Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

14 Jun 2022, 20:30 p.m.

Mourning Marina Zhurakhinskaya

I’m very sad to learn and share the news that Marina Zhurakhinskaya has died of breast cancer. It looks like there will be a livestreamed memorial service tomorrow (Wednesday) which I hope to watch. These tweets give you a small sampling of the lives she touched.

I knew Marina through the Ada Initiative, through GNOME, and through Outreachy – she was a positive force everywhere she participated, but in particular I’m saddened to lose the person who did so much crucial work on Outreachy, a paid apprenticeship program that recruits and supports new underrepresented people in open source.

Outreachy started as an idea that Hanna Wallach and Chris Ball ran with, once, in 2006 (here’s a history). Marina ran its revival starting in 2009, grew it, worked to institutionalize it as the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, co-organizing it, recruiting mentors and participants and volunteers, running all the logistics while collaborating with Karen Sandler for strategic and fundraising support and later Sage Sharp for systems support, doing all those millions of chores that it takes for a one-off neat idea to become a reliable part of the infrastructure of inclusion – and then in 2015 handing it to Software Freedom Conservancy as it became Outreachy, but still advising and contributing all the way till her death.

I particularly remember a moment in 2012, after I noticed that OPW had for the first time included a non-GNOME project (Jessica McKellar mentoring a Twisted contributor), and that OPW had succeeded in getting the percentage of women at GNOME’s yearly conference from ~4% (2009) to ~17% (2012). I decided I wanted Wikimedia Foundation to participate. I sought Zhurakhinskaya out at that year’s Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit, my boss Rob Lanphier in tow. I told Marina: I want Wikimedia to participate in the next round. She had already looking for me to tell me the same thing! We instantly agreed that WMF should participate. I asked how much it would cost to sponsor one OPW participant: a few thousand dollars. I was already pretty sure we could swing that but asked Rob, who trusted my judgement and and said sure.

“How about two?” Marina asked.

We thought about it and said: sure.

“How about three?” she said with a smile.

In the end, we got six interns for that round, thanks to WMF’s contribution and to money that Marina Zhurakhinskaya and Karen Sandler got from Google’s Open Source Programs Office. And Wikimedia and other projects continue to work through Outreachy recruit, nurture, and retain a more diverse variety of participants – now across more dimensions, not just gender – through what is now Outreachy.

And I remember another conversation a few years later, I think during Open Source Bridge in 2014, I talked with Marina at an event and mentioned an observation I’d made: Wikimedia’s Outreachy participants knew they wanted to use the internship to advance their careers, but didn’t know how to do that, or even what careers were possible. When I asked them “if it were possible, would you like to keep working for Wikimedia after your internship?” they mostly said yes, but when I said, “have you told your mentor that?” they nearly all said no. I told Marina that it seemed like they needed some structured career guidance – resume reviews, nudges to network, help planning next steps, and so on. She said it sounded like I was volunteering. I basically said, “Nooo! …. Crap, I guess I am. I’ll do it ONCE.” And so I became the first Outreachy Career Development Advisor, and helped recruit the next volunteer to do this stuff when I left.

Both of these stories, I hope, help you understand that Marina was so good at finding and seizing opportunity, recruiting volunteers, systematically accreting the resources Outreachy needed and iterating forward to sustainably grow its impact. And she HANDED IT OVER – it’s now run by a team at Software Freedom Conservancy, and it’s doing great, and she stayed involved the whole time, even co-presenting about it at GUADEC last year. SO MANY PEOPLE wouldn’t have handled these transitions well.

And it’s such a key program. Outreachy helps career changers who are switching from another field, it helps skilled technologists who have never tried open source before, it doesn’t require that participants be coders, and it’s helped at least hundreds of early career participants find their homes in open source and in tech. It’s the kind of rare, well-shaped, effective program that gives people just the right inflection point in their lives, that has and will continue to have ripple effects we’ll never fully measure.

I wish Marina could see what’s to come. I wish she could find out, ten and twenty and thirty years from now, as Outreachy alums do amazing stuff and mentor others. I wish she could know all the ripple effects to come. I wish she could go do other stuff, reusing and building on what she learned from building Outreachy.

My condolences to all of us, and of course in particular to her family. May her memory be a blessing.


Sumana Harihareswara
14 Jun 2022, 22:13 p.m.