An Interview with Leslie Hawthorn

>Leslie Hawthorn, leader of the Google Summer of Code, talks about GSoC, mentoring, the GNOME Advisory Board and GNOME Foundation, women’s participation in FOSS, and her advice to new contributors.

Leslie Hawthorn held various roles at Google before joining the Open Source Programs Office in March 2006. Her first project after joining the team was spinning up Google Summer of Code 2006 and she has managed the program ever since. She also conceived, launched and managed the Google Highly Open Participation Contest, an initiative inspired by GSoC that helps pre-university students get involved with all aspects of open source development. She represents Google on the GNOME Advisory Board. Mentoring in open source communities is one of her personal passions, along with humanitarian uses for open source software. She loves to cook, read and can occasionally be found pining for illuminated manuscripts. She also likes to think of herself as a superb filker. She can be found on (@lh) or at

This interview took place in late October 2009.

Hi, Leslie. You’ve been involved in the free software world for a while now, most notably with Google Summer of Code. What’s the goal behind Google Summer of Code?

The program has several goals:

  • Get more open source code written and released for the benefit of all.
  • Inspire young developers to begin participating in open source development.
  • Help open source projects identify and bring in new developers.
  • Provide students the opportunity to do work related to their academic pursuits during the summer: “flip bits, not burgers”.
  • Give students more exposure to real-world software development scenarios (e.g., distributed development and version control, software licensing issues and mailing list etiquette).

We’ve been incredibly successful in achieving each of these goals. Most projects report gaining at least one new committer from among their GSoC students and many students go on to mentor for the program. We repeatedly hear from students that their participation in GSoC helped them land the job of their dreams and I have heard from one mentor that his first interview question to candidates is “Have you been a Google Summer of Code student?” We estimate that the program has produced more than 6 million lines of Free and Open Source code over the past five years, all available for anyone to use free of charge.

How many students have been introduced to free software through Google Summer of Code and GHOP?

We’ve had more than 3,300 students successfully complete their projects over the past five years. We’ve only run the Google Highly Open Participation Contest, a companion program to GSoC to help get pre-university students involved in Open Source, once so far. Our first foray with GHOP was very successful, as well – more than 350 students in 40 countries completed over 1,000 bite-sized chunks of work in areas like coding, documentation, user experience research and testing in just a two-month period.

What has surprised you the most about GSoC?

The enthusiasm for the program never ceases to amaze me. Sure, I think it’s cool because it’s my day job and personal passion. But I constantly get emails from both mentors and students telling me that participating in GSoC changed their lives, transformed their communities to be more open to new contributors and helped them realize where they could be more helpful to the overall world of Free and Open Source software. I feel privileged that I get to spend my time working to help empower such an amazing group of people.

One of the things that surprised the GNOME project a few years ago was that we didn’t get any women applying for our projects through Google Summer of Code, so we created the Women’s Outreach Program, which Google sponsored. How do women fare overall in GSoC?

I feel like the women participants in the program get a great deal of support from the mentoring organizations and many projects specifically attempt to recruit women when selecting GSoC students. One of GSoC’s greatest success stories, Angela Byron, joined the Drupal project as a brand new contributor in 2005 and is now the maintainer of Drupal 7. The Systers project also participated for the first time this year and I think their presence really helped us to show the community in a tangible way that we welcome and encourage women to join the Summer of Code community. I also want to give a shout out to all of our women mentors, as there are many of them and they actively maintain a presence in our program IRC channel (#gsoc on Freenode) so women know they are not alone and have role models for their participation in GSoC and FOSS.

You recently attended the Women’s Free Software Summit. What can we expect to see from that?

We’re working on some great projects, like outreach to conference organizers to help them recruit more female speakers and a Couch Surfing like network for women so they have fewer economic barriers to attending FOSS conferences. This group has had some of the most productive conversations I’ve seen around diversity in FOSS and one of the express goals is to provide solutions, not just complaints. I am proud to volunteer my time here and would encourage any like-minded souls to join us for the monthly IRC meeting in #glofs on Freenode (every 4th Tuesday at 18:30 UTC).

You sit on the GNOME Advisory Board; what do you hope to accomplish in that role?

I’m excited to sit on the Advisory Board since it helps me learn more about how a successful FOSS non-profit runs and to network with other business folks who are working in FOSS. I’m honored to serve and provide expertise in any area where I can, but I primarily hope to help the Foundation’s marketing and outreach efforts, current and future.

What do you hope to see the GNOME Foundation accomplish in the next couple of years?

I know the Foundation has been working on another Women’s Program and I’m very pleased to see that happening in the community once again. I know that GNOME has had incredible success with focused hackfests and I’m excited about the first marketing team sprint, which will take place in the next few weeks in Chicago. I’d also like to see more work done to expand the GNOME Love program, as any efforts that help bring more newbies into FOSS and contributing to GNOME would be useful to the community.

You’ve had a successful career, launched some amazingly successful programs – GSoC and GHOP – as well as sit on advisory boards and steering committees like the GNOME Advisory Board and the HFOSS Steering Committee. What advice would you offer to a young person looking to create a career in free software?

1) Remember when you receive criticism, even when it is harshly worded, to look for the good in that criticism and use it to improve yourself. The FOSS world is sometimes a blunt place and it can be easy to get discouraged. Recall that contributors to FOSS are often volunteers and their time is extremely limited, so taking the time to send criticism means your work is valued and they see potential in your contributions and your ability to make your work even better. If you do not come from the free software world, check out Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture – there’s a great bit in there where he talks about being harshly criticized by his football coach. This anecdote is a great illustration of how things work in the FOSS world with respect to criticism.

2) Focus on your greatest passions. There are many areas in FOSS to contribute, so concentrate on one or two areas at first. It’s natural to move on to other projects later, so dip a toe in before taking a swim in the deep blue ocean.

3) Look for answers on your own at first, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you do ask for help, be sure to let folks know where you’ve already looked to find your answer. This ensures that they don’t send you back to a resource that did not solve your problem and, most importantly, shows that you value their time since you tried to solve your own problem first. Some folks recommend Eric Raymond’s Asking Questions the Smart Way. My rule of thumb is that I ask for help if I cannot figure out how to solve my problem within 30 minutes.

4) Have fun. While you are busy having fun and making cool stuff, remember that the code you write helps businesses run, non-profits care for your fellow people, governments recover from disasters, etc. Doing the right thing was never so cool or enjoyable as in FOSS.

About the Interviewer

Stormy Peters is the Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.


Posted on November 6, 2009, in November 2009. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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