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The Bus Factor and How It Applies to Open Source

If you work in tech, you may be familiar with The Bus Factor.
I once discussed the Bus Factor at a conference called Open Source & Feelings, except I used the analogy a little bit different.
We had a running joke at one of my previous jobs that whenever a bunch of developers crowded into an old elevator in Lower Manhattan, that we were really playing with fire and that our “Bus Factor” was really high.
But what does the Bus Factor really mean?
Somewhat morbidly, the Bus Factor is usually stated to mean: what is the probability that the tech project you’re working on will fail if someone on the team is run over by a bus?
This stems from individuals who are the “gatekeepers,” so to speak of all the intellectual knowledge either of a system or a technology. These people are tasked with keeping the lights on and whenever they go on vacation, they are usually interrupted because the rest of the team doesn’t know how to do the work themselves.
This situation can happen for a number of reasons:
  • The employee intentionally withholds their knowledge out of fear of job security
  • The team doesn’t have a way to disperse knowledge so that everyone has a working understanding if not expert understanding of how to achieve something.
In an open source project, very rarely is a maintainer hit by a bus, but they do have a tendency to just walk away from a project.
When I brought up the bus factor at Open Source & Feelings, I wanted to highlight the fact that the emotional labor as an open source maintainer was high. I felt that myself and other people I had talked to felt an overwhelming responsibility to shepherd projects through the end of days. This led to thoughts of apathy, depression, and resentment.
That’s why whenever I presented on how to maintain your open source community I instead framed “Bus Factor” as this:
Your personal Bus Factor is the amount of bull shit you’re willing to put up with your community before you pack your bags and hop on a bus out of town.
Open source maintainers and contributors often start these projects because they want to help others. Unfortunately, these altruistic ideals can also come back to bite us in the ass.
Our patrons can sometimes seem insensitive to our time and emotions.
Companies profit off of our hard work by using our tools in their for-profit software at multi-million companies without any recognition of our involvement.
And sometimes we are the worst critics to ourselves, always wishing we could do more, and we pile the guilt on ourselves until the responsibility becomes unbearable.
As a culture, open source maintainers, contributors, and users need to come together to respect the art and finds ways of rewarding those who dedicate their time and energy to the development of the tools we love. We also need to be able to recognize burn out in ourselves and others to save us from losing some wonderful people who have built our community.
Have you ever worked on an open source project only to find yourself faced with a situation that made you want to quit?
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How to Make Scheduling Lunch with Friends Easier

My friend and I sent emails back and forth trying to set up a time that would work for both of us to grab lunch after not finding time to hang out for the last 6 months.

Instead of being able to find a time that worked for both of us, we eventually gave up and had to wait another two months before the calendar gods smiled upon us.

Have you ever been caught with a “busy” schedule and had to play email tag with someone you wanted to catch up with only to find that it was impossible to nail down any one time that would work for the both of you?

As a professional in technology, outside of my day job I run a chapter of a volunteer organization and try to grab time to not only meet with some of my volunteers but also meet new potential donors in the tech space who can make our free workshop a reality. Being flexible on my schedule can ensure that the good work that we do can continue well on into the future.

The problem becomes when trying to schedule lunches or coffees becomes too time-consuming. Your good-will side project starts to creep into your day job that pays you the money in the first place to afford you the opportunity to volunteer on the side.

After I attended a dinner with The Comfort Circle with a group of individuals all discussing the topic of networking and personal branding, one of the attendees suggested Book Like a Boss to the group through an AppSumo deal.

I was able to grab a lifetime license of the still-developing software that would help me load my personal and work calendars into their system and automatically help me surface the dates and times to friends and peers.

I took a gamble on Book Like a Boss and was glad I did. When I first purchased my license, it was a new company and many of the features that their competitors offer were not available yet. However, the developers have a private Facebook group open to members to discuss any bugs that they’ve found and to keep up to date on new features. As a developer myself, I can appreciate the fact that they are willing to talk directly to their customers as well as field any distractions that inherently come up from access to social media for an extended time.

Book Like a Boss is geared toward freelancers and practitioners who offer one-off or coaching services. It does not actually tout itself as a platform to schedule social events with friends and family, but that’s how I use it and it’s worked great for me!

You can import any number of calendars from platforms like GSuite, iCloud, or Outlook. I also started by blocking out any ungodly hours of the day such as meeting before 8 AM or after 9 PM.

After that, you can schedule specific types of appointments.

To give myself the largest flexibility, I have 3 basically appointments for each meal of the day and block out the time of when I want to have those meetings. Because I have daily stand-ups at 10:30 AM, breakfast needs to end by 9:30 AM so that I can be at work by the time stand-ups need to happen.

If you are in the business of taking on clients, Book Like a Boss offers the ability to charge for bookings and even offering packages for client work.

I designed my page to talk about what my work involves so that when I offer to meet with someone either for mentoring or advice, they know what my specialty is and can frame the conversation that way.

Overall, Book Like a Boss has made it significantly easier for me and my friends to choose a time that works for both of us without having to play email tag for days at a time.

How do you schedule 1:1 time with people? Do you find yourself playing games of email tag?

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Simon Says Stamp STAMPtember®: What I Am Buying

Simon Says Stamp STAMPtember® really released some great products this year and I wanted to share what I was most excited about seeing and what I am planning on purchasing for myself! 🙂

I think this is the most I’ve been excited for a new product release ever! This month of September is super exciting for me since it’s my birthday month but it’s also quickly approaching my husband and my second trip to Japan. I am looking forward to eating a bunch of my favorite foods and immersing myself in a unique and expressive culture.

Stamps

  • Forever After clear stamp set – One type of card that I don’t have enough of are anniversary cards. I make sure to send one to my parents, husband’s parents, and aunt and uncle every year. I would love to be able to make more but also found my stamps lacking. This is a great set of both sweet and funny sentiments for your card!
  • Henna Patterns clear stamp set – This set is a great addition to a stamp line! It immediately brought me back to when my sister received henna for her wedding ceremony in India in late 2014.
  • Hydrangea Blooms clear stamp set – I love coloring with my Copics and this looks like a great outline to play around with not only with Copics but colored pencils and watercolors.
  • Time For Wine clear stamp set – I would LOVE to send a card with these sentiments to my girlfriends. We are planning a short getaway in the near future where we will be sampling wine while on the trip and this set is just too cute not to use to celebrate the occasion.
  • Wine Aerobics clear stamp set – I saw a sneak peek of this stamp set in a promo image last month and was desperate to see where it was from. And now I know! This is just too funny and too cute not to get!
  • Abstract Triangles and Tiny Dots background stamps – I love background stamps and can’t wait to use both of these.
  • You Matter clear stamp, background stamp, and wafer die set – You can’t go wrong with a lovely set of sentiments that all work well together. I make cards to express my love to friends and family and this is just another great set to add to my collection.

CardStock

  • Card stock Glimmery Assortment Pack – When I saw this listed I knew I just had to have it. Everything sparkly and shimmery is definitely popular right now and this is a great alternative to over-bearing glitter than can just get everywhere and become a mess.
  • Vellum Cardstock – I recently ran out of the vellum I have had (nearly forever!) and this is great to get some 8.5″ x 11″ sheets to restock.

Other

  • Black Ultrafine Detail Embossing Powder – I recently took the Heat it Up! class over at Stamp Nation in August and one of the first lessons went over different kinds of embossing powders and one of the examples illustrated how you get different results from different ways to get black heat embossing. I have read and watched a lot on YouTube about people’s dissatisfaction about black embossing powder in general and how messy it can look. The fact that Simon is coming out with an ultra fine embossing powder makes me think they are trying to offer a more improved black embossing powder makes me want to try it out and see what kind of results I can get.
  • Scallop Stitches Wafer Dies – I have recently de-stashed a lot in my craft room and one thing I decided to get rid of were a lot of my punches. In card and scrapbook kits, I always seem to see them using scallop punches and I never quite have what I need! I love that Simon is offering a die set of different scallop sizes that I think will match what I’ve been searching for.

Tomorrow Simon Says Stamp will be announcing their limited edition collaboration with Lawn Fawn and I just know there will be some amazing stuff I’ll just want to get as well!

What most excites you about this year’s Simon Says Stamp STAMPtember®? 🙂

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2016 has sure been one hell of a year — and it’s only the beginning of May. 

In addition to the other trying, stressful, and sometimes just horrible times, we can add one more thing to the list of casualties. Yesterday, on his way home from Linden, Adam got in a car accident. Thankfully no one was injured but I am sure I would sleep better knowing that everything was okay if he would get checked out by our physician anyway. However, our poor car is even more worse for wear than normal. This January was its ninth year on the road and its time in Brooklyn has sure made its mark. My “itty bitty fitty” as my family so lovingly called it, is a little more bitty (as in bits and pieces) tonight.

Buying the Honda Fit was the largest purchase I had ever made until the purchase of our house surpassed that a few years later. Yet still, the purchase of the car was all by myself! After saving diligently by living at home I could pay the majority of the price down and spread the remainder in small payments on a loan over the next 5 years. When I arrived at the Honda dealership that day in the fall of 2006, I had every intention of getting a Civic but after test-driving the sedan I was left a bit unimpressed. What caught my eye was a flashy, bright orange hatchback that was also on the lot. The dealer told me that the car was called a “Fit” and was new to the USA after having a lot of popularity over seas. It was fairly cheaper and had fewer features than the civic but after my test drive there was no question: the Fit was just so fun to drive!

I ordered the same model and color as the car I drove that day. By the end of December, the blaze metallic orange with the sport model extras was delivered from Japan and was all mine. At the time, I had just finished a co-op job in Pittsburgh and unfortunately didn’t have the means to keep it up in Boston with me. Luckily my grandparents had an extra space in their garage and offered to give it a home until I could use it again on visits and vacations. Then one day we would be reunited when I would have the opportunity to take it with me forever!

It’s bittersweet yet a bit apropos to recall this moment in my life as the death of my grandmother is still fresh. When I had called or visited my grandparents during this time, they always made sure to let me know that they were taking great care of my car. I am sure it was a great excuse to keep my car as they knew it was a great excuse to talk to and see me from time to time!

After letting my family know what happened and that Adam was okay, everyone remarked on what a faithful little car the Fit has been over the years. At one time or another, each person of my family has taken a trip in it. It’s moved me from Pittsburgh to Boston for school; back and forth from Boston to NYC on late night trips while Adam and I were starting to date; to Pittsburgh from Boston when I moved home and adopted Isabella; from Pittsburgh to NYC when I moved to be with Adam; and back and forth between NYC and Pittsburgh countless times with me, Adam, and Isabella in tow.

My father last saw the Fit on our most recent trip to Pittsburgh to see my grandmother right before she died. He remarked how he reflected on the service the car served over the last decade carrying his “little girl” and family and gave it an appreciative pat.

I am half expecting to hear from the claims adjuster that the car is totaled based on the repair estimates (well know more hopefully by the end of this week) but if not it will be one more notch in this car’s belt as a testimony of how great a purchase this was for me.

And if it is totaled, I take a bit of comfort in knowing that my car fulfilled its duty to me and my family up until the very end instead of a lackluster conclusion.

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Programming Q&A with a High School Student

A few weeks ago I was approached by a freshman at a high school in Ohio who asked if she may ask me a few questions about my experience learning how to program and starting my career. I thought it would be a great Q&A to share on this blog as well!

Dear Ms. Ober,

Hello! My name is Ashley, and I am a freshman at [redacted] High School. In my English class, we are currently doing a research project on our career of choice, and I have chosen the occupation of a computer programmer. I did some research, and I found out that you’ve taught many classes on computer programming. If you have the time, I would love for you to answer these questions for me!

1. When did you realize you wanted to become a computer programmer and why?

I started learning how to program websites back when I was a freshman in high school. I first thought I would work as a digital artist and spent a lot of my free time drawing and using Adobe Photoshop creating designs.

Eventually, I wanted other people to see my art, and thought that putting them on the internet would help me do that. I first learned HTML from a large tome my dad had on his bookshelf and when I first started to read it I had no idea what I was looking at! After attempting to decode the message inside, one day everything “clicked” in my head (I swear it was magic) and programming HTML made perfect sense to me.

Learning HTML was a gateway for me into doing much more complicated things on the web. Soon I asked my father to buy me a domain and hosting and I was able to learn more about servers, databases, and other programming languages.

Soon, I realized that I was much more interested in the programming aspect of displaying my art than the art itself. When it came time to choose a major, I chose a dual major in computer science and cognitive psychology. Why? When I chose Northeastern University, they were starting a pilot program that was structured for students interested in using computer science in a specific discipline. In my year, we had dual major in Cognitive Psychology, Math, and if I remember correct, business. The have since gone on to offer many more pairing such as an option with music and one with health care.

2. What subjects/ courses were the most beneficial to you in preparing to become a computer programmer?

This is an interesting question. I had a discussion today with other programmers about the courses I took because I was a dual major, while I had exposure to psychology, I did not get as much exposure to things like machine learning, designing my open programming language, and algorithms, which I think would have been very helpful for my career. If your future university offers a dual major, you may want to think hard about what part of programming appeals to you. Your future job will be much more than just sitting at a computer every day. You will be taking with other people and trying to work on problems that humans have and that computers may be able to solve. This usually means that it will be in conjunction with other disciplines and industries.

At co-ops (or internships) I’ve had exposure to doctors working on cancer cures to customer service representatives working with customers who need to fill their prescriptions to publishers working on magazines. What kinds of things outside of computers do you enjoy? Can you think of the problems these industries may have that you can solve by having computers do the work?

If you can make that connection before you head off to college, you can focus on combining your computer classes with electives that will educate and expose you to other industries!

3. Around how many languages do you have to learn? Which ones are the most important?

This depends on your classes. In my first year everyone was required to learn a language called Dr. Scheme (It has since been renamed Racket). When I was in one of my final classes, I was required to use the .NET framework for my web design class, but when I took my Software Development class I was allowed to use a language of my choosing. Sometimes as a college student, you don’t really have that choice. 😔

Depending on whether you want to be a web programmer or a native programmer, that might influence your choice on which languages to concentrate on. Prior to college, I had taught myself PHP, CGI scripting, Perl, JavaScript, and C++. During my time there I became comfortable with Ruby, Scheme, .NET, and Smalltalk. Since graduating, I experimented with Objective-C and spend a lot of my time writing Ruby on Rails, Sass (which compiles to CSS) and Haml (which compiles to HTML). I am spending more of my time lately looking into starting React.js applications.

If you want to work on the web, my biggest piece of advice is to get comfortable with JavaScript, HTML and CSS. Once you learn the basics you can move into more JavaScript frameworks (any of them will probably do for now) and experiment.

4. What degree is needed to be successful?

Honestly, I am sure your parents aren’t going to want to hear this, but it is becoming more and more common to meet developers who do not have a Computer Science degree. Often they will find that programming was a solution to something they were working on, realized they enjoyed it a lot, and decided it would be a great career move for them to do something they enjoyed more.

That is not to say a Computer Science degree is worthless! I enjoyed my time at Northeastern University and would never trade it for anything. With my course work there I was able to learn things that I may not have tackled on my own. It also gave me a history of computing that I think has helped me in understanding programming problems.

For some people, college is the best path, for others they don’t seem to need it and come to programming by another route. Both kinds of people can be very successful!

5. What is your favorite aspect of programming?

My favorite aspect of programming is that basically out of nothing I can create something. As I mentioned above, I was a very artistic person. In conversations with other programmers/developers/engineers, we all have a very deeply held belief that our code is our craft. We take pride in creating something that works well and can be used and to us it looks “pretty”.

6. I have been looking into the topic of women and minorities in the field and discovered there haven’t as many in recent years. What do you think has contributed to that?

I am sure through your research you’ve read many articles that offered to give you an insight into why there are so few women.

I can’t tell you definitively why that may be, as there are many factors, but I may be able to tell you what I am doing to try and help those numbers.

One aspect is the entry into the “pipeline.” As a child, my father never treated me like a princess. As we had no brothers, my sisters and I were expected to mow the lawn, work outside, carry things, etc. I realize that most parents/fathers may not instinctively treat their daughters this way and expose them to things not considered “girly”. When I was growing up, along with dance classes (that I hated) I went to science camps and robotics classes. Older, I competed in science fairs and won awards. I figured out that I was good at science and enjoyed what I did. In many of these experiences, I was one of maybe a few girls (if any). I am not sure that parents have these types of experiences on their radar for their daughters or we’re selling science in a way that doesn’t attract girls.

The second potential stalling point is when young women, such as yourself, are making the decision for their majors in college. I think that many can feel intimidated to choose to purse a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (otherwise known as STEM) degree because at this point in their lives, they have often heard that “girls aren’t good at ‘x’”. What can we do to attract more women to study these subjects? Secondly, how do we keep women to complete their degree? When I graduated, many ladies changed out. Was it too hard? Not interesting? Intimidating?

Finally, once the woman has been in her career there is a dropping off point. Many factors may be influencing this statistic. By the age of 25, many women are thinking about marriage and children. If you are dealing with discrimination and unequal pay at your job, it is very easy to become frustrated and decide to leave your job to pursue other fulfilling tasks. If women (and any parent for that matter) starts to think their day job is eating too much of their work/life balance, they may try and look for something else that fits into their life style. Stereotypically, software development and start ups have been know to have longer work hours.

Through my work in RailsBridge, we look to introduce women to programming and offer free workshops and free childcare because we found that these were huge hurdles for women to pursue or continue their education. We want to lower the bars for entry and are constantly looking for ways to make it easier for disadvantaged people to have access to education. Soon we’ll be experimenting with holding workshops at venues that have free computer access so that the poor can take advantage of our curriculum.

At Write/Speak/Code, we are looking to create a tribe for women to gather in to help them grow their skills throughout their career. After working for almost 10 years, at a certain point you can feel like you’re stalling out. We want to continue to offer inspiration to women to stay in engineering and make that next step to a promotion. We too offer free childcare at Write/Speak/Code and also offer a quiet and relaxing space to breastfeed or express milk, as this is a distinct need for new mothers. We are eagerly exploring other ways to make it even more accessible for women to attend.

If you have any other information you can share, feel free to add! I’d like to get as much feedback as I can.

I hope this was an entertaining read and it was helpful for you. Thanks so much for reaching out to me. 🙂

Thank you so much for taking your time and reading this email. I really do appreciate it and I’m looking forward to hearing your insights in computer programming!

If you’re a programmer, have you been asked about how your career has progressed? What would you have told Ashley instead?

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Reflections upon entering my fourth decade

A few weeks ago I held my first evening get together at my home. Thankfully the weather was wonderful and we could shuffle everyone outside to occupy our spacious patio area.

The cause for the celebration? That day I officially made it to 30 years on this earth.

I remember back to the cusp of graduating high school. At that point in my life, I had absolutely no clear vision of what came after. Yes, at that point I was accepted and confirmed to be attending Northeastern University as an incoming freshman in the fall of 2003. However, it felt so overwhelmingly foreign to me, like it wasn’t really me who was going on to do something else in my life! There was no chapter that followed graduation, no sequel to the book I had written, I just felt like after high school graduation my story would end and the covers of the book would shut and things would fade to black.

The reality was that my story didn’t end there even though everything in my head told me it would. In fact, this time in my life marked the beginning of a long epic that I was about to embark on. I had only lived to the part where Bilbo Baggins decides to leave the Shire and venture on his great adventure. Looking back now, this pattern of thinking was largely caused by my crippling clinical depression that made it impossible to make any kind of long-term plans imaginable. It wouldn’t be the last time I would face self created obstacles in my life, but how I envisioned and responding to them would change.

I touched a little on this in the presentation I gave at this year’s Open Source & Feelings conference, but there have been a number of periods since I was 15 where I had significant dark times that tended to cloud my judgement and influenced my work and outlook on the world. My most recent bout was very serious which makes it all the more important to take time out in my life to do personal self-care check ups. With these checkups, I can identify when a possible trying time is impending.

When my husband Adam hit the 30 milestone last year, neither he nor I knew how to best mark the occasion. After his birthday I could tell that he wasn’t exactly thrilled to be that age, however I noticed a definitive difference in myself. Since probably December I think I mentally already considered myself 30, and embraced it.

For the first time in my life, I not only had a clue about the next thing I wanted to do with my life, I was confident and prepared. I had overcome my own destructive thinking that the impending date of the anniversary of my birth wasn’t a swan song of lost days gone by, it was a celebration of triumph and a big come on to the world to give me its best shot at whatever was next I could handle it with the tools I had been given.

That’s why, the only way I saw fit to mark my holiday was a big celebration with those who had been a part of my life up to this moment.

For that evening I curated a great menu of smokey beef brisket, seasoned barbecue chicken, and creamy macaroni and cheese from Fletcher’s in Park Slope, Brooklyn. For our vegetarian friends, Adam was inspired to craft an artichoke and spinach lasagna dripping with mozzarella cheese and savory tomato sauce, a recipe he perfected in tastes tests in the week leading up to the party.

Refreshments were selected by my dad and me after brainstorming appropriately and decided on a mixture of beers, wine, and a drink dispenser filled with what I was told to be a “Tennessee Palmer.” I made a tactical error in forgetting of a long-held tradition in NYC where people bring their own to a party and therefore, like Jesus and the bread and fish, ended up with more beers than we started with. (On a side note, anyone interested in drinking a bunch of quality beers that were left at my house?)

I was pleasantly surprised by the turn out and that my friend Kate from college drove in with her husband Dave from New Hampshire to spend the weekend. Family from Oregon, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all trekked in to join us. Along with friends from within the 5 boroughs the group consisted of colleagues, social circles, and partners in the many projects I am a part of. It helped me realize how blessed I am to have such amazing people in my life.