Feature : Summer’s here, code up!

This year I’m hoping to take part in the Google Summer of Code, hereafter referred to as GSoC for brevity and memory saving reasons.  I mentored in GSoC back in 2007 and I thought it would be nice to run a small feature on it, looking at the advantages, disadvantages, loves and losses of the scheme.

To introduce, for those of your that have been living in caves for the past few years, GSoC is a scheme to get students doing some real paid coding work over the summer months.  Google pick a certain number of Open Source mentoring organisations, and each organisation is then assigned a number of projects for students to work on. Students currently receive $4500 for completing the program, and the mentoring organisation receives $400 for each student who finishes.  “$4500!!!! That’s a hefty some of cash,” I hear you say.  Well, yes it is, but it’s also a great motivation to actually getting something done.  Unlike some of the development that goes on in the Open Source community which is very ad-hoc in nature, the GSoC requires a fairly rigid planning document, detailing what goals are to be achieved, time-lines, etc.  In short, introducing the student to real project planning.

Obviously the goals must be achievable and also must be useful to the mentoring organisation.  There’s no point submitting a student application to improve the ability of GIMP to produce RSS feeds of all the actions you make to your images, because the chances are 99.999% are not going to want it, even if you did spend all summer creating it.

Mentoring organisations provide a “mentor” for the student, who guides them through the whole process and steps in when they feel the student needs a little help.  Students benefit from having someone with more experience take them under their wing for a while, whilst mentors often gain some experience in managing people/resources.

Well, I noticed the activity when reading the Planet Ubuntu feed and thought it would be a good opportunity to become more active in Open Source Software. From there, I was able to “attach” to a mentor and with a few recommendations and ideas I was lucky enough to get in. Summer IS for fun, and I had a great time programming and learning how to work with an online community.

For me it was the perfect transition from unconfident programmer, to knowing I could at least do something that could make a difference. It was also great motivator. My wife found it hard to to think that buying a computer was worth it’s invest, but when we took the money I got from Google Summer of Code, our views and ideas of a computer totally changed. It’s not about entertainment, and education any more. It was all about a tool that could help me and my family make money. A beautiful thing indeed!

Jason Brower – GSoC 2007 Student

It’s a great way for people to get rewarded for contributing good solid code to a community project, but does it get abused?  Students get paid for the work that they do over the summer period, but the terms of the agreement state nothing about what happens thereafter and rightly so.  You don’t want students getting tied in to years of work for no benefit.  Of course if students want to do that, then it becomes the root of the drive behind Open Source.  However, is it abuse when a student states from the outset that they are only going to do what has been specified in the task, and nothing else?  I have seen several instances where students have flat out refused to maintain the code after it’s completed.  Whilst this isn’t against the letter of the GSoC law, I kinda feel that it is against the spirit.  It could be argued that, “Hey, welcome to the world of real work, you only get paid to do what you’ve been asked to do.”  I understand this.  After all I do work in the IT field, but it really does seem to be going against the grain of Open Source in general, swimming against the current.

Then there are problems on the mentor side too.  There have been several students who have been left floundering because they can’t get hold of their mentor or their mentor never responds to emails.  Mentors should remember that they have made an agreement to help the student, if they can’t commit the time, then realistically they should give up the position to someone who can, however this doesn’t always happen.  It’s sad, but I remember one student who several weeks into the scheme found out his mentor had left, and he had no one else left to mentor him.

At MoiMoin Wiki project, we are pleased that we can participate inoogle Summer of Code 2009 again. This is the 4th time for us and our SOC projects were mostly a success in the past – we enjoyed mentoring the students, the students learned a lot from us (real world coding in Python, testing, using DVCS, group work and communication within the F/OSS community, …) and it brought the MoinMoin project big steps forward because the student developers could focus on bigger projects for a few months (instead of the main developers who are usually just using their spare time and don’t do MoinMoin Wiki development as full time job).

We are very thankful that Google is funding students to help us and that we can help getting them into F/OSS development – this is definitely much better than grilling hamburgers in your summer vacation.

Thomas Waldmann – Project Admin Moin 2009

For some students, this isn’t really an issue.  To be honest, many of them get involved in Open Source in their first or second years of university, and by the time they go to get involved in GSoC they are already well established programmers with hundreds of hours under their belt.  To them GSoC is a vital part of maintaining their education by paying for fees etc.  They don’t necessarily need a mentor, but formally and ritually it is a good thing to have.

Problems aside, the list of organisations that have been included in this years GSoC is as varied as the last; including big names such as WordPress, MySQL and Moin, along with smaller, but equally as important ones such as Abiword, BlueZ and the Etherboot project.  It’s exceedingly important that we invest in the future developers of the Open Source realm, and a hearty commendation must go to Google for funding what is surely an expensive investment.  1000 student projects multiplied by $4500, is not a small some of money.  Agreed that for the Google giant it’s probably a small drop in the ocean, however kudos to Google for organising and maintaining the event year in, year out.

Having participated in Google’s Summer of Code in the past, I learned a lot of cool stuff. Not only did it improve my programming skills, it also made me think of new ways to do things and gave me new insights on collaborative work with people you don’t meet in person.

When last year’s GSoC ended, I already knew I was going to apply again this year. I was lucky that the organization I wanted to work with got accepted and that I can now continue to work on the things I didn’t have the time to do last year. This year, I am far more confident with respect to what I think I can accomplish because I already know many of the internals of the software I am (hopefully) going to work with.

While money certainly is a motivator, it is not the main reason for my participation. There are some things I am excited about that I want to do; And if I’m allowed, I will do these exact things (and even get paid for them! Now isn’t that great? :-))

Christopher Denter – Prospective Student 2009

I can think of only a few other organisations that have initiatives to help cater for and nuture the younger Open Source generations.  Had GSoC been around when I was in university, and had I actually been interested in Open Source at the time, I would have jumped at the chance to earn $4500 doing something that I loved doing.  Don’t get me wrong, I still spent a vast amount of time on the computer, but I was a very commercialised little boy, drawing CGI images in TrueSpace and making music with Logic Audio.

As a previous mentor I can certainly vouch for the effectiveness of the program.  It gives people a new way to think about things, on both sides of the fence.  Students learn from mentors just as much as mentors learn from students.  If that doesn’t happen something is seriously wrong.  It gives students a motivation, something credible and impressive to put on their CV, and sometimes opens up new opportunities that they may have never previously had access to.  It often integrates them even more into the community and really gives them a sense of worth, a feeling of achievement, from start to finish.

Having said this, there are still those who, for whatever reason, don’t finish.  Whether it be a lack of mentor input, a lack of talent, or even plain boneidleness, there are a few that don’t make it through the gauntlet that is GSoC.  After all it isn’t a walk in the park for some.  In fact, for some it’s down right difficult.  Project planning isn’t something that comes naturally to all.  Many people are used to working in the ad-hoc way and to be honest sometimes fight against the idea of authority.

Overall for all the good points and the bad, the GSoC is a fantastic project.  If you are in full time education, you’ve missed the boat this year, but try to look out for GSoC next year.  The student I mentored last year has gone on to do many great things and I feel very privilaged to have been a part of that.  Yes it sounds sappy, but totally true.

  1. April 17th, 2009

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