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What We've Learned From Building Basie


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Since 2008, over 100 students from 16 universities have worked in distributed teams on open source projects for course credit. Using Basie ( as an example, this talk explains how we have made that work. This talk was given at PyCon 2010 in Atlanta on February 20, 2010.

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What We've Learned From Building Basie

  1. What We’ve Learned From Building Basie and lots of other software using student labor over the course of eight years Greg Wilson Feb 2010
  2. I Beg To Differ “…student projects, while laudatory, frequently fail to deliver anything useful.” About a quarter of the student projects I’ve helped supervise since 2002 have delivered software that clients actually used, and the rest have produced something just as useful: experience.
  3. The Big Picture 368 people, 136 projects, 35 countries of origin
  4. How We Got To Basie Start running directed studies 2002 projects at University of Toronto 2003 2004 First attempt to 2005 2006 build portal Join U of T fulltime (using Java) 2007 2008 UCOSP 2009 2010
  5. Why Another Portal? SourceForge and Trac already exist; why build another portal? 1) Self-hosting 2) Simple 3) Batch operations 4) Sustainable Cabot & Wilson: “Tools for Teams: A Survey of Web-Based Software Project Management Portals”. Doctor Dobb’s Journal, October 2009.
  6. We’ve Been Busy!
  7. We Have Tickets!
  8. To Make a Long Story Short Undergraduate students can build a lot of great software If: 1) You have realistic expectations 2) You’re patient 3) You realize that “how” matters more than “what”
  9. 1) Realistic Expectations Most students are doing five courses at once Which leaves them 8-10 hours/week for your project A 13-week term is equivalent to 3 full-time weeks How much do you expect a new (junior) hire to do in their first three weeks on the job?
  10. Realistic Expectations (cont.) Most faculty are working even harder than their students “We’re here to do research, they pay us to teach, we spend our time on admin.” They care about computer science, which is not the same thing as programming You can’t blame them for doing what they’ve been trained to do, either
  11. 2) Patience Your project may be the first time students have written something that isn’t just going to be marked and thrown away And the first time that 90% right isn’t good enough You must not make students feel like failures for working the way they have been trained to Even (especially) if those ways are wrong
  12. Patience (cont.) “Why don’t schools teach students [Git | Haskell | GPUs | cloud]?” Because the curriculum is full 4 years × 2 terms/year × 13 weeks = 4800 hours The hard part isn’t figuring out what should be in there The hard part is getting agreement on what to take out
  13. 3) How, Not What Q: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from your project? Nobody said “technology” What they did say was: • Teamwork • Presentation skills • Prioritization • Negotiating with real users • Code review • Building their network and portfolio By the way, our project students are 28.5% female
  14. There’s A Textbook For That Karl Fogel: Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project O’Reilly, 2005 The same skills students need to succeed in grad school
  15. Other Lessons Learned • How to run meetings • How to teach students how to do code reviews • What level of tooling is appropriate/feasible • Accountability • How to accelerate ramp-up • Carry-overs from previous terms • Importance of full-time summer work (yay GSoC!) • Industry support • Presentations, presentations, presentations • Scoping and re-scoping deliverables • Recruiting students and faculty • Grading Thanks to Prof. Karen Reid for this list (and much else)
  16. Help Us to Help You Basie Eclipse4Edu ElmCity DC FlightSim Ingres MarkUs Mercurial Pony-Build RoboCup Thunderbird WikiDev
  17. Thank You