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How Building in the Open Can Change Our Industry

I have to admit, I’m a developer who hasn’t built a website. When I first read Chris’s question, I sat in silence for at least a minute. Which technical topic did I want to discuss? A new library, programming language or best practice? Nothing, in particular, came to mind. Is that because I’m a new developer?

I’ve been coding for about one year now and got my first job a month ago. Even though I’ve been coding for that time, I wouldn’t say I’ve built a website. I’ve contributed to a couple of open-source projects whose output was websites, but I’ve spent a lot of time practicing technical tests in order to get into the industry and now I’m writing Kotlin for the Guardian Newspaper’s Android application.

After a couple minutes thinking about this question, I realized I wanted to write about who gets to build websites and how and where we choose to build them in order to welcome new people. I’ve spent this year giving conference talks on this topic because I have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to become a developer with little time and money. It’s not easy being on the “outside” trying to get into our industry. How can we make it easier for new people to join us here? How can we welcome under-represented groups to the table? In 2020 you can make a huge difference to our industry by welcoming new developers, especially those from under-represented groups.

It’s been five years since the most well-known tech companies first released diversity reports, revealing that workforces were overwhelmingly white or Asian men. Despite their business successes, though, none of these big tech companies have made much progress in diversifying their workforces.

In 2014, Apple, one of the largest tech companies by revenue, had 20% women in its technical staff. This increased to only 23% in 2018 (Apple). At Google, the share of US technical employees who are black was 2.0% in 2014 and only rose to 2.8% in 2018 (Google). At Facebook in the US, there were 3% Hispanic technical staff in 2014. Last year there were 3.1% (Facebook).

Continuing our homogenous engineering community is a risk. We are less likely to build products best for our diverse user groups. For example, there have been numerous reports of facial recognition systems misidentifying black people. A US Government study found a top-performing system misidentified black people 5-10x more than white people. In addition, “according to a 2011 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (Nist), facial recognition software is actually more accurate on Asian faces when it’s created by firms in Asian countries, suggesting that who makes the software strongly affects how it works” (Guardian 2017).

Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do in 2020 to contribute to a more diverse engineering community. Building websites in the open, in ways that welcome new people, can have a hugely positive impact on our industry and on the websites that we as an engineering industry produce.

First, how can building open source websites help us welcome new people? You can help with this by being a great open-source citizen and upholding best practices by giving positive and constructive code reviews, keeping documentation up to date and useful, offering help to new contributors and remote pairing with them if at all possible. Some amazing developers like Suz Hinton (@noopkat) live stream their open source contributions, which is phenomenal.

GitHub’s research has shown that documentation is highly valued, but frequently overlooked. As a new contributor, I really value clear and useful documentation, especially on installation, raising a PR and where to get help if I get stuck. Mozilla found that the most significant barrier to engaging in on-ramping others is unclear communications and unfriendly community. Using positive language in your documentation can really encourage first-time contributors to your project. For example, by expressly indicating that you welcome new contributors with instructions on how they can get involved.

We want to create an engineering community highly attractive to under-represented groups. One of the ways that we can do this is by supporting new developers to get a foothold into the profession. There are so many ways we can do this!

The first thing we can do with new developers is to help them by pairing and giving code reviews. Open source projects are perfect for this! By giving constructive code reviews you can help newbies level up their coding skills. You can also set up a Slack channel for your repo where you can answer technical questions. I have met superstar open source heroes who spent time pairing with me, which, if available to you, is an amazing way to help new people.

The greatest challenge I faced when teaching myself to code was finding a job. You can give new developers an insight into your company or your day to day working life by writing an article on Medium, posting a Twitter thread, or making a YouTube video. Some developers offer their own office hours which they do on a live stream or some offer a few one-off mentoring calls with new developers.

Who we welcome into the room to build websites with us says something about who we are and our values. In 2020, let’s welcome new people, especially those from under-represented groups to join us. We’ve discussed how amazing open-source projects are for this and how we can practically contribute to supporting new people. Let’s challenge ourselves to support at least one person from an under-represented group trying to get into the engineering industry in 2020. Together we can change who has the privilege to build the web.

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