Maggie Shiels

Flipping burgers or writing code?

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 23 Mar 09, 08:29 GMT

For students the world over, summertime marks the end of exams and a few months away from the books, tutorials, and professors. Harsh reality though soon comes knocking in the shape of economic reality and it also usually means, for most, the need to find a summer job.

Google's Summer of Code logoInstead of flipping burgers or washing dishes, Google is offering an alternative to the student geek by way of a programme called Summer of Code. Yes it does seem to revive memories of Summer of Love but by the sounds of it , it couldn't be further removed from such a scenario. For one thing, Google's Summer of Code involves work, dedication and commitment. Their words, not mine.

This year the programme, which is now in its fifth year, will match 1,000 students from 98 countries to 150 open source projects. The projects include lots of familiar names like Blender, MySQL, Apache, the Berkman Centre at Harvard, Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Linux Foundation, Mozilla, OpenMRS, Sahana and even Google. Well they are ponying up the $5m to fund this programme.

Each of these companies or projects will mentor the students throughout the whole of the summer giving them the chance to be exposed to real world problems.

"In a typical university project, students are likely working with a team of three or four in a lab on a project which they turn in and get a grade for," said Leslie Hawthorn who is the programme manager for open source at Google.

"What this programme offers is real world experience working with a team of developers who might be in say San Francisco and London and Beijing and Sydney all at the same time.

"They will be working on a project that doesn't just end in three months time because the software has to be maintained for years and years. Considerations of how to build it are very different from university and their exposure to the tools and the expertise represents a great opportunity to those taking part," said Ms Hawthorn.

She told me that the reason Google started the project was because co-founder Larry Page wanted to help students hone their skills and boost the open source community.

"He was worried about the age-old problem of students leaving on their summer holidays and more often than not finding it hard to get a job in their particular technical area of computer science.

"Some might go and wash dishes or flip burgers and Larry thought that overall computer discipline would backslide because these students weren't getting continuous reinforcement to perfect their skills during the holidays," explained Ms Hawthorn.

She said he hit on the idea of open source projects as an ideal way to corral students because it doesn't matter where they live as most of the work takes place online and it would be an "awesome" way for students to get real software development experience.

The Summer of Code is more or less full time work, though Ms Hawthorn stressed that it wasn't about the number of hours someones clocks up but about getting the work done.

The tasks will be set by the mentors who will monitor progress. Everyone will get an initial payment of $500 and halfway through another $2000 if they come up to scratch with a final installment of $2000 at the end if they complete the work satisfactorily.

"And don't forget the all important t-shirt", quipped Ms Hawthorn.

Michael Tieman who is the president of the Open Source Initiative told me he thinks the programme is a "fantastic idea" not least because his open source company Red Hat benefits through a project they run called the Blender Foundation.

"It's a 3D animation and modeling programme and we have benefitted tremendously over the years through Summer of Code which has given us people, resources and have helped keep Blender at the cutting edge."

Mr Tieman also said "I used to be one of those kids doing irrelevant summer jobs because I needed the money so the amount of money Google is giving is not some token amount. This is a serious bounty for serious work which will look great on any resume."

So what's in it for Google? Ms Hawthorn said "Google gets the same benefit as the rest of the world. All this great open source code is being produced and anyone can make use of it.

"There is also the beauty of the social ties that are formed during this project and that benefits Google and the world over if all these people are talking to one another and exchanging ideas and pushing forward the world of computer science and open source.

"Ultimately with Google being such a big user of open source, what's good for open source and for the web is good for Google and everyone else," stated Ms Hawthorne.

Application details are here, and Michael Sparks blogs about BBC Research's involvement in Summer Of Code here.


  • Comment number 1.

    I seem to recall having a somewhat spiteful comment of mine towards Microsoft's alternative to this 'Summer of Code' deleted, when one of the bloggers here wrote about it. Hum.

    So I will write instead in praise of the incredible constructivity and altruism of Google's Summer of Code. Benefitting real people, real students, ensuring a committed approach, future and academic appreciation of open-source, furthering a constant adoption by the world of business and commerce towards open software and standards, it will never stamp down proprietary EULA's and shamelessly expensive software onto anyone.

    It seems to be a world of sense, during this recession, that we all start to appreciate open source. And that, perhaps the dream of becoming a high-flying software developer for some quirky development firm simply isn't easily attainable anymore.

  • Comment number 2.

    Michael Tiemann's name has two 'n's at the end, and in what sense exactly does RedHat (profit-making US company) run the Blender foundation (Dutch non-for profit)?


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