FOSDEM '09 is a free and non-commercial event organized by the community, for the community. Its goal is to provide Free and Open Source developers a place to meet.


Interview: Leslie Hawthorn

Leslie Hawthorn will give a talk about Google Summer of Code at FOSDEM 2009.

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I'm a Program Manager for Google's Open Source Team, managing the communities for our two student programs, Summer of Code and the Highly Open Participation Contest. I've been with Google for more than five years now and am a true child of Silicon Valley, having been born and raised there and having worked in high tech since graduating from University. I'm a English Literature geek by training and an FLOSS geek by choice. I'm an avid reader, particularly of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and a huge fan of James Bond, both the novels and the films.

What will your talk be about, exactly?

My talk will be a behind the scenes look at how the Summer of Code program is organized and run.

What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

I'm hoping to provide the audience with a better understanding of community management at large scales and to give folks some ideas of how to do their own initiatives to effectively bring in newcomers. Additionally, I'll be sharing quite a few fun stories from the program, so I'm hoping folks will leave amused, empowered and inspired.

Managing the Google Summer of Code program seems like a really big task. Can you explain in a few sentences what your work for it looks like? And what are your other tasks in the Open Source Programs Office at Google?

My job involves a great deal of cross-functional project management, including interfacing with our Finance, Legal and Public Relations teams. I'm responsible for setting up all aspects of the program and keeping an eye on everyone's progress, providing guidance when needed. I spend a lot of time helping newbies - both mentors and student contributors - feel more confident when approaching problems and helping people communicate more effectively.

When I'm not focused on Summer of Code, I manage the Highly Open Participation Contest, coordinate development of Melange, and spend a good deal of time writing for the Google Open Source Blog. I also facilitate a number of large community conferences - last year we held more than a dozen at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, USA - each year as part of our efforts to give back to the community.

With four years Summer of Code, Google has provided over 10 million US dollars in funding to open source projects, generating over 6 million lines of code. Why does Google do this? What are the advantages for Google?

It's easiest to think of the program as a Research and Development partnership with the FLOSS community. A strong FLOSS development ecosystem is essential to Google's business - it's no secret that we use a lot of FLOSS code - and Summer of Code is an excellent way to ensure an influx of new blood and creative ideas in the FLOSS arena. We also see the program as investment in the future of Computer Science by helping future innovators gain skills much more quickly through participation in real world development scenarios.

We use some of the source code developed by students through the Summer of Code, but that's not the primary motivation for the program. Google gets much the same benefits as the rest of the world: more source code available for everyone's benefit.

Which finished GSoC projects do you consider the biggest success stories?

There are so many great stories. I don't want to touch on just one here - we've seen more than 2500 students successfully complete the program and they are all great successes in their own right. I'm also a big believer that our students and mentors often learn more from their failures than their successes.

How many participating students has Google recruited?

Very few. Less than 2% of our students and mentors have ever interviewed with the company, and even fewer have accepted an offer of employment.

Why was the Google Highly Open Participation Contest for high school students initiated? Was it a success and will it be organized each year like GSoC?

We were hoping to take the general Summer of Code model and use it to engage even younger students in FLOSS development. Rather than just focusing on code, GHOP students were also invited to do User Experience Research, write documentation, create marketing materials, etc. By providing all these additional avenues of participation, we hoped to expose students who would possibly never even hear about the concept of Open Source software learn more about it and how they can be involved.

The contest was a great success - more than 350 students worldwide completed over 1,000 tasks to help out 10 FLOSS projects - and I was particularly excited that we were able to help so many different kinds of new contributors get introduced to FLOSS. We even saw two of our mentoring organizations, Drupal and Joomla!, create their own GHOP like programs for community contributions, also with great success. I can't say that GHOP will be an annual offering, but we are definitely planning to reprise the contest again this year.

How did you get the nickname 'Google's geek herder'?

A gentleman asked me what I do for Google during one of the conferences I was hosting - IIRC it was MySQL Camp back in 2006 - and I responded with, "You're looking at it; I herd geeks professionally." It was meant to be a funny quip but the nickname sort of stuck with me after that. Besides, it is much more succinct than Open Source Den Mother.

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This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.