Interview with winner of Red Hat's Women in Open Source Academic Award, Kesha Shah

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Women in Open Source Award, Red Hat

As many have said, for us to have the most diverse ideas we need to have the most diverse backgrounds. Red Hat reinforces that sentiment today with the announcement of their first winner of the Women in Open Source, Academic Award: Kesha Shah.

A multitude of contributions to open source from women all over the world were evaluated, nominations were made, and finally, votes were cast and tallied for the two awards that comprise the Women in Open Source Award from Red Hat: the Community Award and the Academic Award.

The winner of the Women in Open Source, Community Award is Sarah Sharp. See our interview with her. Also, view all of the finalists for the awards.

Red Hat's hope is that the number of women contributing to open source grows by leaps and bounds in the coming years. Recognition is a great start.

Congratulations on winning Red Hat's first Women in Open Source award! Looking back at the open source projects you've worked on and communities you've worked with, what do you think is one of your biggest achievements?

Thank you, Jen.

As a sophomore, it was the two-day KDE meetup which introduced me to the open source world and how to make contributions to it. My first contribution was a dot article for the meetup. The community encouraged me to participate in Google Summer of Code (GsoC), and I contributed to BRLCAD and STEPcode, where I helped with code-refactoring, finding bugs, clearing build warnings, testing, documentation, and wiki tutorials for beginners. I also helped with release notes.

I was a mentor in Google Code In (GCI) to pre-university students and added tasks to help them step up and make first contributions. I was content creator for BRLCAD and based on my skills, past contributions, and community engagements, my project manager at the time offered me the role of Community Manager. It was a great opportunity for an 8 month-old “baby” like me in the world of open source. Unfortunately, I couldn't accept that huge role at that time due to my academic studies.

Last year, I was a mentor in Season of KDE and GCI again, with BRLCAD and KDE. Now, I am currently working on testing automation of Ushahidi with Systers, an Anita Borg community, as a part of GSoC. During my journey, I had seen several of my peers enter the domain, succeed, and fail in equal measure. So, I took up the challenge of mentoring newbies.

One of my biggest achievements is that I have personally guided about 20-22 newbies into the world of open source through mentoring programs like GCI, SoK, Learn IT girls, and through conducting hands-on workshops and enlightening talks on open source. Those efforts converted them to regular contributors.

One of the compliments I often receive is that I have been an inspiration for several other students in my community, which makes me feel incredible. I have also co-founded the Women Who Code group in Gujarat to organize events, hackathon, workshops, and seminars to help open source get new contributors.

The Red Hat award site says: "At Red Hat, we believe that open source is the future of technology. It's time to recognize the contributions that women are making and inspire a new generation to join the open source movement." What do you think employers and open source community members could do (better) to help recognize contributions women are making in open source?

Awards and recognitions like "Women in Open Source" are a great way to inspire the new generation and set role models.

Apart from that, organizations can conduct online competitions exclusively for women for interesting challenges for contributions ranging from social media outreach tasks to coding tasks. To keep people motivated and engaged, a reward model can be created to solve maximum challenges with incentives like cash rewards, subscriptions, certificates of recognition/appreciation, and badges. Moreover, organizations can conduct free seminars for women to keep them updated about the latest technologies, which can help them develop a deeper interest in computer science. To remove the limitations of geographical distances, the seminars can also be recorded and uploaded to content sharing portals (Vimeo, Youtube, etc.) that are accessible from the most remote locations.

What do you think are the low-hanging fruits for inspiring a new generation to join the open source movement?

As an open source contributor, I began as a newbie and grew into a decent contributor thanks to working on many great projects. Today, I am mentoring new contributors on how to make their first contributions to open source. So, I think I can answer this question more elaborately.

Open source organizations have projects that need contributions from everyone, from all skills and levels of expertise. There are many non-coding ways too contribute as well, like: reporting issues, writing documentation, helping with design, trying previous versions, checking quality and translation, outreach for a product, and organizing events. Doing so helps you learn more about the open source project as well as to network with the community while adding positive contributions.

Another piece of advice is to take the opportunity for a structured way of contributing by getting involved in any of the open source development programs that provide a dedicated mentor.

For pre-university students (aged 13-17 years), there is a contest called Google Code In (GCI) to introduce you to open source development by providing you with tasks related to coding, documentation and training, testing and quality assurance, outreach and research, and user interface. I have been a mentor with this program for two years, with organizations BRL-CAD and KDE.

For university students, there are programs like Google Summer of Code, Season of KDE, ESA Summer of Code in Space, etc. Google Summer of Code is a very widely known global program that offers students stipends to write code for open source project. More than 10,000 students from ~100 countries have participated in this program. We have seen ~20% women selected.

For women, I think open source has become more welcoming. There are programs dedicated to involve women in open source like the Outreach Program for Women, Rails Girls Summer of Code, Ada Initative, Learn IT Girls, and many more. These all programs have a very structured format and schedule where milestones are set and achieved within a period of time. Some programs also pay you a stipend to keep you motivated and thus, students can flip bits instead of burgers on their summer holidays!

For the leisurely contributor, there are various communities that help and provide guidance. I personally like OpenHatch, a community aiming to help newcomers find their way into free open source. Apart from that, there are various contributor guidelines available online that are very helpful.

But remember, contribution doesn't mean only coding. It's all right not to be an excellent programmer. You can still contribute in plethora of ways and be considered valuable to the organization.

What's next for you? What projects, communities, or technologies are you focusing now?

Some of the hottest skills right now to acquire are related to: NoSQL, Hadoop, Informatica, ETL, data warehousing, service-oriented architecture, and virtualization. There were only buzzwords to me until 6 months ago when I had the opportunity to work with some of these projects during my internship at Morgan Stanley. I also do mobile apps development (Android) and web development in my leisuretime. I loved working on the Google Glass app development during the first Glass Hackathon in India, where I was a finalist in the competition.

I also have a keen interest in information retrieval. I have published "User-centered Information Retrieval system for Clinical Documents" in the proceeding of the Conference and Labs for Evaluation Forum (CLEF) 2014 that was held at Sheffield, United Kingdom. Also, "Playing with distances: Document Similarity Amid Automatically Detected Terms" in the proceeding of the Forum for Information Retrieval Evaluation in Bangalore, India. During the prototyping of the idea discussed in that paper, I have been using open source tools like Terrier, Lemur’s Indri, and Apache’s Lucene for indexing and experiments’ retrieval. In the coming years, I aspire to create a niche in this field by contributing to open source projects involving information retrieval and data processing aspects.

Would you like to add any final comments?

Before I started working on open source project, I often wondered why people volunteered so much time and dedication to the development of such projects. Now, after contributing to open source extensively, I realize what it has done for me. It has allowed me to hone my technical skills, leadership skills, and interpersonal skills in a short span of time. Also, it has given me access to an amazing network.

Open source adds more value to software that will be used by others all over this planet. I personally love open source because no matter what background you are from, your geographic location, your skills, or your interests, you can always find something to contribute to.

Some advice to newbies: The first few contributions play an important role in your journey in open source. Choosing the right organization, the right project, and the right type of contribution—matching your skillset—is critical to your success. Else, you may completely lose faith in it. Also, never expect spoonfeeding—open source is all about learning on your own with high motivation. Still, mentors do play a very important role in helping you in your journey. I have had the privilege of having amazing mentors, and I am thankful to Rosario Robinson, Suryadip Chakraborty, Sean Morrison, Mark Pictor, Bruno Coudoin, Pradeepto Bhattacharya, and many more for helping me develop my skills.

If you are a newbie looking for a mentor or some pointers for your first contributions, you can drop in a "hello" message at kesha[dot]shah1106[at]gmail[dot]com. I will be very happy to help. Lastly, I would like to thank my parents and my brother for being supportive during my open source journey.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.

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