Tales of software craftsmanship

Tales of software craftsmanship

The importance of mentorship in Google Summer of Code

I’ve been asked by Lydia, the ultimate social media ninja of KDE and Amarok’s community manager to put together a brief post about my opinions on the importance of mentorship and organization in a student outreach program such as Google Summer of Code based on my experience as a GSoC student. I’ve been a GSoC student twice and a volunteer Summer of KDE student the year before that, so I hope I can provide some insight from a student’s point of view. The KDE GSoC admins&mentors team has done a terrific job so far, and I’m very satisfied with their performance. Thank you, GSoC admins&mentors!

I have tried to gather a list of situations where as a GSoC student I could greatly benefit from good mentorship:

  • Planning. While I surely did have a vision and a somewhat clear direction where I wanted to take my project, I wasn’t always sure about the details of the implementation, and specifically how and where to tie my stuff in with the existing codebase. My mentor helped me a lot with planning and design, and we shared a design document in Google Docs that was to be kept up to date for the duration of the GSoC program. I believe that while the strong motivation of a student pushes the project forward, the direction has to be overseen and frequently discussed with the mentor to make the student’s project useful for the organization and to avoid rookie mistakes when laying out the design.
  • Code review. When I started with GSoC I was very much a noob about Qt and I didn’t have a lot of coding experience. Regular code review by my mentor and the other team members was very important to improve the quality of my output. I believe that at least occasional code reviews in the first weeks of the GSoC program (unrelated to the final review before merging the branch) can straighten out important details before they become serious issues later on.
  • Team interaction. When I started with GSoC I didn’t know anybody in the Amarok team. I didn’t know anything about the social structure and most importantly, I didn’t know which team member I should poke about specific parts of the codebase. In those times it was very important for me to have someone (mentor, community manager) to ask questions such as “Who has knowledge about this bit of code? Can I make change X on code Y or would that make person Z angry?”. I did ask those questions pretty often.
  • Technical questions. The life of a GSoC student can be pretty intense, between coursework, exams and coding. For this reason, while my output was quite consistent, coding could happen at any time of the day. I’m very grateful that my mentor Nikolaj Hald Nielsen was almost always available to answer my questions, and when he wasn’t, there was a clearly appointed second-in-command I could go to. This is perhaps the most important entry in this list. Rules such as “the whole team will mentor you” or “ask in the IRC channel and someone will answer” just won’t do with first time students! I know I wasn’t very comfortable with asking just any question in IRC, especially if I felt that the answer could be something that “anybody ought to know”. Sometimes I just needed a confirmation to make sure I was doing the right thing.

To sum it up, I believe that KDE has a great admins&mentors team, and I can testify that also because of this doing GSoC for KDE was a very rewarding experience.

However, it has come to my attention (also during this year’s Google Code-in) that for the fairly small admins&mentors team a large scale student outreach program such as GSoC creates a huge workload.

KDE contributors are encouraged to help with the organization to make the recently announced GSoC 2011 the most successful GSoC ever: feel free to add your ideas to our GSoC 2011 ideas page, and if there’s an area of KDE you know well, why not be a mentor this year?

The KDE GSoC team is looking for good mentors with lots of cool ideas, and especially if you’re a former GSoC student and you’re not a student any more, you might be the perfect candidate to become a GSoC 2011 mentor. To apply as a mentor visit #kde-soc on Freenode.

2 Comments

  • Reply Godzilla_Geek |

    Great post.

    Mentors are scarce these days. People don’t seem to care about helping beginners learn. To me that is such a tragic reality. Experienced programmers need to realize that if they don’t train new programmers, their lovely craft will deteriorate with time.

    I’d love to be part of the GSoC2011.

    Could iprogrammingclub.com somehow help out?

  • Reply Ian Monroe |

    @Godzilla_Geek not really sure how someone outside of the KDE community could help. Teo’s list is a good one, and you can see 95% of it requires someone with knowledge of the community.

    That said, they could help by becoming members of KDE themselves. 😀 Its not so hard.

    @Teo one thing I would add is to make sure the mentors are constantly tracking the progress of their student, preferably with quick (could be 2 minutes) daily sync meetings or perhaps with a daily email. Even if you are a motivated student, like I would say we both were, sometimes it is possible to get sidetracked onto a problem that is hard to crack. So the mentor needs to make sure things are focused.

    (Actually everything I wrote in the previous paragraph is true of any software engineering project. Just replace student with engineer and mentor with project manager. :D)

    And regarding some experience I’ve had with failing students, the first three weeks or so are crucial. Getting over the step of writing their first real non-skeleton code is sometimes the toughest. Why when selecting students, we should always prefer students who have made it that far already.

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