James Governor's Monkchips

Open Source and the unpaid intern problem. What’s really up for grabs? Outreachy.

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One of the structural issues in open source I have been thinking about a lot lately is what I am now calling the “unpaid intern” problem. I described it here

We need to find models to pay people doing the work, beyond “join a commercial open source vendor”. People from under-represented groups in tech are likely to be less well paid, and as such may find it hard to contribute. I helped two young black men this year to fund raise for their studies – it’s hard to spend time on things like open source code, docs or design, when you’re a kid from a single parent family trying to pay for your own education.

Just as with media businesses in places like London and New York City, the odds are stacked against those that don’t have an incredible network of family contacts, and a family that can pay the bills, pay for the railcard, pay for the lunches. You might as well go to an aspiring journalist and say “please write this for the exposure.” It’s all too easy to glibly say: “GitHub is your résumé”. But if your trying to put food on the table for your family, or pay house-keeping to your folks, it’s a lot harder to code your way into a community and a job.

I talked about the issues of on-ramps to open source communities with Ashley McNamara and Shane Boyer from the Microsoft evangelist team last week. Boyer mentioned a great program Microsoft runs called Up for Grabs – “explore open source projects and jump in”. It mostly covers .NET stuff, but seems to be widening its net to include, for example, mental health. Projects looking for help are managed in GitHub with tags including “up-for-grabs”, “easy” and “newbie friendly”. Up for Grabs is excellent, but it assumes a working knowledge of GitHub. It also doesn’t offer payments for contributions. The GitHub Hello World docs are OK, make quite a few assumptions about how much people know about the topic. I quite like this high level guide from How-To Geek, which explains why GitHub so effectively supports the notion that anybody can contribute to a project.

The Golang community has been doing an outstanding job lately of running workshops explaining how to become a contributor to the language. We should all emulate the best practices Go is establishing. Just imagine how awesome it would be if these new contributors were paid for their work. Now only if there some big company with an interest in making Go more sustainable…

Which brings me nicely to Outreachy.

Outreachy provides three-month internships for people from groups traditionally underrepresented in tech. Interns are paid a stipend of $5,500 and have a $500 travel stipend available to them. Interns work remotely with mentors from Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) communities on projects ranging from programming, user experience, documentation, illustration and graphical design, to data science. Interns often find employment after their internship with Outreachy sponsors or in jobs that use the FOSS skills they learned during their internship.

Outreachy internships are open internationally to women (cis and trans), trans men, and genderqueer people. Internships are also open to residents and nationals of the United States of any gender who are Black/African American, Hispanic/Latin@, Native American/American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. We are planning to expand the program to more participants from underrepresented backgrounds in the future.

Such a great idea. It will be great when the program expansion is complete. Here is the sponsor page for their next internship round. As an industry it feels like something we should all get behind. Contributing to open source software, whether coding, writing docs or even graphic design – is a great route into the industry. Applications are currently open for the Outreachy cohort starting December 2017.

related posts –

Let’s hear it for the maintainers

The new Patreon economy


  1. Unpaid internships do NOT perpetuate social inequality. I had an unpaid internship at the FSF – best decision of my life and this choice bolstered my career. I was a starving single mom at the time, but I was very into activism and making the world a better place. My first job after graduation sent me to San Francisco – all expenses paid. It was my first gig to send me out. Since then, I’ve been flown (expenses paid) all over the US and Canada. What have the Outreachy interns received? Drama? A few dollars?

    A better idea, is to obtain an internship through your university department using Women in Science and Engineering or ACM… a reliable organization. This organization is supported by one of the founders = who is director of Software Conservancy. Recently, curl was turned away from being represented by SFC – the application rejected because according to curl the SFC told them, they just didn’t have the bandwidth. However, the SFC has bandwidth to support the director’s organization. I don’t think this is illegal in the US but… how can we trust an organization with such “ethics” and “morals” instigated by the founder! Do not support Outreachy.

    1. Thanks Marcia. I am afraid we’ll have to agree to differ on unpaid internships. Internships should be paid positions, and not everyone entering the industry is at a university.

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