Open Source Systems – Keynote #6 – Carol Smith on Google’s Summer of Code programme

Carol Smith opened her keynote talk by providing a brief history of her life with Google; she started as a journalism graduate, and now runs the Google Open Source Programs office, which oversees all open source code used internally at Google, ensuring compliance with the relevant open source licenses. Part of this role is to undertake outreach programs to open source and student communities, and to maintain a relationship with the open source software organisations external to Google; of which there are many.

She is very interested in open source software and the motivations that drive people to contribute to the open source community. She walked the audience through a number of concepts from Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us‘. As she explained, Pink has analysed motivations around the world, with the conclusion that for tasks that are straightforward or repeatable, money is an appropriate motivator. Pay people more, and they will work harder or better. However,  for tasks that are conceptually oriented (like programming, let’s say), money is not an effective extrinsic motivator. So, what drives us?

  • Autonomy – our desire to work independently on a task and to feel ownership of it
  • Mastery – our urge to get better at things. This is why people have hobbies
  • Purpose – in CS opinion, is a sense of making a contribution to a cause – humans want to feel part of a bigger cause

If you pay people enough that they’re not worried about paying their bills and feeding themselves, they work to do the things that enrich them and that they enjoy. As Smith explained, open source software development lines up really well with these motivations. People are even willing to work for free on open source software because it enriches their lives.

Carol explained that universities are where students get lessons on independence; tools that enrich them for the rest of their lives – where they learn to feel ownership of their work – often in collaborative environments and through group work; but whether they pass or fail is their own responsibility. This is a lot like what motivates us; and a lot like open source.

However, we aren’t teaching open source in universities.

Some students are getting introduced to open source software in their university, but we could be doing a lot better. teachingopensource.org only lists 15 universities with programs in open source. Enter the Google Summer of Code program.

GSOC is a fully online, international program encouraging uni student participation in open source development. Interestingly, around half of students who participated in GSOC in 2012 listed something other than computer science as their major. To me this indicated the wide use of open source software in many fields – from graphics to humanitarian FOSS, astronomy, science and gaming. GSO inspires students to begin participating in open source development while providing an attractive alternative to other menial summer jobs  and also yields critical workplace experience. There are also benefits for the open source community and larger society in general through having more contributors to open source, and having more code released under open source licenses.

Carol encouraged other organisations to adopt the GSOC model, even if they could not be part of the program as a mentoring organisation. She also encouraged us to help get our universities to teach open source as part of the computer science curriculum.  She also noted that GSOC has around 12-13% female participation, and this is a statistic that she would like to change in the future.