Open source has room for everyone

Learn how Megan Byrd-Sanicki, 2020 Women in Open Source Community Award winner, brings people together.
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Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0

"Growing up, I was a bit of a field marshal," Megan Byrd-Sanicki, 2020 Women in Open Source Community Award winner, says with a smile. "I was always the one pulling classmates together. 'We're going to play a game. Come on, everyone, I'll teach you the rules.' I'd also have an eye to the sidelines, trying to identify who wasn't being included and how I could draw them in."

Photo by Megan Sanicki, Used with permission

That drive to bring people together and set up a structure for them to excel carries through much of her career and community work. "I look back on who I was in second-grade gym class and have to admit that it's still who I am today."

Megan has been active in open source for a decade, first as Executive Director of the Drupal Association, and now as the Manager of Research and Operations for Google's Open Source Program Office. "I'm fortunate in my current position because it offers a view into Google's more than 2000 open source projects with different objectives, different governance structures, and different strategies. It's been just a phenomenal learning opportunity." Megan was also recently elected to the Open Source Initiative Board of Directors, where she strives to strengthen the leadership in open source that the organization offers to projects and businesses around the globe.

Lessons from the basement steps

Far from being set on technology, Megan originally thought she'd go into business. Sitting on the basement steps, listening to her father make sales calls, she knew his entire product line by age 16, but she also internalized other lessons.

"I learned from him that doing business means solving problems and helping people," Megan says. "And I've kept that front-of-mind throughout my career. In some ways, I'm not surprised by this path; it's a natural extension of who I am, but it's also taken me places I would never have dreamed possible."

Open source isn't just a career for Megan; she also uses the same strategies in her community involvement. "Right now, I'm working with a great group of engineers, data scientists, and epidemiologists at Covid Act Now. The team members are volunteering their expertise, collaborating openly to provide data modeling to public officials so that they can make informed decisions as quickly as possible."

She's also active in FOSS Responders, a group focused on shining a light on open source projects and community members affected by COVID-19-related event cancellations. "In times of turmoil, it can be difficult for projects to find the help they need. We help organizations and individuals who need assistance aggregate and amplify their requests." An important component of the organization is administering the FOSS Responders Fund, a mechanism to capture some of the open source funding requests that may fall through the cracks otherwise.

Engaging people in a changing world

The twin themes that influence Megan's community engagement are a clear commitment to the principles of open source and a drive to bring people together. "When people have dreams, things they're actively trying to accomplish, it creates a shared sense of purpose and a strong 'why.' People engage easily around why. I know I do," Megan says when asked what drives her in these efforts.

"Whether helping raise funds for Drupal's mission or enabling open source projects to become more sustainable, there's a real human impact. I get really passionate about the butterfly effect that results from helping people meet their goals and realize their dreams and visions."

As open source becomes a larger and larger part of the technology space, Megan is hopeful for the future. "The exciting thing is that the story isn't done. As a community, we're still figuring things out," she says. "There's so much we need to learn about open source, and it can evolve in so many ways, while the landscape changes around us. We need to have the right conversations and figure out how to evolve together, ensuring there's a place at the table for everyone."

In her words, it's possible to hear those same lessons learned from listening to her father's business calls—doing business is about solving problems and helping people. "Helping more people understand how to use and contribute to open source to solve problems is really rewarding. Whether it is to drive innovation, accelerate velocity, or achieve business goals, there are lots of ways to gain value from open source."

Own your awesome

When asked what advice she has for other women wanting to engage with the open source community, Megan lights up. "Remember that open source has room for everyone. It can be daunting, but in my experience, people want to help. Ask for help when you need it, but also be clear on where you can contribute, how you can contribute, and what your needs are."

She also recognizes that among all the voices in open source, a lack of centralized leadership can sometimes be felt, but she cautions against looking at it as a privileged role, reserved for only a few. "Be the leader you need. When there's a void in leadership, each individual can fill that void for themselves. Every contributor to open source is a leader, whether they're leading others, leading the community, or just leading themselves. Don't wait to be given permission and own your awesome."

The open source journey for Megan has been just that: a trek where her path wasn't always clear. She's never shied away from adventure or run from uncertainty, though. "I look at life as this beautiful tapestry that you're weaving, but day to day, you only get to see the threads in the back. If you could see the full picture, you'd realize that you've contributed to this wonderful work in countless ways just by doing your best every day."

Also read Jay Barber's interview with Netha Hussain, who won the 2020 Women in Open Source Academic Award.

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Jay is a writer and strategist on Red Hat's Internal Communications team. When not wrestling with words, he's probably either baking bread, playing bass, or overthinking.

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