More Voices = More Bazel

JAN 17, 2023

Posted by Lyra Levin, Technical Writer, Software Engineering

Takeaways from the BazelCon DEI lunch panel

In front of a standing-room-only lunch panel, Minu Puranik asks us, “If there is one thing you want to change [about Bazel’s DEI culture], what would it be and why?”

We’d spent the last hour on three main themes: community culture, fostering trust, and growing our next generation of leaders. Moderated by Minu, the Strategy and Operations leader for DeveloperX & DevRel at Google, our panel brought together a slate of brilliant people from underrepresented genders and populations of color to give a platform to our experiences and ideas. Together with representatives and allies in the community, we explored methods to building inclusivity in our open source community and sought a better understanding of the institutional and systemic barriers to increasing diversity.

Culture defines how we act, which informs who feels welcome to contribute. Studies show that diverse contributor backgrounds yield more and better results, so how do we create a culture where everyone feels safe to share, ask questions, and contribute? Helen Altshuler, co-founder and CEO of EngFlow, relayed her experience, “Having people that can have your back is important to get past the initial push to submit something and feeling like it’s ok. You don’t need to respond to everything in one go. Last year, Cynthia Coah and I gave a talk on how to make contributions to the Bazel community. Best practices which we can apply as a Bazel community: better beginners’ documentation, classifying GitHub issues as "good first issue", and having Slack channels where code owners can play a more active role.” Diving further, we discussed the need to make sure new contributors get positive, actionable feedback to reward them with context and resources, and encourage them to take the risk of contributing to the codebase.

This encouragement of new contributors feeds directly into the next generation of technical influencers and leaders. Eva Howe, co-founder and Legal Counsel for Aspect, addressed the current lack of diversity in the community pipeline. “I’d like to see more trainings like the Bazel Community Day. Trainings serve 2 purposes:

  1. People can blend in, start talking to someone in the background and form connections.
  2. When someone goes through a bootcamp or CS course, Bazel is not mentioned. Nobody cares that the plumbing works until it doesn’t work. We need to educate people and give them that avenue and a good experience to move forward. I struggle with the emotional side of it - I count myself out before I get somewhere. It needs to be a safe space, which it hasn’t been in the past.”

In addition to industry trainings, the audience and panel brought up bootcamps and university classes as rich sources to find and promote diversity, though cautioned that it takes active, ongoing effort to maintain an environment that diverse candidates are willing to stay in. There are fewer opportunities to take risks as part of an underrepresented group, and the feeling that you have to succeed for everyone who looks like you creates a high-pressure environment that is worse for learning outcomes.

To bypass this pipeline problem, we can recruit promising candidates and sponsor them through getting the necessary experience on the job. Lyra Levin, Bazel’s internal technical writer at Google, spoke to this process of incentivizing and recognizing contributions outside the codebase, as a way to both encourage necessary glue work, and pull people into tech from parallel careers more hospitable to underrepresented candidates.

She said, “If someone gives you an introduction to another person, recognize that. Knowing a system of people is work. Knowing where to find answers is work. Saying I’m going to be available and responding to emails is work. If you see a conversation where someone is getting unhelpful pushback, jump in and moderate it. Reward those who contribute by creating a space that can be collaborative and supportive.”

Sophia Vargas, Program Manager in Google’s OSPO (Open Source Programs Office), chimed in, “Create ways to recognize non-code contributions. One example is a markdown file describing other forms of contribution, especially in cases that do not generate activity attached to a name on GitHub.”

An audience member agreed, “A positive experience for the first few PRs is very critical for building trust in the community.”

And indeed, open source is all about building trust. So how do we go about building trust? What should we do differently? Radhika Advani, Bazel’s product manager at Google, suggests that the key is to “have some amazing allies”. “Be kind and engage with empathy,” she continued, “Take your chances - there are lots of good people out there. You have to come from a place of vulnerability.”

Sophia added some ideas for how to be an “amazing ally” and sponsor the careers of those around you. “Create safe spaces to have these conversations. Not everyone is bold enough to speak up or to ask for support, as raising issues in a public forum can be intimidating. Make yourself accessible, or provide anonymous forms for suggestions or feedback — both can serve as opportunities to educate yourself and to increase awareness of diverging opinions.” An audience member added, “If you recognize that an action is alienating to a member of your group, even just acknowledging their experience or saying something to the room can be very powerful to create a sense of safety and belonging.” Another said, “If you’re in a leadership position, when you are forthright about the limits of your knowledge, it gives people the freedom to not know everything.”

So to Minu’s question, what should we do to improve Bazel’s culture?

Helen: Create a governance group on Slack to ensure posts are complying with the community code of conduct guidelines. Review how this is managed for other OSS communities.

Sophia: Institutionalize mentorship; have someone else review what you’ve done and give you the confidence to push a change. Nurture people. We need to connect new and established members of the community.

Lyra: Recruit people in parallel careers paths with higher representation. Give them sponsorship to transition to tech.

Radhika: Be more inclusive. All the jargon can get overwhelming, so let’s consider how we can make things simpler, including with non-technical metaphors.

Eva: Consider what each of us can do to make the experience for people onboarding better.

There are more ways to be a Bazel contributor than raising PRs. Being courageous, vulnerable and open contributes to the culture that creates the code. Maintainers — practice empathy and remember the human on the other side of the screen. Be a coach and a mentor, knowing that you are opening the door for more people to build the product you love, with you. Developers — be brave and see the opportunities to accept sponsorship into the space. Bazel is for everyone.