Mentoring in open source communities: 4 don'ts

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Mentoring in open source communities builds loyalty and commitment, writes Esther Schindler in a recent article. "If your project wants to attract new contributors, it behooves you to think past the 'dive into the deep end' culture." Schindler spoke with members of various open source communities about their experience with mentoring -- what works, what doesn't, and how to encourage these relationships.

Here are some of the don'ts:

1) Don't assume that "no news is good news".
Good mentors take time to strengthen the social bond and engage with the mentee early, says Google's Summer of Code program manager Leslie Hawthorn. Don't assume that a mentee will come to you. Offer advice like, "I thought you might have a little trouble with...." Hawthorn explains, "You uncover places that the mentee needed help with; it opens up a dialog."

2) Don't underestimate the time it takes to effectively mentor.

"If I could reset the clock," says Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier, openSUSE community manager at Novell, "I'd probably structure my duties so that at least 25% of the time was set strictly to enabling new contributors." He recommends that companies with contributor-facing positions consider devoting at least 20% of their time strictly to working with new contributors -- one day a week with no other requirements.

3) Don't expect immediate results.

"It took us about four months of heavy, active development -- 100+ commits a week -- before we started seeing the payoff," says Denise Paolucci, co-owner of Dreamwidth Studios, a LiveJournal fork. "You will lose people you mentor; you will spend incredible amounts of time and effort on people who don't stick around; you will lose the hack time of your primary mentor for at the very least a few months as it gets directed into reviewing, committing, and mentoring instead." She stresses: This is a long-term strategy, not a short-term one.

4) Don't forget to take notes!

A mentor has a unique opportunity to learn a newcomer's perspective. Chris Cormack, currently the translation manager for the Koha Open Source Integrated Library System, wishes that he documented more, because "a lot of the questions are indeed FAQ ... so I do end up answering the same thing." That can lead to a more terse answer than the person asking deserves. If you take the time to write a thorough and complete answer to your mentee's question, consider also adding the answer to the project wiki; it can make it easier for the next person to learn.

See the full article for more on what it takes for mentoring to work in your free and open source software project.

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