The OCTOpod: Conversations with SUSE's Office of the CTO

The Value of Mentoring in Open Source

August 12, 2021 Alan Clark - Office of the CTO, SUSE Episode 4
The OCTOpod: Conversations with SUSE's Office of the CTO
The Value of Mentoring in Open Source
Show Notes Transcript

Mentoring is part of many organizations and companies, but it can be a controversial practice. In today’s episode, we talk about the value of mentoring in the open source community. Our guests today are Rossella Sblendido, who directs the engineering department SUSE, and Sayali Lunkad, a software developer at SUSE and a self-proclaimed open-source enthusiast. Rossella has been a mentor and Sayali has experience as a mentee. We hear about what makes a good mentor and why it is a role you have to learn to inhabit. Sayali shares what being a mentee was like and the value that comes with being given opportunities to learn. Rossella and Sayali respond to some of the common criticisms around mentoring and suggest how these relationships can be successful. Our conversation also touches on what mentors gain from the relationship, opportunities for mentorship in open source, and advice for either aspiring mentors or mentees. 

Key Points From This Episode:

  • How mentoring works in the open source world and the purpose it serves.
  • Who usually sponsors open source mentoring programs.
  • Responses to some of the common criticisms around mentorship programs.
  • The primary responsibilities of a mentor, and attributes that make a mentor effective.
  • Sayali’s experience as a mentee, and the project that she worked on.
  • The attribute Sayali found most helpful during her mentorship program.
  • How Sayali came to the OpenStack Outreachy program,
  • Why Rossella decided to become a mentor.
  • Some of the reasons Sayali would recommend mentorship opportunities for upcoming developers.
  • The availability of mentorship programs in open source.
  • Advice for aspiring mentors and potential mentees.
  • Final words from Rossella about mentoring.

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Rossella Sblendido

Sayali Lunkad


Linux Foundation

Google Summer of Code


[0:00:03.5] Welcome to the OCTOPod, hosted by Alan Clark and brought to you by the SUSE & Rancher Community. Alan has spent his software career, focused on open source advocacy and emerging tech. In The OCTOPod season one, Alan talks with experts across technology about trends and challenges and Open Source. From building communities to diversity and inclusion. To keeping the open, in Open Source.




[0:00:37.0] AC: Hi everyone, welcome to the OCTOPod. Today, I have not one, but two guest. That’s a first for OCTOPod. That’s because we’re going to talk about what open source mentoring can offer you. We’re going to hear perspectives from both a mentor and a mentee. 


Representing mentors, we’ve got Rossella Sblendido, who directs the engineering department here at SUSE and focusses on datacenter management and technologies. For mentees, we’ve got Sayali Lunkad, a software developer at SUSE and a self-proclaimed open source enthusiast. Thanks to you both for joining me today.


[0:01:21.1] RS: Thanks Alan, nice to be here.


[0:01:23.4] SL: Thank you and thanks for having us.


[0:01:26.4] AC: You’re welcome, we’re very excited to have you here. Let’s start off with some explanations. Our listeners are likely familiar with the term mentorship but in open source, this is something pretty amazing and perhaps, something a little bit different than what you see in a proprietary company. Rossella, can you tell us what open source mentorships are all about? How do they work and who sponsors them?


[0:01:53.0] RS: Mentorship indeed, I would say that the meaning of the word is the same even in the open source world. The idea is that somebody more experienced teaches us something to a junior for person and it’s very practical. Usually it’s about writing some code, developing a specific feature.


In open source, mentorship I would say is usually well-structured. It’s a way to attract new people to the project. In some cases, it’s also a way to bring diversity because there are mentorship programs that are specifically up for minorities.


[0:02:29.6] AC: Are these organized by private companies that are part of the community or are they organized by the communities themselves?


[0:02:37.8] RS: They are usually organized by the community themselves but of course, they are sponsored by companies. Both in terms of money that goes down to the interns and interns sometimes as the mentors swooped in the program.


[0:02:52.5] AC: Okay, before we dive into your experiences, let’s talk about mentoring in general. There’s some critics out there that believe that the outcomes of mentoring programs are best mixed. This criticism cuts across corporate mentoring programs as well as open source so it’s not specific to open sources, just more about the effectiveness of mentoring itself.


There’s some data that reports that there is little lasting benefits from such programs. What would be your response to such critics?


[0:03:26.5] RS: Well, if you look at the mentorship program, at least one that I participated in, I think they have long-lasting benefits, both for the mentees and for the mentors. The people who participated in the program, most of them became active contributors and to the project, so I’m talking specifically about opportunities for OpenStack. I’m sure Sayali can give her personal perspective there since she was part of it.


[0:03:52.0] AC: Yeah, I think you're giving us evidence, right? If they’re long-lasting contributors, to me that says that these programs do work. Thank you for that.


[0:04:02.4] SL: Yeah, I would say that also from the people I know who participated before me or after me, I still know that they gotten jobs at companies that support open source, I know some are still involved in open source actively or through their company, so I can attest to maybe not 100% but there are definitely people that benefit from it.


[0:04:27.1] AC: Okay, that’s good, that’s very good. We have something to respond to those critics so thank you. Rossella, let’s talk about more specifically about a mentor. What are the primary responsibilities of a mentor and what have you found that was most effective as mentoring and perhaps that’s where the critics are coming out as they’re involved with mentors that aren’t effective? What makes an effective mentor?


[0:04:54.2] RS: Yeah, that’s a great question and indeed, to be a mentor, I think you have to learn how to be a mentor, it’s not something that comes natural. As a mentor, you are responsible for letting the mentee learn and hopefully in the most effective way as possible. For me, what has worked really well is to define something very practical that the mentee needs to solve and of course, you start small and then you start with really small patch and then you like increase the difficulty like maybe some thing’s bigger and then a full feature for some project and this is effective because you start an objective and you also, that’s the mentee kind of tried on his or her own so that when there’s some difficulties then they can –


I’ll talk with the mentor and assemble it together but it’s really important that the first trial is for the mentees then to find and it’s not about solving the issue for the mentee. It’s really about being there and increasing the difficulty as the program processes.


[0:06:06.1] AC: Okay, very good. Let’s take it from the mentee side and I think maybe we should explain here that Sayali, you were not a mentee or Rossella was not one of your mentors, is that correct?


[0:06:19.5] SL: Yeah, no.


[0:06:20.8] AC: Right, so your experiences could be very different. Let’s look at this from your perspective, from a mentee perspective. Tell us about your experience, you know, what organization, what kind of duration, how long were you participating as a mentee and just generally, what was your experience like?


[0:06:41.3] SL: I was a mentee with our [T3 0:06:42.5] and I was working for the OpenStack projects so – it was a three months internship program. I think that’s typical for all outreach internships that it cost over a period of three months. To apply to this, everybody had to do an assignment, which is depending on the project that you’re working on, you either have to fix one of the bugs that you can pickup any bargain and fix that and submit an assignment along with some questions.


Then, obviously, there’s a selection process that you go through for each organization and once you're selected, you're assigned a mentor. For me, it was, I had one main mentor but also, a co-mentor so a kind of two mentors. One was more active, the other one was, if the first mentor’s not available, I could kind of reach out and – 


[0:07:35.1] AC: Tag team, go tag team.


[0:07:37.8] SL: Yeah, the reason I mention that is because I think I had a better relationship with my co-mentor than my actual mentor over time. My mentor was more of the active one through the internship but I’m still in touch with my co-mentor and if I need something, I can always reach out to her.


Yeah, during the internship, I think we had meetings once or twice a week where my mentor would check in with me if I’m able to solve the task that were assigned if I have any blockers, I could talk to him. In general also, it was encouraged that I speak on the community channels and just speak up about the problems that I have on the channel so that if there’s somebody else who is an expert in the area, they can help me instead. It was more open in that sense as to who I could reach out and what help I could get.


[0:08:33.6] AC: If you had to think about everything that happened in that mentorship experience and you had to pick one attribute that – which attribute of that experience did you find most helpful?


[0:08:46.8] SL: I think it would be the availability of the people. Experts at such an easy – 


[0:08:54.1] AC: The availability of people across the project, not just availability of the mentors? Is that what you're saying? Yeah?


[0:09:00.8] SL: Yeah, because especially for OpenStack, the community was very active, so I think the networking that I did in that time was still really great and really good source of knowledge that I can always reach out to. I would say that’s one of the best things I took away from it. Also, just the exposure to the open source world that was something I’d never experienced before.


At the same time, I know it’s not the same for all open source projects that really depends on which project you pick, how much engagement there is. I was lucky to find something that was really high engagement.


[0:09:38.3] AC: Let’s delve a little further on that, you say you were lucky to find that, what caused you to look at open source as a career choice and how did you find that community and opportunity?


[0:09:52.9] SL: Yeah, actually, I wasn’t looking for it, it just kind of happened.


[0:09:57.1] AC: It kind of popped up and there it was.


[0:09:59.4] SL: Actually, I was still in university. I was studying computer science and in the 4th year, you normally have to do a project and you have a project team with which you work and our project was cloud robotics. We had no idea, we were all just – we were four people just looking at different technologies that we could use and I had taken responsibility for the cloud part of it. 


Actually, one of my teammates had heard about open source and was a bit more familiar with Linux at the time. He was the one pushing us to use Linux and maybe checkout the open source options and that’s how I saw OpenStack because it was one of the biggest cloud providers at the time. It still is and then I found the – so I was using that from a project service already trying to deploy it and play around with it and then I found the internship program. 


That kind of just accelerated everything for me in the open source world because that just opened a lot of doors and sense of understanding how it works. Also importantly, the assignment that they give you is kind of helpful to understand the workflows because you need to know how to find bugs, fix bugs, or where to push the code, who to talk to in case of problems. I think that was kind of the start. 


[0:11:19.4] AC: Yeah and gave you some really great experience, didn’t it? 


[0:11:22.5] RS: Yeah, for sure.


[0:11:24.1] AC: Okay, that’s pretty cool. Let’s jump back to Rosella for just a minute here, so the stuff that Sayali has described and what you had mentioned before Rosella is mentoring takes a lot of effort above and beyond your – what we’ll call your day assignments, right? Talk to us a little bit more about why you were a mentor, what you got out of that experience? 


[0:11:46.1] RS: Yeah, I was a mentor – so I decided to become a mentor because I wanted to teach other people what I’ve learned and to be honest, it took me [inaudible 0:11:55.6] to learn to start. I was a coordinator for a new term and new term was a really hard content to get in. I wanted to make it easier for other people especially for women and minorities in general so that’s why I decided to step up and join outreachy. 


It’s true it’s an effort, it’s time consuming and it’s around [epoch 0:12:18.3] kind of because you know, you might catch a mentee that is you know, because I’m worried where than the time schedule doesn’t really fit completely so you have to adjust. It is true that you already have your daily job and then you have to also take care of your mentee but to be honest, for me it was a very rewarding experience. It’s great to see somebody that makes progress and you really kind of – you know, some pride because you are helping them and it makes sense. 


I would say it is also this is from a selfish point of view because once you’re a mentor, you really have to go through every concept over and over again so that it sits better in your mind and your [inaudible 0:13:01.0] in my opinion a better engineer better that you are. There is also some selfish outcome of it, yeah. 


[0:13:11.6] AC: Okay, so it sounds like it was very rewarding for you. As we discussed a minute ago, Sayali wasn’t one of your mentees. The mentees you had, do you have contact with them anymore or are they still involved with open source? 


[0:13:26.2] RS: Most of them are still involved with open source but I don’t have contact with all of them but with a few of them, I do. I guess it depends [inaudible 0:13:33.8] so human relationship with some people it just weeks [inaudible 0:13:37.3] and you know established some kind of friendship. You know, the people you know, [inaudible 0:13:42.5] to the mentorship, the relationship is not so strong anymore.


[0:13:48.3] AC: Yeah, okay. Yeah, that is pretty natural with life, right? Sayali, let’s just maybe a general question. We’ve talked about some very particular parts of the mentorship relationship and so forth, just to be clear to everyone, is mentorship something that you would recommend that somebody do particularly as you were somebody that’s coming out of the university experience, why or why not would you recommend a mentorship opportunity? 


[0:14:17.9] SL: I would definitely I’ll recommend it especially I think we didn’t mention but how 3T is specifically targeted for women. I think that is still the case. I know GSoC is another internship program, it is open to all students but in my experience, it gave me a platform which I could have never gotten because I come from India. Now the community is big but at the time, I think there is about six to seven years ago, open source wasn’t that heard of even. 


It was kind of slow growing and in that being a woman trying to kind of find your own way into the industry was very important for me. You had college placements but also you didn’t know exactly what you were getting into at the time but the opportunity that this gave me was I understood. I got a little bit of an experience working in the real world with people who actually work at companies and what they are doing and also kind of decide what kind of work culture I would like. 


Yeah and just what and why women that would like to work and all of those things were kind of more accessible also. Soon after my internship or even during the internship, I got to go for these OpenStack events, which as a speaker, so that is also kind of scary. 


[0:15:41.9] AC: That’s a big step, yeah. 


[0:15:43.9] SL: Yeah. 


[0:15:44.6] AC: Yeah, from university environment to speaking at an OpenStack events, which at that time those events were very large so that is huge. 


[0:15:52.5] SL: The meet-ups went on as big as the conferences were, yes but the local meet-ups was still kind of a mixed group of people from working at companies and just contributors or some people who are interested so it was scary but at the same time, I got exposure so there was again a network built in that sense, which I feel like sometimes can be tougher for women but also comes with it downsides because people kind of also doubt you like, “What are you doing here? Like why do you…” kind of thing but you have to fight your way through it. 


[0:16:25.1] AC: Yeah, everybody experiences that but look at the opportunity that it gave you. We’ve talked specifically about your experiences in particular programs with mentorships. I think maybe we should address to the audience a little bit, what is the availability for mentorships in open source? Is there only just one or two projects that are doing mentorships or is it quite common? 


[0:16:52.7] RS: It’s quite common especially for established projects. Of course, if it is a very small project that was backed by somebody than who [inaudible 0:17:02.3] the mentorship program for that but you know the major one, they have it. If you just – you can look at the Linux Fouundation page there, the section about mentorship and in general, if you’re sending these open source project that you want to learn, if you Google the name of the project and you know mentorship, you’ll find something. 


[0:17:22.8] AC: Okay, Sayali are you seeing the same type of experience? 


[0:17:26.6] SL: Yeah, if you just check under any of the programs, there are tons of projects that are available to select from for just applying as an intern, so there is quite a wide option available. 


[0:17:40.2] AC: Good, thank you. All right, so maybe to wrap up here the question I’d like to ask both of you then have you respond individually is what’s the piece of advice that you would give to a mentor and Sayali, what’s one piece of advice you would like to give to somebody that’s thinking about being a mentee in open source? Rosella, why don’t you go first? 


[0:18:03.2] RS: Yeah, so my advice is to be patient because sometimes, you know, we live in a very fast world and we want fast with us but for mentorship, we have to be patient. It’s like waiting for a plant to give fruits so it doesn’t happen from one day to another, you have to be calm for them. Yeah, so that was hope. 


[0:18:26.6] AC: You are planting seeds, okay. 


[0:18:28.7] RS: Yeah.


[0:18:29.4] AC: Very good. Sayali? 


[0:18:31.0] SL: I’d say don’t be afraid to ask questions because it is a very daunting experience and the first thing you don’t want to look stupid but at the same time you are learning, so be open to ask but also try things on your own and you’ll find your own way of solving something. I think a good balance between those things is important. 


[0:18:51.9] AC: All right, as we’re wrapping up here, let’s circle back, is there anything that we didn’t talk about or talked about and feel like maybe we didn’t express clearly? Anything you’d like to communicate to our listeners?


[0:19:07.9] RS: Yes Alan, something that I wanted to mention that I forgot before, I just from a statistic involved with success about with you. 42% of the participants actually become active contributors, which is great number and it just mentoring will beat around the criticism about mentorship. I think when mentorship is done in a good way then it does bring good results.


[0:19:34.5] AC: I agree with you. I wholeheartedly agree with you, thank you for bringing that out Rossella. Well thank you Rossella and Sayali, it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed being able to talk to both of you today. To our listeners, thank you for listening today, Rossella, Sayali, thank you for sharing your stories with us and for everyone, we’ll see you next time.




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