Mentoring in open source communities: What works? What doesn't?

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By Esther Schindler

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.)

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 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.

How you can help

Think you can help? Please email your thoughts on the topic to esther@bitranch.com. Here are some of the questions you could address:

  • 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 mentoring?
  • 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. :-)

A long-time technology evangelist and community instigator, Esther Schindler has been in the computer press since 1992. Her primary journalistic focus for the last decade has been software development and open source, and she's contributed as writer or editor to Software Test & Performance, InformIT.com, DevSource.com, and dozens of other publications. She's currently on assignment for ITWorld.com -- where she writes the open source blog Great Wide Open

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