October 10th and 11th, NumFOCUS brought together 23 project representatives, sponsors, board members and friends for the explicit purpose of finding ways we can build a better community. The two day event was generously hosted by Professor Lorena Barba and George Washington University. This NumFOCUS summit was the first of its kind and is an event we hope to repeat annually.
Why a summit? While there are many conferences that you will find NumFOCUS activities, e.g. PyData, JuliaCon, JupyterDays, there is no single conference that focuses on the common needs of all our projects. The separation by programming language, scientific domain, and geography make it difficult to needle out the common problems felt by our sponsored projects. The face to face interactions helped our communications and shared experiences in many ways. I am always amazed at how so much can be done in person for a few days with motivated people.
Over the two days we held a project workshop session to give feedback to NumFOCUS staff for strategic initiatives over the next year. We have collected over 12 pages of notes and will prepare a report to include in our annual report. The suggestions and discussions were numerous and we hope to do all of them justice. While there were many different discussions, two topics struck me as particularly thematic: sustaining our contributor pool and recognizing the contributions of the wider community beyond the developers.
As Jupyter project representative, Brian Granger, pointed out, even with funding it is difficult to keep new contributors once they become proficient at coding. Industry is clamoring for talent and since our tools are so widely used, contributors are highly sought after. After employment, the contributors have less time and no ability to contribute as their work consumes them. Maybe the most frustrating aspect of this challenge is that it is a result of success and purpose, after all university systems are built to educate and give students better opportunities. Sustaining our ecosystem requires programmers continue to contribute after their mentorship into the ecosystem. Together we explored several ideas such as giving out NumFOCUS Open Contributor badges to companies that give time for their employees or building a job board for positions allowing for 20% time to be devoted to NumFOCUS project contribution.
Nteract project representative, Safia Abdalla, presented on increasing and diversifying contributor bases. There was a wider recognition that it is hard to be recognized for your work if you are not contributing code. While software products in industry have large teams that include professionals from business, design, marketing, and technical writing, OSS projects typically do not. My impression walking away from the meeting is that we need to cultivate a culture of Product Managers who can learn how to bring a team of volunteers together to create an amazing software experience. These managers can then help encourage and recognize the rest of the team supporting the open source initiatives.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that NumFOCUS is trying to hire a Projects Director to work to build planning initiatives for projects. You can find more details at: this link.
Day two of the summit, NumFOCUS had its first ever in person board meeting. Simultaneously, projects that are in a similar position of not having much in person time gathered in a hackathon to get work done. We saw a few demos from Nteract and Matplotlib showing some cool new features.
Nteract is lowering the barriers of running a Jupyter notebook with their alpha release of a desktop application. Now instead of having to explain how to use a command line and traverse the file structure in the browser, a user can set Nteract as the default opener and use the OS to manage files as non-developer computer users are accustom to. For more details see this link. Matplotlib representative, Thomas Caswell, went through “the dragons hiding in rabbit holes” as they built better default customizations throughout the entire library. For more details see this video .
On the whole, I declare the summit a massive success. It is by far one of the best investments NumFOCUS has been able to make in the community. It wouldn’t be possible without our NumFOCUS and PyData sponsors. In the next year, we hope to bring more projects together to share challenges, celebrate successes, roll up sleeves to code together, and of course to enjoy meals and wine with the diverse set of individuals making open source scientific software better one commit at a time.