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OSU Open Source Lab

Open Source, Open Future

by Kayla Harr on Thu, May 10 2012

Submitted by Kayla Harr on May 10, 2012

Students reap the benefits of professional programming experience at the OSU Open Source Lab

As a freshman at Oregon State University in early 2010, Jordan Evans didn't have a lot of computer science experience. Though he had always had an interest in computers, Evans had come to OSU as a mathematics major and, like many first-year students, didn't yet have a clear idea of what he hoped to do with his education.

“I decided I liked math classes better than I liked computer science classes, so I kept taking math classes,” Evans says. “I really had no idea what I would do with it. I knew what I liked but I didn’t know how to apply that to anything.”

Two years later, Evans' career goals have undergone a radical change. Since June 2010, Evans has worked at OSU's Open Source Lab, where he’s built up an impressive resume that includes two years of professional experience as a system administrator, a summer internship with Google and knowledge of exactly what he wants to do in the future.

“I think the OSL kind of shaped my interests,” Evans says. “Working here gives us a practical application for everything that we’re doing in classes.”

Evans is one of 12 students working at the lab, which provides hosting and support services to some of the most well-known open source projects in the world. Students work alongside professional staff members to maintain servers, write program code and provide technical support for the software the OSL hosts.

While the lab fulfills a valuable role at OSU by hosting various projects and helping the university reduce costs through open source software alternatives, its services make an even bigger impact on a worldwide scale, enabling more than 600,000 downloads daily and contributing to software like the Drupal content management system, Apache Web server and Linux operating system that individuals, start-up businesses and organizations around the globe use every day.

Code for success

But the OSL's greatest impact may be the ubiquitous effect it has on the students who spend years of their college careers learning and working in the lab. Nearly all of the students who have worked at the lab since its inception in 2003 have gone on to find immediate success in the technical world after graduation, founding start-up companies, receiving job offers from top software companies and enjoying the opportunity to define their own professional paths.

With graduates at companies like Google and Mozilla, as well as at the helm of several successful start-up companies, the OSL has a habit of producing students who are prepared to skyrocket through the industry. The advantage, says Alex Polvi, an OSU alumnus who worked at the OSL throughout his college years, is the foundation of practical experience students are allowed to build in the lab.

“The critical part is real-world experience, solving problems for actual customers with skills that are needed in the real world,” Polvi says. “You’re going to graduate with a job from here and have a real career path.”

Polvi experienced firsthand the powerful impact a few years at the OSL can have on a developing career. While working at the OSL, he completed internships with Google and Mozilla. During his senior year he worked for Mozilla remotely from OSU, and the company offered him a job immediately after graduation. Polvi and two other OSU alums went on to form Cloudkick, a startup that drew several million dollars from investors before being purchased by a larger company.

“I do not hesitate at all saying that my success is 100 percent because of the OSL,” Polvi says. “They set me up to have a successful career. Without that, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”

A blend of mentorship and independence

As a system administrator, Evans largely determines his own projects and has the experience and the knowledge to solve most of his own problems. While students receive a great amount of training from professional staff during their first several months at the lab, Evans says students who have been at the lab longer become mentors themselves, helping new students familiarize themselves with the work.

“We’re still learning a lot, but we’re also able to teach others,” Evans says. “That really solidifies what we’ve learned. If we’re able to teach it to someone new and pass on that same knowledge, then we’ve definitely come to a point where we understand the skills and the technical knowledge required.”

That shift in responsibilities is part of the process OSL Associate Director of Operations Lance Albertson hopes to provide students with throughout their time in the lab. Albertson gives students increasing levels of independence as they progress and lets them tackle problems on their own, offering support when they need it but first allowing them the opportunity to succeed without his help.

“I make sure they have ownership of something,” Albertson says. “I try not to manage what they do as much as I can. If I give them a big project they usually take it on and they will immerse themselves.”

According to Evans, the benefit of working independently as well as being responsible for collaborating with other students and the individuals who rely on OSL services goes beyond developing the competence to succeed in a professional environment.

“I think it’s shaped me to do really well because it's taught me not only how to work in the field, but how to work with other people in the field,” Evans says. “In our job we have to reach out and communicate about projects, and it’s taught me to keep an open mind and to not be afraid to seek out a mentor in skills that I don’t have.”

Graduating with an edge

The OSL has continued to expand and play a significant role in the open source community in recent years, and currently provides at least 160 projects with various support services. Its contributions to the largest open source projects in the world include not only technical support but graduates who leave school uniquely prepared to benefit their future employers. According to Polvi, such students are an important resource in a rapidly growing industry.

“The Open Source Lab is churning out students who are probably the most highly skilled people seen coming out of these education systems,” Polvi says. “We need more technical people and more students who can go out and get jobs, and this is such a great model for that.”

Recognizing the value of the lab, leaders in the industry have responded with support that has made it possible for the lab to take on more projects. Further industry partnerships, Albertson says, are essential to allow the lab to offer professional experiences to even more students.

“We basically give them a full work experience from the beginning, covering all the facets,” Albertson says. “Not only do they build technical skills, they build personal skills, they build professional skills and they have something tangible when they leave OSU other than a diploma.”

Evans says he didn't understand how much of an impact working at the OSL would have on his future until he started applying for internships and realized how many opportunities were open to him because of his position at the lab. Now, he’s grateful for the advantage of working as a system administrator while earning his degree, and looks forward to that experience bringing him more opportunities in the future.

“This really distinguishes us from other college students," Evans says. "They might have taken all the same classes we did, but we can put on our resume ‘I’ve already been doing this job for the past three years.’ That kind of trumps most things you can have on your resume at this point.”

Media contact: Kayla Harr, harrk@osuosl.org

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Category: Student Stories