuse gets heaped on people sometimes for asking a naive or confused question online, it takes a lot of guts to jump in and ask your beginner’s question. But it’s the confused newbie of today that fixes a bug, adds a feature, and becomes a main contributor tomorrow.

To give you a personal experience: although I have a million friends who are heavily involved in open source, I’ve never been a huge open source contributor, and fear of confrontation is the big reason. t I’m so shy that I only like asking my friends when I have a programming question, because I know that they won’t laugh at me. If I have to ask on the internet, I review my post a million times and always worry someone is going to say “oh, this is a stupid question”.

If I’m going to spend my spare time writing software, I want it to be fun, and for me dealing with mean, stupid comments every time I need help sucks all the fun out of it. I could also work on something by myself which is boring. I could also spend a million hours making sure my question is smart, googling every thing to make sure the answer isn’t obvious, but that also sucks the fun out of it.

When I was an assistant in the Imperial Oil Seminars for Computer Science, at Waterloo, which takes a bunch of high school girls and teaches them how to program — I was struck by how different the atmosphere in the all-girl class was to my own university CS classes. Girls could just say “I don’t understand this”, or “I’m stuck here”, and have fun figuring things out together, where it was going wrong, without worrying that someone would laugh at them. They helped each other. It wasn’t a crime to be confused and just starting out.

I don’t know how to change this, though. Confrontation is very ingrained in the subculture of so many projects, and programmers have never been very touchy-feely people to start with. Change has to happen at both ends: prominent project leaders need to go out of their way to create a more welcoming atmosphere within their own projects, and some pioneering female and Asian developers need to brave open-source culture the way that it is now in order to open the way for other talented but more timid developers.

What do *you* think?

10 Responses to “open source development: women and Asians last”


  1. 1 Allison February 17, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    I think that sometimes this “culture of confrontation” looms larger in people’s minds because of well-publicized incidents or because it’s something that’s repeated frequently and so has entered the public consciousness.

    My personal experiences with being a newbie contributor have been very positive. I found a bug in Slash (the code that Slashdot uses), which I fixed and got help in the IRC channel with creating a patch to submit, since I’d never done that part before. Several people there were really nice about my newbie questions on how to contribute. Similarly, when I was first learning python, I contributed to a project called DragonHunt and had nothing but positive feedback.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t jerks out there, because there definitely are. But sometimes I wonder if they’re quite as prevalent as people worry about. It would be interesting to find out about projects that have higher than average involvement of women and Asians since those would likely be “safer” places for newbies to get involved. I know there’s some women active in the Drupal and Ubuntu communities, interested in encouraging more female programmers to get involved.

  2. 2 Abdurahman February 18, 2008 at 2:08 am

    I made reply from your post in my page..

  3. 3 julielavoie February 19, 2008 at 12:09 am

    Hi Allison,

    good to see people back home reading my blog! πŸ™‚

    I agree with you that the level of confrontation varies from project to project, with some projects being a lot more encouraging for newbies.

    I haven’t looked into this problem for a while, but at the time in my life when I would have wanted to get involved with open source, I remember checking one salient example being the perl community, with one of the main perl people was this TOTAL abusive asshole that regularly flamed newbies in perl forums.

    I have no idea if it’s still that bad. But this is one issue where the *perception* of how much unpleasantness there is for newcomers almost matters more than what the reality is, since if people are afraid, they probably won’t bother to try.

  4. 4 julielavoie February 19, 2008 at 12:10 am

    Hi Abdurahman,

    thanks for your great post! I’m going to link to it from my main blog page so people can read it!

  5. 5 Sajal Kayan February 19, 2008 at 1:33 am

    well.. i cant comment on the women in Open Source portion, but I think the main issue in Asia is software piracy. People tend to think free software as cheap software and software which comes with a bloated pricetag as something good. Now when they can get the “good” stuff for nearly free (100 Baht/CD at Panthip) they tend to go that route. Being born/brought up in India, I was going to share my experience here, but it would seem like hijacking your blog πŸ˜‰ .. Ill blogpost and send a Trackback.

  6. 6 Peter McCurdy February 19, 2008 at 3:41 am

    Ah, it all makes sense now. Perl5-porters is well known as the most generally hostile technical mailing list around (even more so than the Linux Kernel). It’s not just women and Asians, I avoid that place like the plague unless I feel I haven’t gotten my daily dose of flame and vitriol, and I’m not normally too sensitive about confrontation. The only bright side I can see is that these days, new programmers are less likely to be using Perl, so less likely to be scarred by that list.

    That said, the problem still exists in other projects, though mercifully to a much lower degree. Karl Fogel, one of the lead developers of Subversion, wrote a book about managing open source projects, with a few sections in particular on communications and rudeness. He doesn’t talk about attracting women (or Asians) specifically, though I get a feeling like you’d get along much better in a project that took his lessons to heart.

    In other words, if you’re civil, it’ll work out better in the long run. So sad that people have to be told this.

  7. 7 julielavoie February 19, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Hey Peter,

    very good comment. When I was writing my post, perl porters and the linux kernel were the really
    bad examples of rudeness I was thinking of:

    I like the guide that you pointed me to. In particular, in the section about rudeness, he talks about how to create a climate of respect for your project, and why it’s important:

    This helps the project, because developers can be driven away (even from projects they like and want to support) by flame wars. You may not even know that they were driven away; someone might lurk on the mailing list, see that it takes a thick skin to participate in the project, and decide against getting involved at all. Keeping forums friendly is a long-term survival strategy, and it’s easier to do when the project is still small. Once it’s part of the culture, you won’t have to be the only person promoting it. It will be maintained by everyone.

    I guess I first thought of the rudeness issue as a male/female thing (and maybe now an East/West thing), but your comment reminds me that a lot of guys don’t like that abusive, king-of-the-hill technical bullshit either. In Waterloo’s Pure Math program, we had similar problems with really rude guys just having no regard for people’s feelings and this made me feel like I just didn’t want to do mathematics anymore, in that climate — but I had male friends who said that they really didn’t like that either and were really bothered by it.

    The list gets longer and longer: women, Asians, men who don’t have thick skins. Maybe rudeness drives a lot more people away from open source that we imagine it does. It’s time for open source to mature (and from the comments here, it seems like this is already happening) and grow out of this 15-year old teenage boy mentality towards other people, with its casual cruelty and immature posturing.

  8. 8 muriel February 24, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    I couldn’t read your blog while I was in China (wordpress blocked and I couldn’t be bothered with proxies and ssh tunnels for just a week). Anyway, I kind of wrote a related post on my blog this week: http://blog.totoshi.com/?p=76. Our Saturday night discussion has somewhat inspired me too :). However, even though it’s quite often cited, I don’t really believe that “rudeness” is so much of a problem anymore as it used to be in FOSS. Today, newbies are very often simply ignored on mailinglists and IRC channels. This is probably the main way of letting someone know that they are asking stupid questions. Btw, some projects have special newbie IRC channels and mailinglists, see GNOME for example.


  1. 1 Rethink on:open source development: women and Asians last « Go East, Young Woman « Rethinks Trackback on February 17, 2008 at 11:27 pm
  2. 2 Sajal Kayan » Why cant FOSS succeed in India? Trackback on February 19, 2008 at 3:30 am

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