Increasing participation and diversity in open source software projects is critical to yielding unique and innovative solutions says Bloomberg Regional Engineering Manager, Christine Flounders. This is driving the company to sponsor this year’s WISE International Open Source Award to recognize female contributors of open source projects.
Now in its fifth year, the awards celebrate individuals and organizations that help inspire and create opportunities for women studying, working in, and advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“Open source software powers some of the most critical systems and tools utilized by industry today, from startups to massive corporates,” says Flounders, “but is too often built by teams even less diverse than typical commercial software development teams.”
Bloomberg has been using open source search and retrieval technology for a number of years and wants to inspire more women to get involved. Ahead of the WISE awards, one of their leading female open source contributors, software developer Christine Poerschke, sits down with us to tell us about her work and how it plays a part in Bloomberg’s products.
Tell us about your role at Bloomberg.
I’m a software developer on the news search team. We are responsible for the back-end systems which drive the news search functionality on the Bloomberg Terminal. On a typical day, our systems handle 9 to 10 million search requests and index around a million news stories, from multiple sources. At peak times we receive up to 500 news stories per second and these need to be available for search very quickly, in real-time. I am also a committer on the Apache Lucene/Solr open source project.
How is open source software improving news search at Bloomberg?
We recently replaced one of our existing systems and chose the open source Apache Solr search platform as the basis for the re-engineered news search backend. The third-party product we previously used had reached the end of its life and it lacked features like scalable support for relevance-sorted search results.
One of the significant benefits of open source software is access to the source code and the ability to make changes. Apache Solr and Apache Lucene are actively maintained and extended by a large and diverse community of users and developers worldwide. I, along with others at Bloomberg, am an active part of this community, contributing fixes and new features.
Every company is proud of its “secret sauce,” its special software that makes its services stand out. How does that sit with the ethos of open source?
“Secret sauce” is a great analogy. On its own, sauce isn’t a proper meal – you need pasta or something to go along with it. Adopting open source technology is kind of like combining shop bought pasta with your family’s special homemade sauce recipe; it’s possible to combine proprietary and open source software.
Not every piece of code is suitable for open source – secret sauce recipe aside, sometimes there are just very specific bits of code that would not be of interest to anyone else. On the other hand, every company needs data replication code in one form or another, and it is hard to create a fully-fledged solution from scratch.
Established, open source projects – like Solr – are the result of many years of programmer effort and development expertise. We leverage open source technology and we are part of the community that maintains and extends it. Building upon a proven search platform instead of reinventing the wheel means we can better focus our efforts on creating the next secret sauce recipe, or indeed a new open source shape of pasta.
What are you working on at the moment?
My day job is varied, and I’m usually working across multiple things at once. One really interesting project which I’m helping with is integrating Learning-To-Rank support into Solr. Learning-to-rank algorithms are one way to improve the user’s search experience. I’m helping to review and adapt the code, and then to commit it to the upstream code base. Relevance is a big challenge for search. Whatever you are searching on, usually there are many matching results and users expect to see the best, most relevant content first.
What’s been your career path or route into software development?
I did science at school but then opted against studying Computer Science at university because it seemed too specialized. Instead I did a modular degree at Oxford Brookes University, combining Computing and Business Administration and Management. Then I unexpectedly stayed on to do a PhD, working on developing an intelligent handheld insulin dose advisor for patients with Type 1 diabetes.
I joined Bloomberg in 2004, after my PhD, as a junior software developer. Over the years I’ve worked on all sorts of projects and with all sorts of technologies, from high-visibility features that are on every terminal user’s screen through to behind-the-scenes squeezing out milliseconds in the inflowing news pipeline. What excites me about my work and about software development is that it’s not just about the code you write or what programming language you use, it’s about using technology to build something – a solution or an application, that is useful and makes a difference.
How can companies get more people inspired to be a part of Open Source software?
More case studies would be on the top of my wish list. If your company is using open source, share your story. Once people are inspired to take part, there need to be practical paths to contributing to open source.
Different projects operate in different ways and there are different types of open source licenses. Companies blanket banning their employees from contributing to open source is unhelpful. Instead, freedom for people to explore open source should be the norm. And for employees who wish to actively participate, a combination of common sense guidance and trust is essential, to ensure that contributing to open source is beneficial for the company, the employee and the open source community.