Striving for greatness

Thoughts on emerging tech, open source, and life

7 problems GSoC admins encounter

At the always-excellent Mentor Summit for the Google Summer of Code, I ran a session titled “Best Practices for GSoC Admins.” Many of these practices appear specific to a program like GSoC at first glance, but they easily transfer to recruiting new contributors outside GSoC; just imagine the same ideas with less process behind them. Here I want to share the main points of our session and expand upon some of them in the hopes that it can help future GSoC admins and other people interested in recruiting new developers.

We focused primarily on the biggest problems we face as admins. Intriguingly, although perhaps 30 people attended, nearly all the problems were universal (fortunately, some groups had already solved them!). The only exception to their universal nature was that smaller organizations seemed not to require the same level of progress tracking, because missing/poor progress quickly became obvious to everyone in a small group.

Here are the top problems, with suggested solutions:

  1. Tracking progress. Require weekly updates from both students and mentors. This means admins don’t need to personally track every student or ensure the mentor is around. Blogs or wiki pages (“journals”) work for many projects, although some have issues with blogs. A key point is to offload work to mentors so they tell you whether students are on track. Keep a spreadsheet (possibly public for tracking and shame?) to stay on top of things, because it’s easy to lose track after a few weeks.
  2. Knowing student skills. Model the type of things they would do during GSoC on a smaller scale. Require a patch during the application period to prove they can build and modify your software. Additionally, require that students interact with your community so you can consider how (and whether) they will fit in.
  3. Avoiding failure. Check in with students at “quarter points” — halfway between the start and the midterm, and halfway between the midterm and the final. This leaves time to fix any show-stopping problems before they guarantee failure. During the application period, get a calendar of when both students and mentors will be gone so you can take this into account. Investigate problems early to avoid failure instead of waiting until it’s inevitable. In the case of conflicts between students and mentors, admins can act as neutral mediator — make sure everyone knows this when the summer starts so they don’t feel helpless. Some students communicate poorly (grad-school model of independent work), so try to catch this early and push them. Are there non-binary solutions, ways to do something besides just pass or fail? Can we withhold T-shirts, pay less money based on final “grade”, increase number of payments, pay late, etc.
  4. Disappearing/lazy mentors. One major problem here is figuring out what motivates mentors: what are the incentives and punishments? The most common response to unacceptable mentoring was blocking that person from any future mentoring. Is that enough? Nobody knows; it seems to be mostly an after-the-fact solution that may not fix things during the summer.
  5. Inexperienced mentors. Pair new mentors with experienced mentors and/or backup mentors. Admins should offer to be “mentor-mentors,” teaching the beginners how it’s done.
  6. Increasing the number of proposals. Two student audiences exist: those familiar with your project and those who discover it through GSoC. For the first, target non-accepted students from previous years (Reject gently!). Publicize GSoC internally on your mailing lists, websites, etc. For the second, publicize your project in blogs, to college profs, etc. Have a good ideas list (where good means fun and exciting, so students apply to your project). Increase the time between org acceptance and student deadline so students have time to discover exciting organizations and ideas. Have more flexible ideas that give students some ownership (they must expand upon them!).
  7. Improving the quality of proposals. A high-quality application template is key. Problem: at least one organization saw a correlation between adding a template and getting fewer proposals. Could applying be made a two-step process, so that the template is displayed after a student commits to applying to a specific organization? Require a timeline in the proposal to ensure they understand project details at a level sufficient to code them, but allow it to flex once coding starts. Ask specific questions to gauge both understanding and enthusiasm. Do live interviews by IRC or phone, possibly with live coding.

If you have any suggestions for these problems, or more problems you’ve encountered, please let me know in the comments!


Written by Donnie Berkholz

December 14, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Posted in Blog

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2 Responses

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  1. “Problem: at least one organization saw a correlation between adding a template and getting fewer proposals.”

    What’s the theory behind this? That students didn’t know what they were getting themselves into until they saw, at least, the structure of the proposal?

    Matt Turner

    December 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

    • Presumably students who have no idea what organization they want see the template and decide to go somewhere else with easier proposals.

      Donnie Berkholz

      December 15, 2010 at 9:09 am

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