Learning project puts harsh reality before theory

What’s the matter with kids today? Lack of experience. At least that’s what’s wrong with fresh-out-of-school job applicants from the point of view of corporate IT. These kids may have perfectly respectable computer science educations. But they’ve got no experience. Their IT knowledge is virtually all from theory, just about none from practice. The IT systems they’ve developed have typically been trivial, academic jobs. In the real world of corporate IT, they have a lot to learn.

So this month’s announcement that Google is sponsoring a “Summer of Code” is great news for IT. Or terrible news. Or maybe both.

The idea is simple enough: a student age 18 or older can propose an open-source project at code.google.com/summerofcode.html. If the application is approved by an open-source sponsoring group, the student gets a US$500 stipend and mentoring. If the work is completed, the student can get an additional $4,000 award and a T-shirt, and the open-source group gets $500. Google’s fronting the money for 200 applicants.If you think of it as a big internship program that pays each intern a measly $1,500 a month, you’ve got the right business model in mind. Text What does Google get for its million-dollar investment? A pile of goodwill with the open-source crowd, and probably an inside track for hiring any of those 200 winning applicants. If you think of it as a big internship program that pays each intern a measly $1,500 a month, you’ve got the right business model in mind.

Where it gets interesting is in what the students will have to do. They’ll have to propose projects that have real, practical value to open-source groups such as The Perl Foundation, the Mono Project or Ubuntu Linux. They’ll have to negotiate details and nail down plans.

Then they’ll have to run the projects, which means making their code public on a site like SourceForge.net, dealing with all the input and complications of the open-source process and doing it all on the usual open-source budget: a threadbare shoestring.

And if a program participant gives up and doesn’t complete the project, no $4,000 — and no T-shirt.

See the benefit? Nobody coming out of this “Summer of Code” deal will emerge believing an IT project is about algorithms, intelligence and elegance. Yeah, you need those things in real-world IT. But you also need business-value judgment, political savvy and skin thick enough to handle code reviews by other programmers, not just professors and graduate assistants.

Those are qualities with real value to IT shops — qualities that come only from experience. Some programmers never gain those qualities. This summer, 200 student programmers almost certainly will. Now, here’s the downside: it’s open-source.

That means the experience will come in a lightly supervised environment. That’s great for self-starters, but lousy as preparation for any IT department that practices micromanagement.

And it will come from squeezing out results on tight schedules with limited resources, not jockeying for more budget, more bodies and more time. In many IT shops, that lean-and-clean approach gets lots of lip service but it’s actually a career-limiting strategy.

Most important, these students will come out believing they know how to do a successful real-world project. And they’ll be right. But it won’t necessarily be the way you’d want them to do a project.

That’s the trade-off, for them and for us. They won’t find themselves leaping off an ivory tower into a pit of real-world IT. They’ll have practical experience. But they’ll bring open-source notions that we may not be ready for.

And that’s worth keeping in mind, whether you’re lucky enough to snag a successful “Summer of Code” participant for a job interview or you’re looking across your desk at any other job seekers whose r

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