Outreachy: What? How? Why?23 May 2016
Today was my first day as an Outreachy intern with Mozilla! What does that even mean? Why is it super exciting? How did I swing such a sweet gig? How will I be spending my summer non-vacation? Read on to find out!
What is Outreachy?
Outreachy is a fantastic initiative to get more women and members of other underrepresented groups involved in Free & Open Source Software. Through Outreachy, organizations that create open-source software (e.g. Mozilla, GNOME, Wikimedia, to name a few) take on interns to work full-time on a specific project for 3 months. There are two internship rounds each year, May-August and December-March. Interns are paid for their time, and receive guidance/supervision from an assigned mentor, usually a full-time employee of the organization who leads the given project.
Oh yeah, and the whole thing is done remotely! For a lot of people (myself included) who don’t/can’t/won’t live in a major tech hub, the opportunity to work remotely removes one of the biggest barriers to jumping in to the professional tech community. But as FOSS developers tend to be pretty distributed anyway (I think my project’s team, for example, is on about 3 continents), it’s relatively easy for the intern to integrate with the team. It seems that most communication takes place over IRC and, to a lesser extent, videoconferencing.
What does an Outreachy intern do?
Anything and everything! Each project and organization is different. But in general, interns spend their time…
Coding (or not)
A lot of projects involve writing code, though what that actually entails (language, framework, writing vs. refactoring, etc.) varies from organization to organization and project to project. However, there are also projects that don’t involve code at all, and instead have the intern working on equally important things like design, documentation, or community management.
As for me specifically, I’ll be working on the project Test-driven Refactoring of Marionette’s Python Test Runner. You can click through to the project description for more details, but basically I’ll be spending most of the summer writing Python code (yay!) to test and refactor a component of Marionette, a tool that lets developers run automated Firefox tests. This means I’ll be learning a lot about testing in general, Python testing libraries, the huge ecosystem of internal Mozilla tools, and maybe a bit about browser automation. That’s a lot! Luckily, I have my mentor Maja (who happens to also be an alum of both Outreachy and RC!) to help me out along the way, as well as the other members of the Engineering Productivity team, all of whom have been really friendly & helpful so far.
Interns receive a $500 stipend for travel related to Outreachy, which is fantastic. I intend, as I’m guessing most do, to use this to attend conference(s) related to open source. If I were doing a winter round I would totally use it to attend FOSDEM, but there are also a ton of conferences in the summer! Actually, you don’t even need to do the traveling during the actual 3 months of the internship; they give you a year-long window so that if there’s an annual conference you really want to attend but it’s not during your internship, you’re still golden.
At Mozilla in particular, interns are also invited to a week-long all-hands meet up! This is beyond awesome, because it gives us a chance to meet our mentors and other team members in person. (Actually, I doubly lucked out because I got to meet my mentor at RC during “Never Graduate Week” a couple of weeks ago!)
One of the requirements of the internship is to blog regularly about how the internship and project are coming along. This is my first post! Though we’re required to write a post every 2 weeks, I’m aiming to write one per week, on both technical and non-technical aspects of the internship. Stay tuned!
How do you get in?
I’m sure every Outreachy participant has a different journey, but here’s a rough outline of mine.
Step 1: Realize it is a thing
Let’s not forget that the first step to applying for any program/job/whatever is realizing that it exists! Like most people, I think, I had never heard of Outreachy, and was totally unaware that a remote, paid internship working on FOSS was a thing that existed in the universe. But then, in the fall of 2015, I made one of my all-time best moves ever by attending the Recurse Center (RC), where I soon learned about Outreachy from various Recursers who had been involved with the program. I discovered it about 2 weeks before applications closed for the December-March 2015-16 round, which was pretty last-minute; but a couple of other Recursers were applying and encouraged me to do the same, so I decided to go for it!
Step 2: Frantically apply at last minute
Applying to Outreachy is a relatively involved process. A couple months before each round begins, the list of participating organizations/projects is released. Prospective applicants are supposed to find a project that interests them, get in touch with the project mentor, and make an initial contribution to that project (e.g. fix a small bug).
But each of those tasks is pretty intimidating!
First of all, the list of participating organizations is long and varied, and some organizations (like Mozilla) have tons of different projects available. So even reading through the project descriptions and choosing one that sounds interesting (most of them do, at least to me!) is no small task.
Then, there’s the matter of mustering up the courage to join the organization/project’s IRC channel, find the project mentor, and talk to them about the application. I didn’t even really know what IRC was, and had never used it before, so I found this pretty scary. Luckily, I was RC, and one of my batchmates sat me down and walked me through IRC basics.
However, the hardest and most important part is actually making a contribution to the project at hand. Depending on the project, this can be long & complicated, quick & easy, or anything in between. The level of guidance/instruction also varies widely from project to project: some are laid out clearly in small, hand-holdy steps, others are more along the lines of “find something to do and then do it”. Furthermore, prerequisites for making the contribution can be anything from “if you know how to edit text and send an email, you’re fine” to “make a GitHub account” to “learn a new programming language and install 8 million new tools on your system just to set up the development environment”. All in all, this means that making that initial contribution can often be a deceptively large amount of work.
Because of all these factors, for my application to the December-March round I decided to target the Mozilla project “Contribute to the HTML standard”. In addition to the fact that I thought it would be awesome to contribute to such a fundamental part of the web, I chose it because the contribution itself was really simple: just choose a GitHub issue with a beginner-friendly label, ask some questions via GitHub comments, edit the source markup file as needed, and make a pull request. I was already familiar with GitHub so it was pretty smooth sailing.
Once you’ve made your contribution, it’s time to write the actual Outreachy application. This is just a plain text file you fill out with lots of information about your experience with FOSS, your contribution to the project, etc. In case it’s useful to anyone, here’s my application for the December-March 2015-16 round. But before you use that as an example, make sure you read what happened next…
Step 3: Don’t get in
Unfortunately, I didn’t get in to the December-March round (although I was stoked to see some of my fellow Recursers get accepted!). Honestly, I wasn’t too surprised, since my contributions and application had been so hectic and last-minute. But even though it wasn’t successful, the application process was educational in and of itself: I learned how to use IRC, got 3 of my first 5 GitHub pull requests merged, and became a contributor to the HTML standard! Not bad for a failure!
Step 4: Decide to go for it again (at last minute, again)
Fast forward six months: after finishing my batch at RC, I had been looking & interview-prepping, but still hadn’t gotten a job. When the applications for the May-August round opened up, I took a glance at the projects and found some cool ones, but decided that I wouldn’t apply this round because a) I needed a Real Job, not an internship, and b) the last round’s application process was a pretty big time investment which hadn’t paid off (although it actually had, as I just mentioned!).
But as the weeks went by, and the application deadline drew closer, I kept thinking about it. I was no closer to finding a Real Job, and upheaval in my personal life made my whereabouts over the summer an uncertainty (I seem never to know what continent I live on), so a paid, remote internship was becoming more and more attractive. When I broached my hesitation over whether or not to apply to other Recursers, they unanimously encouraged me (again) to go for it (again). Then, I found out that one of the project mentors, Maja, was a Recurser, and since her project was one of the ones I had shortlisted, I decided to apply for it.
Of course, by this point it was once again two weeks until the deadline, so panic once again set in!
Step 5: Learn from past mistakes
This time, the process as a whole was easier, because I had already done it once. IRC was less scary, I already felt comfortable asking the project mentor questions, and having already been rejected in the previous round made it somehow lower-stakes emotionally (“What the hell, at least I’ll get a PR or two out of it!”). During my first application I had spent a considerable amount of time reading about all the different projects and fretting about which one to do, flipping back and forth mentally until the last minute. This time, I avoided that mistake and was laser-focused on a single project: Test-driven Refactoring of Marionette’s Python Test Runner.
From a technical standpoint, however, contributing to the Marionette project was more complicated than the HTML standard had been. Luckily, Maja had written detailed instructions for prospective applicants explaining how to set up the development environment etc., but there were still a lot of steps to work through. Then, because there were so many folks applying to the project, there was actually a shortage of “good-first-bugs” for Marionette! So I ended up making my first contributions to a different but related project, Perfherder, which meant setting up a different dev environment and working with a different mentor (who was equally friendly). By the time I was done with the Perfherder stuff (which turned out to be a fun little rabbit hole!), Maja had found me something Marionette-specific to do, so I ended up working on both projects as part of my application process.
When it came time to write the actual application, I also had the luxury of being able to use my failed December-March application as both a starting point and an example of what not to do. Some of the more generic parts (my background, etc.) were reusable, which saved time. But when it came to the parts about my contribution to the project and my proposed internship timeline, I knew I had to do a much better job than before. So I opted for over-communciation, and basically wrote down everything I could think of about what I had already done and what I would need to do to complete the goals stated in the project description (which Maja had thankfully written quite clearly).
In the end, my May-August application was twice as long as my previous one had been. Much of that difference was the proposed timeline, which went from being one short paragraph to about 3 pages. Perhaps I was a bit more verbose than necessary, but I decided to err on the side of too many details, since I had done the opposite in my previous application.
Step 6: Get a bit lucky
Spoiler alert: this time I was accepted!
Although I knew I had made a much stronger application than in the previous round, I was still shocked to find out that I was chosen from what seemed to be a large, competitive applicant pool. I can’t be sure, but I think what made the difference the second time around must have been a) more substantial contributions to two different projects, b) better, more frequent communication with the project mentor and other team members, and c) a much more thorough and better thought-out application text.
But let’s not forget d) luck. I was lucky to have encouragement and support from the RC community throughout both my applications, lucky to have the time to work diligently on my application because I had no other full-time obligations, lucky to find a mentor who I had something in common with and therefore felt comfortable talking to and asking questions of, and lucky to ultimately be chosen from among what I’m sure were many strong applications. So while I certainly did work hard to get this internship, I have to acknowledge that I wouldn’t have gotten in without all of that luck.
Why am I doing this?
Last week I had the chance to attend OSCON 2016, where Mozilla’s E. Dunham gave a talk on How to learn Rust. A lot of the information applied to learning any language/new thing, though, including this great recommendation: When embarking on a new skill quest, record your motivation somewhere (I’m going to use this blog, but I suppose Twitter or a vision board or whatever would work too) before you begin.
The idea is that once you’re in the process of learning the new thing, you will probably have at least one moment where you’re stuck, frustrated, and asking yourself what the hell you were thinking when you began this crazy project. Writing it down beforehand is just doing your future self a favor, by saving up some motivation for a rainy day.
So, future self, let it be known that I’m doing Outreachy to…
- Write code for an actual real-world project (as opposed to academic/toy projects that no one will ever use)
- Get to know a great organization that I’ve respected and admired for years
- Try out working remotely, to see if it suits me
- Learn more about Python, testing, and automation
- Gain confidence and feel more like a “real developer”
- Launch my career in the software industry
I’m sure these goals will evolve as the internship goes along, but for now they’re the main things driving me. Now it’s just a matter of sitting back, relaxing, and working super hard all summer to achieve them! :D
Got any more questions?
Are you curious about Outreachy? Thinking of applying? Confused about the application process? Feel free to reach out to me! Go on, don’t be shy, just use one of those cute little contact buttons and drop me a line. :)