Maintainer spotlight: Safia Abdalla

Maintainer spotlight: Safia Abdalla

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In the spirit of Black History Month, throughout February we’re featuring Black maintainers who are making impactful contributions to the world through open source. Safia is a maintainer on the nteract project and a software engineer at Microsoft. She has a passion for bringing people together to build great things.

Tell us about the project you maintain.

I help maintain nteract, an ecosystem of React components, JavaScript packages, and applications built on top of the Jupyter specification that enhances interactive computing and data science workflows.

Jupyter is a set of specifications for working with notebook documents that contain explanatory text and executable code in a single document. These notebooks are frequently used by data scientists, researchers, and educators to create documents that are reproducible, explanatory, and can be consumed by multiple audiences.

Why did you start this project?

I started contributing to the project when my friend and mentor Kyle Kelley shared his vision for building an approachable ecosystem of tools to enable people to build on top of the Jupyter ecosystem. I was excited and inspired by his vision for building an open source community that was technically rigorous, contributor-friendly, and user-focused. I was so excited and inspired that I decided to join him and help build that community. The rest is history.

How did you first spread the word about your project?

So many different ways—Twitter, public speaking, blogs, podcasts—anything and everything. I’m not too choosy about the ways that I share the projects I’m working on because I believe in meeting people where they are. In fact, I think it’s important for projects to reach out to users and contributors in as many different ways as possible.

How has your involvement in this project helped you grow, personally or professionally?

Too many ways to count. Contributing to open source has: improved my programming skills, improved my code review skills, improved my technical writing skills, sharpened my engineering leadership, and so much more. Open source gives me an opportunity to exercise all my engineering muscles in an exhilarating and friendly environment.

What’s one of your favorite moments as a maintainer of this project?

My favorite moment as a maintainer of nteract is when a new contributor submits their first pull request. It’s always such a pleasure seeing a new avatar and screen name in the pull request tab within our project. It shows that our mission and approach resonated with another individual enough for them to contribute some of their valuable time to the project.

What’s something challenging about maintaining a project that people don’t necessarily realize?

One of the things that I personally struggle with is being comfortable with not knowing everything. There is an inaccurate stereotype that maintainers are extremely knowledgeable super-developers that often works against me.

As if that stereotype isn’t enough, admitting that you don’t know something is really hard, especially when you’re a Black woman and people conflate “some” ignorance with “total” ignorance on a topic. Whether it’s being shunned from future technical discussions or outcast from career opportunities, a single mistake or admission of ignorance can permanently damage your career.

Overcoming the stereotype and the unique consequences of admitting ignorance that comes with being a Black woman in technology are challenges that I deal with every day. I’ll be honest with you and admit that I haven’t figured out the solution to navigating this unique intersection of stereotypes, but I work on it every day.

What do you see as the greatest contribution need for your project now or in the future?

One of our main priorities on the nteract project is providing a smooth experience for contributors. We believe that making it easy for people to use and improve our project improves its long-term viability and health. At the moment, we’re looking for designers who can help build our style guide and improve the React component suite. This would help us build a more accessible and intuitive user experience across all our applications and reduce the barrier to entry for front-end development on nteract.

Are you looking for contributors? What types of contributions does your project welcome?

Yes. The nteract project—and most other open source projects—is always looking for contributors. We’re not just looking for coders either. We’d love to have documentation writers to help us develop more user guides for our project, designers to help us build out our design system and style guide, translators to help us with our internationalization efforts, accessibility experts to help improve the accessibility of our applications, and so much more. In fact, if you’ve got a skill and an interest in nteract, we can probably find a way that we can leverage your skill to make an impact on the project.

What advice would you give someone who wants to run an open source project?

Focus on the people, not the code. I love working in open source because it allows me to solve interesting problems with people that I admire and respect. I’ve seen more than a few instances where people choose to be divided over frameworks, linter configurations, programming languages, and a variety of other things that, in my opinion, are trivial. All of these things are temporary, but the relationships with fellow maintainers and contributors are much more permanent and harder to remedy when damaged. When possible, always make the choice that will empower the most people.

Want to know more about Safia? Follow them on GitHub or Twitter—or make a contribution to nteract.


Want to learn more about featured maintainers for Black History Month? Stay tuned, we’ll be posting this series every Friday throughout February.