GSoC: first few lessons learned

For the first time this year I have been admin for a Google Summer of code mentoring organization. Now as Google has announced the students, and while my impressions are still fresh, it’s time to share some lessons.

Don’t allow old project ideas

I allowed a few project ideas from 2010 into the 2011 list. None of them were very popular with students. I think there are two reasons:

  • It’s too easy for mentors to just pick up an old idea. In the end there is a risk that the mentor doesn’t take GSoC and engaging with the students as seriously as he should and don’t get into the right mindset.
  • Applying for a GSoC project is a bit of a gamble for students too: good students will look at ideas lists from several years and will notice that an idea is old and just not apply.

So, if an old idea is used (because it is still relevant), it is probably best to totally re-evaluate and write it from scratch.

Pro-active mentors = Lots of good student applications

We had 13 mentors, who fell roughly into two camps. Mentors who communicated with the students, but could have done better. Mentors who replied to students questions within a couple of days and ensured that there was communication about the proposal, the background, how to solve the actual problem, etc. Much of this discussion happened on a dedicated IRC channel. The projects by the mentors which were pro-active, had more student applications and the applications were of higher quality. As a result, the students working with pro-active mentors were more likely to win. Not entirely surprising. The lesson is, that as an org admin, it is important to work with the mentors early on and filter out proposals early if it becomes clear that the mentors behind these are may not be fully committed.

Unsolicited proposals need discussion with a mentor to succeed

We had a number of unsolicited GSoC proposals. They fell into two categories:

  • The proposal just appeared with little or no discussion with the mentor; in some case no mentor could be found. Needless to say, the proposal could not succeed.
  • The proposal idea was raised by the student in the community, which helped find a mentor early on. We had two such proposals, one of which succeeded.

As an org admin, the challenge is to provide ways of enabling this in a structured way.

A dedicated IRC channel and IRC meetings work

We created a dedicated IRC channel where I and a few of our mentors were present at certain times of the week for students to ask questions. The channel also was used as a channel for mentors and students to have an IRC discussion at an agreed time. We also had a timed open IRC meeting which worked very well. Maybe one meeting is not enough: probably running one at the beginning and one towards the end of the application period is better.

Build gates and motivators into your program

Having a few goals to work towards, both for mentors and students helps focus minds. The GSoC timetable does this, but this is not enough. For example, some of our mentors participated in a mentor meeting early on, to discuss and formulate project ideas. The result were well formulated ideas. The meeting also helped build relationships amongst mentors: agreeing on which students should be chosen can be divisive and knowing each other helps. IRC meetings were good to stimulate engagement between students and mentors and led to draft proposals being made available by students early. And we had mentor meetings to rank student proposals (I disabled the ranking mechanism and forced mentors to attend the meetings).

Encourage good students to hedge their bets

We had a few projects, which had 5 students competing with each other. You could end up in a situation where the top 5 students apply for one project and only one can win. If there was an engaged discussion between mentor and student, the mentor will get a feeling for such situations and should encourage students to apply for another project, or even two. However, this only really works if mentors work together and co-ordinate.

A well run program will lead to repeat applications

Despite having to turn away good students (we just had too many good proposals), we had a few students thanking us for giving them support and leading them through the process. Hopefully these students will apply again in the following year and succeed.


About Lars Kurth

Lars Kurth is a highly effective, passionate community manager with strong experience of working with open source communities (Symbian, Symbian DevCo, Eclipse, GNU) and currently is community manager for Lars has 9 years of experience building and leading engineering teams and a track record of executing several change programs impacting 1000 users. Lars has 16 years of industry experience in the tools and mobile sector working at ARM, Symbian Ltd, Symbian Foundation and Nokia. Lars has strong analytical, communication, influencing and presentation skills, good knowledge of marketing and product management and extensive background in C/C , Java and software development practices which he learned working as community manager, product manager, chief architect, engineering manager and software developer. If you want to know more, check out Personally, Lars has a wide range of interests such as literature, theatre, cinema, cooking and gardening. He is particularly fascinated by orchids and carnivorous plants and has built a rather large collection of plants from all over the world. His love for plants extends into a passion for travel, in particular to see plants grow in their native habitats.
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1 Response to GSoC: first few lessons learned

  1. People tend to acknowledge that mentoring in FLOSS fails as an overall strategy … or to be less extreme, mentoring is not doing so good as the proportion of newcomers who stay involved after programmes such as GSoC is quite small. This statement or conclusion has always bothered me because simply said, mentors are all put in the same basket. What is effective mentoring? What is a good mentor? What shall a mentor do to increase the success of the mentor-mentee relationship? Some mentors are doing an amazing job and their mentees usually stick around. Others aren’t doing such a good job. I have seen several blog posts or comments in which GSoC studnents were saying that their mentors were never answering their emails and never providing any feedback.
    You make a good point when you say that with proactive mentors students are more likely to be successful. I have a feeling that the mentor-mentee relationship is not enough looked at. This is where I would think research could help in identifying factors or practices that kind of optimize the relationship. Mentoring is not new and a lot of research has already been done. There are for instance, two overall types of exchanges, informational and emotional. Perhaps, people do not look enough into the importance of emotional support. There are also different types of feedback. For instance, you have Rogers’ 5 types of feedback: evaluative, supportive, probing, understanding, and interpretive ( I have also been quite interested in knowing how a technique such as ‘scaffolding’ would work ( Some mentors are surely consciously or unconsciously using this technique. Well, I have a feeling so much can be done to improve mentoring in FLOSS.

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