ROSE Blog Interviews: Noirin Shirley, Vice President of the Apache Software Foundation

Rikki Endsley

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Oct 20, 2009 GMT
Rikki Kite

ApacheCon 2009, held November 2-6 in Oakland, California, will also be a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Apache Software Foundation. In this interview, Noirin Shirley, VP of the ASF, discusses her work as a technical writer at Google and the upcoming ApacheCon event.

Q: Who are you?

A: I'm Noirin Shirley. I work as a Technical Writer in Google's Zurich office, where I get to spend 20 percent of my time working on Open Source projects. And when I go home, I put on my feather cap and turn into the Vice President of the Apache Software Foundation, responsible for conferences and events. Although you'd never know it to look at my desk, I'm a born organiser, and whether it's words on a page, or the best ApacheCon yet, I just love it when a plan comes together! I'm an optimist and an idealist at heart, and I try to live by the motto, "If you don't ask, you won't get." It doesn't always work, but overall it's served me well so far! And when it fails, I can always fall back on my family motto, "Festina Lente!" (Hasten slowly!)

Q: What do you currently do in open source? What do you love about it?

A: As I mentioned, I'm lucky enough to be able to spend 20 percent of my work time on Open Source work. Right now I'm cranking away on the documentation for Google's Highly Open Participation Contest, which aims to to introduce pre-university students to the many contributions that make open source software development possible! I think it's a very cool project, and I'm delighted to be able to contribute to it.

More visibly, I work on various events and conferences for the Apache communities. We're less than two weeks from ApacheCon US 2009 right now, where we'll be really celebrating the Apache Software Foundation's 10th birthday in style! It's going to be our biggest event yet, and I've invested a huge amount of time and energy in the show over the last several months.

Once that's over, I'll be heading offline and outta town for a couple of weeks to recuperate, before diving in to work on the Apache Retreat, to be held in Ireland next spring. This is a completely new event for us – we're hoping to bring Apache committers together for a long weekend of dedicated hacking, without the distractions or cost of a full-scale, user-focused conference. Of course, we'll be inviting the local Open Source community to join us for a BarCamp as part of the weekend, and I'm delighted to say that Ireland definitely punches above her weight in terms of Open Source users and evangelists!

What I really love about my work in technology in general is the opportunities I get to make lives better. On a grand scale, I love helping out in projects that are changing the face of technology, and even the world. On a more practical level, I love being able to introduce my friends to just the right tools to help them solve their IT problems.

Q: You're speaking to a group of women from other fields who are considering switching careers. Why should they consider moving into an open source-related career? What should they know about the open source environment to prepare them for the transition from a different field?

A: The sad reality right now is that I really wouldn't counsel women in that situation to look at their Open Source options. One of my first "real" jobs was an internship at Microsoft. And in terms of the environment for women, the difference between my experience in the Open Source world and my experience at Microsoft is like the difference between Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Priory.

That said, there's no question that the IT world in general needs more women, and it can be a very rewarding field to work in. Employers are, by and large, open to flexible working arrangements – think of your classic IT geek who doesn't rise before noon – and there's really so much variety in IT that you're bound to find something that interests you.

For women who decide to go into an Open Source environment, particularly if they're coming from a different field, I'd recommend seeking out a good support network, and if you have a choice of projects, look for the ones that are already doing well on diversity. It's almost impossible to get by in Open Source without developing a thick skin, so don't try to make things harder on yourself. If you can hang on long enough, things do get better. And every now and then someone you admire will say something so nice about you that it all seems worth it!

Q: You're speaking to a group of high school students (male and female). Why should they consider exploring career options in open source?

A: I think the answer here is pretty similar. The Open Source road is not necessarily the best route for a high school student who's just starting out with technology. When I got my very first computer, a hand-me-down too old and clunky to run anything else, my best friend and I spent a whole weekend trying to install Linux on it. We never succeeded, and the experience was so frustrating that it put me off technology completely for quite a while!

Things have improved a bit over the last 10 years though, and installing Linux is (usually) no longer such a traumatic experience. So while I wouldn't recommend Open Source on Careers Day, if you're interested in IT, it's worth trying these things out as a user. The price is right for students, and getting familiar with a new operating system will teach you all sorts of skills that will stand you in good stead for any career that involves using computers, which is most of them nowadays!

If you're already familiar with Open Source projects and technologies, and you're really looking to take the next step, Google's Highly Open Participation contest is a great way to get a taste of the Open Source world. Because of the structure of the program, you're shielded a bit from some of the worse aspects of Open Source behavior, but you'll still get a very real chance to develop skills in whatever area of technology you're interested in. Many students continue working with their projects after the contest is over, and for those who don't, it's still a good way to get a taste and decide whether or not this is for you.

Linux Pro Magazine is proud to be a media sponsor of the upcoming ApacheCon 2009.

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