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
- 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.