Let's Talk Community with Beryl Kanali

Author: Reshama Shaikh

We speak with Beryl Kanali about her experience in communities since she first became involved in 2021 after participating in scikit-learn sprint, October 2021 organized by Data Umbrella.

About Beryl Kanali

Beryl Kanali is a Data Scientist, Community Manager and Open Source Enthusiast. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Computer Science and is currently in her final year of a master’s degree in Statistics. She is a part of Data Umbrella, PyMC, Outreachy and Bioconductor communities.


Reshama 00:00

Okay, great. Okay. You know, can you introduce yourself to, you know, tell us a bit about yourself what you currently do in the data space?

Beryl 00:09

My name is Beryl Kanali, I am a data scientist and community manager. I’m currently a master’s student pursuing a master’s in statistics. And apart from that, I volunteer as a Data Umbrella Community Manager, part time.

Reshama 00:28

What communities are you a member and a contributor of?

Beryl 00:32

I’m currently, I am a member and contributor of one the umbrella community, the Outreachy community, the Bioconductor community and the PyMC community.

Reshama 00:47

And how did you first become involved in these communities?

Beryl 00:52

So typically, my community involvement started in 2021, where I joined the Data Umbrella scikit-learn sprint, and then from there is when I learnt about communities, and then I joined that Data Umbrella community, where I later came on as a community manager. For the Bioconductor community and Outreachy community, I applied for the Outreachy internship, which is an internship that happens twice a year. So I was in the 2022 December cohort, where I was working under the Bioconductor project for documenting Sweave to RMD documents to RMarkdown documents. And for the PyMC community, I also got involved through the Data Umbrella community, I am a contributor, and I was a manager there. So that is how I got involved with the PyMC community.

Reshama 01:48

Great. What does community mean to you?

Beryl 01:54

For me, I would say community means being in the same space as people who have the same interests and goals as you. And it’s a place where you can interact and exchange knowledge with people. And you can also be of service to other community members by teaching and mentoring others as well.

Reshama 02:18

What do you think makes community so important?

Beryl 02:23

From my personal experience, I think what makes community so important is the ability to work together and learn from others. So individually, especially in the tech space, there’s a little much of information out there. So it can be confusing on what to take in and what not to take in so coming in a community, you have people who are around you that have gone through the same journey, and you can learn from them. It’s also a way of getting impact to other people. If you volunteer for our community, or as a part of a community, you can be involved in activities that might be of impact in terms of growing other people and also growing, very encouraging coming up projects that might be of interest to other people who have the same interest as us. That is why I think community is so important.

Reshama 03:19

And why do you contribute to these communities that you are a part of?

Beryl 03:23

So my main motivation towards contributing to communities is it’s our way of learning, I think the best way of learning is by doing so being part of these communities and me contributing to these communities, in different capacities, it’s enabled me to learn when, as a data professional and two, as a community manager as well. And generally just as a person, there are also other non technical skills that you get to learn from the community. So that’s the main contribution the main reason I contribute to community, it’s also a way of giving back to the community, I have been a beneficiary of communities where I’ve learned a lot through communities. So as my way of giving back to this community, is being able to continue to the projects they have or the initiatives. And also it’s part of me doing something that is greater not only for myself, but for out there who might need it.

Reshama 04:19

That’s a great answer. What makes you keep coming back and contributing to the communities?

Beryl 04:29

First thing I would say is the communities that I’m in a very welcoming in that you really feel welcomed and a part of the people there. So that is the main reasons why I keep coming back because I know like the people in those communities are free to like answer my questions, help me find my way in case I need some clarification on things and also helped me grow. And the other thing is, the skills that I learned most of my skills have learned through community. So it helps me keep in touch with what’s going on, what skills I need to learn and keep coming back and contribution to this community as a way to learn and grow my skills and also use the skills that I have.

Reshama 05:14

So you’re involved in a, you know, a few different communities but let’s go to say the Data Umbrella community, how have you found the Data Umbrella community work to be beneficial to you?

Beryl 05:27

So one is a sense of belonging. So as Data Umbrella is a community of underrepresented people in data science, machine learning and AI, I have had that sense of belonging where I have met people who were even never part of community such as the Data Umbrella before. So the first benefit from that Data Umbrella is just having that sense of belonging that there is a community I can learn from and can contribute to that less of any other factor that might be surrounding me. They are other thing about Data Umbrella is I have learned a lot in 2021 November till now it’s not that much of time, but I have learnt a lot in terms of technical skills and non technical skills. So through the events that Data Umbrella holds I have gotten to learn some technical stuff that I didn’t know or only learned in a classroom setting or on my own. I’ve also learned some non technical skills, which are very important in terms of interacting with people and growing my career, and also opportunities. Data Umbrella has really opened a lot of opportunities for me, I have learned on what I can do as a person, not only as a data scientist, but my community management journey started at Data Umbrella, which has now grown where I have been able to work as a community manager, and I look forward to working as a community manager and just having Data Umbrella as part of my resume, it has really opened a lot of opportunities and networks with other people.

Reshama 06:57

And I guess some of those opportunities are your involvements and other communities such as Outreachy. And with Bioconductor, as well as PyMC, right?

Beryl 07:10

Yeah, sure.

Reshama 07:11

And you’re also actually you’re also involved in a mentoring community, right?

Beryl 07:17

Yeah, yeah, I am part of KamiLimu, which is a nonprofit mentoring program where we mentor upcoming university students who want to have careers in tech. So the main goal of KamiLimu is to complement the classroom skills that these students have with the outside skills that might not be taught in a classroom setting. So for example, CV writing, presentation skills, research skills, how to pitch in an innovation competition, how to present your ideas, public speaking, and whatnot. So we just tried to complement what the students don’t learn in a formal classroom setting, with skills that I needed outside there for them to thrive in the different tech careers.

Reshama 08:10

Can you name an example? About an instance when you’ve seen a community event work really, really well?

Beryl 08:16

So I’ll give an example of Outreachy. So Outreachy, being a community, especially in the open source space, I have seen people joining the community as just community members, and then being able to get internships in different projects, and those internships have turned to those interns getting full time jobs. I have also seen people meeting others from different countries under Outreachy communities, because it caters to people from different continents. So I’ve also seen people networking, and people starting initiatives, after being part of the Outreachy community. I have also seen people starting startups. So for example, in the Kamilimu community that are a part of and also a mentor, I have seen people start by just learning how to innovate, which went and now we have like, full startups. Like for example, here in Kenya, we have different startups that have been born and nurtured through KamiLimu.

Reshama 09:29

And, you know, can you name an instance when you think, you know, where you’ve seen community not work well?

Beryl 09:37

Yeah, I’ve been thought of other communities apart from the ones that I’ve mentioned before. And sadly, I didn’t get a reason to go back to those communities because I felt that the communities did not work. So one of the reasons was, well, we had the leadership of the community treat the community as a personal entity. So when people in a community run a community, even if it’s volunteer, but they want it for commercial gain, and they do not take care of the community members needs and what the community members might benefit from. Then that is one step to failing as a community. So for me I have been part of communities where I joined the communities, but it didn’t work. And the main reason was like, the leadership of the community, it didn’t really take into consideration what the real meaning of our community is, but instead took it as a private company and wanted to take ownership, which really been a lot of people drop out of those communities, or did not really get what they wanted from that those communities.

Reshama 10:47

So you know, you’ve been a Community Contributor for a while, at least 2021? Or before that, would you say?

Beryl 10:56

Yeah, somehow, let’s just say 2021 is when I was active, very active in contributing, especially, not just being part of the communities.

Reshama 11:05

So what are you? What are you like, what are some of the challenges of being a community contributor? You know, what, like, what difficult situations have you faced?

Beryl 11:17

So one is like language barrier. And let’s just talk about demographics in general. So when you’re part of communities, especially after the inception of COVID, most communities had to go the online route. So when you have a community that has people from different demographics, there’s always an issue of one language barrier and two time. Time is a really big factor, when you have people are having a time difference of 10 + hours, and maybe you want to have an event for the community. So sometimes, it poses difficulty in just making sure that we can include as much people as possible in those activities. And number two is language barriers. Most communities especially that I’m part of operate in English but I have been part of other communities where we had a lot of people, that their primary language was not English. And given that communities, mostly are run by volunteers. So just being able to have resources that accommodate people who do not understand or speak English has been difficult.

Another difficulty is our community is made up of people and people really have different personalities. And I’ve worked in communities where you had to really learn how to accommodate people’s personalities, sometimes it has worked, but sometimes it has not, where some people have felt like, they’re not appreciated, or they’re not heard. So dealing with people’s personalities, sometimes might pose as a challenge, being a member of a community and also being a volunteer of a community. And the other thing is, community requires a lot of self motivation. If you’re a contributor to the community, it requires a lot of self motivation, because you’re not being paid to contribute to your community most of the time, or you’re not being compensated. So it’s something that comes from the heart. And the difficulty of first is that some people might think that community contributors have all the time, and that they’re doing this, because they are paid or something like that. So it has been a difficult situation in terms where you have to explain to some community members, to be patient to volunteers or other committee members in terms of time to attempt to get their needs or answer their questions. But all in all, given that committees are like a group of people with the same interest, sometimes these are difficulties that will come and go and also come in future. So it’s just a way of learning as a community member and as a community contributor, how can I navigate these difficulties when they come. And also how can we like make committee members read from the same page in terms of how they can accommodate each other and provide a welcoming environment for everyone.

Reshama 14:26

You know, one of the things that I’ve noticed from collaborating with you, as well as is the is the internet access issue as well. And that different tools work in you know, better in different regions, for example, you know, we used to use, you know, say discord, for online events or zoom. But, you know, in certain regions, for instance, Google Meet works better because it’s much lighter in terms of, you know, technical resources to work and so, that’s important as well.

Beryl 14:59

Yeah, that’s also, important, especially speaking from my experience of coming from Africa, you might find some community members really want to be part of communities. But as a community you can’t provide data bundles, which, especially in my continent, it’s very expensive. And sometimes the best internet bandwidth we have, cannot support some of the tools that are out here. So communities are going to really have to like adapt. Like in Data Umbrella we have to like use tools that are like can be used by as many people as possible, especially the lightweight tools like Google Meet. Sometimes Zoom also is a good tool, but it requires a higher bandwidth as compared to Google Meet, the same to discord. So yeah, those are some of the difficulties. And with time, it keeps getting better as other countries develop. But this is also something that really troubles a lot of other communities, not just Data Umbrella.

Reshama 16:02

How do you think, you know, we’ve had this discussion a few times, how do you think we can sort of, you know, it hasn’t been easy to sort of attract and retain volunteers, right? Do you have any ideas on how you how to do that?

Beryl 16:21

So for me, I would say one is definitely given that communities are run by volunteers. And this is, as I said, free work that mostly requires a lot of self motivation. I think, one communities have to understand that it’s a gradual process. One, you have to work with what you have, right now and first. And the other thing is to identify what will make a volunteer like what type of volunteers we have, because like in Data Umbrella, we had to like sit down and think of how can people contribute as volunteers, different ways to contribute given that, as volunteers, we can’t all contribute in the same aspect. So one it would be to identify the different ways a volunteer can contribute to your community. And then when you call out for volunteers, and they come, it’s good to explain to them the different ways they can contribute to the communities, what is needed from them. Because I have seen cases where people want to volunteer, yes, they want to volunteer but they do not know what is required of them, and what time they might need, their availability and how much self motivation they might need. So many of them, it’s like they don’t really have a good understanding of what they’re signing up for. So making sure that those people who want to contribute to your community understand what they’re getting themselves into, would be a good way. Another thing is, would be, sometimes give it time, most people who become community volunteers, are people who have been part of the community for long [time], not in all cases. But I think as community members sometimes change, like for us in Data Umbrella, we might have like consistent community members and contributors. And some of them are not like consistent. So giving it time and making sure that at the end of the day, it will be like something someone is willing to do. And sometimes it’s just asking sometimes you’d never know if someone wants to become a contributor or a volunteer, if you do not ask, so asking, like advertising there, hey would like volunteers, but at the same time being open minded that this volunteer might come and it will be a long term thing, it might be just a short term thing, a short term thing, and be okay with that.

Reshama 18:51

Right, thanks. Is there anything else that you want to share that you know, you want you want to share with people in the community?

Beryl 18:59

Yeah, I think my advice in short will just be like it we should all being part of communities, we should all try and create healthy communities, which is really important, like a community where your community members feel welcome included. Always taking feedback from community members, sometimes there’s no feedback, but just asking them, Hey, can you give us feedback, sometimes it helps to know what your community members are thinking. So all in all, communities are evolving. The world is becoming smaller. So we have a lot of people from different backgrounds, different cultures. So just making sure that we are fostering healthy communities, and making sure that our community members are feeling like they are welcome and included in the community will go a long way as we strive to build better communities around the world.

Reshama 19:51

Great, thank you.

Beryl 19:53