February 23, 2007

Google revamps Summer of Code for 2007

Author: Bruce Byfield

Google's Summer of Code (SOC) will be back again this year, and this time, Google plans to take advantage of lessons learned to improve the program for everyone involved.

Now in its third year, SOC is a program that pays students to code for free and open source software (FOSS) projects. Since the program started in 2005, more than 1,000 students have participated in more than 100 projects, and perhaps 10 times that many have applied to participate. About 80% of participants completed their projects in the previous two years, earning themselves $4,500 and the projects that mentor them $500.

According to Leslie Hawthorn, open source program coordinator at Google, the biggest change for 2007 is the increased preparation time. While in previous years the program has started taking applications in April and started in late May, this year the program was announced in February, with mentor organizations applying to participate from March 5-12 and students from March 14-23. Successful applicants will be announced on April 9, and the program will officially begin on May 28.

This longer preparation time will allow the four-person team administering SOC at Google to promote SOC through posters distributed by past students and supporters on university campuses. This publicity, as well as the program's growing reputation, may also increase the number of applicants, requiring more time to process them.

However, according to Hawthorn, the main purpose of the extended time table is help both students and mentor organizations become better organized. "We had some feedback saying that it's really difficult to get students up to speed on their projects while coding at the same time," says Hawthorn. During the six-week gap between being accepted and starting work, students will have a chance to become familiar with project documentation and code repositories, and, as the Drupal home page suggests, "to get initiated into the community." As a result of this preparatory time, Hawthorn says, "We're hoping that they will stick around long after the summer is over because they've had that time to actually interact with their community, and they haven't let their project become their sole focus."

The extra time will also give Google time to advise mentor organizations about how to deal with common problems such as disappearing students or mentors. "As part of the application process we're asking organizations to tell us what their plans are for those situations," says Hawthorn. "We'll be looking at applications, and if we see anything in the application that we think might be a wrong turn, we're going to give our thoughts on it." Although in the end organizations will make their own decisions on how to deal with problems, the idea is to help organizations cope with such issues and anticipate them.

In addition, Hawthorn suggests that the extended preparation time will help to increase the success rate of this year's SOC and give rejected applicants a second chance. If accepted students disappear between the time they are accepted and the starting date, then "students who applied but were not accepted may have an opportunity if they have stuck around," Hawthorn says. "That's going to be at the discretion of our mentoring organizations."

Another change for 2007 is the creation of knowledge base wikis for both students and mentors. These wikis, Hawthorn explains, are places "where previous mentors and students can post their advice to applicants so they can be more successful in the program." Google has already invited past mentors and students to contribute advice, and invites others to add theirs.

One area in which Google is still trying to improve is the slowness in paying students that some participants complained about last year. Although Google is looking for solution, part of the problem is the scope of the program, according to open source program manager Chris DiBona. "It's actually a fairly daunting accounting problem," DiBona says, explaining that, in 2006, the program "had 634 students who were in 90 different countries with 73 different currencies" to deal with. All the same, Hawthorn adds that "we are looking right now into alternatives for payment this year to make sure that the problem is diminished or will not happen again."

Much of the impetus for this year's changes comes from feedback from the past two years. In particular, in October 2006, Google hosted a mentor summit whose participants included representatives from Drupal, Joomla!, Ubuntu, Apache, and Subversion. "I really appreciate the great feedback we've gotten from the community and from mentors and students," Hawthorn says. "If it hadn't been for their great comments, we wouldn't have made the changes we made this year."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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