Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles The Journey from Underrepresented IC to CTO: How Open Source Helped

The Journey from Underrepresented IC to CTO: How Open Source Helped

Key Takeaways

  • It is hard for women to make the leap from IC to CTO when they don't see themselves represented.
  • You need to examine the pros and cons when thinking about your career from a woman's perspective.
  • When taking on an open source initiative you need to consider how to develop it  from zero.
  • Apache ShardingSphere is an example of a healthy and sustainable open source community.
  • Know the boundary between commercialization and open source, and consider the feasibility of open-source commercialization.


"How do you feel about your job as a CTO?" As a woman striving to make a name for herself and redefine expectations in the tech and open-source fields, I have often been asked this question in interviews and conferences. At first, I didn't have a specific answer because I assumed that everything happened as it should. My goal was clear, I visualized where I wanted to be, set my goals, planned my roadmap, and then worked hard, hoping luck would also be on my side.

Recently, a question I saw on Twitter, "What's the future for a DBA?" reminded me of my career transition and the discomfort I felt during my last performance evaluation when I was up for a promotion at my previous employer. I spent almost twice as much time as the other male candidates answering the interviewers' aggressive questions and demonstrating my competence for the role. I felt frustrated, wronged, and unfairly treated at the time. It was the first time I had noticed this kind of gender disparity.

At the same time, I reflected on my growth up to that point and the kindness I found throughout my open-source and tech journey. These mixed emotions prompted me to reconsider the question, "How do you feel about your job as a CTO, especially as a woman?"

Taking a step back and reflecting on everything that happened, I think it's a good time to share valuable points and experiences that made me who I am today:

  • How to view your tech career and make career shifts
  • How to leverage open-source to advance your career prospects
  • The distinction between IC (Individual Contributor) and CTO
  • How to deal with open-source monetization
  • The true story of an Asian woman in technology

Overall, I believe that these topics can be helpful to anyone, regardless of gender, who is seeking to build a successful career in the tech industry.


The following diagram depicts the timeline of my journey, with different focuses and topics at different stages of this line. If you're reading this, I suspect that you're going through a similar career transition or at least considering one. I will use this timeline as a thread to share my thoughts and experiences based on these points.

From a tech role to becoming an Individual Contributor

Transitioning from a tech role to becoming an Individual Contributor (IC) was a pivotal moment in my career journey. I began as a Database Administrator (DBA), and while I was grateful for the experience, I knew I needed to set myself apart and differentiate myself from the average DBA to advance in my career. I realized that simply working hard and being a "reactive" employee would not be enough to achieve my goals. So, I turned to open source and programming to find a solution.

After a few years as a DBA, I made the decision to become a programmer (DevOps). This move was met with resistance from my director and colleagues, but I persisted and eventually found success in open-source and DevOps. I was able to leverage my programming skills to create new tools, platforms, and software to solve companies' and people's infrastructure technology challenges. This role transition allowed me to become a "proactive" value creator rather than a "reactive" firefighter.

Why open-source?

One of the reasons why I turned to open source was that I saw the value in it for my professional development. While some people view open-source as having no relevance to their job or career, I believe it can be a powerful tool. Open-source allows you to solve problems and contribute to projects, giving you the opportunity to grow your skills and reputation in the industry.

If you are invited to contribute to an open-source project, you may wonder what you can gain from it. As an open-source contributor or maintainer, you can benefit in several ways. For instance:

  • You can improve your programming skills and knowledge by working on real-world projects with experienced developers.
  • You can build a portfolio of work that showcases your abilities and demonstrates your contributions to the community.
  • You can gain recognition and respect from your peers and potential employers by being an active and valuable member of an open-source community.
  • You can potentially earn income through consulting or support services related to open-source projects.

Overall, transitioning from a tech role to becoming an IC was a challenging yet rewarding experience. By embracing open-source, I was able to take my career to the next level and become a proactive value creator in the tech industry.

Becoming an open-source contributor or maintainer can have many benefits, including enhancing your skillsets, improving your understanding of the tech field, networking and collaboration opportunities, professional opportunities, and career development. By participating in open-source communities, you can learn new skills, gain practical experience, make important professional connections, and potentially advance your career. If you're interested in getting started in open source, look for well-known and welcoming communities, consider participating in hackathons or other events, and explore opportunities to work for commercial open-source companies.

Don't let others define who you are or limit your options

If I were to share my experiences and insights about women in technology and open source, I'd say that it's unfortunate that there is still a significant gender gap in STEM fields, and it's important that we continue to work towards creating a more inclusive and diverse environment for everyone.

As for the career options in open-source, I can only provide some suggestions for individuals looking to advance their careers in this field. Each option comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities, and it's important for individuals to consider their skills, interests, and priorities when making a decision. It's also important to note that the difficulty level may vary for each person, depending on their experience and background.

In any case, it's encouraging to see that there are many opportunities available for individuals who are passionate about open-source and are looking to make a career out of it. As open-source continues to grow and evolve, I believe that there will be even more opportunities and challenges that arise, and it's important for individuals to stay adaptable and keep learning in order to stay competitive in the field.

How to choose your career

Choosing the right career path can be a challenging task. With numerous options available, it can be difficult to make the best choice. You may also wonder if it's the right time for you to make a career change. Ultimately, the responsibility of choosing your career lies with you. However, the following methods and ideas can offer some useful insights to aid your decision-making process.

To begin, it's important to analyze yourself. Consider your interests, skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Reflect on what motivates you, what you enjoy doing, and what you're passionate about. This introspective process can help you identify career options that align with your personal preferences and goals.

Next, research various industries and professions that match your interests and skills. Look into the current and future job market trends, salary ranges, and career growth opportunities. It's essential to have a good understanding of the industry before committing to a career path.

Furthermore, consider seeking advice from professionals in the field you're interested in. Conduct informational interviews with people who have experience in your desired career path. This will provide you with valuable insights and help you understand the day-to-day realities of the profession.

Once you have identified potential career paths, it's important to gain relevant experience and skills. Consider taking courses or training programs to develop your expertise. Volunteering or interning in your desired field can also provide valuable hands-on experience.

Finally, it's important to regularly reassess your career path. As you gain experience and knowledge, your interests and goals may change. Stay open to new opportunities and be willing to make adjustments to your career plans as necessary.

In summary, choosing the right career path requires introspection, research, and gaining relevant experience. Regularly reassess your career path and stay open to new opportunities. By following these methods and ideas, you can make an informed decision about your career and work towards achieving your goals.


When it comes to choosing a career, there are many factors to consider. However, I believe that interests should be prioritized. While compensation and company brand is important, job satisfaction is essential for long-term success.

If a job doesn't align with your interests and passions, it can feel like torture to show up every day. This can lead to decreased motivation, productivity, and competitiveness. On the other hand, if your job is fulfilling and enjoyable, you'll look forward to going to work each day. You'll be eager to learn and grow, which can lead to increased creativity and positive energy.

I personally experienced the benefits of pursuing my interests in my career. In 2021, I spent my holidays working on GitHub, which demonstrated my passion for programming and the ShardingSphere community. I prioritized this work over other leisure activities, which ultimately led to my promotion. However, I ultimately decided to resign to pursue my startup venture, which aligned even more closely with my interests.

Of course, it's important to balance your interests with practical considerations such as salary and job security. However, prioritizing your passions can lead to greater fulfillment and success in the long run. When you're passionate about your work, you're more likely to be motivated, productive, and innovative. So when considering your career path, don't forget to prioritize your interests and passions.


When considering your circumstances, there are two important factors to keep in mind:

  1. Industry Outlook: Choosing a promising industry is key to securing a job with a high starting salary and future opportunities for growth. It's important to strive in the right direction and move up, rather than run in the opposite direction. Even if you're a veteran in a shrinking industry, my advice is to pick a growing industry and jump into it. This can lead to a bright new career path and greater financial stability.

  2. Work Environment: The environment you work in can shape your mindset and character, which can ultimately impact your future earnings and growth. It's not just about the salary figure, but the people and environment that you work with. When I graduated with my Master's degree, I chose to work in the Internet industry over a government department because I was drawn to the open and flourishing environment. As a result, I became more extroverted, open, and logical over time. The people and environment you interact with can have complex effects on your personal and professional growth.

In summary, when considering your circumstances, it's important to choose a promising industry that aligns with your interests and jump into a work environment that fosters personal and professional growth. By taking these factors into account, you can set yourself up for success in the long run.


Capabilities are composed of both hard and soft skills, which are equally important in my opinion. When searching for a soul mate, their looks may not be the only deciding factor, as their qualities, personalities, and other traits also play a significant role in our decision-making. Similarly, in choosing a career, it's important to not only focus on your expertise, but also actively practice your communication, presentation, and other soft skills.

I remember when I gave my first offline talk, I was so nervous that I forgot my department name and only managed to pronounce 'a ... en ...'. Despite spending a week writing and reciting every word of my slides, my nerves got the better of me. However, with practice and persistence, I was able to improve and can now give fluent presentations within a day or two. This experience serves as a reminder that it's possible to learn new skills if you allow yourself to try and practice them.

In summary, developing both hard and soft skills is essential to achieving success in your career. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and practice new skills - it's the key to personal and professional growth.

Breaking Stereotypes: Empowering Women to Pursue Their Passions and Goals in Evolving Career Landscapes

As a woman, I want to address a topic that's dear to me. There's a prevalent belief that men are better suited for certain careers or disciplines, while women are better suited for others. However, I reject this notion. These ideas are based on outdated stereotypes and biased surveys. If we cling to these beliefs, we'll never see progress. The world is constantly evolving, and people's mindsets are changing too. For instance, some men choose to stay at home and care for their children, while some women aspire to become pilots, not flight attendants. Don't let others define who you are or limit your options. It's up to you to make choices that align with your passions and goals. I understand how difficult it can be, as I've struggled with this myself.

I believe that sharing personal stories can help others, particularly women, who may feel isolated in their struggles. It's important to know that you're not alone and that there are countless success stories out there. However, I also want to caution against assuming that you're the only one facing challenges. There are many men and women who face various obstacles and are working hard to overcome them. You're not the only one who's experienced difficulties. For example, I used to believe that forced marriage only affected women until my gym coach confided in me about his recent pressure to marry. It's a reminder that these issues can affect anyone.

Open source startup

If you're up for a serious challenge in your open-source career, consider starting an open-source startup. While I won't go into the details of open-source monetization, from my personal experience, the key paths to success for an open-source startup are through open-core, support and service, and SaaS models.

However, despite this knowledge, it's still incredibly difficult to make it work and achieve a successful exit. According to statistics, the failure rate for startups is between 80% to 90%. As someone who has explored the world of open-source businesses, I would like to share my own journey transitioning from a developer to a CTO and co-founder of SphereEx.

Open source business vs Proprietary technology business

Evaluation models for standard software companies and open-source business companies differ significantly. In an open-source business, the focus of valuation shifts depending on the stage of the company. At the start, venture capitalists are interested in the maintenance team's skills and basic statistics of the open-source project, such as the number of contributors and GitHub launches. As the company develops, the product's market fit, the number of key account customers, and user adoption become important indicators to evaluate. Finally, revenue and its growth curve become the primary key performance indicators.

Compared to proprietary technology, open-source provides several advantages for startup companies, including trust, credibility, a good reputation, and a large user base. These factors offer significant value, such as aiding customer acquisition and talent hunting. Furthermore, open-source is changing the product development paradigm by enabling shorter development cycles to reduce time to market and shortening the distance between developers and customers or users.

However, both standard software and open-source companies aim for market share and revenue, which are inherent properties of any business.

Community vs Company

It's important to recognize the difference between being a maintainer in an open-source community and a C-level executive in a startup company. It's true that the two roles require different skill sets, and transitioning from one to the other can be a challenge. However, there are also transferable capabilities that can help you succeed in both roles.

Communication, presentation, and cooperation skills are all essential for building and managing a successful open-source community, as well as for leading a startup company. Additionally, the experience of running an open-source community can provide valuable insights into building a successful business, such as understanding user needs, fostering collaboration, and promoting projects.

Ultimately, the key is to recognize the differences between the two roles, while also building on the skills and experiences that can help you succeed in both.

A Woman's Perspective

During a C-level meeting, I found myself as the only woman in the room, and the initial atmosphere was uncomfortable for both myself and others present. Despite my qualifications, some clients with traditional views would express suspicion toward me, and I would often have to rely on my male colleagues to move the conversation forward.

This experience left me feeling frustrated and questioning whether looks and age take precedence over skills and experience. However, these challenges ultimately provided me with opportunities to strengthen my self-confidence and reconnect with my ambitions and patience.

It's important to recognize and utilize our strengths and weaknesses, as this is essential for our personal growth and survival. It's also important to acknowledge that gender should not imply guilt or blame. As a child, I had internalized negative attitudes towards my gender due to the disapproval of girls in my family. Learning to accept and take care of oneself is a lengthy but necessary process to gain the approval of others.


In conclusion, while I recognize that this article may contain some abstract or emotional elements, I also understand the importance of providing practical advice and spiritual support to aid us in our journeys. I hope that you have gained some valuable insights from this piece, such as the potential of open-source to propel your career, enhance your startup experience, and inspire your career path.

The internet is a powerful tool that has opened up a vast space for people to connect, share stories, and learn from one another. While it is not without its drawbacks, I believe that the diverse array of experiences and perspectives that are shared online can help drive positive change in society. As a woman living in the 21st century, I consider myself fortunate to have access to opportunities that were not available to women in previous decades.

About the Author

Rate this Article