Google Summer of Code Gives College Students Hands-On Experience with Open Source Projects

Google’s Summer of Code program gives college students hands-on experience (and a small stipend for) working on open source projects. I interviewed Eamon Ford, a junior at the University of Chicago, about his experiences with the program and why it offers a unique professional learning opportunity.

September 17, 2012

Google wrapped up its eighth Summer of Code a couple of weeks ago, with over 1200 college students — its largest cohort yet — participating in the three-month-long program. The Summer of Code puts these students to work in real world, open source development projects. While most program participants are computer science and engineering majors, the breadth of their backgrounds — academic and otherwise — is quite large, says Google, with students from over 66 countries taking part in the online program.

The purpose, according to Google, is to give students an opportunity (and a small stipend) to write code for various open source projects and more broadly help connect student programmers with the open source community — with organizations and with other developers. These organizations include the Apache Software Foundation, Creative Commons, Mozilla, OpenStreetMap, the Wikimedia Foundation, and CERN. There are other, less well-known organizations with which students can work too, and Google says that while some students are drawn to working with some of the high profile ones, many choose the organization they work with because of their own programming interests and because of the specific project they get to undertake.

Such is the case with Eamon Ford, a junior at the University of Chicago, who spent the summer working on iOS apps for CERN. Ford had some programming experience with iOS from high school, he says, and wanted to do something over the summer to help boost that iOS knowledge. (It’s a highly marketable skill, and not something he was studying in his courses.) Ford saw CERN on the list of choices, saw they wanted iOS development and was immediately interested in working for the European particle physics lab. The timing was rather ideal too, as this summer saw the announcement from CERN that scientists might have detected the Higgs boson. Ford’s iOS apps were meant to help share these and other sorts of news articles with the general public, raising awareness about CERN and about physics in general.

It wasn’t just his iOS chops that Ford was able to hone over the summer. He said this was the first opportunity he’s had to do programming work for others (other than a teacher, of course) and, as open source development demands, to do programming work with others. He admits that he learned quickly to make sure his code was “presentable” not just executable; and he says he learned a lot about project management in general — how to plan a project from start to finish and be accountable to those deadlines along the way.

These are the sorts of things you’d expect to do in any CS-oriented summer internship program, no doubt, and students certainly reap the benefits of this hands-on experience. They also gain a better understanding of whether or not a career in programming is right for them. Moreoever, internships are becoming increasingly important for college students in securing work post-graduation.

Google insists that the Summer of Code isn’t a recruiting effort — neither for Google nor for the organizations that participate. There are no job placement guarantees. But the program certainly does give students an introduction to open source development and open source community. (It’s run out of the organization’s Open Source Programs Office which also manages things like Google Project Hosting.) Students each work individually with a mentor — sometimes from the organization itself, sometimes from the open source community — who helps guide and support them (and eventually helps evaluate their work).

“It’s not what I was expecting,” Ford admits, but says he’s been convinced now that he wants to work in software engineering. He’s just switched his major, too: from math to computer science.


Back to Top