Founder of Open Source Hardware Association shares her story

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Alicia Gibb has a passion for hardware hacking—she founded and is currently running the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA). Also a member of the ADA Initiative Board, Defensive Patent License Board, and the Open Source Ecology Board, she got her start as a technologist from a combination of backgrounds: informatics and library science.

Alicia formerly worked as a researcher and prototyper at Bug Labs where she ran the academic research program and the R&D lab. Her work is fascinating and she graciously agreed to this interview.

Your path is not stereotypical in that you aren't a computer science major. How did you get into open source and in particular open hardware?

I came from a library and information science background. One of a librarian's primary roles in society is to uphold the importance and practice of freedom of information. Freedom of information is the foundation that made open source so logical to me, so I fell into that community naturally. My other degree is in the arts, so working with my hands comes naturally to me—which is why I shifted from open source software to open source hardware.

Tell us about Bug Labs and how you got started there. How did that lead to OSHWA?

Bug Labs sought me out my final year of grad school. They wanted someone with experience in hackerspaces to set up their own hackerspace and lab in the office. While at Bug Labs, Peter Semmelhack asked me if we could host a small gathering to chat with other people doing open source hardware. I told him it could be a whole conference, and the Open Hardware Summit was born. We started planning. Someone put me in touch with Ayah Bdeir and asked her to co-chair the event. After a few years of the Open Hardware Summit, I realized it shouldn't be tied to a single company and needed infrastructure to collect sponsorships and continue to grow, so I founded the Open Source Hardware Association, which is now a 501(c)3 non-profit and houses the Summit among many other things.

Did you have mentors who helped you along the way?

I was intrinsically motivated to learn electronics. I did not have mentors per se, but NYCResistor helped in the sense that 50% of the membership identifies as female, so I saw other people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to learn. While I largely taught myself electronics, the members at NYCResistor were always open to questions.

Have you encountered resistance working in a male-dominated field?

Yes, I have encountered resistance. Sometimes it's really in-your-face, like sexist comments directed at you, and sometimes it's institutional, like the gender pay gap. The Ada Initiative has helped immensely, namely with codes of conduct at conferences, AdaCamps, Allies training, and Impostor Syndrome workshops. The Ada Initiative has also recently open sourced their un-conferences (AdaCamp), and Valerie plans to continue teaching trainings and workshops.

I have enjoyed the #LookLikeAnEngineer hashtag on Twitter because it's helping to destroy stereotypes. What else can be done to increase the visibility of women in tech?

I think the visibility of women in the field of tech is one problem, but a related problem is that the percentages are so skewed, and these problems feed off each other. They have a cyclical nature. Having women visible in the field and having a low percentage of women in the field means that we are asked to do more, speak more, and have more face time, which is great, but the flip side is we may experience more burn out. The issues are partly systemic, and partly having environments and communities where women (and, for that matter, all minorities in tech) feel welcome, comfortable, and supported.

in Open Source

This article is part of the Diversity in Open Source series to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment by publishing a diverse range of voices on a variety of international open source topics.

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.

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