Bits and Bytes: Life as a Woman in Open Source

Entering any technical field is very challenging and requires a high amount of commitment, passion and grit to be successful. Yet, the work is highly rewarding and fulfilling, which makes the payoff completely worth the effort. In this article, I will share my journey into the highly technical software engineering/open source field as a woman, explaining how I stayed focused and motivated to find my way into vital software projects and endeavors.  My hope is that my story can inspire others who may be unsure whether they should take on this challenge to go for it!

My Choice to Launch an Engineering Career

Every career has a beginning, and mine started with the conscious decision to become an engineer when I was young. I loved math, physics and chemistry, and I tended to gravitate toward analytical and logical pursuits. There were some doubters and detractors, including my grandfather who said “Engineering isn’t for girls, why don’t you get a degree in Language Arts and become a teacher?!” I always asked him why, but he never had any reasons that changed my mind.  Not being afraid to question things turned out to be a fundamental tenant of not just engineering, but also open source – more on that in a minute.

It didn’t really matter to me what others thought I should do, and the only things that did matter were what I wanted to be, what I was capable of doing, and what I was passionate about. My parents supported my decision to become an engineer, and they continue to be a source of strength and support today. Their help, and the eventual help of my husband, allowed me to get my Bachelors Degree in Electronics and Communications, and eventually a Master’s Degree that focused on graphics and operating system engineering.

Making the Move to Open Source

My early career was spent in a handful of small companies working on many projects in a diverse range of roles. The technical knowledge I gained from working on these teams helped launch my career in open source, which began at the HP Open Source Lab. There, I worked on the Linux kernel and middleware; this work was an essential foundation for the rest of my career. I learned how the open source development process works, as well as how to balance my commitments both as an HP employee and an open source developer. While at HP, I also built up communication and interpersonal skills that have proven to be vital for working  in remote virtual teams.

At HP, I also got involved with the Android mainlining effort and eventually started contributing to the Linux kernel as a part of the HP ProLiant Server Linux team. During this time, I began working with Greg Kroah-Hartman, a fellow at the Linux Foundation, to help him with stable release maintenance activities. This relationship continues today, and I help boot test 3 to 4 stable kernel releases a week. From this work experience, I learned how commitment and grit are necessary to establish yourself as an open source developer, and why it’s important to take responsibility for your professional and career development – the reality is that no one else will, regardless of your gender.  It’s important to make strategic career decisions that have a positive return on investment, and then keep building on the results.

Samsung OSG – The Latest Major Chapter

In what could probably be deemed the most risky move of my career, I joined the brand-new Samsung Open Source Group (OSG) as the team’s very first developer. The lab had an uncertain future and I weighed it against two other opportunities with established Linux companies. I ultimately decided to take a leap of faith and join Samsung. A lot of doubters told me “It sounds too good to be true. It can’t be what it appears to be. Are you sure you can work remotely?” My son and my husband were among my first supporters, and my younger son is simply happy for all the yummy rice candy he gets whenever mom goes to Korea! :)

This has turned out to be the best job of my career, and has been the perfect fit for me. Yes, there are lots of challenges in this new team as we build credibility with Samsung at large, but it has been highly rewarding to help establish the Open Source Group at Samsung, contribute to the Linux kernel, and continue developing my technical, as well as interpersonal skills.

I’ve had the chance to attend and present at many conferences, while also publishing numerous articles, white papers, and blogs posts to share my own knowledge and expertise. I have the freedom to keep commitments to open source communities and to choose focus areas that are beneficial for both my professional growth and Samsung as a whole. I have constant encouragement and support to explore opportunities which are challenging and push me out of my comfort zone. This support has helped me position myself to be picked to lead and maintain a brand new project – the Linux Foundation Kernel Selftest initiative.

Navigating Life’s Events

Life’s events require planning, so finding honest communication, as well as mutually beneficial FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) arrangements/part-time work schedules was crucial for my success while raising children. Staying engaged with my work during FMLA helped me stay current with work events and fostered good working relationship with co-workers that had to step in to take my workload. Thankfully, after these absences I stepped right back into my previous role without any reduced scope.

Above all, the most helpful action was my husband taking FMLA time off and working part-time to match my part-time schedule, while helping take care of our two boys. This allowed me to keep my FMLA and part-time work periods shorter. Equal parenting roles have been crucial to my ablity to meet my career goals. Planning a tag-team work schedule with my husband and managers allowed me to tailor my work around day-care and school routines. Having this dedicated support gave me the ability and choice to continue to pursue my passion of engineering and open source.

What it Means to be a Woman in Technology

I consider myself to be a software engineer who happens to be a woman. I do not see myself as a woman engineer, and I believe this is an important distinction!

My parents played an important role in developing the mindset that “I can and should be able to do what I want to do.” They encouraged me to make decisions based on my interests even when those decisions weren’t considered “right for a girl (woman)” by cultural or societal norms. My late dad was my constant cheerleader and my mom now carries the torch for both of them.  I was very fortunate to have this support, but my innate desire to pursue my dreams, despite the naysayers, has been an important factor in my career success.

I can’t conclude this article without mentioning my husband and my two boys. I am thankful to my husband for his unconditional support, and to my children for their encouragement – they’ve never made me feel guilty for being a working mom. Without their support and cooperation, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do and enjoy doing it. They are the wind beneath my wings.

I hope my journey serves as an encouragement for women and men alike to pursue their passions and not let other’s expectations or biases prevent them from doing what they are passionate about – life is too short for regrets, so dive in with both feet and do what you love!

Author: Shuah Khan

Shuah contributes to multiple aspects of the Linux Kernel, and she maintains the Kernel Selftest framework.