Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Learning in public

I am more and more thinking I want to contribute to Open Source. Now, one way is to overcome all the inertia and get going again with Dreamwidth, but I don't want to put all my eggs in one dubiously viable basket. So I'm considering other possibilities.

ghoti has talked about saying she's interested in contributing to OS and getting fobbed off with, you can still contribute without writing code, you know. Which is of course sexist and patronizing and annoying, but in my own case, I think I might be more use in peripheral ways than focusing on writing code. I'm not bothered if that's considered feminine, I'm bothered politically that everything else about making effective software is lower in prestige than writing actual computer code because of having girl cooties, but personally I am not aiming for prestige, but rather for my own satisfaction. Also, I do want to learn how to program, but I have a long way to go before I have the skills to be useful, whereas I'm already pretty good at nourishing communities, and at assimilating information and communicating it effectively, so I'm hoping to leverage those skills a bit while I'm also learning.

Also at work I've been sitting at the feet of Dr Yardley, an amazing palliative care consultant who has a PhD in Medical Education, and one of the people I most look up to of everyone I've met since I've started working in a Medical School. She's been teaching me about Wenger and Communities of Practice, which is relevant to the thing where medical students have to hang around in clinical environments and transition to actually being allowed to do things to patients. So I'm thinking about Open Source in terms of Wenger's concept of Legitimate Peripheral Participation; ideally I'd like to find a community (the whole of the FLOSS movement is way too big to be a Community of Practice, just like the whole medical profession isn't one) where they have a clear understanding that they can't achieve their other goals unless they actively work to integrate new people who aren't currently experts. Equally, thinking about myself as a potential member of the community and what I can contribute, because it doesn't count as LPP if you barter volunteering your labour for educational opportunities, rather both the volunteering and the learning are supposed to be part of working towards shared goals.

The standard advice for people wanting to get involved in Open Source is that you should scratch your own itches, ie work on things that would actually make your own experience better. And that makes sense, part of of why I want to get into OS is that I never stick with learning to program schemes that depend on completing artificial exercises, I need to do something that's actually useful. But I don't yet actually have the skills or experience to be able to identify my "itches", let alone figure out how to deal with them. So I think the first step towards contributing to OS is going to be to use Free software more. And not just to use it passively, but to pay attention to what I'm doing and what parts of it are difficult and could do with being improved.

So step zero of this plan is to install Ubuntu on my netbook. I have friends who would probably do this for me if I asked them, but getting my machine running the Free operating system is only a secondary goal. What I really want to do is to experience the process from the point of view of a total beginner. And maybe one way I can start to contribute fairly quickly is to write sensible tutorials or advice to other people going through the process. The thing is, I'm probably better than average at learning new skills independently, I'm comfortable with Quacking for solutions to problems, troubleshooting, trying a few different things to see what works, and not just giving up the first time I run into a snag. And yet I find a lot of Open Source stuff really inaccessible. There is information out there that's absolutely basic step by step, series of screenshots showing you what options to choose, but that doesn't give you any knowledge of what to do if anything doesn't go to plan or really any understanding of what you're doing. At the other end of the scale, there's highly technical stuff which I can't even search for because I don't know how to formulate the questions. There's also a frighteningly huge volume of what to me seems like actively hostile stuff, people asking for help getting shouted at or mocked for not already knowing how to do something. I don't at all delude myself I can fix this all by myself, but I think I can contribute to making some better resources, and that's part of what attracts me to Open Source, you don't have to be able to fix everything that's broken, you can make something incrementally better. I want to apply that mindset to social things, basically, as well as technical issues.

And more long-term, I might learn enough to be able to help a bit with at least finding and reporting the kinds of things that make installing the OS and getting started not go smoothly, as well as just talking about them. I know lots of actual programmers hate testing, but I am somewhat attracted to it as a concept because it seems to me like science, doing experiments to find out exactly in what circumstances things go wrong and changing things systematically to fix them. My experience on LJ and DW suggests that it's generally helpful for testing and bug-finding if you can at least read code, and that's a level of programming ability I'm reasonably confident I can reach without unfeasible time investments. But anyway, we'll see.

Anyway, I have so far failed to get Ubuntu onto my netbook, and I'm framing this as a success at gathering data on how hard it is, rather than a failure at installing the OS. And like a good little scientist, I've documented the experience in my dev journal; you're welcome to take a look if you're curious but I don't want to shove that kind of boring detail stuff in everybody's faces.

Advice is cautiously welcome. I really don't want to hear all the arguments for why Ubuntu is rubbish, I have my reasons for starting from there, and if I find that it isn't the system or the community I'm looking for, fair enough, but I have made up my mind to try at this point. Equally I don't want people to offer to take over and sort stuff out for me, however well-intentioned, because I want the experience of figuring it out at least as much as I want the end goal of having a netbook running Linux. But if you want to give me advice on where to start with troubleshooting my installation process, I would be grateful.

And if you want to give me more general advice about getting started with contributing to Open Source, then I would definitely like to hear it. I'm most likely to listen to advice that takes into account that I'm reasonably intelligent even though I'm female and don't have much in the way of programming experience, but also doesn't assume any prior knowledge at all.

I prefer comments at Dreamwidth. There are currently comment count unavailable comments there. You can use your LJ address as an OpenID, or just write your name.
Tags: tech

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