Mentoring: We're Doing It Wrong


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Presented at 2012 - more details in speaker notes when downloading presentation

Dave Neary of the GNOME community recently penned a post [0] on mentoring programs for FOSS communities, and his findings were a bit disheartening. Of all those mentees taken in under various mentoring programs, from Google Summer of Code to the Great Documentation Project, only about 1 in 4 became regular contributors to their mentor's projects. Based on these figures, it appears that mentoring programs are actually quite a poor return on investment and mentors would be better off simply doing the work themselves.

Right? Well, sort of. Well, no, actually.

In this talk, Leslie Hawthorn argues that FOSS communities approach mentoring in a problematic manner. Our current approach focuses on the problem from the lens of software development, such as scaling our mentoring processes and measuring return on investment. Rather than focusing on these as measures of success, Leslie will discuss alternative ways to conceptualize the mentoring process and explore the broader social and cultural implications of mentoring folks in FOSS. She will also discuss alternative models for mentoring the next generation of contributors, including recommendations for implementing these models in your projects.

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  • Thank yous: organizers, sponsors, audience; Donna, Mary, Jacinta & Deb for reviewing abstract & helping me refine it.\nBefore we get into the meat of this presentation, I’d like to give you a bit of my background and some insights into why I’m giving this particular talk.\n
  • Just joined a Portland, Oregon based startup - language agnostic PaaS company\nWeek 3, day 3 and given holidays in states it’s more like 2 weeks all told\nNot relevant experience for this talk but they hired me because of ....\n
  • Home of some of the world’s largest open source projects - shameless plug,\nLinux Foundation, Apache, Drupal (yay Drupal Down Under!!!)\nMentoring is an integral part of the lab’s operations\nStudent “grads” highly sought after - successfully acquired companies, Mozilla, Fortune 100 jobs\n
  • Managed Google Summer of Code 2006-2010, 18+ yrs\nCreated contest now known as Google Code In in 2007, pre-university 13-18 yrs\nSome of the world’s best known FOSS mentoring programs, get paid to work on FOSS\n\n
  • Undergraduate Research Apprentice program - extremely prestigious program\nProfessor studying the interplay between 14th century law courts and creators of literary works (specifically secular texts)\nMade a lot of photo copies in the basement of the Boalt Hall Law Library and spent a lot of time with Prof. Middleton learning about the roots of the English legal system\nI am a failed mentee, but we’ll come back to this later\n
  • 25% “conversion rate”\nhuman intensive interactions cannot be automated - we’re used to automating out repetitive tasks\nRTFM is our closest approximation and it doesn’t yield useful results\n\n
  • Dave’s post talking about his experiences in Summer of Code and those he’s heard of\nPercival Graham on the Great Documentation Project for LilyPond\n25% retention rate for Mr. Graham, attendees at Community Leadership Summit report 1/6 retained from programs like GSOC\n\n\n
  • 25% is actually a great conversion rate if we are talking about a biz perspective (tyvm Jacinta)\nGentoo has gotten that up to 80% with pre-qualifying tasks\nLowering time spent on prequal is a decent enough point\n\n
  • I take my role as a mentor and role model for the various communities I serve very seriously\nI also don’t scale (but now you know why I talk this fast)\nbalancing personal need with needs of community - be as available as possible - set office hours if you need to\nlimited time resources - quick vetting process needed - set a pre-qualifying task before future follow up\n\n
  • we’ve turned this into the holy grail of why you’d mentor\nthe point of the holy grail was that it was really, really hard to find\n
  • Newbies ignorance has immense value - they are your “this sucks” button - credit Josh Gay\nSometimes “this sucks” isn’t useful, but often it is; Document what sucks is a great vetting task\nLet’s get recursive: simply having new people approach the project makes the project better able to have new people approach it\n
  • the best “new blood” challenges status quo in project’s approach to everything\n
  • so now that I’ve argued that just getting new people in the door provides ROI\nwe’re looking at this process and analyzing through SW dev lens: ROI, scalability and efficiency\nthis is inherently flawed - let’s consider what that approach does for our mentees\n
  • You can learn about version control! You can learn how to work in distributed teams! You’ll learn how to program from some of the best people in the industry! You’ll learn all the things you need to know to be hired by top employers! I know all these arguments because I’ve made them. They are also accurate. All of this is essentially an argument that investing your time will lead to a cash payout for you - ROI - and we generally agree that cash is not always great for FOSS. Remember Stormy’s keynote from 2008 - “Would You Do It Again for Free?”\n
  • When we’re looking only at ROI, that’s not a long-term motivator for anyone on either side to keep on keeping on. Discussions of ROI come from places like balance sheets, where you care about annual revenue at best and quarterly revenue most of the time.\n\n
  • How many of us got involved due to ROI? - show of hands (betting there will be zero)\nROI has got fsk all to do with what we’re trying to do here\n\n\n
  • So, let’s be clear. This is conference rule #1. Frankly, it’s life rule #1. And note too - we don’t say “be excellent to each other as long as I get something out of it” or “be excellent to each other as long as it scales” or “be excellent to each other as long as there is sufficient ROI.” Part of being a mentor is simply being excellent to each other. But beyond that ....\n
  • While this is a quote attributed to Jesus Christ, I’ve always thought it was the essence of the GPL.\nIt is easy for us to forget that we are highly privilegedi people. No matter what our financial circumstances, if we’re working in tech and attending this conference we’re quite intelligent. That in and of itself is a great privilege. The fact that we have those privileges means we ought to use them well.\n\n\n
  • We are freed by our native intellect. We are freed by our connections to each other that help us get things done, the economic empowerment that working in a well paid field brings us. I’ll argue that it is our responsibility to help others. Period.\n
  • You can expose someone to these ideas in seconds. I was: learned about FOSS from seeing the GNOME foot when attempting to restart a music player. Took me years to do something about it, but it took 2 minutes for me to be permanently inspired.\n
  • I use a macbook air, I’m presenting using keynote and I work for a PaaS company.\nI consider myself a free software free culture advocate. I helped edit the FSF’s last call for contributions.\nI believe in the power of these ideas and I advocate for them everywhere. \n
  • we cannot expect to see immediate quarterly or even annual returns\nit’s research and development and may lead to absolutely no immediate benefit\nyou have no idea what the value of your time will eventually be. you may never know. \nthat doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest your time and energies.\n\n
  • So, here’s the kicker folks. Because of that internship at Cal, I got a job working as a marketing assistant for a patent attorney who was the VP of Biz Dev at a comms semi start up. Because I worked for him, I started being interested in patent and copyright law. And things like the EFF. And because I knew about those things, I ended up being assigned to recruit for open source based teams at Google. Which led to my job on Google’s Open Source Team.\n
  • Prof. Middleton is a Guggenheim fellow and UCB is well funded. She certainly had budget to get those photocopies made without having to spend hours talking to me about Piers Plowman and Chaucer.\nI have produced fsk all in the academy. I have contributed nothing to the research area in my academic field.\nBut I am here with all of you today because of what she taught me and the time she spent with me.\nI bet she has no clue what I’m up to, but I really hope she’d be proud of what I’ve accomplished\n
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  • Mentoring: We're Doing It Wrong

    1. 1. Mentoring: We’re Doing It WrongLeslie 2012
    2. 2. Community Manager AppFog,
    3. 3. Outreach ManagerOregon State University Open Source Lab,
    4. 4. Google Open Source
    5. 5. UC Berkeley • Participant in the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program • My contributions to the the corpus of scholarly work in Medieval lit = 0 Sather Gate image courtesy of Flickr user livenature Anne Middleton photo taken from
    6. 6. The FOSS Mentor’s Lament• Mentees don’t become long-term contributors• Mentoring programs don’t scale• Return on Investment considered poor Watch image courtesy of Flickr User ribbitvoice
    7. 7. Dave Neary on Mentoring Programs• Excellent analysis of why mentoring ‘fails’• Poor retention rates = better to DIY?• Decrease the time it takes to vet mentees No Tourists image courtesy of Flickr User jenniferwoodardmaderazo
    8. 8. Retention Rates• Search Google for “good conversion rate” • 2%, 2.5%,10%, 15%, 18%• Prequalifying is best practice with any recruitment process St. Ignutius image courtesy of Flickr User interdev
    9. 9. EffectivePrequalification “Everyone Gets Tacos” Tacos image courtesy of Flickr User mikeitup
    10. 10. Getting & RetainingNew Contributors This is a good and noble goal. I’ve come to the conclusion that having this as the ultimate goal completely misses the point. Holy Grail Ale image courtesy of Flickr User brostad
    11. 11. How Newbies Help You Whether They Stick Around Or Not They are the people who know everything you have forgotten. Suck button image courtesy of Flickr User jessamyn
    12. 12. New PerspectivesThe opportunity for introspection provided by newbie feedback is vital to a project’s health. Ignorance is Strength image courtesy of Flickr User drtiki
    13. 13. Let’s Get Meta:the problem is how we approach the problem
    14. 14. Arguments forContributing to FOSS• Resume fodder• Portfolio builder• Opportunity to gain new skills• Get an awesome job• Get the boss to pay for you to come to LCA! Roll of 20 USD bills image courtesy of Flickr User Images_of_Money
    15. 15. When We’re Talking ROI There’s a Total Mismatch• Desired Mentor ROI • Desired Mentee ROI • Decrease my bus factor • Learn stuff so I can • Get work in my project done • Get cool job faster • Find fame and glory • Finally have time to fix that #$@!@$% bug that’s been in my • Retire at 40 on tropical island queue for 3 years
    16. 16. Big Question of the Day ROI? Really?
    17. 17. Reframing the Argument Bill & Ted Comic image courtesy of Flickr User divine_harvester
    18. 18. “You receive free, give free.”
    19. 19. “With great freedom comesgreat responsibility.”
    20. 20. Promoting Our Values• Importance of high quality output• Pride in one’s craft• Joys of exploring and tinkering• Impact of collaborating across geographies and cultures• Most importantly: freedom
    21. 21. Importance of Influence People may not agree with you and they may not do the things you’d like them to do, but the power of impacting their thought process is immeasurable. Influence Ripples image courtesy of Flickr User cambodia4kidsorg
    22. 22. FOSS Mentoring is a Lab Not a Business Mad Scientist image courtesy of Flickr User jarich
    23. 23. Remember,I’m a Failed Mentee
    24. 24. Did my professor waste her time?
    25. 25. So in conclusion.... Be excellent to each other. And make sure everyone gets tacos.
    26. 26. Thank You! Questions?Leslie 2012
    27. 27. Legal• This presentation is licensed CC-BY-3.0:• Unless otherwise indicated, all images or logos are the property of their respective copyright holders and are considered fair use or used with permission.