Monday, May 12, 2008

Loving the summer of code

When I was growing up, the big news out of the Bay Area was the “Summer of Love.” Now it’s the “Summer of Code.”

Google has announced its “Google Summer of Code™ 2008,” with 1125 students (out of 7,100 applicants) working on 175 open source projects. The announcement that it would spend $5 million funding summer projects got some blogger coverage, but the program (which began in 2005) is highly visible here in the Silicon Valley and among the open source community.

About a third of the applicants and 40% of the accepted participants are from the US. Eyeballing the pie chart, India, China, France and Sri Lanka had a lower acceptance rate than average, while the US, Canada, Germany, Poland and UK had a higher acceptance rate. (Brazil looked about average).

In looking over the projects, the sponsoring open source organizations have become more democratic (i.e., less elite). I browsed through the list of projects of the 10 or 15 most recognizable projects. A few of these looked interesting:

Beyond these, most of the projects are small incremental improvements to existing subsystems (and many of them obscure subsystems of obscure OSS projects). Very few are ones that I would have been excited about at age 21 (when I’d been a paid programmer for 5 years).

So my guess was that the attraction will be mainly for students who don’t have the option of getting a paid summer job with a real software company for real money. The high rate of application from India, China and Sri Lanka is consistent with this. (The high rate of Germans could be the generous public support for German students, who don’t need to receive worthless dollars to pay their rent).

Sure enough, if you look at the top universities for applicants and participants (covering only about 100 of the 1125 participants), conspicuously absent are schools with strong summer programs and strong local IT markets like MIT, Stanford and Berkeley (Georgia Tech being a notable outlier, apparently due to strong word of mouth). This would imply the participants are either highly motivated free software supporters, those without good professional opportunities (seeking to “flip bits not burgers”), financially comfortable, or conversely places where $4500 is a lot of money.

Google is spending this money without much direct benefits, for which they should be commended. However, I found the FAQ claims of altruism to be misleading at best. Either Google’s geeks aren’t very precise writers, or they’re being disingenuous:
3. Is Google Summer of Code a recruiting program?
Not really. To be clear, Google will use the results of the program to help identify potential recruits. But that's not the focus of the program. Take a look at the organizations we've worked with in the past, and you'll see the vast majority are engaged in work that's not directly applicable to Google's business. That said, the more code out there, the more everyone benefits.

Additionally, we've heard from several of our past student participants that their participation in GSoC made them more attractive to potential employers, and most participants who have gained employment as a result of their GSoC work are not currently employed by Google.
This is pretty easy to parse:
  • "not related to Google technologies" might be true, but when screening applicants it’s clear that working on NetBSD provides a better evaluation of programming ability than a class project
  • "most participants" could mean "we have 49%" and “not currently employed” could mean “we hired them initially.”
Google’s legendary secretiveness means that we don’t know what the true benefits are of the program to Google: it might be altruistic, but the evasiveness of this wording seems like they are shooting themselves in the foot. I could imagine that after accepting 15% of the applicants, they could hire 10% of that 15% to work at Google — a net cost of about $45,000 per recruit. (Not cheap, but not outrageous). Since Google does everything by the numbers, this calculation has certainly been done — perhaps why they don’t disclose their hiring rate.

Still, this is more altruistic than a typical summer internship program. Thanks to the Internet (and the open source development tools), there are relatively low coordination costs for such virtual distributed work. It’s clear that the sponsoring organizations (such as the Perl Foundation) have put a lot of thought into how they’ll organize the efforts.

It’s not something that would have been possible when I was in college, when long distance calls were $1/minute and a high bandwidth data channel was sending a 9-track tape (holding at most about 150 mb) via Federal Express. The upper limit was “station wagon bandwidth,” attributed to Andrew Tannenbaum of Minix fame.

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