May 26, 2006

Interview: Red Hat's open source scholarship challenge

Author: Mayank Sharma

There is no dearth of IT talent in India, but for a country that churns out thousands of IT students every year, the number of Indian contributors in the open source software (OSS) world is disproportionately low, due in part to a lack of proper mentoring. To encourage more students to go into OSS development, the Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology (KReSIT) at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay partners with Red Hat for an open source scholarship challenge each year. Participants, mentored by OSS leaders, get the opportunity to work and collaborate to solve a real-world problem, and the winners get a share of the Rs. 10 lakh (about $22,000) prize. In an email interview, Venkatesh Hariharan, head of Open Source Affairs at Red Hat India and coordinator of the challenge, provides details about the event.

NewsForge: Please share some history of the event.

Venkatesh Hariharan: The program has its roots in a discussion that [Red Hat CEO and President] Matthew Szulik had with Dr. D. B. Phatak, founder of KReSIT, during his first visit to India in 2003. The common objective was to encourage Indian students to contribute to the global open source community and make them familiar with the open source philosophy of community, collaboration, and shared ownership of intellectual resources.

NF: What separates Red Hat's open source scholarship program from other such events in India, such as Google Code Jam? Does Red Hat conduct similar events elsewhere as well?

VH: With the Red Hat Scholarships, the idea is to tap into the software development projects that students do every year as part of their academic requirements and channel them into the open source community. We also aim to connect them to mentors from the open source community. This helps them work on meaningful, real-life projects and contribute to society. We will also be doing chat sessions on technical issues like application development on Linux and Java programming, so that their knowledge is enhanced.

This is the first time that Red Hat is doing such a program of this nature anywhere in the world. In the first two years, we started with India because this is a vast geography to cover. The third year's program has been expanded to the Indian subcontinent, and we have received project submissions from Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and more.

NF: Do you encourage students to contribute to existing projects or make their own? Aren't the challenges listed a little vague?

VH: The choice of projects is left to the students, and we merely make suggestions. Many students request our help in selecting projects every year, and therefore we suggest broad topics and also list open source projects that are looking for volunteers.

NF: What happens to the projects after the competition is over? Who maintains the software? What's the current status of the projects cooked up by previous winners?

VH: We request participants of the previous year's projects become mentors for the next year so that the development work continues. One of the prize-winning teams developed a college information system and set up a company to commercialize it. We ask that the projects be hosted on community Web sites like SourceForge or Sarovar.org and request the project teams to mentor next year's teams.

NF: How is the event conducted? Is everything done over the Web, or do the judges interact with the participants in person at some stage?

VH: Given the fact that there are 1,750 engineering colleges and 300,000 students, reaching out to the students is a challenge. Fortunately, the Web allows us a scalable way of doing this in the form of chat sessions and discussion groups at the collaborative portal.

NF: In the scholarship rules under "Support For Contestants," you talk of providing online support and download sites for tools and software programs. What are these?

VH: We want to familiarize the students with open source platforms and development tools like Fedora, Eclipse, and JBoss.

NF: Why does Red Hat take it upon itself to decide the license for the code? What happens if a student decides on a particular license? Is he at any disadvantage?

VH: We are changing this so that the students can decide the license they want. We recommend the General Public License (GPL), but they are free to select any license approved by the Open Source Initiative.

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