We ❤️ Open Source

A community education resource

5 min read

The power of mentorship in open source: Bridging the gap for computer science students

While open source documentation and community support are invaluable, mentorship adds a personal touch that can significantly enhance the learning experience.

Open source software is often heralded for its transparency, collaborative spirit, and the vast array of resources available for anyone willing to dive in. From comprehensive documentation to vibrant community forums, it seems like everything one might need to get started is just a click away. However, there’s an often overlooked aspect that can significantly enhance the open source experience: Mentorship.

Mentorship in the open source world might seem redundant at first glance. With extensive documentation and a supportive community, one might assume that navigating this space is straightforward. Yet, the reality is quite different, especially for newcomers and university students. These communities can be intimidating due to their size and the diversity of contributors. This is where mentorship plays a crucial role, providing a personalized, one-on-one relationship that eases the entry into the broader community, helping to provide direction and support.

For university students, having a mentor can make all the difference. It transforms the overwhelming experience of contributing to a massive project into a manageable and rewarding journey. A mentor acts as a guide, helping students understand not just the technical aspects of coding and development, but also the nuances of community interaction, communication, and project management.

What does mentorship in open source entail?

Mentorship in open source can vary widely, depending on the needs of the mentee. Some students seek technical guidance, needing help with understanding toolchains, workflows, and best practices for testing and development. Others might require support with other skills like communication, project management, or community engagement. Networking is another crucial aspect, as students look to build connections that could help them in their future careers.

The Open Infrastructure Foundation has structured programs to facilitate these mentorships:

Our University Partnership Program, which I’ve built from the ground up, pairs students with mentors from various OpenInfra projects. These relationships can take the form of internships or be integrated into coursework like senior design projects or capstone courses.

For instance, at Oregon State University, we have an ongoing internship program where students work upstream on OpenStack. They are matched with experienced mentors who guide them through the intricacies of the project, providing support and feedback over an extended period and directing the student’s work in the community. This setup allows students to gain deep, practical experience, far beyond what traditional coursework offers.

The benefits of structured mentorship programs

While organic mentorships within communities are valuable, structured programs provide a framework that can be incredibly beneficial. They set clear expectations for both mentors and mentees, creating a smoother and more predictable process with a more concrete timeline. These programs also ensure that students receive consistent support, which might not always be the case in more informal setups.

The Open Infrastructure Foundation’s University Partnership Program is a prime example of how structured mentorship can be implemented effectively. We collaborate with professors to create project batches for students, who then work in groups under the guidance of one or more mentors from the community. This model has proven successful, with students working on significant efforts inside projects like OpenStack and Kata Containers.

Expanding this program internationally is one of our goals. We’re already working with several universities in the United States (US) and are looking to establish partnerships in Europe and Asia. Each new partnership brings a fresh perspective and enriches the global open source community.

What makes a good mentor?

Choosing the right mentors is crucial for the success of these programs. A good mentor not only understands the technical aspects of a project, but also knows how to communicate effectively and create a supportive environment. They need to be approachable and willing to invest time in their mentees, guiding them through challenges and celebrating their successes.

Mentors should, ideally, also have the authority to merge code and make significant decisions within the project. This ensures that the contributions of their mentees are meaningful and integrated into the broader project, providing a sense of accomplishment and real-world impact.

Building organic, mutually beneficial connections

Most of our university partnerships have developed organically, often through connections at member companies of the Open Infrastructure Foundation. Alumni working on open source projects also play a pivotal role, connecting their former professors with us to establish new mentorship opportunities. This organic growth underscores the importance of community and the interconnectedness of the open source ecosystem.

Mentorship in open source is a win-win scenario. For students, it provides practical experience, enhances their resumes, and expands their professional networks. According to a 2020 survey by the Linux Foundation, 93% of hiring managers report difficulty finding sufficient talent with open source skills. Students with open source experience are, therefore, highly marketable.

For the projects and mentors, it brings in fresh perspectives and new ideas. Students often approach problems differently, asking questions that can lead to innovative solutions. This diversity of thought strengthens the project, making the software more robust and the community more dynamic.

While open source documentation and community support are invaluable, mentorship adds a personal touch that can significantly enhance the learning experience. By fostering one-on-one relationships, structured programs, and organic connections, we can create a more inclusive and effective open source ecosystem. As we continue to expand these efforts, the future of open source looks brighter than ever, with well-prepared, enthusiastic new contributors ready to make their mark.

About the Author

Kendall is an Upstream Developer Advocate at the Open Infrastructure Foundation based in the United States. She first started working on OpenStack during the Liberty release (2015) on Cinder and since then been involved in Release Management, StoryBoard, the Women of OpenStack (WoO), the First Contact SIG, the Contributor Guide, and OpenStack Upstream Institute. She’s recently gotten more involved in the Kubernetes community helping to bridge it with the OpenStack community via SIG Cloud Provider and provider OpenStack. When she is not evangelizing about the awesomeness of OpenStack, bringing people into the community, binding open source communities together, or working to make upstream development in open source a friendlier place, she can be found reading Harry Potter, watching Doctor Who, or out on a photo taking adventure.

Read Kendall Nelson's Full Bio

The opinions expressed on this website are those of each author, not of the author's employer or All Things Open/We Love Open Source.

Save the Date for All Things Open 2024

Join thousands of open source friends October 27-29 in downtown Raleigh for ATO 2024!

Upcoming Events

We do more than just All Things Open and Open Source 101. See all upcoming events here.

Open Source Meetups

We host some of the most active open source meetups in the U.S. Get more info and RSVP to an upcoming event.