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A Look at Student Mentoring and Linux Learners Student Day

The Linux Foundation is taking a cue from The Who, and providing a Magic Bus to LinuxCon in Vancouver, B.C. from Portland, Ore. for students who want to learn about contributing to Linux.

The target audience for the Linux Learners' Student Day are probably too young to appreciate the classic rock goodness of The Who, but they're the right age for getting involved in Linux development. The "LinuxCon or Bust" bus is being co-hosted with the Oregon State University Open Source Lab (OSUOSL). The destination? Linux Learners' Student Day, which takes place the day before LinuxCon (August 16, 2011) for a full day program that includes sessions on Linux basics, and an introduction to embedded systems, and an introduction to Python programming.

This isn't a one-way trip, of course. For $300, students will be able to get a package that includes transportation from Portland to Vancouver on August 15th and five nights at the YWCA Hotel in Vancouver, and the return trip on August 20th. (Note that rooms are shared, up to five students per room.) This also includes the Linux Learners' Student Day, and student registration to LinuxCon. Students can also sign up for transportation only (no room) for $50.

This is the first year for the student program — why are The Linux Foundation and OSUOSL putting this together? Leslie Hawthorn, open source outreach manager for OSUOSL, says "there have been some rumblings, and concerns about the future of computer science and technology, that there are not as many people to step up and maintain infrastructure."

Indeed, there have been concerns that not enough young programmers are getting involved in kernel development (for example). While lots of students are interested in some kind of programming, the emphasis these days for many developers is on Web programming, mobile applications, and desktop applications — not so much infrastructure like the Linux kernel.

But why a one-day program? Because bite-sized chunks are a good way to foster interest — and find out quickly who's going to stick with projects.

Start Small for Success

Dave Neary recently wrote about mentoring programs and their success rates — or lack thereof. Neary points out that "the majority of mentoring projects fail," with about one in four people who have been mentored sticking with the project.

That's pretty bad, right? Depends on how you look at it. Hawthorn says that she agrees with Neary's observations, but interprets them differently. "What I take away from what Dave is observing is that mentoring is going to be profoundly effective in 25% of cases, which is an excellent rate of return" compared to people who drop out of computer science at the university level (for example). Hawthorn has a pretty good vantage point to judge the effectiveness of mentoring programs — she worked for Google's open source office and was involved with the Google Summer of Code from 2006 through 2010.

Hawthorn also worked with Google's Highly Open (now Google Code-In) program, and agrees with Neary's other observations — that small tasks are a great way to handle mentoring situations. Neary says, "Mentored tasks should be small, bite-sized, and allow the apprentice to succeed or fail fast.

"This has a number of advantages: The apprentice who won't stick around, or who will accomplish nothing, has not wasted a lot of your mentor's time. The apprentice who will stay around gets a quick win, gets his name in the ChangeLog, and gains assurance in his ability to contribute. And the quick feedback loop is incredibly rewarding for the mentor, who sees his apprentice attack new tasks and increase his productivity in short order."

Hawthorn strongly recommends that projects interested in recruiting contributors connect with OpenHatch, a project that aims to help newcomers find their way into FOSS projects via "bitesize" bugs, mentoring, and providing a central resource for introduction to contributing.

Not sure you need to recruit? Neary suggests, rather urgently, that projects need to continue focusing on growth. "Developer attrition is a problem in open source, and recruitment and training of new developers is the only solution. Any project which is not bringing new developers up to positions where they can take over maintainership is doomed to failure. A good mentoring program, however, with a retention rate around 25%, organised continuously, should ensure that your project continues to grow and attract new developers."

And so that's what The Linux Foundation and OSUOSL are doing — finding ways to grow and attract new developers, from the most likely pool of contributors.

Scholarships and Further Training

In addition to the Linux Learner's Student Day, The Linux Foundation is also putting together a scholarship program for "computer science students and Linux developers who show incredible promise for helping to shape the future of Linux" but wouldn't have the resources to attend the LF's training courses.

The program consists of five awards, and will cover expenses for one training course in the Foundation's Linux training courses on Linux Development. This includes courses on embedded development, developing device drivers, creating Linux applications, using git, and introductory courses on participating in the Linux community.

To enter for the scholarship, fill out the short entry form by 12:01 a.m. PT on Monday, July 21. The winners will be notified by early August.

For the "LinuxCon or Bust," bus (or as I like to think of it, the "Magic Bus") register online along with the student program package.

These programs aren't the only answer to developing the next generation of Linux developers, of course, but might help start a few good developers on a path to kernel development or involvement with other important FOSS projects.

 

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