Why do I choose a community developer role over a software developer role in the R community?

tl;dr: Because I seek to maximize the impact of what I do as an academic researcher, instructor, mentor, activist, and the intersection of all of those. Coming from the Global South to the international R community, acting as community developer is the impact maximizer for me. I wish I had the option to open as many doors to other folks in the Global South from the technical role that I am perfectly equipped to have.

As of late, I have been observing the overwhelming majority of women in organizational roles within the R community, where they are otherwise underrepresented. These women are PhD students, post docs, researchers, professors, etc. That is, higly qualified folks, very smart, effective, and hard working. The kind of people anyone would like to work with in the most difficult and challenging projects.

It got me thinking and reminded me that raising kids and caring for elders are the most challenging jobs I ever had, yet the least recognized in our societies. As Mercedes D’Alessandro says in her book “the thing that we call love is unpaid labor.”

I believe the same construct transfers well to organizational and community roles in the R community. Developping communities and organizing successful events is higly complex. Although differently, in my experience, developping communities and organizing successful events are as complex as programming or advancing science. However, developping communities and organizing events are not visible or adequately rewarded positions in the R community.

Data show repeteadly the best feature of R is its community. Without community development and great (safe) spaces (e.g., Slack workspaces, small, medium, and large conferences) where people mingle, the R world would not be as cool and welcoming as it is. Without its awesome community, R would not be what it is. In spite of that, people working on developping communities and organizing events get almost no visibility, prestige, power, or (in most cases) money.

Do you see the pattern yet? Do you see why women are overrepresented in community development and organizing roles and underrepresented in the roles that make a lot more fuzz and get prestige and money?

One can say: they need to stop doing that and program more; it is because there are not enough women equipped to be good programmers; or they choose to be community developers and organizers, nobody forces them. True, nobody forces me. But, do I have a real option?

Short answer: I don’t think so, dear reader.

Longer answer: community development is the only space from which I, a mid-career scientist from the Global South, can make my biggest impact. Most of what I do in the R community is not for myself, but for people in Latin America for whom the doors and paths of the R community are less than clear and not exactly wide open. Having gotten my PhD in the United States and almost two decades of working with US-based researchers put me at a privileged intersection from where I can help a lot openning doors for the Global South.

It is a lot harder to be technically or scientifically recognized by the Global Northwest when you don’t have the friends and network there lending you a hand to go up (e.g., retwitting and promoting your work, interacting with you in Slack workspaces, or even leaving the random emoji or like encouraging you, making you realize you are not invisible).

Without that powerful network pushing you up, the R community at large doesn’t know if the unknown (certainly not-Ivy-league) university where you studied or any other of your credentials and skills are worth their attention. People hardly understand your English, how would they dare to believe you are a kickass scientist or programmer behind that choppy English?

I understand. It is not that the awesome people in the international R community don’t care. Indeed, many care and work hard to make this better and to make the community what it is today. However, none wants to lose their precious time on Earth on people that may not deserve it. Thus, the most efficient ends up being to leave meritocracy do its job.

Let me tell you that merely through the old good Northwestern meritocracy (whatever that is, I will not go into a metrics discussion here as it would take several posts), the persons you get to see and know about are the absolute best. A ton of great talent is left behind. If you gave the salient persons from the Global South the resources of the Global Northwest, have no doubt that they would be stars.

Because of all of the above, I choose to spend my time building communities instead of doing work that would only benefit myself, such as focusing on technical contributions. You will see me working in building communities that put underserved regions in the international map. You will find me visibilizing all the talent that is being left behind because we live in a deeply unequal world.

Keep in mind that there is a finite amount of time. Thus, often, high-quality community building and organization will mean less research and technical work. This generalizes well beyond R, of course.

In summary, it hurts to see the bad practices of academia such as “un(der)appreciated and un(der)paid teaching and organizing events” (as explained by Murray, Crowley, and Wanggren in Feminist Work in Academia and Beyond, p. 226), replicated in the R community. If we want to end disparities, with equity as the main goal, the incentives for community and organization must improve. Women and intersectional minorities are leading essential parts of making R what it is and more prestige, power, and money need to be funneled to this essential work. It is not only the right thing to do, I am willing to bet it would be a great step forward for the R community.

Thank you for your helpful insights and comments to previous versions of this post, Yanina Bellini Saibene, Paola Corrales, and Paloma Rojas-Saunero.

Laura Acion
Adjunct Researcher