Open source as an alternative “study abroad” experience?

February 7, 2011 – 1:01 pm

I’m going to spoil the surprise from the outset: the text below is taken from a random search result for “why study abroad,” with appropriate nouns for FOSS work substituted. I was surprised at how few sentences I had to patch up to make the whole thing make sense.

Multiple benefits accrue to those who spend significant time in open source, and a significant proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about open source as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on. You’ll find that all contribution experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.

Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing. They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for different points of view. They gravitate toward students who demonstrate maturity, initiative, and creativity. All of these assets can be demonstrated through participation in open source communities, but it’s going to be much harder to set yourself apart if you’ve taken the easy route.

It’s not hard to find the “easy route”: that’s the one where you go with your friends into a FOSS project; all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the online infrastructure where you hack with your classmates. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which project you work in because all your code will be assigned in class, and possibly even directly supervised by your professors. You’ll undoubtedly have a somewhat different experience, but to do the “easy route” is to forego some of the major advantages of your time in open source.

Consider these ways of standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your “hook.”

  • Contribute directly in the infrastructure of the project wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few weeks.
  • Work with distributed team members rather than with fellow classmates. You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture and how things work.
  • Select courses that take advantage of the project you are contributing to, such as user interface design for GNOME, database performance for MYSQL, or a study of network authentication methods for an identi.ca plugin.
  • Seize the opportunity to do an internship, volunteer assignment, or work locally that leverages the project you’re contributing to. You’ll get a completely different view of the project if you work with your local community. It may also make you want to go back after college.
  • Experience things you’ve never done before, like joining a meeting run entirely in Spanish, or negotiating release deadlines with an upstream developer. Not every experience is a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more resilient.
  • Explore, explore, explore. Make your own arrangements. Keep a blog and get it on your project’s main aggregator. Lurk in IRC channels. Propose ideas on mailing lists – and implement them. Review patches from other contributors and mentor newcomers who have questions you can answer.

Open source can be a welcome relief from the rest of your studies, or it can be the most formative experience of a lifetime. It can be just one more item on the resume, or it can provide the most colorful examples in your interview. If you take a few calculated risks, plan in advance, and take advantage of all open source has to offer, you will become that “memorable candidate”—the one who truly gets the employer’s attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that will stay with you for a lifetime.

The whole blurb of text above was originally tried out on the Teaching Open Source list, but after some positive responses I thought I’d throw it out here for a wider audience. The idea of FOSS as an “away” experience came from a conversation that Affan, Sebastian, and I had in Doha about what frameworks might make “teaching open source” make
sense to folks in academia.

This makes me wonder: can we use the same structures/tools/marketing for the kinds of things we do in open source? Students seem to readily sign up to ship off to Italy and
France and China, and faculty members and parents seem to view this as a legitimate (and challenging) academic enrichment activity, so… why not FOSS? And might this be a way to get the same sort of maturity and growth benefits for students who can’t – for whatever reason – travel overseas, like younger students, working students, less well-to-do students, students with families?

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  1. 3 Responses to “Open source as an alternative “study abroad” experience?”

  2. Wow, great experiment / writeup Mel!

    I’ve always considered FOSS as a great way to get experience (And help others) and this reinforces my thoughts :) )

    By Nushio on Feb 7, 2011

  3. damn. I never even thought about putting this on my resume. Thanks for the article.

    By Conker1r on Feb 11, 2011

  4. Yes, because Linux is not mainstream yet, it may still feel “foreign”. That may contribute to Linux’s appeal for those who feel adventurous.

    By rich on Feb 11, 2011

What do you think?