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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mozilla @ SJCE -- Contributing to Mozilla informally - Final semester student projects

Along with the attempt to introduce Mozilla as a formal elective at SJCE I have been working on getting some development work started informally too. The current final year students are enrolled under the central university - VTU and hence cannot be offered any new subject. However they are expected to do a project as part of the course completion. I thought of using this to get students to do their final semester project with Mozilla. Also Mozilla labs organizes this program named Design Challenge where enthusiasts -- students, teachers, academicians, software developers, etc, are invited to submit innovative ideas to make the Firefox web browser a better software and the Internet in general a better place. This has received tremendous participation from the student community across the globe. The best part about this program is that this is not just a competition. The selected students are trained on various Mozilla related technologies by the very Mozilla developers who are developing those technologies. After such mentoring the students can start contributing code to Mozilla and products based on it. And not to mention the wealth of knowledge they stand to gain and how much of positive influence it will have with prospective employers or while applying for higher studies. This suited very well for the final year and also the pre-final year students.

So when I visited my college last Saturday (14-Nov-2009) to meet my HoD and the coordinating lecturer, related to the Mozilla elective to be offered, I decided to talk to final and pre-final year students and motivate a few of them to participate in the upcoming design challenge (Nov - 09 to Mar - 10) and also take up Mozilla work for final year projects. I talked to the coordinating lecturer (Shri P M Shivamurthy) and asked to him make an announcement regarding this and have the students assembled in one of the classrooms or the seminar hall. After going to the college I got to know that the pre-final year (5th sem) students would not be available as they have their internal assessment tests starting from Monday. HoD suggested that I should stay back till Monday evening and address the 5th sem students on Monday after that day's tests. That was not possible for me and I decided to visit the college again on the next Saturday for that and I would talk to the final year (7th sem) students for now. As a result I decided to stick to the final year project only. Things were set up in the Network Lab and there were about 30 students.

Standing in front of them I blabbered a bunch of things about Mozilla, Open Source software, how engineers graduating are not really industry ready and the fact that they do not have any experience on working with real world applications with huge code base and contributions from a large number of developers and finally how participating in Mozilla would help them fill that gap. I also told them the vast amount of options that Mozilla provides in terms of technologies and that they could find some work or the other which lies in their area of interest. At the end I asked if anyone had any questions and as expected nobody did. Then on asking how many would be willing to try something like this I saw something like 3 to 4 half-hands rising up in the air. This was certainly not a good sign. So I started with the "motivational" speech. "This will really help you guys to be ahead of students from other colleges. You will be industry ready where as other will require a lot more training and mentoring. This is all HoD pre-approved... and on and on and on" for a few more minutes. That really did the trick. After this I had about 10 - 12 hands, full ones. Quite satisfied I told them to get my contact details from PMS sir and contact me for any queries. Till now I have received emails from 6 students (one of them representing a project group of 4 students. so 9 students actually). I have sent them a couple of links to start reading. None of them have responded after that. But I am still hopeful.

A little later I was talking to some of the students offline and I got to know some facts which would have been very useful to me in positioning this Mozilla project idea in a much stronger way.

1) Campus recruitment is pretty bad this time. Only 6 students in Computer Science have got job offers, compared to a daily average of 20 - 25 students a couple of years back. --- I could have talked about how open source development experience will help them with jobs. It did help me.
2) Project teams (generally of 3 to 4 students) have already been formed and a guide (a member of the faculty) has been assigned. This has two effects:
    a) Some teams have already been given the project work, which is a small part of the guide's doctorate thesis/research. The guide will now not happily approve of students under him/her pursuing a difference project.  -- We could talk to HoD and reason out with the guide. I could have told the students that such a thing is very much possible.

    b) In a project team of 4, generally one or two students are the smart ones and others will be banking on them for the project to be completed. I had told them that in Mozilla it is generally individual contribution or a team of 2 at the max. The teams, like those mentioned earlier, cannot be divided as the dependent folks will get into a problematic position. -- I could have told them that Mozilla does not bother if the work done by one student is present by 4 as a team work. So let the team enroll for a Mozilla project. Either all or a few in the team will work. If its all of them each one will have a bug assigned or the bug will be assigned to one guy with all of them working on it. If it is just one or two of them then there are no issues.

    c) On a related not to the above two points, some students told me that they would like to do a Mozilla project in addition to an already assigned final semester project. This really delighted me. But it also was, sort of, a matter of concern, as it appeared to me that people were desperate to do something like this with the hope that it will add a line to their resume and help them get a job. I might be wrong and I wish and hope I am. Students doing open source development just out of pure interest and not part of any course requirements is the best thing. But let me see what it turns out to be.

3) I did not make an announcement about the design challenge because the mentoring classes for that goes on from Dec-09 to Feb - 10 and these guys have their exams in the second  half of December. But I later got to know that no mentoring classes will be held from approximately 21st Dec to 4th Jan because of the holiday season in the US. So I talked to a smaller number guys, those who stayed back to talk to me, about the design challenge and am hoping to have 1 to 3 ideas being submitted.

I am going to use these points during my next visit, this coming Saturday.

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