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Don't stop at the summer project!

16 Sep 2014

Note: this is work in progress. I’d like to improve this post to include universal opinions, so I’d appreciate any feedback!

Ouch, two summers with Fedora are over! As far as GlitterGallery news goes: Emily’s working on setting up a demo for design team, fantastic Paul is scrubbing up some final pre-release bugs and more potential contributors are now showing up. As far as GSoC itself is concerned: Google’s sent over money, the tshirt should be here soon enough and it doesn’t look like any more formalities are pending. Time to pack, find a job, and say goodbye to friends at Fedora project, right?

Wrong.

The other day, Kushal called me up and mentioned his concerns with students disappearing once their GSoC projects are over, and once they have their money. The experienced folks in most communities share the same disappointment. I couldn’t agree less, and promised to write about it, hence this post. I’m not sure who the target readers should be, but my best guess would be anyone aspiring to start contributing to a FLOSS project, especially students hoping do a GSoC next year :-)

Why bother contributing to a FLOSS project?

Let’s be done with the incentives first. Sure, there’s the geek-badge associated with it, and you’re helping make the world a better place. What other incentives do FLOSS communites offer? Here are the ones that attract me:

  • Something meaningful to work on: If you’re a student stuck in a place where they make you do things you aren’t motivated about (I hear jobs aren’t too different), then being involved in a community can make your spent time meaningful. It doesn’t really have to be a FLOSS community, but in my case, it seems to have worked out well. I would rather feel awesome about having built a small piece of software that does something for me, over mugging an outdated book on “Net Centric Programming”.

  • Jobs, money, opportunities: Depending on your case, you may not necessarily get paid, but typical FLOSS communities have participants from world over => you get exposed to a lot of opportunities you wouldn’t hear of otherwise. Many of my professors think the idea of writing FLOSS is stupid. As a result, their understanding of opportunities is limited to campus placements. It doesn’t really have to be! I have come to learn that there’s an entire industry of people who land jobs just based on links to stuff they’ve worked on.

  • Friends around the world: It’s embarrasing I didn’t know of a country by the name Czech Republic until about last December. Now I not only have friends from Cz who I speak to quite often, I actually was in Prague a month ago and even did a talk! My summer mentor is from the USA. My closest friend is a German. On a daily basis, I probably end up interacting with someone from each continent. It’s a lot of fun learning how things in other places work. If you’re from India like me, the idea of trains departing at times like 15:29 should impress you.

Why not contribute?

However much FLOSSy geeks will brag about their flawlessness, FLOSS communities aren’t for everyone. Some hints:

  • You need a certificate for showing up: I wish I could wrap two bold tags there. Please contribute only if you want to do it for the fun of it. Most people in any community exist because they want to improve or utilize a skill, not because they can stack up a bunch of certificates on their resume.

  • You need to be spoonfed Unfortunately, as much as everyone would like to help new contributors to a project, showing people around takes time. Sure, we’re willing to put in an hour or two every week finding links and emailing you. But if you aren’t going to read them, and learn to find more links, then you’re making things difficult.

  • You need to made ambassador the first thing, just so you have a tshirt: Here’s the thing about Ambassador programs - they were created to provide structure for contributors to show off the awesome stuff they’re building. If you aren’t contributing, you need to do that first. Ideally, if there are incentives coming up (swag, flight tickets, whatever), they go to the active folks first. Of course there are exceptions once in a while when new people are encouraged with incentives when they seem promising, that’s different. (I have had a junior ask me what organization offers the best perks so he could contribute there, and another one wanting to fly to a different continent at a community’s expense, because she wanted to attend a Django workshop).

In my case, I got involved with the Fedora community through a design team project I ended up co-authoring. But I’d say it was just a starting point! I don’t have unlimited time thanks to University classes, but with what I have, I contribute where I can. It really doesn’t have to be limited to my project (although that’s where I focus my efforts on) - it could be a random broken wiki page. These days I’m cleaning up expired requests on our request-tracking system. A while ago, I started with Inkscape and attempted Fedora.next logos. On other days I hang out on IRC channels geared at helping newbies. Even though Fedora infra doesn’t do ruby oriented projects, I sometimes hang out in their meetings to see what they’re up to. I don’t understand how Marketing works, so next I’m planning to give it a shot. Ultimately, the goal is to quickly pick up a skill, while improving Fedora as a community in whatever small way I can.

That’s something I’d request everyone to do. Being involved with a GSoC or a similar summer engagement is fun - you get to work on something large enough to be accountable for, while being small enough to pick up quickly. But try to look around - find projects that your project depends on. Fix them. Find projects that could use yours. Fix them. If they don’t exist, make them! I bet Kushal wants to convey the same message: just don’t stop with your project. A successful summer is a good thing - but if you’re simply going to disappear, then it’s purpose is defeated. You have to justify the time your mentor spent on you! :-)

On an ending note, how would you look for more areas to contribute? It’s simple - ask your mentor. Or just try to remember the inconvenience you had with library X compiling too slow. It was a good thing you overlooked it then because you had to keep track of the bigger picture. Now’s the time to return to it and fix it. Also, try to attend events relevant to what you’re working on. I’m really lucky Gnokii invited me to LGM in his country - I ended up finding another project to use within GlitterGallery, for a start.

There’s almost always everts happening around where you live. I’m in Coimbatore which is relatively sleepy, but I travel to Bangalore about every month to participate at an event. If you find an event that could benefit from you, try and ask the organizers if you could be funded. Just don’t stop!