Priyanka Nag is a technology professional, open source advocate, and an integral member of the Mozilla India community. As a technical writer at Red Hat and active contributor to the internet health and open source movements, Priyanka consistently engages members of her community in issues that are critical to an open, accessible, and transparent web. She has been a great resource to new contributors, helping them connect with people, tools, and resources within Mozilla and beyond.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I am currently working as a technical writer at Red Hat. I have been contributing to Mozilla for a little more than, I guess, four years now. Yeah. I’m not a very old contributor compared to so many others here in India. I am a Mozilla representative and a Mozilla mentor. I am currently mentoring around 11 Mozilla representatives. I think that’s most of it. I think mostly I contribute to the Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) project. I’m a technical writer, so that’s kind of what matches my my profile most.
I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about your work. The work that you’re in currently and maybe how you started in that role.
This is a story I like telling a lot. I have a Master’s degree in computer application and am working as a technical writer. I started my journey as a full-time developer. I am someone who doesn’t like coding for too long. Make me code for a hackathon, I’ll probably enjoy it — love it. But make me code for eight hours a day, five days a week, I’ll get bored with it. I don’t like coding as a part of my day job. That is something I realized within the first six months of my internship that I began just after college.
That’s when I started exploring more options, more alternate career options than doing full-time development. First, I went into evangelism while working with a startup. That’s when I also started doing a lot of MDN contribution and documentation. That’s kind of the time that I realized okay, writing is something I like. I had been doing a little blogging here and there, but then writing technical content, editing technical content — it was something I was having fun with. Having the technical education background was helping me understand the technical piece of it, and I writing was something I enjoyed. This gave me a perfect blend of two — technical work and writing, and I finally found that one thing I could enjoy doing all day, all week, all year.
That’s when I saw an opening at Red Hat for a technical writer’s role, and I was like okay, let’s give it a try. This seems to be something I’ll enjoy doing. I ended up here at Red Hat. I think one of the biggest reasons Red Hat hired me even though I had no technical writing background was my community activities.
Thinking about your journey, I guess what elements of your journey are you most proud of, to get you into the space today?
That’s tough to say. The most important thing is the realization or finding of what I really wanted to do. As I told you, I started as a developer, then I did evangelism for some time. I enjoyed all of them. Development gets a little boring when I do it all the time, full-time. I was enjoying evangelism for sure. But then, finding out that one thing or the passion that I really wanted to follow was an awesome realization moment of my journey. When someone says okay, this is what you are going to do for eight to ten hours a day for five to six days a week or sometimes even on weekends and I know that I would probably not get bored of this, not soon for sure — that’s what writing is for me.
Nice. In your line of work, do you find there is a lot of other females there? If there is, is there great connections with you as female coders?
Yes. My team has the of highest percentage of female associates compared to any other teams here at Red Hat. That’s also probably because writing is a skill somehow, I don’t know why, is conventionally believed to be better in female. There are a lot of female associates, and yes, the connection is pretty good. I think one thing that I should say, the Red Hat culture is very similar to what I have always seen or experienced in a Mozilla event or a Mozilla gathering. The way people work, the entire concept of being open and free, that’s something I experience every day at work. I’m really blessed to be able to work in an environment like that.
You spoke a little bit about the moments that you’re proud of. I guess if there has been any challenges along the way?
This goes back to the first organization that I was working with. It was a startup. I was working as a full-time developer. They had a lot of expectations from an intern, which is usual, in terms of time commitment and availability etc. I had no issues with that as such, but then at some point when I needed to attend Mozilla events on weekends, and they expected me to be there at office on the weekends, it would become a little clash of interest.
Even that was okay till the time my manager came down one day and said that I needed to choose between by open source activities and my job at that organisation as he thought I wouldn’t be able to balance both. That was a very sad moment — because it’s not like I didn’t like that organization, but I also didn’t want someone to tell me to discontinue my open source activities.
I wanted my open source activities to remain as my passion or my hobby. Had he asked me to reduce my contributions and focus for a few months on my job, it would have been a different approach than someone asking me to straightaway choose between the two. I definitely didn’t like that option at all. Even though I didn’t have a backup plan at that time, I decided to finish my internship, but discontinue further work with that organization. I think that was one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make.
Wow, so you chose open source over your internship.
Yes. I think when someone kind of stops me from doing something that I like, I’m not comfortable with that situation.
What do you think attracts you so much to open source?
People. At any open source event that I have been to, I think one of the most interesting thing for me has always been meeting new people. It’s a whole different level of energy that I get from meeting interesting and passionate people. Even when I kind of am stuck with work for four or five days a week, if on Saturday or Sunday I get to attend one event, meet new people, it just somehow gives me a lot of energy to continue my next week. I think I draw energy from people.
Why do you think so many good friends, obviously, of yours now do work in open source? Is there an element of how open impacts your life and your work? What is that element that attracts people to it?
Of course! I think the very feeling of freedom and openness makes a lot of difference. That is, again, something I experience every day at work. Even at Red Hat, we follow an open culture. When I say open culture, that means, if my manager comes down tomorrow and say “Hey, this is supposed to be done.” It’s not going to be done unless he explains why it’s supposed to be done and how it’s going to impact the users — he needs to show us the bigger picture. That is kind of acceptable at all levels.
The hierarchy works very differently in an open platform, right? The freedom we are given at work — to say no, to deny, or to object, or to share new ideas, and when we say share new ideas, not share it just for the sake of sharing it, but share new ideas knowing that the other person is going to receive it or respond to it in a positive way. Even if not always appreciate it, but at least hear us out kind of a thing. If I walk into a meeting room knowing that if I put forward some idea on the table, it’s not going to be turned down because simple because I stand somewhere lower in the hierarchy. No matter what my designation is, if the idea is good, it’s going to be appreciated. That’s what I think is a very important principle of an open organization.
That’s the same with Mozilla. At least that’s what I have seen throughout. That’s one of the reasons why I probably stuck to Mozilla, or why I have seen so many people hang in here for so long. I’ve seen people who are very critical about everything, but very appreciative of Mozilla or have stayed on for so long for the same reason.
Am I right in saying a huge part of this love for the open source is the collaboration element, so building together?
I want to kind of — we started talking a little bit there, but maybe move the conversation around to more on what Mozilla focused, unless there’s anything else you want to talk about and any other areas of how you open source in other areas of your life beyond work? Or any other areas that you feel maybe helped you become this great network leader?
Other than Mozilla, one more thing that helped me find my skills as a technical writer was when I was interning with Wikimedia Foundation. I was a part of an outreach program (now known as Outreachy), back in 2013. That was a three-month internship. The internship was for a technical writing position, and I was kind of documenting the toolkit. It was a helpful step in identifying my skill as a technical writer, that was also a very, very big help.
What do you feel, or what do you think about healthy internet? What does it mean to you?
There’s an interview of mine on opensource, which is kind of around the same topic, about the internet health. It’s around internet health here in India and how we see it progress. I think as you were saying, one of my most important or critical issues is the web literacy part. What we have seen here is that too many people who are just moving to smartphones these days and our different telecom companies are trying to make apparently apt data packs (or even if you don’t take a 2G or 3G separately), giving you, Facebook for free and WhatsApp for free.
What ends up happening is that for many people, internet means Facebook or internet means WhatsApp. We don’t want people to know internet as only Facebook, right? Web literacy, I think, is one of the things that is very critical to me. Things are changing, for sure. Things are moving towards betterment, but of course we need to be very careful and take right steps towards it.
As part of Mozilla initiative, we have been going down to a lot of different orphanages or to other organizations in different rural parts of India, where we go teach them about computers and talk about the internet and what they can do on the internet. Surprisingly, I have seen at very, very remote places where I wouldn’t expect them to know anything about computers, where they would come and tell us- ‘I know MS-word, I know MS-excel, I know how to create a Gmail account’, or things like that. Things are improving, for sure.
Can you think of other areas within around web literacy that you would consider unhealthy on the web right now? You talk about people not understanding what actually is the internet, so when they open, they might think that just Facebook is the internet. Can you think of any other examples?
I was just talking with my team about the way we have started giving so much importance to Google these days. We don’t say, go and look it up on the internet, or we don’t say use a search engine. We just use the term, “go Google it.” I’m sure so many people who don’t belong to our domain won’t even know that Google is a search engine, and there are other alternate search engines like DuckDuckGo or Bing which they can use. We have made it a habit to tell people to Google it. They think Google is the only option to search anything on the internet. This is, again, scary.
Also, the way with Android smartphones, with Gmail accounts, it’s so scary to think that one company, one organization has so much data about us. It’s almost like they know everything about us — when we wake up to when we go to bed and what we do for the entire day. That’s of course a scary situation to be in, anyways.
Thank you for that. I’d love to know, so who introduced you to Mozilla, or how you first came in contact with Mozilla?
There was an event in my college. There was just this big Firefox poster — a roll-up banner outside one of our college labs. The logo looked familiar, so a few of us just decided to go inside the lab and see what’s going on. That’s how I attended my first Mozilla event at college. I think Webmaker was the tool they were talking about. A few of my seniors, Ankit and Sayak, were hosting the event. At the end of the event, they told us about a MozCafe meetup coming up the very next day. They were inviting more people to just come and join.
The MozCafe was supposed to start at 5pm and till 8:30pm, I was very sure I was not going to attend it. It sounded so nerdy to go to a meetup on a Sunday evening and not do something better with my life. But then I think, actually not having anything better to do on that evening I somehow ended up going to the MozCafe meetup.
When you enter cafés in a tech city here, it’s not a very uncommon to see people in groups either having interviews or official conversations.
At this cafe too, there were people who were out with a group of friends talking, and there were other groups which looked like more official meeting. But there was this one table making the maximum amount of noise in that café. It was because they were all so energetic and enthusiastic about the things they were saying.
The moment you enter, it’s like a different aura around that one table. Somehow that attracted me immediately. Why are these people so crazy about whatever they are talking about? The very idea that they don’t even get paid for what they are doing. There’s something very different about this project for sure, that these people not only spend their Sunday evenings, they are also so enthusiastic about it. I think that’s when I thought, “okay, let me just look it up and give it a try, whatever this thing is.”
What were they working on? What were they discussing in that group? Were they looking at a computer, were they looking at a phone? Or were they just talking?
There were two or three laptops on the table. They were planning the next set of possible events in Pune, India. Sitting across the table, for the first half an hour, I couldn’t understand anything. That’s because they were throwing around so many of these Mozilla jargons. Talking about, oh, we have the Reps thing, and we have the Webmaker tool, and we have ReMo, and we have etc, etc — all the sounds which made no sense to me. I wondered what these people were talking about. I tried patiently sitting for some time, until I had the courage to say, “Hey, I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Is there some way I can help, being very new? Of course, I can’t be a speaker, but maybe there’s something I could do or at least tag along — just go there, see how it’s done, and stuff like that.” I think that’s how it began.
Do you think, that by running these MozCafes or similar events, and by having loads of different ways to get involved, that it kind of gave you a pathway to get more involved? Because now you’re at the very end, the other end of the spectrum, where I’m pretty sure they’re asking you to speak at these events.
Yeah. I think, of course. After the first MozCafe, I was like I need to look this up, and this up, and this up, and this up — so many terms. Then I think next week we had a Mozilla India IRC meetup. That’s also one of the first time I think I kind of joined an IRC meetup or joined IRC as a matter of fact. There was a big event coming up in Pune the meeting was a planning session for that event. We didn’t have too many female contributors in India back then. That’s when I was asked if I could cover the WoMoz section at that event? Nothing much, just a 20 minutes quick talk about what WoMoz is, because there will probably be many female participants that we could probably bring onboard.
I think that was the first time I started doing some dedicated work, first time someone had assigned me some task. First, it was very overwhelming and scary, because this event was expected to host around 200 people, for sure. Going on stage and talking in front of 200 people, I didn’t think I could do it. I just wanted to run away from it. We had almost two months to prepare, do the research on what WoMoz is, what they do, talking to people, and connecting with other people who were in a WoMoz program.
I think this was the first time I started slowly, slowly getting involved, seriously involved. Until here I was just looking at people, oh, they’re doing this, okay, fine, let me just join this kind of a thing. I think I kind of pinged Larissa and spoke to a Mozilla staff for the first time. Again, the entire concept was very new to me. Being in college, I never thought a staff from such a big organization is ever going to respond to me.
At least in India, in most of the organization, work in a very closed, hierarchical order. When I first pinged Larissa and then dropped her an email, I was very sure she was not going to reply, or maybe some assistant or someone from her office would just send a reply. But then when she started communicating, I realized “Oh, my God, this is a whole different world altogether. How are these people so down to earth? I am just a student with almost no qualification. Why would they not only be interested to talk, but even encourage me so much towards my task at hand?” That’s when I thought okay, people here are a little different from what I usually see. That was a big motivator.
Nice. Do you consider yourself a leader now in your local community, encouraging people to get involved? Are people pinging you?
Yes. A lot of people ping me, and I try my best to be as encouraging to them as I can, because I had a wonderful journey. I’ve met some awesome people in my journey who have helped and motivated me. I want to give the same experience to others — to make sure that when they share their story, it’s a very happy journey and a very happy story.
Oh, that’s very nice of you. What kind of questions do people ping you?
It’s a wide range. It starts with hey, I am an engineering student, would like to contribute. Can you tell me what to contribute? Which is a very difficult question to answer. I try start with, “Can you just atleast tell me what are your interests are so that I can somehow try figure out what could be suitable for you?” Because when you say I’m just interested and want to contribute, it’s like a whole big range of things you can do. Sometimes questions are very specific, like, “I am doing this work, and I need help in this.” Many times when I facilitate events here at different colleges or organizations, I always mention that even if you’re not sure of whom to reach out, it’s okay. Just reach out to anyone. Most of the time, we’ll just try to connect you to the right person. A lot of times, that has also happened.
A lot of questions came to me, which I didn’t know the answer to, because I don’t do development work much these days. There are projects I have never contributed to. I at least try to find out someone in the Indian community, or even if not in the Indian community, someone among the staff who could help.
Nice. Is there anyone who maybe was a new contributor a couple years ago that you’re very proud of how their work has developed to today?
Yes. I think one of them is my mentee, Prathamesh. He is a very energetic and enthusiastic person. When he started, he need some help. He was very new to this family. Of course, we tried helping. He was Hudas’ mentee initially, and when Huda left the Reps program he asked me if I could take him up as a mentee.
As I said, he has the energy and the enthusiasm. It’s not very difficult to help someone who is already energetic or willing to take that help. A little spark, and he would be on his track. I think his development has been one of the best I have witnessed. Rather when he got the rep of the month award a few months back, I am so proud of that moment.
Was there any particular — I guess, what parts did he contribute to, and what led him to get rep of the month?
He mostly takes care of organizing events and logistics here in Pune. He started with event organization, taking care of communication between the smaller groups being an event coordinator. There are so many of these Mozilla clubs, Firefox student ambassadors, and all of these people all around. This city has a lot of colleges. Communicating with all of these leaders, making sure when something is happening in their college others are aware of it and able to join, if it’s possible for someone from another college to just go down and either facilitate or just be a part of it. Prathamesh has been successfully doing all these coordinations. Now he’s also taking care of the local swag production here in India.
You talked a little bit about it, but what are the types of skills some of the volunteers in your local area have?
We have the perfect blend of people who have very high technical skills, like Ankit, Sayak, Diwanshi who are into full-time development, who bring on board a lot of their technical skills. So, if it’s a technical project, they can totally be the facilitators. Ankit and Diwanshi have also been a lot involved with the privacy and security initiatives.
We have people like Prathamesh, who are totally professional at organizing. Born and brought up in Pune, they know the right venues for events, they know the exact exam seasons when we should avoid events or when it’s the right time to have events etc.
We have a lot of good speakers here too, who sometimes need a little nurturing, but then most of the time, they are very skilled at public speaking, who can do that part really well. We also have a standup comedian in the group, who helps us do the fillers when we have bigger events. I think we have a very mixed group, a very diverse group.
Very nice. Can you tell me about a time when Mozilla had some sort of impact in your life outside of work?
I think I made a lot of friends. That’s, of course, the most important impact I have had. All these people whom I actually met through the Mozilla channel but they ended up being way more than just Mozilla work colleagues — being real good friends or almost like families. I think that’s the most important impact.
Can you tell about a time when Mozilla disappointed you? If you had a chance maybe to go back to the time, what would be the feedback, or what would you like to say to Mozilla?
I won’t say Mozilla disappointed me exactly, but there is a story worth sharing. Two years back, I think last to last MozFest, was a kind of really not so good or happy period for me in my Mozilla journey. We were having a lot of conflicts within the community here, mostly for leadership role here in India. A lot of times when I thought I was being ignored in the community, probably because of being a female contributor. It’s not a surprising factor. We have to accept this is still a very male-dominated kind of society. When a female tries to be a leader or tries to get into the leadership role, it’s not easy for many of the male contributors to accept that. It’s generally a male leader and a female follower. When you try to change the flow, there are conflicts or problems. But that is something I have faced a little.
Also, a lot of internal communication issues, internal conflicts were happening around that time. Last year when I was at MozFest I was really disappointed with the way the Indian community was behaving. We didn’t even feel like a community. We felt more like individuals there at that event, where people were not ready to help each other. We had the Hive presentation, and we had a stall for Hive India as well. It was surprising when I expected that at least at that point in time, most of us who were there from India would be at the stall helping and trying to showcase our skills as much as we can, but then that didn’t happen. A lot of non-cooperation was what was showcased.
I was very disappointed, made a blog post that I am not going to contribute, at least not going to contribute to any of the community activities there. I think that was a very tough time. That’s when I spoke to William Q about the issues at least I thought we were having in India.
I think with time a lot of things just subsided. I won’t say they got properly resolved, they never actually got resolved. There was no communication around it. I don’t believe problems can get resolved without changing anything — without putting any effort, just leaving it to time. It’s just that we either learn to live with them or we ignore them and just move on. If similar situation comes up in future, we’ll probably again have to fight the same battle, because we never resolved the previous issues. We never know what could have resolved the issues. It’s like okay, a lot of time passed on, people moved on. Some people stayed, some people left, and things just moved on. That’s it.
What advice would you have for Mozilla for maybe a new emerging community somewhere else in the world? Is there kind of like — obviously, getting the entire group together would really help build community and strength and communication, which you just mentioned. Is there any other pieces that we could maybe put in place to ensure that the community can strive and they don’t run into the same troubles?
I don’t think we do a very good job at conflict resolution, which I believe is a very important part of community building. Any growing community will have conflicts. When we say it’s a diverse community, people will have different ideas, different background. At the end of the day, we all want the same goal. We all want to do something good for the bigger goal of Mozilla. That part is a common goal for most of us. No one really wants a personal benefit out of it. It’s just probably different people’s different ways of working that creates the conflict. I think we need to do a little better job, or we need to find out a little different way of resolving conflicts than ignoring them. Ignoring them can be a solution which works temporarily, but I’m scared when things go wrong again, we won’t know how to deal with it, because we never learned how to deal with it. We just learned how to ignore them and move on. In the process, we also lost a lot of good contributors. Even when the last conflict happened, a lot of people just backed out, tired of fighting the battle. That’s never a good solution.
Open communication and to create space where we can find resolution within. Is there a moment in your Mozilla career, which is four years, that you felt an element of success that you’re really proud of?
I remember on one of the evenings at summit, there was a DJ party going on in the main hall. A few of us who are not dancers, decided to move out of the hall and look for something else to do. There was this MDN team sitting in one of the breakout rooms and doing some MDN hackathon kind of thing. That was my first time working with or meeting the MDN team. I just walked in with my laptop, sat and started to struggle with the MDN installation commands. My friend who was sitting next to me, knew I was a big fan of David Walsh. He poked me slightly and said, “You see the guy sitting to your right?” I was like, “Yeah. So, what?” “He’s David Walsh.” It was my like my big “oh, my God” moment.
I think these were all very special moments, when I realized that okay, I don’t know what I have done so great to be sitting in a group of these people whom I admire. It made me feel so proud to be sitting on the same table with these people whom I really, literally worship, and be able to sit with them and work with them.
Thank you. That’s a lovely story. I think it comes back to what you said as well around Marissa. It’s like access. The fact that you can reach out and talk to these people, or in some cases accidentally sit beside them.
It’s like anything else that you want to share with this conversation, or is there any other information you want to impart? Or maybe a final statement?
I don’t know. In my entire journey, I think this is something I wrote in my blog post too. In my entire four, four and a half years of Mozilla journey, I have had a lot of moments when I thought okay, enough — I have done enough. I don’t feel the energy anymore. I just want to stop contributing. I have enough work, other work to do. Let’s just stop with all the Mozilla work.
At those very moments, I have always met one or the other new Mozilla contributors who would just come with so much energy. I would walk into an event, almost sure of it to be the last one I am facilitating. Then I would meet someone new at the event who would just come up with some new idea. Why don’t we do this? Or how do we do this? Or do we really do this in Mozilla and stuff like that. Those conversations are what always recharges my energy meter. At the end of it, I am always like let’s go one more step. I always say people have been my reason why I stay. New people, old people, friends.