Hannah Aubry

⇢ it will take all of us working together ⇠

Earlier this year, I presented a talk at FOSDEM. My talk was called Learning from disaster response teams to save the internet.

“Save the internet” and “disaster response” may sound like bringing a jackhammer to a chisel’s job, but all you have to do is put “open source” into your favorite search engine to see what I mean. Corporations and bad actors treat people like products and mine their data and passions for profit. And there isn’t much standing in their way.

Over my years in the open source community, I’ve found that most people who work on open source identify more with the specific project or two rather than as part of a movement. I wish we would think of ourselves as the entire community more often because forgetting our guiding principles limits our ability to coordinate and cooperate. It breeds competitiveness between people with the same ideals but different ideas on achieving them. And it distracts us from our common goal: to ensure the internet is free, open, and safe for all, forever.

So, we must convene as a community to save the internet. But that is easier said than done when, by virtuous design, open source communities are distributed and decentralized.

Pathways to achieving the communitas in open source that I’m describing exist. And what’s more, they’re pretty well-trodden. Organizations across many industries have perfected the art of operating as disparate and self-contained teams while working to achieve a common goal. (They tend to be more formalized/ structured than the open source community, but that doesn’t mean the learnings gleaned from studying those organizations can’t be applied in less structured ones.) In social network analysis, these organizational structures are conceptualized as “multiteam systems,” and some of the best examples exist in disaster response.

In the talk, I explored how we can apply social network analysis findings gleaned from studying disaster response teams in laboratory and field settings to empower leadership and strengthen community ties in pursuit of our collective goal.

I hope you enjoy it or at least learn from it. You can watch the recording below or on FOSDEM's site.

I’ve been a hypocrite.

For years, I’ve worked hard to advocate for the open source community, to encourage others to live and work by its values: openness, transparency, and collaboration. Meanwhile, I haven’t lived those values fully. The majority of what I’ve written, here and here, is about finished projects, or celebrating some milestone. I haven’t shown my work. I haven’t shared how I think about my work or written about any of the messy stuff or my failures (which is where I’ve learned the most).

So I made this place to change that — I’ll do my work in public and write about my own philosophical noodlings here. I hope someone out there finds it useful. Maybe you, friend.

This is the work

Since Fastly launched Fast Forward (that’s our open source support program) one year ago, I’ve paid a lot of attention to those two words wherever they appear. (You can probably imagine that’s pretty often for me.) Usually, I smile to see them, but there’s one place where I’ve come to dislike seeing “fast forward.” In stories. I’m bored out of my brain of that storytelling mechanic where they lay out a nice, juicy problem… and then skip past the glorious work.

No 👏 more 👏 montages. 👏 (Sorry, Team America.)

I joined Fastly to work on their open source program almost four years ago — my start date was March 9th, 2020. I love to build things with passionate people, and I love to help others build too. I’m hard-pressed to think of a community that is more passionate and committed to building and doing than those drawn to working in open source communities. Within a month, I worked on the announcement of Fastly’s $50 million commitment to the program, and the expansion of its scope to include nonprofits, to support those fighting COVID and its effects on society.

It’s been a long, difficult, and glorious road since then.

The $50 million commitment to Fast Forward opened a floodgate of applications that effectively stress-tested the program’s internal infrastructure & resourcing. Meanwhile, managing the program was just a part of what I was doing at Fastly. I won’t get too deep into the nitty-gritty, but the basic gist of what was broken was that our processes weren’t built to scale, the program’s work wasn’t tied to Fastly’s overarching vision of what the internet can be, we weren’t active in the communities we support, and we weren’t taking credit for our work.

So I created a slide deck outlining these issues and proposing fixes to them. I shared the deck with anyone who would listen. I presented it to Fastly’s leadership. It took a long time, and I began to despair that anything would change. Finally, Fastly acquired Glitch. I was moved to the newly formed Developer Experience team to focus on the program full-time. I gained the support of an industry-leading team that deeply understands this work, better than almost anyone — I mean just look at what they built. I began to make inroads with the teams that could help fix the broken stuff. I made new decks. I wrote design docs. I invited comments from anyone who had ideas and verve. There were missed opportunities, false starts, missteps, dead ends. Nothing about it was easy. It was fun, but it was messy, hard work. A full year passed between the time I made that first deck and the day we launched the new program, the program we built together: Fast Forward.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you’re trying to create systemic change in any kind of organization, you have to be ready to repeat yourself. A lot. I think most people don’t understand that about communications; I’ve seen this often since my journey in tech began. Your message isn’t sinking in until you’re sick of repeating it.
  • None of us can do this alone. I think about this proverb often: “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” Building for a community means building in community, so ask for help when you need it. Trust that if you put your need out in the world, help will come to you. It may not be exactly when you think you need it most, or be in exactly the form you thought you needed, but help will come.
  • Perhaps the most significant shift I’ve had in the way I think about my work is to stop thinking about it as a series of goalposts. Rather, I now take joy and a sense of accomplishment in the day-to-day moving forward. I see each little step as a win. I see the act of taking a step as a win.

A quick interlude, lamentoso

We’ve had so many hard years: disease, layoffs, wars, relicensing, paywalls, shuttered programs, and 60-day warnings. Climate crisis. The digital spaces where we used to convene and commiserate have changed forever. Institutional Tech lost a lot of ground in building trust with not only the open source community, but the world. It will take time and effort to rebuild and repair. Some people and things are gone forever. We must give space to mourn who and what we’ve lost.

Twenty-six months ago, I went through a period of significant personal loss. Every year since, the holidays have felt dimmer, and I haven’t felt much like celebrating, so instead I take that time to refocus myself. I reflect on the year that passed, record what I learned, and set goals for the coming year.

The most impactful thing I’ve done as part of my holiday reflections is to write down a theme for the coming year. It’s deeply personal to me so I’ve never considered sharing it before — but this year I will.

This is the work. Onward, we must climb. I act when I’m at my best, otherwise I rest. The pounding and lapping of waves on a beach.

(Be gentle with me, I feel vulnerable and exposed.)

History cycles. Time is a wheel. We’ve fought the fights we’re facing before, albeit wearing different mustaches. In the end, we move forward. It’s the best and only way to go.

I’m holding space for anyone who needs a friend. I need one too.

Work in public

Just last week I broke Fastly’s Mastodon instance, Fastly.Social, while updating it to v4.2.4. I created the instance as a place for experiments, a place where Fastly employees could learn together, to demonstrate best practices of using Fastly in front of Mastodon. However, I am decidedly not an expert at this, so to be honest, it was only a matter of time before I broke it. Breaking the instance sucked. It was embarrassing to admit defeat when I couldn’t troubleshoot the issue, especially to admit it in front of my colleagues who quite literally build the internet. But that wasn’t my failure. My failure was that I didn’t apply the learnings I described above until last week.

When I realized I wouldn’t be able to fix the issue, I put a call for help in our interest-fediverse Slack channel. The response was overwhelming; people are wonderful.

I realize now that my superpower is this — it’s not that I’m really good at some things (although, at the risk of sounding like a braggart, there is some stuff I’m really good at). It’s that I unashamedly, sometimes even gleefully, narrate what I’m bad at and I’m always willing to point at stuff that’s broken to those with the power to fix it, even if I’m part of why it’s broken.

People can’t fix what they can’t see, and no person on this planet is omniscient. If we want to fix this broken and beautiful world, we have to be willing to talk about the work in progress. The messy stuff. Recently, I saw someone post, “It’s worth it to be hurt sometimes, so you don’t have to live with your guard up all the time.” Be vulnerable.

And with that in mind — let’s hear what it took. What did you give, what did it cost? Tell us what you need. Work in public. Share what you learned. We can’t wait to celebrate until we reach the finish line, because, for us, there isn't one. The goal is to do the work, to strive for the cause, and to keep making the world a little more open and free, forever. I think doing that is a thing worth celebrating, any and every day.

There is so much work to be done, and the first and most important step is easy. It’s just to care. Be kind, be curious. Think twice. When you see something broken, fix it. If you see someone doing ridiculous amounts of stuff without complaining, help them. You have experience and passion. We need you.

I’ll end this transmission with a little reminder, which is just as much for me as it is for anyone reading — we have to heal ourselves before we can heal the world. Good luck out there and take it easy, friends 👋