Thursday, May 28, 2009

Google Summer of Code application tips

I have been meaning to write about my Google Summer of Code experience since I learned of my rejection, but I've only now found the free time to finally do it. For those who haven't heard about it, the Google Summer of Code is a program in which Google pays students $4500 to work on open source projects over the summer. (More info.) I learned about the Google Summer of Code on March 23, the first day that applications were being accepted. For the 28 days until the winners were announced, I devoted my life to perfecting my proposals, socializing with the mentoring organizations, and fantasizing about the immense heft that "GSoC student" would carry on my application to MIT.

Unfortunately, I simply wasn't good enough. I had only about 1.5 years of programming experience (none with open source projects), I was a freshman at Broward College, and I made several mistakes on my applications.

However, although I couldn't affect my programming experience or my enrolled college, I certainly could've improved my applications. Below, I've compiled a list of tips that I picked up from numerous IRC conversations, mailing list posts, and direct emails to mentoring organizations. Learn from my mistakes and net yourself that $4500 next summer!

Think inside the box

Although most of the Google documentation on the Summer of Code implies that each organization's ideas list is simply a loose guideline, you should write your proposal on a project explicitly listed on your target organization's ideas list. Resist the urge to set yourself apart from the crowd by proposing something new and revolutionary. Mentoring organizations carefully choose only the most useful projects to be listed on their ideas lists; you are unlikely to think up a project more important than the ones they chose.

Use all available tools

On the same day that I learned of my rejection, I stumbled across this invaluable resource page for GSoC applicants. It has a categorized list of mentoring organizations, a search engine for mentoring organizations, and tons more useful info. Even if the information isn't updated for GSoC 2010, it should still give you a good starting point in your search for a mentoring organization.

There's no safety in numbers

No canned applications! Sending out several generalized proposals will only waste the time you could be spending on your serious applications. You should use all your available time writing targeted, high-quality applications to specific organizations; spamming twenty organizations with your resume is simply a waste of your time and theirs.

Be professional

Don't crack any jokes unless you personally know the proposal reviewer at your target organization. When I wrote an application to Sunlight Labs in which I included one irrelevant but humorous fact and several corny lines, the proposal reviewer thought that the entire application was a joke. I promptly assured him that my proposal was in fact serious, but the damage was done.

Do the work

Unless you want a quick rejection, you should comply with all of your target organization's application requirements. If they ask you to fix a bug, you should actually fix one of their bugs, not just make a patch that somebody else suggested. If you can't dive headfirst into the development of your organization's project, you should probably find another organization. Nothing will get you rejected faster than an hole in your proposal.

Choose wisely

Only apply to organizations you know something about. Although the temptation is strong to apply to some of the obscure supercomputing or AI organizations, you can be sure that there's a bored Computer Science grad student ready to put your proposal to shame. If an organization doesn't get enough skilled students for their projects, they will return their slots to Google. However, if you apply to work on a small project you think you can handle, but the organization doesn't have enough slots for you, they might get one of the surplus slots from another organization. You have a much greater chance of success when you shoot for a project at your level.

Start now

From what I've seen, the majority of accepted Google Summer of Code students had participated in their organization before they even knew about the GSoC. The best way to increase the probability of your acceptance is to be involved in the organization before you apply to work with them. Organizations want to give their slots to students who will complete their projects over the summer and stick with them after the money stops. There's no better way to prove your commitment than to be committed, so find a project that interests you and jump in.