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Displaying posts tagged resources

Some Work-At-Home Tips for FOSS Contributors

by Bradley M. Kuhn on June 23, 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone's lives, and taken the lives of so many of our family members and friends. For those of us that have been spared, our lives must continue, and this is particularly true for those who work in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), since so many of us already worked from home. Doing so when our world faces so many simultaneous crises is undoubtedly difficult. I share below a few ideas that I've had that might be able to help my fellow FOSS contributors.

We have a weekly meetup of FOSS contributors where I live, which once upon a time met at a restaurant for late breakfast, but now meets weekly on a Jitsi instance installed by one of the members. During a recent session, one contributor complained about a real problem she faced, as she put it: All my non-FOSS friends keep asking me ‘Teach me how you work from home; I'm doing it for the first time and failing’. The answer she gave them was that what is happening now is not the “working from home” that she had trained herself for all this time.

Specifically, she meant that most of us who already work from home have built quite easy routines of having the home to ourselves. Roommates, children, life partners, and family who live in the house often have at least some of their day when they're away. Now, everyone is staying at home, so the personal procedures and systems that those of us who stay while the others go have simply evaporated.

My colleague's observation was quite salient. I've seen plenty of articles talking about how to work from home, but few have tips for how to handle the unique situation where everyone in the house and must all work from home together. I have a few ideas that I thought might help in this regard. Admittedly, some of these tips are likely FOSS-specific, but if you've found this article and don't work in FOSS, there might still be a hint or two that helps. Here's a list of changes that I've made that have really worked for me:

  • Hour-shift if you can. If you're able to, attempt to try new times of day. For me, I've been attempting to wake up earlier than everyone else in the house and get a few hours of work before others in the home start their day. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, has been working late in the evening after her children are in bed. Of course, shifting to inconvenient times is difficult and annoying, but we've found it can help to fit in a few hours of focused work during these difficult times.

  • Reorganize rote tasks for right time of day. When lots of people are around the house, some times of the day are inherently going to be louder and more chaotic than others. Keeping that in mind, I often try to plan out a day so that tasks that require serious concentration are scheduled for the most quiet moments and rote tasks are saved for those moments when it feels like nothing else can be done. For example, if I have to write complex correspondence with FOSS project leaders, I try to do that early in the morning, and save the Git repository reorganization project — which is mostly waiting for long rebases to finish and cherry-picking changes from other branches — for those times when my quarantined neighbor is power-washing his driveway.

  • Mix housework with conference calls. My colleagues at Conservancy already know this, but for those of you who have been on the phone with me now may be in for a shock: if you've had a conference call with me recently, I was probably loading or unloading my dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, or doing laundry while I spoke with you. The amount of housework for all of us has gone up now that we're all going nowhere else, and it's tough for all of us to fit it in. Most of our work in FOSS is at a keyboard, but for those moments when I don't need the keyboard and screen in front of me, I look for tasks that need attention that I can easily do while wearing a headset. Of course, I recommend the double-mute button solution to really ensure that your colleagues don't hear the kitchen sink spigot on the line!

  • Not everything needs a video chat. Video chat is now mainstream and everyone seems to want to use it. Of course, I (and all of us at Conservancy) encourage use of FOSS solutions, such as Jitsi and Big Blue Button. However, not every meeting needs a video chat, and, fitting with the previous point, being tied to your desk for a long video chat at a time when you're in a crowded house can be difficult. Encourage your colleagues to use a simple phone call when it will do for a meeting. Use a mobile or cordless phone so you can take a walk while talking, even if it's just wandering around the house. Furthermore, being cognizant to the increased noise levels in all our homes — be it from children playing, or that power washer next door that I mentioned — consider meetings on IRC, XMPP or other forms of FOSS online chat. This also allows folks the flexibility to step away for an emergency and come back to catch up.

  • Keep working on context switching skills. I admit that I envy people who can truly multitask and keep clear attention on two complicated things at once. It's a skill that I've never been able to develop, but there's another skill that can be equally valuable: the ability to switch between two tasks quickly. Those of us that program know that speeding up context switches on a computer speeds just about everything up on the computer. It's also (at least a bit) true with a person. If you can handle a surprise issue that someone in your house is asking you about, and quickly return to work without losing too much time to re-acclimate yourself, it really helps to keep work efficient during these tough times. Like any skill, it requires practice to develop. I find the best way to practice is be very mindful about what I'm working on at any moment and why, and when a distraction comes along, I evaluate it carefully by sub-vocalizing, and then note down something about where I was with the task I'm on before switching. I find that even the briefest of notes (3-5 words) makes a huge difference when I attempt to swap the task back into my mind.

Finally, keep in mind that one good fact in the sea of bad things in our world is that all of humanity is facing COVID-19 together. Those of us who are fortunate enough to do our jobs from relative safety in our home owe it to do our best to work efficiently and keep going, while the essential workers who are caring for the sick, searching for a vaccine and shelving our grocery stores take risks on our behalf to help our society survive the pandemic. I try to have empathy for all the others facing challenges that are greater than mine during the pandemic, and do the best I can in my own work to honor their sacrifices.

Tags: conservancy, FOSS Sustainability, resources

Fundraising Remotely: Increasing your Chances of Success

by Deb Nicholson on April 2, 2020

Controlling the technology we use is especially important during "lockdown" because non-digital work and communication options may no longer be available or safe. Some free software projects are serving exponentially more users during this pandemic than they've ever previously seen. Meanwhile, people are depending more heavily on their remote gigs, so it's essential that we keep paying the developers who maintain and improve the software we're all using. Conservancy wants to make sure that freedom-respecting, community-driven software projects can keep up with demand and continue their important work.

Many of us in tech are lucky that we can work remotely, without too much being very different on the work side. However, many projects will need to adjust their fundraising. This year's season of casual, in-person at-a-conference funding asks just won't be happening. We'll be doing all of our corporate and large donor fundraising via phone, video call or email for at least the next several months.

One of the things about in-person conversations is that you get plenty of instant feedback. How excited is the donor? Are they glad that they've made time to talk to you? Does the person you're talking to feel personally invested in your software project or is this purely a business decision? (Hint: it's often a bit of both.) Without the rapport that's easy to establish in-person, you'll want to take a minute to carefully craft your email communications. It's a good idea to get on the phone or do a video call if you can, but people may be reluctant to commit their time to be asked for money. We've written up some tips to help community-driven free software projects with their remote fundraising.

Be mindful of the circumstances of the person you are contacting. Don't start your fundraising conversation as if everything were normal right now. You can't copy and paste last year's ask and expect it to be successful. Most people's lives have been profoundly affected by the pandemic and people could be dealing with sick relatives or friends, immuno-compromised co-workers who are worried about groceries or vague, but pervasive anticipatory grief. More than ever, you'll need to be courteous with people's time, be gracious about rescheduling and be prepared to hear, "Please, just put it into an email." You'll want to make your fundraising requests efficient and answer the questions your donors have -- before they have to ask them. You'll want to acknowledge that we're all going through a difficult time before you talk about anything else.

What is the donor getting out of donating?

Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you don't know the answer to this, you'll need to find out. Perhaps another person associated with your project knows your contact or used to work at the company you're approaching. Take a look at what else the company or donor has funded and how they talk about their recent donations. Maybe they've even told you themselves when they donated to your project last, saying something like, "We're always happy to help keep Linux secure. Keep up the good work!"

Is it very clear how your project will be spending its income this year?

A financial plan that is tightly coupled with your technical roadmap makes things much clearer for potential donors. If you had to explain two or three things that you are prioritizing in the coming year at say, a virtual high school reunion, how would you phrase it? You wouldn't list the libraries and discuss all the things you don't like about your API. You'd say something like, "This year we're increasing interoperability and working to better support folks running smaller instances of Foo." Then tell the donor that you're going to be paying developers to work on those two big picture goals.

Is there something you're working on that is very timely?

For example, Etherpad's collaborative editing tools now include video, so Etherpad hosts may need more tools to help them support the increased bandwidth for their all-remote teams. Is increased capacity or internationalization illuminating the need for different security measures or more translating? Whenever something very timely is part of your roadmap, be sure to mention it to your potential donors so they can choose to donate now, when their support is likely to be the most impactful.

What if some of your use cases and upcoming plans are really cool, but extremely detailed?

Make a blog post about the exciting, but wonkier, bits of what you're doing. You can easily link to these posts for donors that do want more detail. You might even find that these public posts help you find some modest donors or contributors who are interested in helping with some really specific aspects of your work. Documenting your technical challenges could help another free software project down the road with a similar conundrum. Pay it forward!

The short version is that you want to think about your work from a potential donor's perspective when you are asking for money. Be respectful of people's time and mindful of the things they may be dealing with that aren't your request. Make your case clearly and succinctly so that folks can quickly see how your work fits in with their goals. Don't make folks have to circle back with a bunch of follow-up questions, because they just might not get around to it. When you write your email, make sure you word things in a way that makes it easy for the person you are writing to simply forward the email to their boss or to someone else in the company who may have access to additional budget. Make sure there's enough brief context included so that someone else who doesn't know you or the details of the project could understand what you're talking about. Stay safe and good luck with your fundraising!


We'll be talking about this post in our online chat later today. Join us in #conservancy on freenode.net or if you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page, and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." Conservancy member projects are also welcome to contact our Director of Community Operations, Deb Nicholson, for project-specific help with their fundraising plans.

Tags: resources

How We Worked on Eliminating Bias in Our Hiring Process: A Small Organization's Story

by Deb Nicholson on June 20, 2019

We recently hired our newest employee at Conservancy, a Technical Bookkeeper. Adding one more employee to our small staff is a significant change for our organization and we wanted to conduct both an efficient and as unbiased as possible hiring process. This can be a challenge for small organizations and there must be agreement around this goal as well as a willingness to stick to a slightly more formal process. Everyone here at Conservancy was committed to crafting a process designed to remove as much bias as possible from the equation, so here's what we did.

Posting the Job

This is the posting that we shared with our networks. We specifically never implied that we expected applicants of any particular age or gender. We weren't looking for any particular type of educational history, so there's no mention of schooling here. In fact, we proactively stated that we were open to applicants from all different backgrounds. Since it's an unusual role, we were willing to train applicants who had a non-complete mix of the skills the job would use and we said so. Finally, we strongly encouraged folks from under-represented groups to apply -- not as a short-hand CYA, "EOE!" but in a specific way that we hope conveyed our belief that diversity is critical for our organization and our mission. We were so happy to be overwhelmed by strong applications from over thirty people who are passionate about software freedom.

Screening Interviews

First off, we asked all of the applicants the same questions, which we fully formulated in advance. It's important that you don't compare apples to oranges and keep the interview about the skills and qualities needed for the role you are currently interviewing for. For this first stage, no one on staff screened anyone they already knew well. We made an effort to stay on topic so we wouldn't be tempted to bias for "chattiness" or "culture fit." We also did not look at candidates on social media, in order to keep appearance, race and age from informing our first impression.

After the screen, we let all candidates know one way or the other whether we would be advancing their candidacy. Timely communication and a reasonably quick-paced process was part of our overall goal. While we didn't move as fast as we would have liked over the whole process due to our small size and large workload, we made sure to notify our candidates as soon as we knew whether they were advancing or not. A slow process increases the chance that your best applicants will have taken another job by the time you get back to them and there's absolutely no need to string people along that you don't intend to hire. The screen reduced the field to 12 candidates we were really excited to move forward with.

Technical Exercise

Since this opening was for a technical role, we needed to know about people's technical skills. We wanted to make sure we understood where our candidates were technically, without making assumptions about the experiences on their resumes. To do this, we organized a do-at-home exercise with a time constraint. There was no whiteboard and no audience while the work was being done by each applicant on their own machine. We told applicants they could look things up, because that is what people do when they are on the job. (They know there's a tool or library that could help them, but they don't quite remember the name of it or what the exact argument is that will help in a particular situation.) We allowed applicants to choose a time slot over a two week period to take the test, so they could schedule the exercise around current work or care-giving responsibilities.

Bias is unconscious. While we try to be good, unbiased people, Conservancy staff has all been subtly and not so subtly exposed to racist, sexist and ageist ideas and defaults throughout our lives. The staff members who sent the technical exercise to the applicants gave each person a two letter code name. We wanted the other two staff members who rated each applicant's answers to be able to do so without any information about age, gender, race or national origin interfering with their assessments. This process allowed us to identify our four top candidates, based entirely on their anonymous work product.

Final Interviews

For the final candidates, we wanted to schedule a longer interview. Again, we asked all of the final applicants the same questions. We tried not to let the conversation drift into personal anecdotes or irrelevant topics. We also worked to make sure the applicants had an accurate picture of the day to day tasks they would be doing and asked questions about how they would handle that work and the obstacles that are likely to come up during a typical work week in that role. We contacted the candidates' references and also asked all of them the same set of questions. We interviewed some amazing people for the role. The final interviews set up a very tough decision for us and the process strengthened our shared desire to continue expanding Conservancy's staff.

At the end of the day, we were only hiring for one opening and so we chose the best person for our current role. In the future, we might have multiple or complimentary openings that we'd have to jostle, but not today. We're very happy with the result -- welcome aboard Rosanne!

Tags: conservancy, diversity, resources

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