Paula Hunter is the executive director of the Outercurve Foundation. With over two decades of open source experience, she has served in leadership roles at organizations such as Open Source Development Labs and United Linux. Follow her on Twitter @huntermkt.
Free and open source software (FOSS) is at the root of the most innovative products, technologies and services of our time. The Social Network may have taken some Hollywood liberties, but there’s still a big story to tell about today’s colleges as the hotbeds of innovation, much of it driven by FOSS.
Today’s top entrepreneurs are using FOSS as the building blocks for innovation. Instead of writing an entire solution from scratch, developers can assemble large parts of their solutions from liberally licensed FOSS projects, and focus their creative energies.
FOSS also serves as a training ground for new developers. Good developers have always known that the way to improve is by reading well-written programs. Good FOSS projects in dynamic communities provide a wealth of examples for students to read, understand, and work on.
Free and open source software isn’t just a good way to program — it’s giving students a leg up in their education and job prospects. Here’s how.
Working within a FOSS project community brings new benefits. First, there’s the real-world experience of participating in a distributed team. More and more of the world’s software projects are developed in highly connected developer communities around the globe, regardless of whether they are public and liberally licensed or closed and proprietary. The communications and social skills learned from an experience like this will be essential.
Development skills will also be honed. This is achieved through constructive feedback and the experience of working within a mature, well-run FOSS project team. This experience provides version control, configuration management tools, regular automated builds, and testing and packaging issues. These are essential professional software development skills that are seldom well-taught in formal school settings.
Experience and Networking
Job and career success often come through one’s professional connections. The broader network inherent in larger FOSS projects can yield big opportunities.
Companies want to know what job candidates can do. Participation in FOSS projects can generate a very public portfolio of practical work. This beats a resume any day. It also makes it easier to show your previous work to a potential employer. If you’ve coded for other companies, the work may be locked behind proprietary protections. But FOSS projects are free and easy for anyone to view.
For college student Eric Schultz, FOSS was a way of adding experience to his resume. Even though he said he didn’t know how to program complex projects, working with a team has helped him pick up skills and add samples to his portfolio. “It’s also a really great networking opportunity,” Schultz said. “I think that it’s helpful because you meet people who already are in bigger businesses — people who are at the top of their field — and all of a sudden, you’re on their radar. So purely from a networking standpoint, it’s really helpful.”
A number of universities are discovering the benefits students are gleaning from FOSS work. Rensselaer and Oregon State University have open source centers of expertise for students. UC Berkeley teaches a web-based course.
Employers aren’t ignorant of the relationship between students, FOSS projects and employment opportunities. Several years ago, Google set up the “Summer of Code” program, wherein FOSS project leaders propose summer work, and students bid for the positions, with Google paying $5,000 to each accepted student. Google continues to invest heavily in the program.
University students who actively participate in FOSS projects and communities can create their own job opportunities, whether it’s a summer internship, full time employment, or lining up a job for graduation next year. Companies hungry for new talent have much to gain by engaging with students that have participated in these endeavors.
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