GSoC 2017 - Mentor Report from 389 Project

This year I have had the pleasure of being a mentor for the Google Summer of Code program, as part of the Fedora Project organisation. I was representing the 389 Directory Server Project and offered students the oppurtunity to work on our command line tools written in python.

Applications

From the start we have a large number of really talented students apply to the project. This was one of the hardest parts of the process was to choose a student, given that I wanted to mentor all of them. Sadly I only have so many hours in the day, so we chose Ilias, a student from Greece. What really stood out was his interest in learning about the project, and his desire to really be part of the community after the project concluded.

The project

The project was very deliberately “loose” in it’s specification. Rather than giving Ilias a fixed goal of you will implement X, Y and Z, I chose to set a “broad and vague” task. Initially I asked him to investigate a single area of the code (the MemberOf plugin). As he investigated this, he started to learn more about the server, ask questions, and open doors for himself to the next tasks of the project. As these smaller questions and self discoveries stacked up, I found myself watching Ilias start to become a really complete developer, who could be called a true part of our community.

Ilias’ work was exceptional, and he has documented it in his final report here .

Since his work is complete, he is now free to work on any task that takes his interest, and he has picked a good one! He has now started to dive deep into the server internals, looking at part of our backend internals and how we dump databases from id2entry to various output formats.

What next?

I will be participating next year - Sadly, I think the python project oppurtunities may be more limited as we have to finish many of these tasks to release our new CLI toolset. This is almost a shame as the python components are a great place to start as they ease a new contributor into the broader concepts of LDAP and the project structure as a whole.

Next year I really want to give this oppurtunity to an under-represented group in tech (female, poc, etc). I personally have been really inspired by Noriko and I hope to have the oppurtunity to pass on her lessons to another aspiring student. We need more engineers like her in the world, and I want to help create that future.

Advice for future mentors

Mentoring is not for everyone. It’s not a task which you can just send a couple of emails and be done every day.

Mentoring is a process that requires engagement with the student, and communication and the relationship is key to this. What worked well was meeting early in the project, and working out what community worked best for us. We found that email questions and responses worked (given we are on nearly opposite sides of the Earth) worked well, along with irc conversations to help fix up any other questions. It would not be uncommon for me to spend at least 1 or 2 hours a day working through emails from Ilias and discussions on IRC.

A really important aspect of this communication is how you do it. You have to balance positive communication and encouragement, along with critcism that is constructive and helpful. Empathy is a super important part of this equation.

My number one piece of advice would be that you need to create an environment where questions are encouraged and welcome. You can never be dismissive of questions. If ever you dismiss a question as “silly” or “dumb”, you will hinder a student from wanting to ask more questions. If you can’t answer the question immediately, send a response saying “hey I know this is important, but I’m really busy, I’ll answer you as soon as I can”.

Over time you can use these questions to help teach lessons for the student to make their own discoveries. For example, when Ilias would ask how something worked, I would send my response structured in the way I approached the problem. I would send back links to code, my thoughts, and how I arrived at the conclusion. This not only answered the question but gave a subtle lesson in how to research our codebase to arrive at your own solutions. After a few of these emails, I’m sure that Ilias has now become self sufficent in his research of the code base.

Another valuable skill is that overtime you can help to build confidence through these questions. To start with Ilias would ask “how to implement” something, and I would answer. Over time, he would start to provide ideas on how to implement a solution, and I would say “X is the right one”. As time went on I started to answer his question with “What do you think is the right solution and why?”. These exchanges and justifications have (I hope) helped him to become more confident in his ideas, the presentation of them, and justification of his solutions. It’s led to this excellent exchange on our mailing lists, where Ilias is discussing the solutions to a problem with the broader community, and working to a really great answer.

Final thoughts

This has been a great experience for myself and Ilias, and I really look forward to helping another student next year. I’m sure that Ilias will go on to do great things, and I’m happy to have been part of his journey.