WIT Summit Europe Q&A: digital transformation and open source

During the upcoming Women in IT Europe summit, taking place on the 14th September 2021 from 10:00am CET, Leslie Hawthorn, vertical community strategy manager, and Cali Dolfi, data scientist, both at event premium sponsor Red Hat, will be delivering a presentation on the topic of ‘Creating Growth with Data Analytics’. The presentation will cover the work that Red Hat is doing to help open source communities use data to empower themselves, and shape their engagement. To register for this virtual event, please click here.

In the lead-up to the summit, Leslie and Cali spoke to Information Age about how open source has prominently facilitated digital transformation, their respective journeys in tech, and the importance of promoting DEI in the workplace.

What have been the most valuable examples of digital transformation initiatives involving open source technologies that you’ve seen over the past 18 months or so?

Cali: One thing that my mind constantly goes towards is the data-powered research being done at hospitals right now, including studies being carried out around Covid-19. The past 18 months have seen the pandemic dominate our lives, so research is being done that’s powered by AI, data science and open source. For example, the Open Data Hub project is creating a blueprint on how to set up AI and data science initiatives, using open source technology.

Leslie: What I’ve found interesting from a digital transformation perspective over the past 18 months is the huge acceleration of 5G roll-outs as more and more people transitioned to working from home, and a lot of that is based on open source. Customers like Verizon, Turkcell and Telenor are rapidly rolling out their 5G networks, while building on open source technologies like our container application platform Red Hat OpenShift. People are shifting to new communication methods, and leveraging increased support for remote working.

If there’s a positive outcome from all of this, it’s that employers are rethinking how their staff can work, and realising that remote-first working is OK, which is a core aspect of digital transformation. The acceleration of new network infrastructure roll-outs makes it possible for those who do choose to remain remote-first to access sufficient support. This in turn could increase environmental sustainability as well.

What digital transformation trends do you see emerging over the next few years, from an open source perspective?

Cali: One trend I keep seeing is the use of data-driven approaches by open source communities, to better equip themselves from a community management standpoint. This can also be used to help businesses better advocate for themselves. Instead of making decisions based on feel, users can access data that can support their judgements.

On the flip-side, businesses can gain more insight into what’s going on in their communities, and make better business decisions based on this. I think this could change what open source communities are able to do for themselves, and how people can get involved in them.

Leslie: What Cali just mentioned is going to be a big part of what we’ll be discussing at the Women in IT Summit. To a large extent, open source communities, over time, have relied not only on global metrics, but also more art than science in regards to their community health. This has involved getting together in person, talking at conferences, and performing in-depth sprints, looking into what works and what doesn’t, by feel. But in this current, socially distanced world, the advent of data-driven decision making for open source communities is now at the forefront, because there are opportunities for in-person pulse checks, which we’ve been relying on as community engagement professionals.

Could you please talk me through your respective journeys into the tech industry, and the factors that encouraged you to enter the sector?

Cali: While I received very minimal exposure to anything tech-related in high school, I had this fabulous mentor who encouraged me to sign-up for a computer science scholarship, even though I had absolutely no experience in the field at the time. I ended up getting that scholarship, and from there I studied computer science while in college. Things were very rocky for me initially; I was in the college sports team at the time, so was juggling a lot of responsibilities, and I didn’t really feel accepted by my major, nor did I feel like I deserved to be in that space.

That all changed when I started seeing other women succeeding in the tech sector, and it was then that I realised that I could be successful as well. Still, I had been aiming to go to law school and advocate for better, more secure data practices on the part of corporations. But when I received an internship with Red Hat, I realised I could be on the other side of data advocacy, working with people from the data science perspective instead. That internship turned into a full position, which led me to where I am today.

Leslie: I was exposed to computers at a very young age, with my mother being a Unix programmer, but she actually discouraged me from doing anything in technology, due to the belief that it wasn’t a particularly comfortable environment for female programmers in the early 1980s. At university, I studied Medieval English Literature, and was confident I would be sat in a library with books that no one else would read for the rest of my days.

From there, I ended up by chance landing a technical writer role at a semiconductor firm. One day, I received a call from that firm’s recruiter (again, by complete chance), asking if I knew anyone who wanted to work for Google, because they were hiring for their human resources department, so I agreed to apply, thinking “why not?”.

After a year or so at Google, I was asked by Google’s head of open source to help them run its Summer of Code programme, which would be my start working professionally in open source. I had zero experience in open source technology or community engagement, but I really took to it. I’ve been involved in various open source community projects, and I’m currently really excited about the work I’m doing at Red Hat, particularly the intersection between community engagement, collaboration and competition. I still read Medieval English Literature for fun, though!

What would you say is key to driving diversity, equity and inclusion within the workplace going forward?

Cali: For me, a big portion of this revolves around pushing towards more remote and flexible work options. This is particularly important for people’s mental health, as well as for considering disabilities and taking down boundaries for them.

Mentorship is also a vital part of this; as a woman, you need to see people who you feel represent you in this space, so that you know it’s possible to be successful. It becomes a whole different ball game when you feel that ceiling hasn’t yet been broken, and that you need to break that ceiling to open opportunities up for yourself. This also means having those relationships and networking opportunities, so you know how to go through those doors.

Leslie: I’ve been fortunate in that my life hasn’t changed too drastically because of the pandemic, as I’ve been working remotely for the past eight years. It’s been invaluable for me to have what is seen as “the new normal” for most people now. I have elder care and childcare responsibilities, both of which fall disproportionately on women. Also, when you look at vectors of economic privilege, underrepresented groups tend not to have access to the kinds of resources that allow for outsourced elder care or childcare. But the option of remote-first working really lowers that burden and allows these underrepresented people to properly engage with their work in a sustainable environment.

The whole concept of creating psychological safety in the workplace, and ensuring that people know it’s OK to be a person in your professional life, is key. If we don’t create these environments for employees, there is absolutely no possibility of true DEI in the workplace, because without psychological safety, teams fail.

Why are events like the Women in IT series so important in promoting DEI in the workplace?

Cali: Seeing yourself in a space that you’re moving into changes everything. It gives you an opportunity to network, which a lot of your white, cis-het male colleagues are likely to have constantly. Because of events like this, we can start creating networks and learn from each other. I’ve had times where I’ve gained the benefits of help from other people from underrepresented groups, without even attending events that they went to.

Leslie: The building of networks amongst women, and creation of mutual support opportunities, is vital. We’re all fighting a hard battle, and this sometimes entails a feeling that we don’t belong where we are, and other mental health challenges. But knowing that there are like-minded people out there to turn to, and celebrate your joys with, is very valuable. It’s an opportunity to strengthen our networks, and also to look out for career progression opportunities for each other.

Avatar photo

Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.