Author: Reshama Shaikh
We speak with Mariatta Wijaya about her experience in communities.
About Mariatta Wijaya
Mariatta is a Python core developer where she focuses on improving the workflow and documentation. She is active in the Python community as an advisor for the Global PyLadies, co-founder of PyCascades, and is charing PyCon US conference for the years 2023 and 2024.
For her contributions to the Python and community, she received the PSF Community Service Award in 2018 and Google Open Source Peer Bonus Award in 2017 and 2020.
- Mastodon profile: https://fosstodon.org/@mariatta
- PyLadies: https://pyladies.com
- PyCascades: https://pycascades.com
- PyCon US: https://us.pycon.org
- Python Software Foundation: https://python.org
- IMDb: https://imdb.com/name/nm7641957/
So do you want to introduce yourself?
Hi. Yes. My name is Mariatta. I’m an open source contributor, open source maintainer. I’m a public speaker, and I run communities. Like, I organize the Vancouver PyLadies meetups and I’ve run conferences like the PyCascades. And I am currently chairing PyCon US 2023 and 2024.
Wow. And we met via PyLadies, right?
Yes, PyLadies. I mentioned PyLadies.
Okay, so yeah. And tell us a little bit about what kind of work you do and what your background is in terms of work and education.
Yeah, so I studied computer science a long time ago, so I am, like, developer by training. In the past 15 years, I’ve worked in companies like startups and corporations. I’ve worked at Zapier, I’ve worked at Google most recently, and in the past, I also work at Sony Pictures Imageworks. So if you watch some movies like the Angry Birds movie, or I think one of the Spiderman movie, I don’t remember if you watch all the way till the end where the credits roll all the way till the end, and you’ll probably find my name in those movies.
Ohh, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I don’t remember which Spiderman, but the first Angry Birds movie for sure. I’ve been working for a long time in the tech industry in the past few years. Actually, it’s been ten years, more than ten years since I started doing Python development, doing web based development. And then I started contributing to Python and open source community, starting to be involved with the PyLadies as well. And for those who don’t know, python is, like, one of the most popular programming languages out there. So it’s an open source project. And about PyLadies itself, PyLadies is a global community that’s focused on providing mentorship. We aim to help more women into becoming active participants and leaders in the Python community so that we are not just users of Python, but we are taking active participation. That’s the goal and mission of the PyLadies community.
Right, and so you shared the communities that you’re a member and a contributor of…. How did you first get involved in the Python community?
So, for me, for the longest time, I just used Python. Like, I developed Python code. I didn’t know anything about the community. There was no sense of community where I was using Python. Like, the people who I know who use Python are my coworkers in my company. But around 2015, I have heard about the PyLadies community, and I actually received financial aid from PyLadies that allowed me to attend PyCon conference. For the first time, I get to attend PyCon through the PyLadies financial aid in Montreal, and it’s from that conference, PyCon, that I really get to learn more about.
I get to see other people, lots of people who use Python, more community members, and I get to learn about issues within the community, the Python community. And I just became interested in wanting to participate and see what I can do. It was at that conference PyCon US when I heard Guido Van Rosen’s keynote speech. And he talked about at that time, there was no women at all as the maintainer, as the core developers of Python.
So at that time, all the core developers of Python, like 20 years long, everybody has been men. So that’s an issue that I feel like related. That’s an issue that we see in the tech industries. But at that time, I didn’t actually feel even like even though I use Python, I didn’t feel like I’m part of the community. I heard there’s this problem, I didn’t do anything, right? I didn’t feel like it’s something I should participate in or contribute to. Basically, I excluded myself for reasons I don’t know, but I continued participating. I really get to learn more about Python and the community. So the year after that, I returned again to the conference. Again, I received financial aid from PyLadies that allowed me to go. And again at that one year later, Guido came back to give a keynote, and still he said there was still no women in the core developers.
So I felt, well, okay, maybe this time I will participate and see what I can do here. I became determined. I braced myself. Like, I wrote an email to friend Guido Van Rossum, who was total stranger to me at the time, and I actually felt lucky that he replied and just helped me really get into the core Python community. And it just keeps going on from there. Like, I just started contributing to Python more into the community, and it keeps going until now.
That’s amazing. That’s wonderful. And you are the first woman core developer for the Python language, right?
Yeah, actually, I think about less than a year since I first emailed Guido, they decided they will have me as one of the core developers. And I was the first. And I think we have a few women now. Carol Willing is also a co-developer. We have Emily Morehouse, Lisa Roach, Irit Katriel, Cheryl Sabella. Joanna. We have Joanna Nanjekye. Probably mispronounce her name. I think that’s all like, we have few women compared to I think we have work to do there.
Nice. It’s definitely room for improvement, but it’s also very impressive. So it’s good to see the progress that’s been made. What does community mean to you?
For me, I didn’t know this. As I mentioned, for the longest time, I did not have a community. But to me, the community is where I have a sense of belonging. I feel like I am a part of this, that I feel accepted without needing to prove myself. And for me, it’s important being an immigrant by default. When I first came to Canada, I felt by default, I’m an outsider, that there are things I know as an outsider, there are certain rights that I don’t certain rights or privileges that I don’t have. Whereas in a community I feel like I am one of them. I feel it’s the group where we all have a sense of belonging and that we also share the same passion, the same goal. We have a vision of what this community is about, and we are all wanting to accomplish that goal.
Do you think that your thoughts about community, how has it changed since the pandemic, if anything?
If anything?…Since the pandemic, it made me realize or it made me feel happy or glad that I have found this community, the Python community before the pandemic, that having connection, having connected with the Python community in person at conferences or online, through social channels helped me get through it because just last week I was talking to a friend. I think she felt burned out from the pandemic because she hasn’t been going to work, she hasn’t met a lot of new people. She felt stuck. Whereas for me, I feel like, well, thanks to the community, I continue to do the things I enjoy. I was still able to meet new friends online, I still attend Python conferences, even virtually, and it helps me with my own personal mental health. So that’s what I felt about community. Like, I’m glad I found you.
I’m glad we met through the community as well.
Yeah. And why do you contribute to the community?
So I really have gained a lot. Like the community really has given me a lot of new opportunities, new learning opportunities, the opportunities to show my skills, my leadership skills. Sometimes at work you were given certain tasks and you can’t always do the things you enjoy, or maybe the opportunities just weren’t open to you. Whereas I feel within the community, I get to do that. They allow me to do things. Participating in the community, like giving talks, lets me run PyCon US. It’s such a privilege. And I really learned a lot. I really learned more about Python itself, like technical skills. I think when I started contributing to open source, I didn’t know a lot about how to package Python library. Like, I’ve never published anything to PyPi, for example, by getting involved in the Python community, now I know how to publish stuff to PyPI. Just an example. I know more about Git, for example. I didn’t have to know a lot about those at my work at the time. So I really learn a lot. So I feel like the only way for me to give back, to say thanks for the committee, for giving me all of that, is just continue contributing, like paid forward, letting by sharing my experiences, sharing what I’ve learned to other people, hoping that other people will see that they can gain from the community too. I would just want to pay it forward and hoping more people can benefit from the community just like I was.
What makes you want to keep coming back and contributing to the community?
As mentioned, I really learned a lot from the community and I enjoyed the experience. I get to travel and speak at conferences from all over the world. The Committee has helped me grow, gained new skills and at work a lot of times the things I do are private and copyrighted. Not the things I can talk publicly about, but the things I see in the Python communities. Those are things I can talk more openly about. And it is the community that gives me materials and ideas and inspirations for me to give new talks, new tutorials. So the more I participate, the more I contribute, the more I learn, the more opportunities for me to give talks and give tutorials. And these are actually things I like doing. I really enjoy speaking. That’s something I want to do more. The other reason that I continue to contribute in the Python community is that the same issue that brought me in, in the first place. Like I saw there is problem with diversity and inclusion in the Python community. I think that issue still exists now. Like as I mentioned, we have gotten better. We have more women in the core team now, but I think we’re still a minority. I feel like there are still barriers that we face. I don’t actually know what to do, but I’m hoping by staying here, I can still do something to help. I really think our work to improve diversity in the Python communities is still not done.
Thanks for that. Can you give an example when an interaction with a community or an event has gone like really, really well, like an experience that you want to share?
For me, one experience that I feel really proud about is the PyCascades community. PyCascades is a Python conference that we started myself and a few others from the people in the Pacific Northwest area. So the area of BC (British Columbia), Canada, Washington and Oregon, US. What I feel makes it successful is when we founded this community, when we said we want to have the PyCascades community, the organizers, the leaders, we have a clear vision, like we among ourselves, like what we want this conference to look like. Not only that, we want to grow the Python community in this area.
In the Pacific Northwest, we really focus a lot on being inclusive and that we care. We’re going to care a lot about the diversity of the community, the attendees and the speakers. It’s something we were very intentional about. It wasn’t just hey, let’s put another regional Python conference, but we have a vision and specific characteristics of what we want this community to be. And the whole organizing team, the leaders, we share the same common goal.
So everything, every decisions we made, it was all about fulfilling this vision, this goal. And we know that. I could see from my co organizers, everyone was really committed to our goal. So I feel that when there is this shared goal, shared purpose and commitment from all the members. I feel the community has the community was successful. It is successful. And just as important is the leaders themselves who are able to execute those vision and coordinate the efforts with the different community members. I think this is also important.
Are you still involved in organizing it? And if yes or no, how do you keep the conference and the community going whether you’re still involved or not?
So with PyCascades, I am not very involved in it anymore. After the first three years, I felt like I needed to step down from it. I needed to step down for reasons, but I felt that, you know, after three years of being involved in PyCascades, I really have learned a lot. It opened up lots of opportunities for me, but I realized that I have other priorities. So I stepped down and I felt guilty at first, but in the end I figured that maybe by stepping down, by leaving this space open, somebody else could fill in and somebody else would be able to learn, like, have the same experience I have and grow themselves. And I feel that vision, that goals that we have is also shared by the new organizers. And I think that’s one of the reason I felt okay with stepping down. Like, I know the new generation of leaders will also continue what we want to accomplish with the community. So I think that’s what helped, having that goal written down somewhere and that it is communicated like what PyCascades is about.
So what do you think about…
I’m sorry, I think I didn’t answer your question.
That’s okay. I was going to ask you, what do you think with the pandemic? There’s a number of regional conferences that have gone dormant. And what do you think it is about Podcast Kids? Because I think they’ve continued to have their annual conference. Right? What do you think about it, let that happen?
I think it’s really there are community members who also care about it and willing to spend their time and energy because they care so much about this community. They want to see it continuing and that’s how we are able to continue.
So do you still speak at PyCascades even if you’re not involved in organizing it?
I have not spoken at PyCascades yet, but hopefully next year I will try to submit something. Yes, I did attend this year. It was in Vancouver. I even get to attend with my whole family. I brought like, my husband, my two children came to PyCascades. It was really fun.
Very nice. Very nice. So I guess on the other side of it, through the many years that you’ve been involved in community work, there’s also challenges that we experience as well. And so can you sort of share an example or an experience when things have not gone well? And how you’ve sort of addressed it, dealt with it?
I think the opposite of success is really that’s where it doesn’t work. When there is no governance or no nuclear leadership. Sometimes when you say everybody is equal, everybody does the same thing. It ended up being nobody is doing it, nobody is making decisions. I think having a governance model, having a leader like leadership, either one person or a group of people that will be important. So when there is no government, no governance, no leaders, that’s when nothing gets done in the community. Another example is that when decisions that were made by maybe people who thinks or who wants to make decisions, their decision weren’t respected by other members. I’ve seen examples where I think even an example where after Guido Van Rossum accepted PEP 572, somehow he received lots of negative reaction from the Python community members about acceptance of that PEP 572 is the assignment expressions which we all know now as the Walrus operator that led him into retiring as the BDFL. I think that’s one example where communities didn’t seem to respect a decision made by the leader. So it happened in the Python community. It caused people to leave, to burn out. And I’ve seen also in this kind of situation where there is disagreement or conflict, sometimes it’s the bad actor. Like the person who caused conflict are the people who would still stick around. And the people who were hurt, they ended up leaving. Like people who maybe could have more positive contribution to the community. They ended up leaving because we let that actress to stick around. So I think those are some examples where I’ve seen things are going well in the community.
I think some other sort of challenges that I faced in community is retaining community members. In terms of there is the issue of burnout. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done than there are people available for it. And also in terms of volunteers, whatever, having people there’s a lot of people that initially start working with the community on an event or something, and then a lot of them fall through and there’s a smaller group that’s left. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Yeah, I can relate to that. And I feel sometimes there are people who want to sign up, say, I want to help out. But I think a lot of work that community organizers do, some of them are in the background, are not visible, that we – I don’t know. I feel some of those work are important and maybe less appealing to people.
I think sometimes people don’t know when they get involved that there’s a lot of administrative work, it’s not technical work and maybe people get involved in the community expect a different kind of experience than it is.
Yeah, and I think… I feel like… I think that’s probably something we can do better by documenting the process of what’s involved. But even so, I don’t know, I feel like, for example, in the open source community, I feel like people want to contribute to certain things. Like they want to write code, they want to make pull requests, whereas there are other things, like you said, there are administrative work, there are triaging or other issues like documentation. Those don’t receive the same enthusiasm as certain tasks.
Do you think that’s partly also a matter of maybe, like it’s also not viewed by some people in the team as a more valuable contribution than, say, administrative work versus tech quote contributions versus non code?
I’ve definitely heard those. I don’t know for me, and I think maybe that’s just how it is. But for me, I really respect people who do everything else in the background and I really know a lot of people because I’m involved in the community. There are a lot more work in managing community management, community coordination that there is no…I don’t know. You don’t see they do it until the only proof that they do things is that there is this wonderful event where everybody is happy. You don’t see it until after you go to the conference, to the event.
All of those takes months.
There’s a lot of invisible work that makes open source projects happen, events happen, resources being created. It’s not so apparent. But I think… (Crosstalk) It’s good for letting people know that there is.
Yeah, I feel maybe that’s as a community, something we how do we highlight those kind of work more? Right? Yeah. I don’t know. That’s something to do.
So do you have any advice or anything you want to share with people who say, let’s say people who have not are sort of looking at communities and maybe they attend an event here and there, like, say, a meet up? What would you say to someone who has not sort of been involved in community? In terms of as a contributor? Definitely as a participant.
I mean, I think as a participant, it’s important too, like someone who attends because it takes a while for people to get the confidence to attend an event. That’s a big step. Sort of getting especially now post pandemic, getting people out the door to meet people and then also being someone who sort of contributes to the community. What advice would you have for them?
Yeah, for the participants, this is from my own experience, as I too as I mentioned, my first ever PyCon, I did not make a lot of new friends. I attended a lot of speakers. I didn’t even feel like I’m part of the community. I didn’t dare coming to the speakers just to say thank you for the great talk. And now I feel like I wish I have done that, you know. But even if you are new, even if you are a user of Python, you are part of the community. Even as the user, you can participate. And really, it doesn’t take a lot for you to start participating. You don’t have to be a famous person in order to start participating. Even if you are just starting, you have something to contribute. Really reach out to the maybe local community organizers, local meetups and ask how you can help. But don’t just ask how you can help. Also explain to them or tell them like, hey, I’m good at certain things. These are my time availability, I can do X, Y and Z. Just let me help you. And that would be more helpful to the community organizers because just show your commitment to it. Show what you can do. Because as community organizers, sometimes, like you mentioned, we get lots of people wanting to help. We don’t know what they want to help with. They might have different interests, right? By communicating that ahead, I think that would make it easier for them. And also, how do I say this? Be persistent in offering your help. Maybe you think that I’m offering it once they will reach out to me. Sometimes they just really got busy, I think. Don’t hesitate to just reach out again and saying, I’m still interested to help. I can do certain things so that will make them trust you more, knowing that you are committed to it.
Do you have any other suggestions or recommendations that you want to share?
Some suggestions for like, once you’re part or once you become more active in your community members, and especially if you are running or managing community, I really suggest that I think it should be a requirement that you write things down, have documentation, like, of what your community is about, like the process, especially having what is your community’s goal and vision and mission. Sometimes if you’ve been doing it forever, you just end up just going through the motion and you forgot the real goal of your community. I think sometimes you need to remind yourself and the community of what this is all about. Because sometimes the community grow, right? Maybe there are new members with different ideas joined, and maybe you need to refocus or reiterate what your community is about. The other thing that I think is important is as community leaders, you have to enable your members, train them into becoming leaders because I feel like I think it’s true in many open source projects, even maybe it was started by one or two people and they ended up doing or owning everything. Like everything has to go through them. Not only like merging pull requests, but also replying to questions, replying to emails, deploying to somewhere. I feel like those are tasks that eventually you should be able to delegate or have more people helping you. Maybe in the beginning it’s okay that you do it yourself with one other person, but your committee will grow. Such effort will not scale. I think at some point after you have a community, one of your goal is not just having more members, but how are you growing your members?
How do you elevate them from users, members into leaders within your community? I feel like you need to start thinking about mentoring people, give them more responsibilities as you see them become active, give them more responsibilities and turn them into leaders. And not just to give them more tasks, but I think it’s a way to show your appreciation for their contributions by promoting them or giving them more power within the community and…
Trusting them as well. Right?
Exactly. And trusting them with your project, something you started. And I think being trusted by other people for me, even when they trust me with Bike on US, that’s a big honor. I feel like it’s actually a good thing and I’m grateful for that. I think that’s a good way to show to thank your contributors.
So for PyCon us, how did your role as chairperson of the conference come about? Was there a call? Did you volunteer? What were your next stage in terms of responsibilities? How did that happen?
How did it happen? I don’t know. I think it was because I was already involved in other like I have already chaired chair by Cascades and being involved in the Python committee when they were looking for the next conference chairs, maybe they just thought of me as a candidate. So actually it was E who was chairing PyCon us in Cleveland back in, I don’t remember, 2018, 2019 at the time, he approached me and asked if I’d be interested in the role. And I thought, I guess at the time I was a bit busy and occupied with PyCascades and other things. I wasn’t ready for that. And I said, not right now, but maybe check again in a few years. So I guess the next conference chair, I’m Emily Morehouse, she became the conference after E, and then she became the conference chair. And then I guess after that, when they were looking for somebody to take over, they think about me again. So at that time I thought, yeah, I have the capacity, I think I can do this. That’s how it happened.
I think it’s worth sharing for people because I remember when I started off, in the beginning, I didn’t know how to be involved. And I think it’s important to share that if there’s a specific sort of regional or local or a certain topical conference that you’re interested in, reach out to the conference and let them know of your interest. And you can be involved in that way. A lot of times it is through being involved at the bottom and you go up and you work your way up in terms of experience. And sometimes it’s through network where somebody knows you. But even when someone isn’t connected via network, they can reach out as well and get connected to the network by that without knowing people. And I think I didn’t know that and I don’t know if other people know that.
Yeah, I think that’s definitely important that you don’t have to wait to be asked. And I guess I think for me right now, I’m in the position where people ask me for lots of things because they’ve seen me do all of this. But indeed, in the beginning it was just you got to show up. Even with the Python, like, contributing to Python, you don’t have to be invited to start contributing. You just have to show up and just start watch our mailing list or something or our GitHub issues. Start creating pull requests. Right?
Start showing up to your local communities and talk to the meetup organizers or local conference organizers. For example, the PyLadies is organizing a conference, and we put out a call for volunteers from all the Python community events that I’ve seen. We always meet volunteers. So that’s one of the way you can help out, really reach out to the organizer and say, I want help, I have certain ideas. I want to do this or that. I think this just start sharing your idea, saying, I think this will be beneficial to the committee. Can I do this? How do you want me to help you? Right? You don’t have to be asked.
That’s good. And so we’ve talked about how to become involved in a specific community that someone might be interested in. Let’s talk about the other side of it, which is leaving or exiting a community. So what are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, I feel it’s okay to leave. As I mentioned, I left PyCascades. Like, I’ve built a community, and at some point I thought I’m meant to be with this committee forever. But at some point I found I guess I was burned out. Like, a lot of things was happening to me. At the same time, I realized I was burned out. And I thought it would be good to leave. And really, it turns out good. Like, I really felt by leaving, by opening up the space for somebody else, I really feel the committee can have new ideas and they are really doing great. I was really impressed. Like, I had a great time at the last PyCascades.
Yeah, I think I also heard a lot from people who initially said, it’s okay, I can do this. I have lots of free time. I don’t mind doing this thing forever. And I’ve seen again and again the same people ended up burned out and could no longer continue. So I really think it’s really okay to step down to leave. Even if the community that you build yourself, I think if you already have that goal that you have shared with the community, you have documentation, you have trained community members into becoming leaders, you will be able to leave, maybe take a break. You don’t have to think about, I’m leaving forever. You could take a break and leave. Leave it to your co organizers. Yeah.
And there are many, you know, there’s so many options out there. There’s so many opportunities to get involved in different things.
Yeah. I think that’s also one of the things I realized myself, like I have with PyCascades. I have been involved from the beginning. I felt like I know everything or I have done the same thing for three years. It’s time for me to learn something else and maybe meet new community members. Right? So by leaving, it opens myself up for other opportunities, new skills. It allows me to take on the role as PyCon US Chair. I think that end up to be to be a good thing for me. At least don’t think of leaving or quitting as the end.
That’s great. And with that, that’s a great way to end it. And with that, I am just going to stop the recording.