Last week, I reflected on my journey to open source. This week, I reflect on how that journey continued into my academic career. The focus of today’s story is on the detours I took that led me to where I needed to go.
By the end of my high school education, I had experience in open source, specifically the OpenOffice.org and Drupal communities. I was convinced that open source was a great licensing model and I valued the collaboration it enabled. I was building websites as a freelancer.
I had a noticeable passion for software development. Many years later, a high school friend told me how he found it hard finding time to meet with me because I often preferred getting into the flow of writing software.
In high school, everyone believed I would pursue a career in software and become the next Bill Gates, only with open source. This is not how it played out. I did end up in the open source software world, but I took several detours on the way.
Detour: B.A. in Business, Economics, and Banking
As I was considering career choices for after high school, I had all options open to me. I was very fortunate to pursue any like of work that interested me because I had supportive parents, the necessary mental capacity, education, as well as the social and economic status. I considered studying computer science and becoming better at what I had a passion for.
However, a piece of eye-opening advice I received pointed out that all software exists to solve a problem and if I wanted to create impactful software, I would need to understand the problem domain including the business and economics side of it.
For three years, I put writing software and participating in open source communities on the back burner as I followed the advice to build out my business and economics understanding. I joined a dual-studies program that had two components.
The first component was an apprenticeship at Bankhaus C. L. Seeliger, a local bank in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. The apprenticeship concluded with a certification by the Chamber of Commerce that would allow me to practice banking in Germany.
The second component was a 3-year bachelor program in business at the WelfenAkademie, a college in Braunschweig, Germany. The program concluded with a Bachelor of Arts degree in business with a concentration in banking.
The two components were well-coordinated and I took turns spending several weeks at the bank and attending classes.
During this time, I continued to read news about what was happening in the IT industry and I was especially interested in news about open source projects. I would also choose technology and software topics for my independent studies and research reports.
In the bank, I most enjoyed my time in the IT department. I enjoyed helping with PC issues. The only thing I enjoyed more was helping with the rollout of a new document management system.
In fact, I wrote my bachelor thesis on the subject of change management for the rollout of this system.
Detour: Overcoming a Career Blocker
Towards the end of the apprenticeship and bachelors, I was eager to back into IT. The bank did not have a job opening in the IT department and so I looked elsewhere.
Fun fact: Out of a love of traveling, I applied at Lufthansa as a flight attendant. Lufthansa rejected my application after the assessment center with kind words that I interpreted as: “Don’t waste your talents.” I redoubled my focus on a career in IT.
I approached the Technical University Braunschweig (TUBS) about joining their computer science master’s program.
I had falsely believed that the newly introduced bachelor’s and master’s programs allowed for movability between degrees. It turned out that I did not meet the enrollment criteria for computer science masters.
I was lucky to have talked with the program coordinator of the management information systems (MIS) degree. He showed me that I was only a few credit points shy of joining the MIS masters and suggested that I enroll as a bachelor student in the degree to earn the necessary credit points.
Within one semester, I enrolled in all foundational computer science and MIS classes. I felt like I just had to prove that I already had the skills necessary for pursuing the MIS masters and so I did.
Detour: Studying Abroad and Falling in Love
While enrolling in the MIS masters program, I found on the program website an unassuming link that promised information about an exchange program.
The PDF document I found there described a 1-year exchange program with the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). I would transfer credit points between the TUBS and UNO, double-dipping on my course work. The promise was to earn the master’s in MIS from TUBS and an MBA from UNO without losing any time.
I was intrigued, asked how to enroll, and then learned that accepted students also received a scholarship to cover the expenses of the exchange program.
Long story short: I started the MBA program at UNO which set wheels of destiny into motion.
I fell in love and started considering living in the USA and Omaha, Nebraska specifically.
Looking at options to stay in Omaha, I explored the Ph.D. in IT program at UNO. I liked the makeup of the program. It was very interdisciplinary and open to me joining with a background in business and MIS. I felt that with the Ph.D. in IT would finally complete my move to a career in IT after my detour with a bachelor’s in business and banking.
To get into the Ph.D. program, I asked a professor if he would take me in as his Ph.D. student. I collaborated with him on my master’s thesis project and demonstrated my ability to engage in research. The research area we were working on was collaboration science. At the time, I was not even considering open source as a research option but in hindsight, it is stunning how closely related the topics are.
End of Detours: Coming to Research into Open Source
The professor I was planning to work with accepted a job at another university while I was still applying to join the Ph.D. program at UNO. He offered me to follow him there but I was set on living in Omaha, Nebraska, starting a family here, and getting married.
This left me without a mentor when I joined the Ph.D. program. I scheduled meetings with faculty who had interesting research topics.
When I met with Matt Germonprez, I learned that it was possible to do research into open source. I was immediately hooked.
My experience in the OpenOffice.org and Drupal community came back to me. I had never considered that open source could be a research option but now it was.
I was hesitant at first to work with Matt because he specializes in qualitative research. I was afraid that with English as a second language, I would not be equipped to do qualitative analysis where an in-depth understanding of language was necessary. Matt promised to train me, gave me the confidence that I could learn the skills, and so I gave it a chance.
The research approach I learned was built on engaged fieldwork. This means participating in open source projects, fully embedding myself in open source communities, and talking as much as possible to professionals in the space to learn their language and viewpoints.
Throughout the four years of my Ph.D., I got to know many people in the open source ecosystem and participate in different open source projects.
This is where my detours ended and I arrived in open source again. I had what was needed to dive in and become a contributing member of the open source ecosystem. There is plenty of fodder for more blog posts. I have already shared some of my stories and can recommend as further reading:
- How CHAOSS D&I Can Help Diversity in the Open Source Community
- Open Community Metrics and Privacy: MozFest18 Recap
- How to measure the impact of your open source project
Today, my main focus in open source is on metrics, the Linux Foundation CHAOSS project that I cofounded, and Biteriga.
Let me close by saying this: It is my mission to help the open source ecosystem become more professional with how we use metrics. I do this through (1) my work in the CHAOSS project and (2) by helping organizations hire Bitergia to receive professional services for their metric needs.