This week my internship with Zulip and Outreachy officially ends. I don’t intend to stop working on Zulip, one of the reasons I applied was because it was something I could see myself continuing to contribute to. I’ve learned new technologies, applied well-practiced skills, met new people, and explored things I knew would be a challenge. I’ve used this blog to talk about what I have been working on, but I haven’t said much about why I applied. I wanted to focus on the work at hand.

So now would be a good time for that. But first, a little background.

I’ve known about Outreachy for a while, I briefly considered applying back when it was still Outreach Program For Women. At that time, I was a maintenance engineer — fixing software bugs for a medium-size tech company. I had been there a while and was thinking about different directions I could go in my career.

I started out on a pretty typical CS path, with a degree and jobs on engineering teams. But things rarely go like you plan, and eventually I landed in support and maintenance. I was writing code, but I wasn’t doing what many of my engineering peers were with automated testing, cloud services, and iterative Agile development. I had looked at some open source projects as a way to try new things, but few seemed approachable. And the timing for OPW was inconvenient.

Instead I joined a tiny, tiny startup. I began comfortably in C code but rapidly picked up anything in the product that needed to get done. Server features, network problems, mobile clients, monitoring, you name it. I wrote JavaScript and fixed Android bugs. I did all kinds of things I knew nothing about. Some of it stuck, and some I still can’t explain what I thought was going on.

But the company didn’t go far, and I found it complicated to talk about something where little of my work was visible and the code proprietary. I have a hard time with portfolio projects because I can’t stay excited about an abstract problem solved in a theoretical vacuum. I’m much more interested in how interconnected parts work together, and that’s not something that shows well in a 30 second demo.

I knew Outreachy was not just for students, although mainly students and recent grads apply for it. It’s the nature of the thing: if you are an established working professional, it’s hard to take off a bunch of time to try something new. If you have other responsibilities besides work, doubly so. But I was able to, and saw it as an opportunity to explore a new area and build a visible record of my work. It’s an excellent professional opportunity, one that I’m fortunate to be able to consider. Even better that it improves open source software in the process.

There was one little word, however. “Intern.”

I’ve been an intern before. My school strongly encouraged all engineering students to do two “co-op” semesters, and I did. (I wrote documentation for a software company.) But as a middle-aged professional, sometimes when I mentioned I was applying for an open source internship program I’d get a funny look and a one-word response: “Why?” Wasn’t I a career software engineer already? I’d explain that it’s an opportunity to move into a new area and I’m excited about the possibilities and then everyone understood. But it was awkward. I was already questioning a culture where “rockstar” new grads land huge compensation packages and experienced engineers struggle through interviews about abstract CS theory. So, yes. Awkward. I had to think about that to be comfortable with it.

The application process was challenging, not only because I was learning a new codebase and new tools, but because I had to prepare a proposal for something I knew almost nothing about. I approached it as I would a professional task: spec and estimate new features appropriately scoped for a 3 month deadline. And how would I know what was reasonable? I had no idea. Yet, the experienced people answered my questions and encouraged me to build a solid but flexible plan where the schedule and tasks could be revised later. That was good to know. I was excited to learn I was selected. I was paired with two mentors, Sumana Harihareswara, already an active Zulip contributor, and Tollef Fog Heen, who has experience with services and APIs.

I knew I had signed up to do a lot of engineering work, and was confident I was able to execute to plan (for some value of “plan” at any rate.) There were new things to learn and a new codebase to become familiar with and all sorts of stuff that you deal with again and again when changing jobs. And this was a job, it was a full-time commitment over the course of the program. I wasn’t too concerned about that part.

The other things I would learn, I didn’t really know. Not in a “I have no clue” way, but more in that every new environment has things that come up or happen in unexpected ways. One new part in this was the open source component. I’ve worked on plenty of engineering teams, generally there is an overall design and individual areas are parceled out to developers or small teams to refine and implement. There are many decisions to be made, but most of the big ones are (hopefully) at least sketched out in some kind of architecture plan. Often lead engineers have strong opinions about how and why and where.

My few interactions with other open source projects suggested that outside contributions were a nice thing as long as it wasn’t too taxing for the core team. Clearly this was a different situation and I wouldn’t be left to my own devices, but it took some time to sort out where I was comfortable between working mostly on my own and seeking input beyond basic questions. After all, everyone was busy working on their own tasks, usually between other responsibilities. I was adding new functionality rather than working in an already established area, so I was unlikely to break a core feature. But I wanted it to fit with established standards and match overall goals. This was an area where my mentors were especially helpful: how often to ask busy people for feedback, what sorts of things are generally left to individual developers to handle.

Something I didn’t consider at first, and well into the program really, was learning as a specific goal. Of course, learning was a desired outcome: new skills that can be applied to other projects. Yet I’m accustomed to the task being the focus, and any necessary learning adjunct to that. I discounted the value of the effort I was putting into understanding new tools and environments, and sometimes frustrated about my productivity. Was I hitting milestones fast enough? Sometimes chasing down problems made me question whether I was accomplishing anything meaningful. But then, in conversation with my mentors, I realized that was the point.

The biggest surprise over the course of the program had nothing to do with code. I’ve always been a strong writer, but I am best when I can edit and revise. Sometimes speaking to people face-to-face is challenging, but there is enough room in the back and forth of a live conversation that I can get my point across most of the time. (Stressful situations less so.) Zulip is a group chat system, so I was hardly surprised that I was going to spend a lot of time sending short messages back and forth. At a modest pace, this isn’t a problem.

What I was entirely not prepared for was having status meetings in chat. Attempting to convey complete thoughts about where I was on a task while at the same time tracking questions asked about multiple things was extremely difficult. It was like having an important conversation in a loud room, where so much cognitive effort is required to parse the words that there is little space left to compose a response. Chat is such a central part of the project that I kept trying until everyone was clearly frustrated. It took a phone call to sort things out, and then we agreed to have status reports by email. Any needed discussion can be handled in chat, but most of the information was already provided. That entirely changed the regular meetings from something I struggled to get through to an orderly sharing of information.

There were many other things besides the technical tasks originally in my plan. At the suggestion of my mentors (and to no great surprise) I was encouraged to submit a talk to a conference. It was just a few days ago accepted, so now I can continue on and actually write the full presentation for the event in May. I added career tasks to my plan like updating my resume and attending community events.

The visible github activity will certainly be an advantage when looking for my next job. I’m happy to have found a project I enjoy participating in and now I have several complete features I can show as code samples. I expect there will be more.

Leave a Reply