[UbuntuWomen] Mentoring in Open Source Communities: What Works? What Doesn't?

Esther Schindler esther at bitranch.com
Tue Sep 8 18:50:51 UTC 2009

This note, written by Helen a few weeks ago, made me smile. It's  
EXACTLY what I want to get at in a feature article I'm writing -- and  
in which I think Ubuntu women could help.

On Aug 15, 2009, at 7:28 AM, Helen McCall wrote:
> I'm looking for a mentor to help me with producing fully compliant  
> Gnome
> Help files and integrate them with python applications, and mentor  
> me on
> producing fully compliant Ubuntu .deb packages.
> Ultimately mentoring me to become a MOTU hopefully.
> I am preparing the Help Manual for OpenShot, and I also want to  
> produce
> a Ubuntu .deb package for ccPublisher (the Creative Commons  
> publisher),
> and get these accepted into Ubuntu.
> Can anyone offer to mentor me?

Open source offers amazing opportunities. There are almost no barriers  
to entry. If you want to try creating a new-to-you kind of  
application, or to learn how to write bright-shiny documentation, or  
to use the latest technology that your Day Job doesn't give you access  
to -- you can just barrel right in with an open source project and get  
involved. Once you become proficient (or demonstrate that you already  
are), you can apply those skills in the next phase of your career.  
Even better, you can choose which community you want to be a part of,  
and find a comfortable culture where your contributions matter.

However, because open source is so personally driven and self- 
motivated, there aren't always a lot of opportunities to consciously  
improve your skills -- except on your own. While that's certainly  
valuable, it relies on you recognizing what needs improvement and then  
knowing what to do about it. In a regular office, you might be lucky  
enough to work with someone who'll take you under her wing, and give  
you specific advice about how to improve your code. Or someone senior  
to you will let you talk his ear off about the hard choices you have  
to make, and suggest solutions you didn't think of. The distinction  
I'm making here is between "learn on your own" (such as examining the  
changes others make to the code you contributed) and somebody offering  
specific, individual advice (e.g. "It might run faster if you did  
THIS..."), particularly in an ongoing personal relationship.

Many open source communities do actual mentoring (even if they don't  
think of it with that label); others don't. Some make a concerted  
effort to connect newbies with more experienced people. They provide  
opportunities for people to work together in smaller teams (not just a  
gang hanging out in an IRC channel, however useful that is), such as  
in sprints and code-a-thons. (Tops on the list of "encourage  
mentorship" is, of course, the Google Summer of Code. But I know there  
are other less-public endeavors; the existence of ubuntu-women  
probably fills that role, too.)

For a feature article at ITWorld.com, I want to interview people from  
several open source communities about the mentoring experiences. I  
want to hear see what they do right, and how they go about encouraging  
mentoring relationships. I'd also like to hear from open source  
participants who have yearned for a bit more one-on-one attention...  
and what (if anything) they've done about it.

My goal here is to explore what's involved in a successful mentoring  
effort, and also find out what _doesn't_ work. I like to think that  
this can help all sorts of open source communities that want to  
attract more participants.

Think you can help? Here's some of the questions you could address  
(ideally by e-mail):

* What have been your mentoring experiences in open source  
communities? How well or how poorly have they worked? Why do you have  
that opinion?
* If you developed mentoring relationships in an open source  
community, how did they come about? Was there a deliberate effort to  
connect people (how did that work?) or did it evolve on its own (how  
did it happen?)?
* What did you learn? What did you hope to learn?
* Knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
* What advice would you give to open source communities in regard to  
* I'm also particularly interested in hearing from people in  
communities where mentoring doesn't exist or where it doesn't come as  
naturally -- opportunities may exist, but they're harder to find.

Be sure to identify:
* the project(s) you're involved in. Include the URL for the project  
if you like, as well as how you contribute (I write code, or I've led  
locally-run code-a-thons, etc.)
* your name, role/title, and company in the way you prefer me to refer  
to you ("Esther Schindler, a programmer at the Groovy Corporation, and  
also a frequent contributor to the Blahblah open source project").

I'll accept input on this topic until Monday, September 14th. After  
that I have to write the article. :-)

Esther Schindler
freelance writer (currently on assignment for ITWorld.com -- where I  
also have an open source blog called Great Wide Open http://www.itworld.com/blog/4264 

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