My parents immigrated from Peru in their early 20s and are both teachers. When you’re a child of immigrants, there’s a culture of working hard and chasing the American dream. It was instilled in me and my siblings that we should choose a career that’s stable and without much risk. To my parents, that meant a doctor, teacher, or lawyer. I was eager to please them and had enjoyed dissecting a frog (or two) in biology class, so I set my sights on becoming a doctor.
My junior year, I realized I was chasing expectations set by others instead of myself. Up until that point, the only other thing I had ever been interested in was computer games—years before, my Dad had given me The Learning Company software. I started taking free online courses through platforms like Code School (now Pluralsight) and Codeacademy. I quickly realized I really enjoyed programming, and decided to pursue what I loved instead of what was expected of me.
Since everything I had done up to this point was catered to biology, I was rejected by pretty much every college I applied to. But it worked out in the end, and I earned my degree and graduate degree in computer science. That was my path into tech, but there are definitely paths where you don’t have to have a formal education and can supplement all your knowledge through free content.
You can pop into GitHub at any age and start learning. Free content is how I cultivated my own knowledge outside of school, and I definitely felt more confident in my abilities because I contributed to open source earlier rather than later. If you want to code, you can 100% do it. I would love to make that the default answer for more women like me.
From Norfolk, Virginia to the Bay Area’s biggest Latinx community
The first major organization where I was a maintainer was freeCodeCamp back in 2017, which I did for about a year. Then, after graduating from Cornell Tech with a Master's in Computer Science, I moved to Redwood City, California for my first full-time job. It was there that I got involved with Techqueria, a now national organization originally founded by engineers who identify as Latinx in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Techqueria was a grassroots community created for Latinx and tech professionals, and it hadn’t yet incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) when I joined. We had around 3,000 members in our Slack, and leadership at the time was very welcoming to contributions from the community. Our website was completely open source until were able to negotiate with WordPress for pro bono support of a new website to help us scale. This allowed us to have both technical and non-technical volunteers easily contribute. At its height, Techqueria had over 20 different contributors. It was probably the most popular repo on GitHub where Latinx professionals were contributing, and one of the only repos on GitHub that had the tags Latinx or Latinx in Tech.
I completely revamped the website and made it accessible so the community could see exactly how their contributions fit into the project. We had a Code of Conduct, contributing guidelines, and used integrations in the PR process so people knew their merge wasn’t going to introduce anything malicious. That grew into a maintainer/organizer role, and I was there for three years maintaining and scaling their open source presence. I also served in leadership, first as the technology director and then as the executive director.
Fundamentally, the Latinx and Hispanic population will have an outsized impact on the culture of the U.S., and how the country grows and defines itself in the future: It’s predicted by The Pew Research Center that this population will be roughly one third of the country by 2060. Right now, we are a small percentage of the innovation tech economy, and that discrepancy is going to hurt us if we continue to ignore it. Tech is such a valuable driver, and it’s going to continue to be more integrated into our lives. The more folks that are represented, the better.
It’s also about gaining social capital. Social capital is very difficult to cultivate when you’re coming from a place where, like me, you weren’t exposed to technology until much later in life. I had no semblance of tech culture or its expectations and felt like I was just thrown in the deep end. If I had joined a community earlier, and proactively asked for guidance, I’m sure it would have helped. The community represents a safe space. It represents the potential for you to build more social capital as you navigate the world of technology. Having the resources and support of a strong community is powerful.
The journey of navigating your identity in tech
Starting out on open source, I saw my identity as an obstacle: something I needed to hide instead of embrace. When I had an image on my profile that looked distinctly like a woman, I had more trouble getting my PRs merged into the projects where I contributed. So I changed my image to a strawberry, and it helped. I distinctly remember this scenario where I had contributed to a bug on GitHub that resulted in a huge thread. This was shortly after GitHub introduced emoji reactions, and I offered a solution that was very much upvoted, which felt awesome. Then one user commented, “Thanks, dude. Appreciate it.”
I was conflicted because on one hand, it was nice to be acknowledged. But on the other hand, I didn’t really appreciate that they assumed I was a guy. When I was still early in my career, I didn’t think much of it. But as I gained more experience, there was this instinct that maybe my identity did play a part in how I was perceived online and I tried to separate my online persona from my identity more intentionally. Plus, Frances can also be a male name. When I saw that “dude” comment, it sort of validated what I'd been feeling. I think for many reasons I felt more comfortable interacting more anonymously.
It wasn’t until about two years ago that I started using my actual face again, and that was after six years of being on GitHub. I think a lot of folks like me go through something similar, and as I grew more confident in my skills, my identity became a point of pride. GitHub has also introduced a lot of great features to make projects in general more accessible and welcoming, which I appreciate.
I was recently talking to a student at the University of Chicago who identifies as Latino and was having trouble securing a summer internship. I encouraged him to keep learning and growing his skill set. Open source is a great way to do that, but if you don’t like that, there’s also mentoring and speaking. I never once brought up identity in that conversation. It was more like: “Just charge forward! You can do this!” It’s ironic because I don’t feel like I had much confidence at a young age. But that’s what I want to instill in future generations.
Leaning on the community to build a sustainable project
For an open source project to be successful, you have to build trust and have a welcoming, inclusive community. As it grows, be quick to onboard more people who are willing to help and support it—otherwise, there’s a single point of failure. If you’re having a bad week or month, and you can’t focus on your project, it can very quickly get out of hand.
If you hypothetically have 100 different people interested in contributing to your project, maybe 25 people will consider contributing and 10 will actually merge a PR. Of those 10, maybe five end up merging multiple PRs. And finally, of those five, one will transition to being a maintainer. Ultimately, it's all about how effective this funnel is. You really have to start with that welcoming environment because that’s what’s going to produce the greatest amount of people who will eventually get to the point where they can become a maintainer themselves. If there's more exclusivity at the very top of that funnel, it’s unlikely your contributors are going to be able to get all the way to a maintainer role.
Great leaders—and a maintainer is a leader in many ways—create other leaders. For long term sustainability, especially if you create more cool things, you cannot be the single point of failure. If you have the mentality that you’re the only one who can do it, and are a micromanager, it’s going to be obvious to the people surrounding you, and they’re less likely to stick around. The very nature of open source is to be open. And that means being open about the power you hold over your own projects, and the ecosystem in general.
With the apprenticeships repo, it started with a simple Slack message with someone I knew through GitHub and the developer community. I told him I didn’t think I’d have as much time to maintain the project going forward, and he was very excited to step into that role and help out. That interaction could have only taken place as a result of being welcoming to him when he was first starting to even get familiar with this project. It’s the only way to be sustainable: You have to get support as you go and recognize you’re not always going to be the one to maintain a project long term.
A project should have such a welcoming environment that other people are inspired to contribute—especially those who, historically, might not. That’s what happened to me at the Norfolk meetup. It was led by women at the time and I was so nervous, but everyone was so welcoming.
In fact, a highlight of my journey was when someone contributed for the first time to one of my repos, and blogged about how easy her experience was. It’s fundamentally so important if we’re going to keep welcoming more people to this very important ecosystem. Anytime I’m in open source, I aspire to create those environments so other people who may have doubts are instead encouraged to try. I want them to think, “Yes, I can do this. It’s very clear how I can add value here.”