Kris Nova a transgender activist and an open-source computer engineer has worked extensively on Linux and Kubernetes. She currently works as a Senior Principal Engineer at Twilio, exclusively on the Kubernetes systems. Her contributions to the open-source community have opened doors for improvements in the IT infrastructure and have helped make the security systems stronger.
This interview sheds light on her achievements in the open-source sphere with a special focus on her continued efforts into making the open-source community diverse and inclusive of the queer community.
On becoming a software engineer
What brought you to open source and computer science?
“The society we live in convinces transgender people of one thing; they aren’t worth existing. Most of us have families that abandoned us which meant we learnt the rules of the world on our own. For me it was no different. As I struggled with understanding my own existence as a transwoman, my relationship with the workplace and the world I lived in I started exploring avenues that would help me identify.
Computer science had always fascinated me but the workplace was a different story. Luckily, programmers were one kind of people who didn’t care who they were working with as long as the code worked and didn’t break anything. As I worked through my trauma and accepted that the workplace, society, and economy for transgender people aren’t magically going to get any better I freed up substantial amount of my time to outperform many privileged folks around me.”
How did you manage to explore this industry without having a formal degree or education?
“In my teens and 20s, I encountered many people who told me that there was no way I could be successful without a proper education, much less make a career out of it. It took a lot of self-confidence for me to ignore those people and pursue my dreams.
I think my attitude helped me when I started working on free and open-source software projects because there were very few contributors from transgender community in this particular tech domain. People sometimes expected me to fail.
I’ve found that the best course of action is to take opportunities to show off your skills no matter what they are. If you have good ideas and a solid track record, you can bring massive change in any industry you’re passionate about working in.”
On Kubernetes and cyber security
Let’s talk about Linux. What is Kubernetes and how would you define your work?
“Let’s put it this way. Linux is a road and Kubernetes is the high way that connects roads together. Think of it like a grid. My job is to keep the highway free of congestion and smooth running so the entire internet can use these highways/grids.
As an open-source software Linux is a very versatile software. You can build blogs, a website or hacking tools on Linux. All major websites like Google, Facebook Twitter and even our cell phones at one point run on top of Linux. Kubernetes is an advanced version of Linux that gives me the same functionality on a large number of computers.
My work is to build and manage systems on top of Linux and Kubernetes. It is a high-paying and in demand job. In simpler words I am a highway architect and all the stuff everyone uses everyday are cars on my highways.”
Tell us more about your new book ‘Hacking Capitalism‘.
“Hacking Capitalism is my answer to a lot of the problems I see every day in the tech industry. It is a consolidated gift of information, tactics, and expectations that I was never given as a broken transgender person that started out homeless.
The tech industry has given me tremendous amounts of opportunity, money, and a glimpse into a world I would otherwise never have had access to. However, it all came at the cost of a lot of pain and trauma caused from exploitation and ruthless competition within Capitalism.
After the 2020 lockdown and following insurrection, I spent a lot of time alone in Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in California. I quickly realized that after about 10 years of fighting the system I was finally at a point where I had the entire system mapped out and modelled within my head. In 2021, I re-entered the industry and quickly found that my job was joyful again. The industry was no longer able to hurt me, because I was finally prepared. Hacking Capitalism is a collection of those lessons and the subsequent modelling that has given me the gift of hope in tech again.
My hope for the book is that if the knowledge to exist as a member of the elite in tech is a commodity, more marginalized folks will be inclined to work at that level and outperform the existing demographic. Who knows? Maybe the new group of elites will be able to have even more influence on the industry if they are able to privilege escalate themselves to the top of the industry faster.”
How do you see the future of open source?
“Perfect open source is built on true collaboration. It will require truly investing in common goals together as a community. The closest capitalism will ever get to collaboration is loose cooperation between participating corporations. In other words, capitalism’s love of competition will never let open-source flourish the way I think we all want it to. The best we will ever get is when freak projects like Linux and Kubernetes that are a reflection of cooperative independent efforts each fuel subsequent profit motivated corporations. It’s cooperation at best, it will never be true collaboration.
I think it is difficult to achieve open-source utopia, not the way a lot of the purists think we will. Right now, technology has enabled tremendously fast innovation, and the economy is in a rut. I predict we will see a lot of mediocre open-source software bubble up over the next few years and the vast majority of the industry will begin the cycle of building monolithic projects all over again as they realize that the complexity of these mediocre tools isn’t worth it.
Sometime in the future (maybe once we hit another major hardware milestone) another piece of game-changing software will come along and disrupt our ability to build at the current pace with the current resources. I think Linux was the first iteration, Kubernetes was the next, and I bet before 2030 we will see a third.
On her advocacy for better non-binary inclusion in tech
Do you see tech breaking gender conformity and welcoming non-binary individuals?
“I do believe that the industry in general is at a turning point. The group of empowered decision-makers probably have another 10 years at the most left before they start to retire and die off. This means folks like myself are slowly moving up the ladder in terms of title and influence. With the new wave of leaders, comes a tremendous amount of empathy that never existed before. I would like to imagine that in the future being non-binary in tech will be about as exciting as being a vegetarian or being left-handed is today. In other words, I hope that the new generation of workers moving into positions of power bring a tremendous amount of respect for all walks of life on the gender spectrum.”
You’re the founder of a non-profit The Privilege Escalation Foundation. How does it aim to promote better advocacy for the gender minority?
“The Privilege Escalation was a project that came into existence after deep introspection in isolation. My own struggles with being a transgender person made me realize there’s still a huge gap within the system that does not recognize non-binary existence. Once I had this figured out all I needed was to counter it so transgender people would feel motivated to outperform their peers. The problems are multifold but we need to start somewhere. Privilege Escalation Foundation starts with healthcare and education.
I have donated over $1000 to turn my vision into reality. In 2021, we paid out $5000 in sponsorships to various people. This is just the beginning. I believe that the way humans are built or how they choose to identify themselves shouldn’t hold them back. As a transgender computer scientist, my ongoing work expands towards shaping the policies and practices and advancing them for better inclusion of gender minorities.”
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