I had the pleasure of being a mentor this summer for an Outreachy internship for the Matrix organisation. Outreachy provides internships to people subject to systemic bias and impacted by underrepresentation in the technical industry where they are living.
Outreachy is a fantastic organisation doing a brilliant job to try and make our sometimes terrible industry a little bit better.
Mentoring was great fun, mainly because it was such a pleasure working with my awesome intern Usman. There is lots of support available for interns and mentors through Outreachy’s Zulip chat (when will we persuade them to use Matrix? ;-) so you always have somewhere to turn if you have questions.
If you want to read more about the internship from Usman’s point of view, check out his blog posts:
- Outreachy Blog – Introducing Myself
- Wrap-up: Summary of my journey to being an outreachy intern at Element
We talked every day on video calls, and really enjoyed working together. Some days we would just chat, sometimes I would give pointers for things to try in the code, or people to talk to. Some days we worked through some code together, and that was the most fun. Usman is incredibly enthusiastic and bright, so it was very satisfying making suggestions and seeing him put them into practice.
The work went very well, and Usman succeeded in creating a prototype that will help us design the Favourite Messages feature:
Note: the feature isn’t ready to be fully release because it needs to be implemented on mobile platforms as well as changing where it stores its information: currently we use the browser’s local storage, but we plan to store things in Matrix, meaning it is automatically synchronised between devices.
Things that went well
- Meeting every day: we talked on a short video call every morning. This meant if we misunderstood each other it was quickly resolved, without lots of time being wasted.
- Having a clear list of tasks: we kept a tracking issue on Github. This meant were clear what Usman was supposed to be doing now, and what was coming next.
- Being flexible: we worked together to change the list of tasks every week or so. This meant we were being realistic about what could be achieved, and able to change in response to things we found out, or feedback from others.
- Getting design input: we talked to Element’s designers several times during the project, showing them prototypes and early implementations. This meant we didn’t waste time implementing things that would need redesign later.
- Support for me: I was able to work with Thib, who is our Outreachy Matrix community organiser, especially during the selection process. This meant I was not making decisions in isolation, and had support if anything tricky came up.
- The Element Web community: Usman got loads of support from our community. Special thanks to Šimon, Olivier, Shay and t3chguy for your help!
- Element the company: Element paid for this internship, and gave great support to Usman, integrating him into all our systems, inviting him to introductory meetings etc. He had every opportunity to see what working at Element is like, and to make an impression on everyone here. Element did a great job here.
Things I would do differently
- Managing the contribution period: before the project began, applicants are invited to contribute to the projects, allowing us to choose an intern based on those contributions. I felt slightly disorganised at this stage, and there was a lot of activity in issues and pull requests in the project from applicants. I think I should have warned our community and explained what was going to happen up-front, and maybe enlisted help from people willing to triage the contributions a little. Contributions varied in quality and understanding level, so having some volunteers who were primed to spend a little more time explaining and helping contributors get started would have prevented this impinging on the time of the team as a whole. Nevertheless, our team responded really well, and we got some useful contributions, and I hope the contributors had a good experience too.
- Integrating Usman into the team: we chose a project that was independent from what other team members were doing, meaning he mostly interacted with others when he needed help. While it is sensible to make sure interns are decoupled from the main work (because it’s hard to predict how much progress they will make, and they are going stop after their internship), I do also wish we could have found a project that gave more opportunity to work with other people, not just “stealing” their time to help out, but actually working together on shared pieces of work. This is a tricky one to figure out, but food for thought.
The experience of being a mentor was really fun, and I would recommend it to anyone working on an open source project.
I would emphasise, though, that you need to put aside enough time: the internship will not be successful if you don’t make time to work with your intern, get to know them, and introduce them to your community. Since interns may be new to the world of work, or shy about taking your time, as a mentor, you need to take responsibility for giving them enough support.
Final note: as a mentor, you are NOT responsible for the work going well! Your responsibility is to help and support your intern, and give them everything they need to be successful (including feedback about things that are not working well), but it is up to the the intern themself to do the work, and how much work gets done is going to be the combination of a number of factors, including the intern’s experience and abilities. Don’t worry if you don’t get as far as you expected – after all, that happens in nearly all software projects…