Cracking the Code — how Mozilla is helping university students contribute to Open Source

After a year of research, Mozilla’s Open Source Student Network (OSSN), is launching a pilot program to tackle the challenges around how Open Source projects effectively support university students as they work towards their first code contribution.

Despite an abundance of evidence that the most valuable contributions to a project often come from people under the age of 30, Open Source projects often struggle to onboard and maintain university students as new code contributors.

Students who have expressed interest in contributing often feel intimidated, that they don’t have the appropriate skills or aren’t able to find a project, to begin with.

Based on our recent research, we identified that more than 50% of university students within our network who had tried to contribute code to an Open Source project had been unable to make a successful contribution because of issues they encountered during their contribution journey.

From identifying a project to work on, exploring the codebase, setting up the development environment, writing code and even when trying merge their code, students faced issues which drove them away from the project before they completed their first contribution.

User journey: code contribution to an Open Source project

How we’re answering the big questions

Our research uncovered a series of questions related to each portion of the user journey.

We’re designing a series of pilots, each of which aims to answer specific questions, connected to different parts of the typical user’s journey, such as:

  • What do the students care most about when evaluating whether or not to contribute to a project?
  • What is the best mentorship model for university students?
  • What is more incentivizing in the onboarding process: To code a dummy issue/bug or to solve an actual issue in a real world project?
  • What is the better way to engage students in a project — presenting them with suggested bugs (bug matching) or allowing them to find issues on their own through exploration?

As part of the pilots and in collaboration with Mozilla projects like Common Voice, Devtools, Firefox Focus for Android and external organizations like the GNOME Foundation, the Linux Foundation and Wikimedia the OSSN is building new ways for students to discover, interact and engage with Open Source projects.

One of these pilots is…

An example of one of these pilots is the “Project Overview Pilot”. The aim of this particular pilot is to answer a question from the “discovery” portion of the user journey: how do students evaluate whether they want to contribute to a project?

Based on a survey we released at the beginning of the year, we discovered that students care equally for the mission of the project as well as the technical skills required for contribution. Here are the top four criteria for project selection:

  1. The mission of the project
  2. The technology (programming language/libraries/framework etc.)
  3. The time needed for setting up the development environment
  4. Whether a community exists and how to connect

While the mission and the technical requirements of a project are often well presented and visible, we can argue that the other two criteria are not properly surfaced.

Our assumption for our pilot is that by surfacing this information, students will identify the right project for them to contribute to and hence will contribute code with more confidence, less effort and in a shorter time.

In order to validate our assumption, we created the following platform for showcasing all the relevant information students care about at a glance for a broad set of diverse, healthy, active and inclusive Open Source projects.

Project Overview Pilot

What’s happening next

From now until October 2018, along with our key collaborators, we will continue building and providing pilots for our students to help them contribute code to their favorite projects while growing their skills around a diverse set of technologies. Furthermore, throughout these pilots, students will be helping the network by providing useful insights and metrics, which will be used to refine the onboarding experience of projects in the future.

If you are a student from an American and/or a Canadian post-secondary institution or you know students who might be interested participating in this initiative, please share this link with them.

If you are an organization or project interested in supporting our initiative by having us surface your project’s contribution opportunities within our network, please reach out at christos AT mozilla DOT com.