Stories from Google Code-in: Sugar Labs and Systers

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Google Code-in (GCI) is our annual contest that gives students age 13 to 17 experience in computer science through contributions to open source projects. This blog post is the final installment in our series reflecting on the experiences of Google Code-in 2015 grand prize winners. Be sure to check out the first three posts.

The Google Code-in contest begins on Monday, November 28th at 9am PT for students. Right now you can learn more about the 17 mentoring organizations that students will be able to work with by going to the contest site. To get students excited for GCI 2016, we’re sharing three more stories from GCI 2015 grand prize winners. These stories illustrate how global the competition is, the challenges students face and the valuable skills they learn working with these open source organizations.

A group of Google Code-in 2015 mentors joined grand prize winners for a day of exploring
San Francisco including the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
First up is the story of Ezequiel Pereira, a student from Uruguay who worked with Sugar Labs. Sugar Labs is the organization behind Sugar, the operating system for the OLPC XO-1 which the Uruguayan government has distributed to public primary schools. The XO-1 was Ezequiel’s first computer.

Ezequiel’s curiosity in computer science was piqued when a technician came to his school to solve a simple bug that was affecting most XO’s. The technician used the command line which, up to that point, Ezequiel thought was useless. Realizing that the command line offered him a lot of power, Ezequiel began his exploration.

He discovered Google Code-in by reading about another Uruguayan teenager, one who was a grand prize winner in Google Code-in 2012. Ezequiel jumped into the contest and participated for several years expanding his skills before finishing as a grand prize winner of Google Code-in 2015. Along the way Ezequiel got comfortable with IRC and began helping other students, even finding new friends among along the way.

Next we have Sara Du from the United States. Sara had been coding for six months when she discovered Google Code-in on Christmas Eve, halfway through the competition. She found lots of interesting tasks, but had trouble finding the right organization to focus on before selecting Systers.

Like many students, Sara was able to quickly jump into code but spent a couple days just getting acquainted with Git and GitHub. This is something we hear from a lot of students and it’s just one of the skills that they pick up by working on real-world projects, along with testing and communication.

Another challenge Sara faced was working with a mentor 16 time zones away from her, which meant that correspondence would often take a day or two. While this was a challenge, she found the long feedback loop encouraged her to get on the Slack channel and reach out to other contributors for help. Ultimately, this made her even more a part of the Systers community.

Sara said Google Code-in was one of the most awesome experiences she’s had and has this advice to offer future participants: “The organization you end up working with has a vibrant community of hackers from everywhere; try to interact with them and you will be sure to learn from others as they will from you!”

Last, but certainly not least, we have Ahmed Sabie, a student from Canada who also worked with Systers. Ahmed started coding competitively several years ago, focusing on graph theory, dynamic programming and data structures. He loved the problem solving, but knew that these competitions took place in a sandbox. To grow, Ahmed would need to explore.

Enter Google Code-in. Ahmed was most comfortable with Python and saw that the Systers Volunteer Management System used that language, so that’s where he started.

Ahmed, like many students and even professional developers, spent much of his first week setting up his development environment. It was a grueling process but with the help of search and the people in the Systers Slack channel he was finally able to see the project’s login screen.

As he completed easy tasks, Ahmed moved on to more difficult tasks and began to help other students, many who got stuck on the same issues he had encountered earlier. Ahmed found that each task provided an opportunity to stretch his skills a little bit more. He was excited about how quickly he was learning. Though Ahmed learned a lot on his own, he says the vast majority of what he learned was through the help of other people -- students, mentors and other project contributors -- and that he felt like he was truly a part of the Systers community by the end of the process. 

Ahmed’s favorite task was an appropriate finale for the competition: he added multilingual support to an application he had worked on and added the French translation.
“Overall, Google Code-in was the experience of a lifetime. It set me up for the future, by teaching me relevant and critical skills necessary in software development. I have contributed to a good cause, and met fantastic mentors and friends along the way. Open source development is not a onetime thing, it is an ongoing process. I hope to continue to be part of it, and to me it is a form of volunteering and giving back to the community.” - Ahmed Sabie

With that, we conclude our series of posts reflecting on Google Code-in 2015. We thank Ezequiel, Sara, Ahmed and all the other participants for sharing their stories and contributing to the software we all rely on. We hope you will join us in carrying on the tradition with Google Code-in 2016!

By Josh Simmons, Open Source Programs Office