How Open Source Can Open Doors [meeting recap]

Many STC members work as tech writers, but some are still figuring out how to break in to the business. A few years ago the EBSTC’s current chapter president, Gale Naylor, wanted to transition from a career in education into a tech-writing position, so she came up with a clever, methodical and ultimately effective strategy for making the leap. The best thing about it, as Gale explained at the EBSTC’s chapter meeting on May 3, is that her strategy is open to all comers willing to devote some time and energy to the open-source community. And it helped her land a job as a tech writer at Facebook.

So many of the software tools and computer standards the world depends on are not proprietary and not owned by private companies. Instead, it’s all public, or open-source, and managed by committees of academics, government employees, people seconded from regular jobs, and full-on volunteers. The engineers who define XML, TCP/IP and JPG, for example, or the programmers who write the Firefox web browser and the Apache web server, do their work through public committees.

Committee members volunteer on open-source projects for all kinds of reasons: because they want to keep up on the latest developments; because they want to influence the direction of a particular technology; because they enjoy the prestige, camaraderie and recognition that comes from helping out; because they want to give something back to the community. And Gale figured out that you don’t have to be a veteran programmer or highly-trained engineer to make valuable contributions on open-source projects. (Although, full-disclosure, Gale does have an engineering background, with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and experience as an aerospace engineer before going back to school to become a teacher.)

Gale started out by researching what was hot in the open-source world and finding what interested her. She settled on the Apache Taverna project, a set of APIs for defining experiment workflows, including those used for astronomical research, joined its mailing list, and learned everything she could about Taverna. And though she didn’t have the skills to write code for the project, she got noticed by developing diagrams that helped the coders keep the project organized. She also began helping a coder with limited English to write up documentation explaining his work. As she continued to make herself useful in similar ways, she accumulated an understanding of APIs, knowledge of essential programmer’s tools such as Markdown and Git, and familiarity with how programmers work. When Gale applied to Facebook, she went in with a reputation in the open-source community and the skills that Facebook needed for documenting its developer APIs.

The open-source community is always looking for volunteers, so if you’re ready to get involved, check out the links to open-source groups on page 19 of Gale’s presentation.

EBSTC get-togethers are always the first Thursday of the month. On June 7, we’ll hear the impressions of members just back from the STC Annual Conference in Orlando . Hope to see you there, at our new meeting room in the San Ramon Marriott’s Bishop Grill.