Why students and open source

7 minute read

Two days before the BMS College Information Science Department Fest called "Genesis 2007", I received an email from a couple of students asking me to talk about "introduction to open source". Apparently, they were frantically looking for a speaker. Since I'm not the right person for this, I agreed to come only if they didn't find someone else... and I ended up going there on Friday.

The talk was supposed to be an introduction for a day-long session on Open Source Hacking which was organized by few enthu students trying to get other students interested.

I started making the presentation on the midnight before Friday, so I didn't have a very polished presentation, but I had something reasonable. The title of the talk was "How to make money from coding (or Why Open Source)". That should get their attention.

15 minutes before the talk, there were 2 students in the hall. I wanted to start the talk on time and decided to start without much crowd anyway. My sore throat was troubling me and I was coughing every two minutes. Anyway, I started off with a funny anecdote. It flopped. Oh boy.

Then, I decided they're not warmed up yet, and recovered quickly. 15 minutes later, the 225 seater hall was full. Phew.

Genesis 2007 at BMSCE

An hour later, they were still all there, they were asking lots of questions and they seemed genuinely interested. I hope the students do take FOSS software seriously, if not for the freedom and open source aspects, at least for their own career aspects which I detailed out in the talk. (And I'm sure once they're hooked, they will later "get" the freedom and open source aspects.)

Why do I say that? Well, it comes down to the first question in the Q&A session - "How to get into Yahoo!?", and I replied "Well, do you want to know how I got into Yahoo!?". A unanimous yes. I told them the MySQL story, the Python story and few other tidbits. Now, they're really listening. I pointed out that I didn't have any special skills, just the knowledge of these two open source software got me the job at Y!, and it saved me from a service industry job (no offense meant, just a personal preference).

Next question: "Any regrets in college life?". It caused a flashback in my mind on Atul's words : "There are two times you innovate in your life - one is when you are a student, the other is when you retire." Back then, I didn't believe him. Now, I do. So, I told them "I haven't yet regretted not scoring well in college. This is the only 'free time' you have, so use it well." I got lot of smirks and "oh, please, we have so much to study" looks. I said "Two years later, I'll see how many of you come back and tell me I'm wrong."

Genesis 2007 at BMSCE Genesis 2007 at BMSCE

Then, after the session ended, a few electrical students said they wanted to get into the software industry and don't know where to start. I told them that some of the best programmers I've known are from a mechanical background, so that's okay. You should prove your skills, that's all, your background shouldn't matter, although it may be difficult to get your first job because you're not a computer science student. Then, a telecom student. I was happy about this guy because he said he wanted to remain in the telecom domain but learn coding really well, I said that's a very good decision he's taken and told him to see open source projects such as Asterisk and OpenMoko. He said "I'm in my final year, just 8 months to go, am I too late?" I said "8 months is a really long time, you're not late, you just have to start now." (8 months is a long time when you think about it, but it seems to fly away so soon).

After that, students headed towards the computer lab where I gave a crash course in using subversion. I had to get back to work, so I didn't stay for the rest of the day, but I heard there was a "good response" from the students.

In the end, I don't know if anyone was inspired about FOSS or not, but I did see that few students absorbed the fact that knowledge and projects are going to get them good jobs, not just marks (of course, you do have to have a decent score), and working on FOSS projects is one way to achieve that.

P.S. If you've read this far, and you're interested in learning how to contribute to open source software, then you're in luck, because the foss.in community event is coming up soon. You can start right now by reading Atul's latest post on foss.in.

Update : A related must-read article is "How to Get a Job Like Mine" by Aaron Swartz.


Bhargava says:

Hey Swaroop, I started learning Python immediately after I came home from BMS. That shows how effective ur seminar was(Considering the fact that I'm the laziest person on earth).

Swaroop says:

@Bhargava : Thanks for the compliment! :)

Swaroop says:

@Madhusudan : Glad to hear that the response has been good! How to talk? Lots of practice :) Do encourage the students to attend foss.in (yes, that means bunking). Will work with you over email on the python session.

@Santosh : Thanks Santosh, good to hear that the students were enthused :)

@John : Thanks John. I have many regrets, many things I've not lived up to, so there's still a long way to go for me and open source.

Santosh G Vattam says:

Well Madhusudan has said nearly everything. The response that we got for the workshop was simply overwhelming, to see so much of enthu in people was very heartening. And it would surely have been impossible if not for your session. Thank you.

John Samuel says:

Though I did not attend your seminar, by the presentation and the way you have described about your class gives a good idea about it. Especially after reading your work in open source (especially your sixth sem proj and about your website), I really feel that you have done quite well and I really agree with what Atul says: 'contribute now when you are a student or when you retire'

Madhusudan.C.S says:

Hey Swaroop,

This is a great write up. If you don't mind I will flick few points from here to give my write up on the event to the fest co-ordinators. It was nice that you gave the session. Though I was not present for the entire session, people who were there for the entire session told me that it was an amazing session. It was very lively.

Now you have to teach us one thing, how to speak continously for one full hour and not to make even a single person boring!!! The presentation you prepared was apt, though it was not flashy, the way you spoke outweighed the presentation you had prepared(Sorry for this, because you have said that you prepared it last midnight).

I think not all of them were inspired by the Freedom and all such stuff many of them were inspired by Yahoo! story and many of them told me that they want to learn Python by seeing its power.

But few guys became really interested in FOSS. They told me that it would improve our communication with the society so well. They told me that they happened to meet many Hi-Fi developers like developers from Mozilla, which is not possible with Proprietary Softwares. They told me that this event gave them a great start and want to continue contributing to FOSS in the future. We also asked them to join bms-lug google groups so that we can work in co-ordination.

We will make sure that we will be present for FOSS.in this time not as delegates or participants but as voluteers. We missed it last time because of reasons we only don't know. I hope we can meet you there again.

P.S: Also many of them requested you to give sessions on Python, on weekends or whenever you are free. I hope you will agree. Finally excuse us if at all some mistake has happened from our side.

Vahid(zentux) says:

Hi Swaroop :)
I've just seen your post ! Great Idea. your mind is getting more mature and mature ...
Keep going in Open Source .
Regards, Vahid