GSoc Lessons: Part Deux: The Arms Race

Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Tags: community, GSoC, Mozilla

This post title might be a little excessive, but I’ll blame The Sum of All Fears that I was watching last night. This is the second part of a set of posts about ideas I heard at the Google Summer of Code 2013 Mentor Summit (you can read the first part about the application process).

This will explore an interesting anecdote I heard about the interaction between applicants from another organization that, on reflection, seemed to resonate somewhat with what I had seen in my corner of the Mozilla community.

The organization these students were applying to required patches to be fixed for a student’s application to be accepted (as discussed in my previous post). For a particular project there existed multiple highly motivated and skilled students, but only one slot. Thus, a “patch race” of sorts occurred where the students competed by continually providing more patches that were increasingly complex. (Note that this wasn’t a in response to a challenge from community members, it was a spontaneous situation.) Once a single student started to submit extra patches the other students felt they must also submit more patches to be considered equal/superior (hence my allusion to an “arms race“). Interestingly, they would also sometimes work on the same bug in a sort of race to see who could fix it first.

There’s a couple things I took away from this:

  1. Great, the project just had a lot of things fixed!
  2. The students were investing escalating amounts of time during the application phase.
  3. The students were not working in an open manner.

I won’t really expand much more about the first point, it’s always good to fix things.

Although submitting patches might showcase a student’s skill, it also relates to how much time the student is willing and able to put into the application period. This, in particular, matters since different areas of the world end their school year at different times. A student that has already finished his semester during the application period may have a lot of free time to attempt to get a GSoC slot (but will most likely not have as much time during the actual summer!) This something that mentors should keep in mind while reviewing applications.

A downside of increasing amounts of time invested is that the rejection is that much harder for both the mentor (especially if the student is now part of the community!), as well as for the student who has now vested a large amount of time in the project.

The realization that actually upset me, however, is that these students were not working in an open manner! Instead of collaborating, they were competing! To me, this would set off a very poor tone for the rest of GSoC. In fact, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had with GSoC students is getting them to work in the open (i.e. “show me the code”, anyone in #instantbird is probably tired of hearing me say that).

At this point you might think this is a hypothetical case I made up! Upon letting it sink in and reflecting on it…I realized I had actually seen similar situations during the application periods I’ve been involved with. This year, we found a bug in Instantbird’s IRC code (CTCP quoting and dequoting); after referencing some specifications, I was pretty quickly able to figure out the vague areas where people should look for a fix. A couple of GSoC students in the room started looking into it and exhibited a greatly reduced form of the behavior I discussed above. The students were sharing information, but were not comfortable sharing code. Unfortunately, this led to some very vague questions which I was unable to answer (or answered incorrectly) and led to me coining my catchphrase from above.

I by no means think this reflects poorly on our students! I think this is some what natural and expected for most students unfamiliar with open development. (Extrapolating from my experiences in school…) Students generally work individually (or in small groups) on projects and are directly competing for grades (at least if the course is graded on a curve). This would foster a sense of competition as opposed to cooperation! Luckily the students working with us understood (with very little prompting, I might add!) that we’d prefer they work together and help each other. We were able to successfully fix the dequoting bug (which then caused a bug in the quoting code to be visible…sigh…).

My short take away from all this: remember that students are not yet a community and they’re competing with each other until they’ve been accepted. (And that they’re used to competing, e.g. homework and exams, not collaborating!) I don’t really know whether I feel the above situation is good or bad, but it’s certainly an interesting effect from the way the GSoC process works.