How open source leaders can foster an inclusive environment

Those you lift into the community will someday be able to extend a hand to others.
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Open source leaders can foster inclusive communities for newcomers by creating belonging, providing opportunities, and showing support. They understand the intricacies of submitting code and making connections with other community members. In doing so, they build credibility and gain influence. This experience is invaluable to contributors who want to participate but don't know where to start.

A few years ago, I found myself in this daunting position when I began managing a team active in the Linux kernel community without any experience in kernel myself. The complex code base, expansive email archives, and high-stakes communications intimidated me. When new kernel developers on my team expressed similar feelings, I realized my experience was ubiquitous. For those supporting contributors or those seeking to contribute themselves, the path to entry is not always clear and can feel unattainable.

4 strategies for inclusive leadership

Open source leaders can have an impact by creating pathways for those looking to integrate into the community. The strategies covered in this article can be applied in formal mentoring or coaching relationships but are just as applicable in day-to-day interactions. Seemingly minor exchanges often have the most significant impacts when fostering inclusivity in an environment.

Approach with curiosity

Someone with less experience or coming from a non-traditional background may solve problems in unexpected or different ways. Reacting to those differences with judgment or criticism can create an unsafe environment for learning in communities that often have a steep knowledge curve. For example, long-time contributors to the Linux kernel understand its rich history. This means they have an implied understanding of community decisions and reactions. New contributors must build this knowledge but can only effectively do so if they feel safe taking necessary risks to grow their skill set.

Open source leaders can support newcomers as they learn by approaching them with curiosity. Consider asking questions like, "Can you help me understand why you took this approach?" rather than declaring proposed solutions "right or wrong". Questions open a dialog for continued learning rather than shutting down ideas that are an important aspect of exploration. This process also broadens the leader's viewpoint, who can learn by considering fresh perspectives.

Identify and share learning opportunities

Open source leaders can identify projects suitable for others to gain technical expertise and learn community processes. In creating opportunities for others, leaders also create more opportunities for themselves. This is because they make more time to explore new endeavors while continuing to advance their work through delegation. As leaders grow, their ability to enable others around them to succeed becomes just as critical as their direct contributions.

Knowing that failure is a part of learning, think about identifying projects where newcomers can safely fail without drastic consequences. In the Linux kernel, for example, there are certain parts of the code base where small changes can have disastrous consequences. Consider projects where small wins are achievable to help newcomers build confidence and feel empowered without high stakes. Make these ideas accessible by sharing them at conferences, in email forums, or in any way your community advertises how to become involved.

Demonstrate vulnerability

Having more experience doesn't mean you know everything. More often than not, even the most experienced Linux kernel contributors I've worked with are humbled by new challenges in uncharted subsystems. It's common for community members with less experience to view more experienced community members as having it all figured out. But having experience is about being adept at figuring out what you don't know. If you are in a position of authority and regarded as an expert, demonstrating vulnerability by sharing personal experiences of struggle and perseverance can be encouraging to those dealing with similar feelings.

Vouch for others

Introduce newcomers to your network. Connect them with community members with expertise in areas that pique their interests. Say their name in public forums and call out the excellent work they are doing. As a respected leader, your endorsement can help them build connections and trust within the community.

We can have rich and diverse communities by building in inclusivity. It is my hope that open source leaders will consider these suggestions because those you lift into the community will someday be able to extend a hand to others.

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I am a Manager in the Core Kernel engineering group at Red Hat, primarily responsible for the real-time kernel and scheduler. I am passionate about caring for others through emotional intelligence and using my organizational skills to make messy situations neat.

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