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Open Source Comes to Harvard

by Shauna February 26th, 2013

students at the Harvard open source workshop

On February 16th, a snowy Saturday, we held our seventh Open Source Comes to Campus event at Harvard University. The event, organized with the help of the Harvard Women in Computer Science group, was shortened to a single day from our usual two. Accordingly, we tightened up the schedule, dropping the “Introduction to the Command Line” tutorial, and shortening the afternoon project time by about an hour. This left us a densely-packed day of learning, contributing, and socializing.

We started off with an intro to open source communication tools by yours truly. Working off a presentation provided by Jessica McKellar, I gave students a brief tour of the open source world, brought up concepts like diffs and version control that would be elaborated on later, and showed them how to interact with mailing lists, bug trackers, and IRC. Then, Marina Zhurakhinskaya gave a basic but thorough introduction to Git. This was one of the best received Git talks we’ve done — although some students really enjoy learning the deeper concepts behind Git, we’ve found that it’s best to make that optional. We followed this up with some time for students to try out the Git OpenHatch training mission. One scheduling difficulty we noticed was that students showed a great range in how much time they took to complete the mission.

After that came the career panel, which featured Irene Ros of Bocoup, Madeleine Price Ball, who works on the Personal Genome Project, Marina Zhurakhinskaya of Red Hat, and Paul Tagliamonte of the Sunlight Foundation. The career panel is a new addition to Open Source Comes to Campus; it began with our September event at Johns Hopkins. This time, at Harvard, we asked career panelists to explain how they got involved in open source, how their work relates to contributing to free software, and what advice they have for students.

The career panel naturally flowed into lunch, where attendees were able to follow up with questions while chowing down on falafel. We weren’t able to get a private room for lunch, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as two different students passing by stopped to talk with us about open source. One was a student who was beginning his CS career, didn’t know about programs like WordPress or MediaWiki, but saw a poster and found it intriguing. Another was a graduate student in public health who was eager to hear about open source tools in her field. Our lunchtime conversations, with them and with our attendees, were so engaging that we forgot to start the afternoon half of the event on time.

Once we did resume, Paul Tagliamonte walked us through a live demonstration of submitting and merging pull requests on Github. Attendees had a blast committing their first pull requests, which you can see here. Then, since we were running behind, we asked attendees if they wanted us to skip Asheesh’s talk on the history and ethics of open source. But they enthusiastically asked him give it, and seemed to appreciate learning more about how and why the open source movement evolved.

The project-focused part of the event, though shorter than usual, went very well. Our efforts to reach out to open source projects and better curate bite-size bugs for our events paid off – a much greater percentage of attendees were able to successfully submit a patch to an open source project. Special thanks must be given to the maintainers of PsychoPy, who merged a request within twenty minutes of it being made. It’s always a great experience for attendees to see their changes get incorporated right in front of their eyes. There was also a great deal of chatting between attendees and volunteers throughout this period. This allowed us to pass along more wisdom informally: attendees were encouraged to apply for internships even if they felt inexperienced; told about open source projects using their favored languages; pointed towards online tutorials and local user groups. It also made for a very pleasant atmosphere. Our last attendees finally bid us farewell a good half hour after we were scheduled to end, after extracting from us a promise to keep in touch about running more events with them in the future.

Although turnout was lower than we might have liked — perhaps due to snow, or the three day weekend — it’s impossible to call this event anything but a success. At the end of the day, students overwhelmingly asked us when we’d be hosting the next event so they could do more of the same!

Thanks to all our attendees, the Harvard Women in Computer Science for hosting and sponsoring, and our staffers: Irene Ros, Madeleine Price Ball, Marina Zhurakhinskaya, Michael Stone, Owen Taylor, Paul Tagliamonte, Asheesh Laroia, and Shauna Gordon-McKeon. Special thanks to Marina for bringing flyers to show students how to apply to Summer of Code and the Women’s Outreach Program spearheaded by GNOME.

You can see pictures of the event at our photo gallery. If you want us to come to your school, get in touch! The event is part of our Open Source Comes to Campus for Women in Computing series, run by OpenHatch, and as a non-profit, we rely on your support and sponsorship.

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