Archive for the ‘Peer Relationships’ Category

Last year, I had a great time participating in the Google Summer of Code with the Debian project. I had a neat project with some rather interesting implications for helping developers to package and maintain their work. It’s still a work-in-progress, of course, as many projects in open source are, but I was able to accomplish quite a bit and am proud of my work. I learned quite a bit about coding in C, working with Debian and met some very intelligent people.

My student peers were also very intelligent and great to learn from. I enjoyed meeting them virtually and discussing our various projects on the IRC channel as the summer progressed and the Summer of Code kicked into full swing. The Debian project in particular also helps arrange travel grants for students to attend the Debian Conference (this year, DebConf10 is being held in New York City!). DebConf provides a great venue to learn from other developers (both in official talks but also unofficial hacking sessions). As the social aspect is particularly important to Debian, DebConf helps people meet those with whom they are working with the most, thereby creating lifelong friendships and making open source fun.

I have had several interviews for internships, and the bit of my work experience most asked about is my time doing the Google Summer of Code. I really enjoyed seeing a project go from the proposal stage, setting a reasonable timeline with my mentor, exploring the state of the art, and most importantly, developing the software. I think this is the sort of indispensible industry-type experience we often lack in our undergrad education. We might have an honours thesis or presentation, but much of the work in the Google Summer of Code actually gets used “in the field.”

Developing software for people rather than for marks is significant in a number of ways, but most importantly it means there are real stakeholders that must be considered at all stages. Proposing brilliant new ideas is important, however, without highlighting the benefits they can have for various users, the reality is that it simply will not gain traction. Learning how to write proposals effectively is an important skill and working with my prospective mentor (at the time – he later mentored my project once it was accepted) to develop mine was tremendously useful for my future endeavours.

The way I see the Google Summer of Code is, in many ways, similar to an academic grant (and the stipend is about the same as well). It provides a modest salary (this year it’s US$5000) but more importantly, personal contact with a mentor. Mentors are typically veterans in software development or the Debian project and act in the same role as supervisors for post-graduate work: they help monitor your progress and propose new ideas to keep you on track.

The Debian Project is looking for more students and proposals. We have a list of ideas as well as application instructions available on our Wiki. As I will be going on internship starting May, I have offered to be a mentor this year. I look forward to seeing your submissions (some really interesting ones have already begun to filter in as the deadline approaches).

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Recently there was a thread on the Google Summer of Code students’ list discussing gender dynamics in open source, but more broadly, interactions between those of different genders (mainly the discussion was simplified to be a discussion of sexes, which I think demonstrates the lack of understanding of the difference between gender and sex. But I suppose that’s a blog post for another day).

It was noted that many of the women on the list have blog addresses and other details that quickly self-identify the authors as female. There was discussion about whether this is a good thing or not, and the possible reasons behind it.

Here is what I wrote:

I think what you mention about yourself shows the world what you think about yourself, and what you consider yourself.

If first and foremost you associate your identity with being female (or male) or straight (or not)… then I guess that’s your prerogative.

But I, for one, am not /just/ an Asian male. I’m not just a Computer Science student. I’m not just a coder. I’m not just an Engineering student. I’m not just 20-years old. I’m not just a blogger. I’m not just an Open Source contributor. I’m not just an advocate of strange and often unpopular ideas.

I am a human being, with many dimensions. And I don’t try to simplify it by putting myself in a box and categorizing myself as anything.

I think that the key is just to understand everyone for who they are, and part of that is being somewhat ambiguous. As Leslie [Hawthorne] somewhat alluded to, it’s about managing people’s preconceptions about you.

I do not actively try to hide that I am male, or that I am Asian (you might guess that from my last name). There are all sorts of preconceptions people might have about things, and there are lots of -isms we should seek to avoid. (I’m Asian – maybe that means I’m a bad driver, and that I can’t pronounce Rs. I’m male – maybe I’m violent. I’m in Computer Science, presumably that means I play Dungeons & Dragons with my classmates on the weekends. I’m in Engineering, maybe that means I’m sexist.)

The reality is: none of these things should matter, nor should they define you.

Just be yourself. You show to the world what you consider relevant about yourself.

And for what it’s worth, I found out the other day that someone I respect and admire in the open source community is a teenager. Somewhere around 15 years old. It’s impressive, really. I look up to him, because he’s a really smart guy. But that wasn’t something he brought up right away; his nickname wasn’t “smartdude15” or anything
like that. That’s the magic of open source, and the Internet — I judged him purely on his knowledge. And once I did find out, I thought to myself… Wow, would I have thought the same thing of him if I knew his age right away? Would I have even given him a chance, or would I just dismiss everything he said as something an immature teenager might say?

I think along with sexism there are tons of other issues to worry about, like racism (consider how difficult it is in some cultures, and even in Western culture, to be really accepted if you are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, two-spirited, asexual, intersex…) In fact, being gay was considered a disease until relatively recently.

I’m glad for all the progress women have made in the past several decades. Not everyone has reached a point where they are accepted in mainstream society, and not everyone feels comfortable announcing certain details about themselves.

If *all* you are is a woman in a male-dominated world, then I feel sorry for you. I truly, truly do. Because none of the women I respect and admire are that. They are, first, talented Engineers, Scientists and Programmers, who are only incidentally female. Being female isn’t something that really identifies them any more than the colour of their skin, hair or eyes. No, no, they are talented, and that is, in the end, all I care about, and that is one reason I am grateful for Open Source — because you oftentimes don’t meet the people you are working with all the time in real life, so you cannot judge them on anything other than their ability.

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