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How difficult was it to make a mark in FOSS?

Not hard at all. There is wide-open opportunity; it is helpful to have stubbornness and rhino hide. Which I had, as I have a lifelong habit of gravitating into male-dominated careers, and doing things other people think are not suitable. The biggest difference with FOSS is most of it is online, and as you know people are much braver with an entire internet between them and whoever they feel like flaming or abusing in some way. It's quite different when you're face to face with someone; maybe they want to be nasty but it's a lot harder in person.

Even online there are lot more supportive and helpful people than the other kind, and I have benefited greatly from the generosity and helpfulness of others.

As a woman, you would have faced more than your fair share of discrimination, both in the workplace and outside. In your case, that would probably have been compounded by your sexual orientation. How have you coped with this?

Stubbornness and rhino hide :) I had a paper route when I was 13 (remember paper routes?), and I was the only girl. My supervisor said that of course I was not eligible for any of the contests or promotions, and some of the prizes were cool things like trips to Disneyland. I didn't question it because I didn't know any better, and my parents were zero help, but I sure remembered it later. Memories like that are good fuel when you're bumping into problem situations later in life, because they're so ridiculous and unfair and petty, and it keeps me going when I want to give up.

And then there are priceless moments like a LUG meeting that I attended way long ago, 1998 or so I believe, and there was a guest speaker giving a presentation on some kind of cool new super-high-power server. He had a batch of slides with photos of the product, and every slide had a stereotype - an improbably-endowed scantily-clad sexy babe draped all over it. I was ready to punch this goofball until the LUG guys- again, I was the only woman- complained "Get her out of the way, we want to see the server." I doubt it had anything to do with me being there, they were just focused on their reason for being there, which was not improbable sexy babes. They gave the rep a hard time for having only babe slides and little technical data.

The key to achieving goals is always the same, I think: align yourself with good people who like you and can help you, and that you can help in return. Or at least pay it forward. Life is full of annoying, unhelpful, obstructive, and hostile people, so having a good solid circle of friends and professional acquaintances makes all the difference. If you feel alone and isolated everything is thousand times harder. I'm more of a glass-half-empty personality, so I have to deliberately focus on the good things and not get derailed by nuisances. As so many sports coaches say, play your own game and don't let yourself get distracted and thrown off your game.

Another key thing to remember is the vast, vast, vast majority of people are followers, not leaders. Some might talk a good talk, or talk a mean talk...in fact, to most people simply talking, just having their say, is the most important thing in the world to them. There are a whole lot of people who can't hold their tongues even when doing so is to their benefit, even if there is a large cash prize for silence. So anyone who is a doer rather than a talker will go far and get what they want, while the talkers are still sitting around nattering and going nowhere. In FOSS (as in any field) there are a lot of people spreading nasty talk, but they can't stop you from doing things.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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