Open Source Interns Outperform Industry Heavyweights In Linux Kernel Contributions

Score one for the interns. The seven interns with the Outreach Program for Women (OPW) working on the Linux kernel as part of development projects at Intel and other companies had 230 changesets accepted upstream into the latest kernel revision. Of the 200 companies that contributed to kernel release 3.11, the OPW interns contributed the eleventh highest amount, ahead of companies such as Google, Oracle, ARM, and Cisco.

For a small team of new contributors to place so highly shows their considerable skills and determination, said Sarah Sharp, a Linux maintainer in the Intel Open Source Technology Center (OTC). Of course, it’s exactly the kind of impact Sarah hoped for when she agreed to lead an intern program for the Linux Foundation.

Opening Doors in Open Source

The Outreach Program for Women was created by GNOME, an organization that develops free and open source software. For the latest round, GNOME invited the Linux Foundation to host interns, and the Linux Foundation turned to Sarah—a key contributor to the kernel herself—for help. Sarah dove right in, tapping her network and the open source community to identify strong mentors while also creating resources for applicants, all in about 30 days.

Ultimately Sarah had 41 applicants for the seven paid internships. Of those, 18 women submitted patches and 11 had at least one patch accepted. From there, Sarah selected the interns based on criteria such as who was writing good code and could apply feedback, number and technical quality of patches submitted, participation in the IRC channel, and background/previous experience. 

The interns selected and their projects are:

  • Tülin İzer, Istanbul, Turkey: x86 central boot code
  • Lidza Louina, Somerville, Massachusetts: Driver cleanups
  • Lisa T. Nguyen, Mountlake Terrace, Washington: Xen drivers
  • Hema Prathaban, Bangalore, India: Temperature sensor driver
  • Xenia Ragiadakou, Heraklion, Crete, Greece: USB drivers
  • Elena Ufimtseva, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Xen drivers
  • Laura Vasilescu, Bucharest, Romania: Ethernet drivers 

Pairing the Right People And Projects

An important step in the process was to identify strong mentors who also had good development work that could be completed during the three-month internships, Sarah said. For that, she turned to colleagues at Intel and in the Linux community.

“Finding the right projects was harder than finding good mentors,” Sarah said. “I drew on my own network to find people I know who are supportive and welcoming to newcomers at Linux conferences. It’s a pretty tight-knit community.”

Sarah worked closely with the mentors and interns to match people with projects that aligned to their interests. At that point, the interns began meeting 1:1 with their mentors to understand their assigned development projects and get started. While the interns stay in touch with each other through email and their own mailing list, they are working independently. The kernel release data was the first time they could see the impact of their combined efforts.

The interns performed one final contribution: sharing their experiences and showcasing what they worked on at a Linux industry event. Two of them presented at LinuxCon North America in September and others presented at LinuxCon Europe in October. Regardless of what future kernel release numbers show, the experience these women gained coupled with the contributions they’ve made mean the OPW program has succeeded in its primary mission: outreach.

 “It’s difficult to break into the Linux community. Even if you get the art of submitting patches, it’s hard to find projects of the right size, and it’s even harder for women and minorities,” Sarah said, and the numbers bear her out. Despite the wealth of female developers in OTC and Intel’s Software and Services Group, some estimates say women make up just 3% of open source contributors. That’s far below the already low numbers of women in the U.S. earning computer science degrees (18%) and working as developers (19%), according to Bureau of Labor statistics.

Life-Changing Experience

Often, even those women who are interested in open source are hesitant because they are unsure how they will be received, unsure how to begin, or uncomfortable being the only woman. Perhaps the greatest contribution the OPW interns will make is showing that women can thrive when they have a mentor and a specific project.

“This program creates a safe environment to mentor new talent from a group that is a giant minority in the Linux community, which really does help talented women find a way to get in the door," said PJ, a Linux kernel engineer in OTC. “The challenge with Linux is it’s hard to get started if you don’t already have a job working on Linux.”

“The experience I gained is invaluable,” Xenia affirmed. “When I had my first accepted patch, I realized even a cleanup patch is a contribution, and that was a key point. Before this, it would have never crossed my mind to fix a kernel bug. I would have waited for it to get magically fixed. I feel lucky I got this chance. I’m sure there are a lot of competent female developers out there who would love to contribute to an open source project but lack the encouragement and tools to attempt it.”

Intern Tülin İzer, went even further, calling the experience she’s gained working on x86 central boot code ‘life changing.’ “I wouldn't even think of contributing to Linux kernel before; now I want to do this as long as I can,” Tülin said. “Honestly, I wasn't really into kernel programming before—I simply enjoyed OS class and programming in C—probably because I didn't know where to start. Since the beginning of OPW, I've used only Linux on my laptop; I've gained a deeper knowledge about it.”

OPW also led to a life change for Anne Mulhern, the intern working separately on the Yocto Project. Anne will soon move into an open source role at Red Hat, working on the Anaconda project, an installation program used by Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux among other distributions.

It’s the reason Beth Flanagan got involved in OPW. “It's not just the code (I) care about,” Beth wrote on her blog. “It is developing a community that is diverse, both in skillset and experience, both technical and personal. This diversity makes our community stronger and brings more voices to the table with the end result being a stronger project.