Hunting for purple squirrels: 3 tips for hiring the right OpenStack contributor

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Purple squirrel

Internet Archive Book Images. Modified by Rikki Endsley. CC BY-SA 4.0

At OpenStack Summit this month in Austin, Colette Alexander will give a talk called Hunting for Purple Squirrels: Hiring OpenStack Contributors in the Wild. In this interview, she answers questions about her talk, and explains how major tech companies are like the Girl Scouts of the USA and how playing the cello helps her solve professional challenges.

Tell us about how you got started tinkering with computers.

Colette Alexander photo by Scott AllenMy dad was a computer hobbyist, so he would build computers from parts, way back in the late '80s/early '90s, and I'd learn how to navigate around them to play video games (Zaxxon, Joust, Keen, Wolfenstein). Eventually he started running Linux and felt strongly his daughters should learn the basics of building web pages. I was probably 11 or 12 when I built my first website. Eventually, I made friends with a bunch of people who had accounts on Arbornet, and basically hung out in chat rooms and learned to prefer using Pine as my email client as a teenager. After helping to run the student-run web server in college, I mostly stepped away from that world while pursuing my music career. I was brought back into the fold by a friend who wanted some help administrating a survey-software platform for the Girl Scouts, and once I started teaching myself JavaScript, I was launched back into my nerd life.

Prior to working at HP and then IBM, you worked as a Senior Project Management Developer for the Girls Scouts of the USA. What cultural differences have you noticed between working for GSUSA and huge tech companies like HP and IBM?

Actually, I think GSUSA is quite a lot like HP and IBM culturally in that it's an older institution (100+ years), and it's quite large and spread out, with multiple Councils across the country. Girl Scouts has struggled in its recent past to engage members and keep innovating to deliver its very awesome and relevant core mission: building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. A lot of the same culture-change work that is being done there to pivot from older, more traditional ways of non-profit programming and serve girls better is the same kind of work that has to be done at larger/older for-profit institutions like HP and IBM, who really need to drive innovation internally at a faster pace to compete with smaller, more agile startups.

A lot of developers are also runners. One developer I interviewed told me that running helps him solve coding problems. How does playing the cello help you with professional challenges?

What a great observation about running! I do think balancing my career as a cellist and choosing to do tech at the same time has at times felt like running a marathon that never ends but always changes scenery. It's exhausting, but also constantly interesting. My work as a cellist, specifically working with rock bands, has really led to my strengths in my tech career: I have an uncanny knack for understanding and communicating with people in a way that's motivating, empathetic, and authentic. I think that's a huge part of my artist-self at work in my not-artist-life. I've noticed there is a lot of crossover from arts and music work in general to the tech world, specifically when it comes to coders who work on open source projects—I think that's because the problems of architecture and collaboration are also the underpinnings of making great art with people, too.

What are the top 3 tips you have for interviewing job candidates to help identify the right person for the position?

Way to make me give talk-spoilers!

  1. Know what the team you're hiring for values and how they practice those values on a day-to-day basis, and make sure that's shared/understood knowledge on the team. This is the work of making explicit the sometimes-totally-wrong culture fit shrug that a lot of places seem to just allow slide as an excuse for passing on a candidate. I believe strongly in culture and culture fit, but I also think that if your team hasn't examined, discussed, and at least sort-of documented your culture, you're in real danger of missing great hires, or hiring the wrong person because of a misalignment on what your culture actually is. (See also: bias with race and gender in tech hiring.) Also a plus—having culture discussions with your team is super fun! Everyone will love the result.
  2. Don't mistake confidence for competence or effectiveness. This is especially a worry in hiring folks who will be working collaboratively on an open source project. On the surface, it seems the working environment in tech and in open source worlds reward bigger, more blustery personalities who are aggressive, and who are good at projecting confidence and seem to have an answer for everything. But when it comes to working collaboratively over a long period of time, and building trust with teams, those qualities can be problematic, especially if a person is brand new to a community. At their most negative, these types of people can drive away the folks who are great collaborators and thinkers from your team.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Treat each interviewee as if they're a customer. Even if they end up not being a great fit, or they don't make it through an initial screening, you still need to value and appreciate the time they've taken to undergo this process. Get back to them. Let them know about how the process is going, and how much longer it might take. Let them know who to get a hold of in case they have any questions about anything.

What are a couple of traits or skills that are the best indicators for success for someone new to the OpenStack community?

A willingness to ask questions and be vulnerable while questioning—so, admitting when you don't know something and asking for help—and an ability to collaborate with folks who have differing viewpoints are two very important traits to have when getting started in OpenStack.

What is the biggest red flag to look for in the interview?

I don't know about "biggest," but one I tend to try to sniff out is a lack of empathy.

I think 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of the Open Source Haiku. Explain project management via Haiku.

We communicate.
Everything is chaos, but
We communicate.

You can see Colette speak at OpenStack Summit in Austin on Monday, April 25, from 4:40pm-5:20pm.

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Rikki Endsley is the Developer Program managing editor at Red Hat, and a former community architect and editor for

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