Successful participation in GSoC is based on a three-way fit between mentor, student, and project. As a mentor, your role in finding that fit is two-fold: to help the organization identify and select strong students appropriate for your projects, and to find a pairing between yourself and a student that is productive and pleasant. Fortunately, these goals are quite compatible.
Understanding Student Motivations
A helpful starting point for finding, evaluating and selecting students is to look at the process from their point of view. Why do students apply to GSoC?
“I want to be rich.” The stipend that students can earn for the summer is an important motivator for many. One of Google’s explicit goals is to enable students to spend the summer coding “instead of flipping burgers”.
“I want to be famous.” Being a GSoC student carries a certain amount of prestige. However, the desire for fame is not always a sustaining long-term motivation. Be aware of the difference between a student who wants to be “accepted” versus “successful”.
“I want to learn.” Students may want to learn various things as part of their GSoC experience, such as how to work in the organization’s project, how to do open source development in general. It is important as a mentor that you are cognizant of the basic skill set required for the project.
“I want a t-shirt.” Some motivations are simple, and easy to accommodate.
Students should want to participate because they have something to contribute to the organization’s project. This is obviously an exciting and promising kind of GSoC applicant to receive. Assuming that the student has good technical skills and can interact well, a good result is almost inevitable.
Selecting a Student
There are some student qualifications that are important for any successful GSoC experience. The student needs to be technically skilled, needs to have good communication skills, and needs to be a hard worker with sufficient available time to succeed. Given only a brief application document and some tiny amount of remote interaction, determining whether a student has the necessary qualifications is exceedingly difficult. Hopefully the organization has an application process in place that helps. However, as a mentor you will normally be expected to assist in the evaluation that will ultimately decide who gets accept to GSoC from your organization.
You have several techniques at your disposal for helping your organization evaluate students. First and foremost, your expertise is key in evaluating student proposals. Is a given proposal technically realistic? Is it useful to the organization? Does it meet the organization’s overall goals for GSoC?
Some of the student applications your organization receives will be obvious winners, about which little discussion is needed. Many more will be obvious losers that need no discussion at all. Applications that fail to conform to the organization submission rules, are extremely short, or are difficult to read or understand almost inevitably come from students who would fail miserably if accepted. The middle ground in student applications is where the action is. There are several techniques for assessing these promising but troubled applications:
Send an early query to the student asking for more information. Failure to respond well or in a timely fashion almost guarantees problems with the student later on.
Watch the student’s community interaction. The best students interact with your organization’s community during or even well before the application period. A mediocre application is much less concerning if it looks like the student is already moving forward.
Inquire about the student’s GSoC history. A student who has participated in GSoC before may be easy to figure out. Past performance is usually an indicator of future GSoC success. This information could be included in your organization’s student application template, or obtained from a general web search.
Find out where else the student has applied. Does the student have other GSoC applications? Did they copy-paste the same application over and over? There are often opportunities for negotiation with other organizations around a student who has applied to several places.
Look at the student’s other summer plans. A student who at least claims to be solely focused on GSoC is more likely to be successful.
Finding a Match
As a mentor you want to do more than just help your organization select the best students. You also want to ensure that they select a student and project that you will enjoy working with.
This may involve more than just finding a bright student with the right area of expertise. It is worthwhile to look at the personality type and work style a student application reflects. If you are a methodical, organized person, for example, a loose and casual student style might not be an ideal fit for you. Mentoring a student geographically far from you can be a bit challenging, but also quite enlightening. Be aware of timezone differences that might require early morning or late night schedules for live meetings, which are critical for effective mentoring.
For those unfortunate students that don’t make the cut for logistical reasons (e.g., not enough mentors or funded slots), consider providing feedback to let them know their applications were valued. This is a service both to the student and to the organization. These students will be more likely to stay engaged, possibly even contributing outside of the official GSoC program, and returning next year with an even stronger application.
Google’s Selection Process
The Google Open Source Program Office (OSPO) has an internal process to select mentoring organizations and allocate GSoC student slots; understanding it may help you make better student selections.
Each mentoring organization will review the applications they receive (outside of the program site) and determine the best projects using the criteria agreed upon by their organization. Next the Org Admins will make sure those “best projects” have at least one mentor confirmed to mentor that project. Then the Org Admin will enter a minimum and a maximum number of student “slots” they wish to receive. The minimum is based on the projects that are so amazing they really want to see these projects occur over the summer and the maximum number should be the number of solid and amazing projects they wish to mentor over the summer.
Next, Google OSPO will allocate each organization a number of student slots. It is then up to the Org admins and mentors to decide which of their student proposals will become their organization’s accepted student slots. The Org Admin will then select the student proposals on the program site.
You should also understand how student selection and mentoring can affect the eligibility of an organization. In particular, note that a poor job of mentoring may lead to a poor outcome, making it less likely that your organization will be selected in future years. But failing a student does not mean that Google will consider that organization poorly for future programs, we encourage organizations to fail if the student is not doing the work, generally 12-15% of students fail their project in a given year at some point in the program.
Starting at the Beginning
A successful GSoC project begins with a successful initiation. Finding the right three-way fit between mentor, student and organization can make success incredibly easy. Conversely, failing to find this fit makes it difficult or impossible for the project to succeed.
Once a fit is found, the project is ready to be elaborated. You and your student are prepared to embark upon a grand adventure. Excelsior!
Pro Tip: One temptation to be avoided is to give a promising student excessive help in rewriting their proposal. It is likely that the result will be a proposal stronger than the student it represents. Students’ communication, organization and logical thinking skills rarely improve over the course of a summer.
Pro Tip: If in doubt about a student applicant’s final ranking after allocation, err on the side of rejecting. Limited program budget and mentor time can most certainly be better spent on another student in your or another organization.
Don’t Be That Person: Don’t even think about selecting a student with whom you’ve had no contact. You should establish an active back-and-forth prior to making a decision. If you or your student have failed to make this happen, do not proceed.