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CLS 16 Intergenerational FLOSS Community Building

Continuation of new/old FLOSS discussion at CLS on Saturday, focused on problems, now solutions. How can we do a better job of building intergenerational FLOSS communities? Older folks into newer communities, and younger folks into older communities.

What works? What are folks interested in trying?


  • Combination of education of new contributors and improvement of contributor experience.
  • We should distinguish between minting new contributors and recruiting new FLOSS activists.
  • Suss out what knowledge and skills actually need to be transferred from the old school to new.
  • Meet new contributors where they’re at and speak their language.
  • Help new people understand why they should care, why licensing matters, why we made the decisions we did. Projects should do a better job of documenting the why behind architectural decisions. WordPress community answers people’s questions and points them toward the documentation where they can learn the why and how.
  • More “history of X” resources and talks at events like WordCamp where people are genuinely interested to know about things like the GPL.
  • Web development is an entry point for many people and many are afraid or intimidated of big tech cons and places where they can learn these things. Contempt culture doesn’t help. Make it obvious that newbies are welcome at events and that there will be content for them.
  • Contentious (sometimes rude/flame) discussions in public places push new contributors away.


Patrick: Teaches open source principles and practices at a college, interesting which students self select to take that course, many in a sort of “post open source” mind set. There’s a need to build appreciation of why things are the way they are.

Cedric: Difference in expectation among folks who are newer to open source, including the premise of community. We have to be able to have a conversation before we can accomplish anything. We have to be able to work together before we can have a community.

Deb: If you want to engage with people you have to go to where they are. We wanted to work with the Mass. Girl Scouts and had to meet them there at their computer center. FREE GEEK(?) expected people to come to them and… people weren’t showing up. So… how do we go to where they are?

Jenny: It depends. What are we trying to change? In the WordPress community age doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. What are we trying to achieve? Is it communication between ages?

Deb: Yesterday we were talking about passing on the open ethos and addressing the “post open source” mentality wherein things like licensing don’t matter.

Jenny: Best talks I’ve seen are history of – and there aren’t a lot of talks like that. “History of” guides are very useful, at meetups, at conferences. What have we learned? Why don’t you do X, Y, or Z? Being able to explain why we make certain choices based on past experience… allows us to build empathy and understanding.

Cedric: One of this morning’s talks mentioned that we get conflict when people try to enforce different norms. Early on it was establishing our ability to control our software stack and allow us to do our day-to-day jobs. People coming into open source now – that’s not the fight they’re having. Their whole life is on SaaS on a rental model. The fight is about how do we own any of this? How do we build a reputation and career out of it instead of just being able to do it?

Guy: Playing devil’s advocate… Do we actually need to pass these things?

Deb: Maybe not all of it…

Jenny: We need to so that folks can argue more effectively and explain why we make certain decisions.

Guy: You’re probably in the minority of folks from that generation that want to learn that kind of thing. Some folks just don’t care. How do we get them to care if they’re off doing their own thing and it’s working?

Jenny: I don’t think I’m a minority, I think a lot of people care but just don’t know how to show they care. “History of HTML” etc are some of the most populars talks, explaining “why on earth would someone decide to do that?!”

Aimee: There are definitely younger people who don’t care.

Paul: I can give you an example… people come in who want to fix everything… so we put together a new hire talk and allow people to explain how they would build something if they could design it from scratch. Then share the constraints of the time to explain how we got here. Suddenly these new people aren’t trying to fix it from the top down and are trying to improve things where the can.

Jenny: If nothing else, it helps create empathy for the mess and why it’s that way.

Paul: It also helps to convey that the people who came before weren’t idiots…

Nuritzi: It surprises me that you say young people don’t care, perhaps that’s a failure of the projects. If we’re not empowering people to be critical thinkers … people want to be more involved if they think they can have influence on the larger organization.

Matt: How many people here identify they’re part of the old school? How many people identify as part of the new school?

Jenny: Can I propose a solution within the WordPress community? All the teams would complain they couldn’t get new contributors on board. New people were complaining they didn’t know how to get involved. I proposed having more contributor days and having more documentation about how to get involved. Started by sanity checking the documentation and sharing feedback everywhere documentation wasn’t right. That has spurred more volunteers into the community in the last few years. It goes two ways… insiders <-> outsiders. When you see the frustration on their faces you see why they’re not contributing.

Deb: Right, we see that a lot at SpinachCon.

Shelley: Getting started into a project is intimidating. There’s a Twitter account called “Your First PR” where people find issues that are beginner friendly. Getting that first PR done helps to build momentum.

Jenny: There’s a “good-first-bug” tag in WordPress core. When we ran out of those, we inserted some “bugs” such that people could get an experience of the process and feel like they’re a part of the team.

Paul: What I’ve done for years when onboarding I’ll tell them what docs they need and their first task is to fix what’s wrong with the “Getting Started” docs.

Deb: We kinda left Guy’s question on the floor and I’d like to zoom out a little bit. If the way we’re talking about FOSS in general isn’t a good fit then …… ???

Spencer: This conversation is good but I don’t think the problem is just the first contribution. We’re talking about experienced coders who don’t get the open ethos.

Patrick: I’d like to introduce another influencer and bad actor, as FOSS has become more popular, we have nefarious actors who are creating ambiguity around open source. You might have people who are well intentioned but their first contact is with an entity that is open washing.

Spencer: Often many people’s introduction is through corporate training.

Deb: Right, often lawyer driven training.

Matt: Shocking low number of students in universities who know what open source software is let alone define it.

Guy: It’s an overloaded phrase. We’re not going to solve that. Where do we draw the line between the software freedoms piece and the people who are using this to get work done?

Spencer: I was educated a lot and it gave me a framework for understanding and getting involved. It’d be great if we had more talks sharing the history.

Jenny: We are actively documenting the history of WordPress and we encourage people to “read the book” when they ask questions – but we also answer the question.

Guy: But you’re talking about a single project versus an entire movement. We have a mismatch in scope here.

Salt: Are we talking about people who work and live in this world and use these tools or are we talking about people who aren’t at all? We could put together a history, that has been attempted. I thought we were talking about people who are already in this field.

Spencer: There is a growing group, that outnumbers us now, who release-ish software and don’t understand why we died on these hills.

Nathan: Not that a 4-hour documentary wouldn’t be great. In projects we just don’t do a good job of documenting our institutional knowledge. If we did a better job of documenting why we made decisions. If we made a more concerted effort to record the why’s that can help bring people on.

Spencer: I’ve found going through Debian community super-threads to be useful. If it’s an open-by-default process then people can go through those logs. If it’s an opaque process where, say, three people on IRC make a decision then push the change.

Nathan: Sure, I agree, but I think a lot of the documentation doesn’t cover the why of architecture rather they cover how to get started and install.

Aimee: A lot of people take the history we walk around with in our heads for granted. My first contribution was writing a how-to in the 90’s and that was a part of the education. What I’m hearing is that a lot of people aren’t getting that education anymore.

Spencer: Your point makes me think that the kicker is: In order to know how to contribute to open source, you had to know where this stuff came from. Now you don’t. It’s great that the process is simpler but we lost something.

Patrick: That latitude has opened up gaps.

Robby: When you’re first starting I’ve always found, especially with Java, that using an IDE can be a hinderance.

Spencer: There is a problem of learning. It’s a deeper problem. If we wanted to learn we could start at Greek poetry and never get to Java.

Jenny: EG, the CSS community is talking about why everyone is learning Sass and not CSS. They’re not saying “don’t use Sass,” they’re saying “Use CSS for a day so you can understand” so folks can understand why you don’t need 5 Sass files for 3 lines of CSS…

Cedric: What we’re talking about is that the older generation is not effectively passing things along. A friend of mine at UT taught a class and asked people to make a contribution. In a semester, only one pull request got through. They picked active receptive communities and even in a semester they couldn’t get a PR through.

Josh: Education is great, we need more of that. We also need to speak their language and the freedoms/movement language to get them to care.

Cedric: Do you think the approach of here is the answer and please read why this is the case is a good one?

Josh: Yes, and I think WordPress is an exemplar here.

Robby/Aimee: We start on high level abstractions and don’t dive below enough to truly understand what’s going on. We’re walking into a world where kids know 7 different languages but don’t know the difference between a web server and Google.

Deb: … maybe we’re meeting back in the middle because my parents also don’t understand the difference. We only have so much time left. Who else has something to say?

Jackson: If you’re a mechanical engineer, when a bridge fails you have to understand why it fails so you don’t make the mistake again. I don’t think that’s been established as a best practice in software engineering. To say that abstracting a layer is bad or somehow has a negative connotation … I mean, to say a farmer needs to understand the mechanics of his tractor before he can move food, well, …

Salt: We have the ability to look into and understand that type of thing. Everyone in here probably had that interest in one project at one point. We got interested and excited and were able to use FOSS to figure it out and thus we climbed to the next rung – you are now some sort of an expert. Not everyone is going to get there. With economics, not everyone is going to be an expert on everything.

Matt: I think the farmer analogy is powerful. My grandfather was a farmer and DID know how to do those things, and now … we’re a lot more productive.

Cecilia: There are two types of mentorship we’re talking about here – bringing on new contributors and bringing on new activists.

Jenny: WordPress has WordCamps all over the world and we’re constantly missing explanations of why under the hood. I’d welcome people to submit these talks! People are hungry to know.

Josh: Highlighting that the web is a starting point and many people don’t understand more. WP is a great entry.

Jenny: Many people enter PHP this way and are afraid to dive deeper.

Deb: I help with SeaGL and in our language we are constantly saying beginners are welcome and new speakers are welcome. We put that out there on purpose because … often the tech con marketing is “Rockstars! Ninjas! Technical heavy weights!” and people skip out because of that. If we want newcomers we have to specifically say there will be content for beginners and people who are using and not yet building.

Nuritizi: I’m hearing a common thread about having a common language – I’m not sure what that means are we talking programming languages or spoken?

Spencer: Spoken language. And we’re distinguishing between the activism and the technology.

Jenny: As a UK citizen I don’t deal with financial/taxation language as much as US folks did… so I needed to be taught what these words meant and why they mattered. We need a good glossary of terms.

Cedric: Definition has been a sticking point … still is.

Deb: We need to be careful of where we have these conversations – I’ve met people who are new to the community who don’t know much about us except that we argue a lot about these things.

Robby: I used to contribute to X and we’d see community members just going at it.

Deb: Let’s scale this out beyond a single project… “That’s not a real programming language” etc and when we use a public stage to do that.

Josh: So there’s an education component and a cultural component that includes where and how we have certain conversations.

Spencer: … so do we want to talk about moving certain conversations off of mailing lists etc?

Salt: It’s this idea of a lot of skilled labors have this pendulum swings – we’ve seen with lawyers, doctors, etc – where it falls out of fashion to learn these skills until we have these conversations and things improve.

Cedric: You see that in the pilot community. The current crop of new pilots didn’t come through the military like many did before, so they are missing some key skills. But they have the ability to navigate a much more complex environment. So the question is: What skills actually need to be transferred intergenerationally?

Guy: That’s exactly my point from earlier. We don’t need to transfer all of these things. We need to figure out what we need to transfer.

Deb: I’d love to see everyone here try to get the knowledge that’s stuck in our heads out there.

Jenny: Right. We’ve had a lot of requests in WordPress to explain what the GPL is. People want to know this information. A lot of businesses want to understand this! They want to know how it affects their business and why.

Deb: And on that I think we’re out of time.

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