Three Outreachy mentors on how they teach interns — and what interns have taught them

In 2017, Mozilla partnered with Outreachy, an organization that connects people from underrepresented groups with three-month paid internships in open source. We’ve since hosted over 100 Outreachy interns — many of whom joined our team full-time, and all of whom helped the Mozillians who mentored them become better leaders and engineers. Below, three of those mentors — Software Engineers Niklas Baumgardner, Joel Maher and Katherine Patenio — share their approach to selecting and coaching applicants, explain what Mozilla does to support participants and reflect on the mentorship lessons they’ve learned.

How did you get involved with Outreachy?

Joel: I got involved years ago, before it was even called Outreachy. I’d done a lot of mentoring with other organizations ⁠— Canadian universities, Summer of Code — and I thought this would be another great opportunity to find new talent and become a better mentor. And it has been; I’ve stuck with it because it’s been a very successful program, not only in terms of interns completing their projects, but in terms of hiring. At least a dozen Outreachy participants have joined the full-time team, and they’ve brought so much creativity to the code base.

Katherine: I’m about to start my second round as an Outreachy mentor; the first one was right after I joined Mozilla last year. I wanted the mentoring experience, and I wanted to help people learn new skills — it wasn’t so long ago that I was trying to find my way in the industry, and one of the things I really valued during that time was mentorship. So it’s a way for me to give back. For this next cohort, I’ll be co-mentoring with Niklas, on a project for the Picture-in-Picture feature in Firefox. We’ve had a bunch of applicants working on patches for the last month, and we just selected our intern.

Niklas: Yeah, I’m looking forward to starting the actual internship phase. This is my first go-round with Outreachy, but I’ve mentored students through Mozilla’s partnership with Michigan State University, which is actually how I joined the company — I was an intern in that program myself. So this feels like I’m coming full circle. Hopefully I’ll get to do for our new intern what my mentors, Mike Conley and Gjis Kruitbosch, did for me. And then as interns join the team, they can become mentors themselves and continue that tradition.

How do you choose projects and interns?

Katherine: Usually, we start with the project — we’ll map out some things we think we could complete in a quarter, and find one or two mentors at Mozilla for each project. Then before we select a candidate for a project, the applicants go through what’s called a contribution period, where they post patches for Firefox and other Mozilla projects. It helps them get to know the code base, and it’s a good opportunity to contribute and learn new skills, even if they don’t end up interning.

Niklas: The contribution period has been great — the applicants are very passionate, including about Firefox and open source in general. In fact, many of them were already contributing to other open-source projects, which is cool.

Joel: Sometimes the hardest part is choosing who will go on to intern — applicants share these patches and you think, “Wow, there are so many great people to choose from.” On some projects, we try to find a way to get two people on board.

How do each of you approach mentoring an intern?

Niklas: Something I’ve been working on recently with the Michigan State University students is remembering that everyone learns in a different way, and it’s my job to understand the best way for each of them. It might be easiest to just tell them the answer to their question, for example, but will they actually learn from that? I’ve been trying to guide them to find the solution on their own instead — asking more questions and helping them really think through what to do. That way when they face the next problem, they’ll have a better idea of how to approach it.

Katherine: I also focus a lot on developing a relationship with the mentee — forming a connection. If they’re facing a problem, I’ll share my own experiences and try to give advice based on that. Maybe it was something I’ve run into in the past, and could have done better.

When they have a programming problem, I try to start by getting a sense of the big picture. Then if I don’t personally know the answer, I’ll point them toward someone else who has more knowledge in that domain. That’s also a chance for me to learn — so we’re learning about mentoring, but about Firefox as well.

Joel: Something I like to do is spend the first few weeks observing as much as I can. That’s not to say I give them the project and they’re on their own; we still chat every day, just to keep in touch and make sure they’re not getting stuck. But I can give much better guidance if I’ve taken the time to learn how someone works. Then once I know that, I focus on adding value for them. These internships aren’t about us getting someone to work on our projects — we want to see them succeed. If we need to reframe the work to accomplish that, we will. The goal is for them to learn and build skills — whether it’s technical knowledge, confidence, whatever they need.

Any favorite success stories to share?

Katherine: I’m so new to this, but I will say — we have biweekly meetings for Firefox desktop where, among other things, we share the names and work of new contributors, and it is very satisfying to see an Outreachy applicant’s name on that list. It’s a good reminder, too, that it’s not just those applicants and interns, or even us as mentors, who benefit from Outreachy. It’s other developers and users, too.

Joel: We had one intern who finished her project in the first couple of weeks — we were shocked! So we said, “Well, what else? What are you really interested in?” And she just kept rolling. She came up with some really creative ideas and ended up adding all these interesting features to make things much more efficient. When we presented at the next All Hands, I think 4 of the 16 projects on the slide were hers.

How does Mozilla support Outreachy — both you as mentors, and your interns?

Joel: I think there’s real support there. I’ve always heard managers and directors saying, “If you want to participate, find a project and do it.” It’s never a “maybe.” It’s always a “yes.” Leaders help mentors shift their workloads for the four or five months they’ll need. They also try to make sure interns feel like they’re really part of the team. Sometimes their individual teams will meet face-to-face for a week, too, and interns can join and get to know people in person. I think that commitment is so important. If we want a program to work, it can’t just be this lightweight thing we do in our spare time. We need to take it seriously.

Niklas: Absolutely. I’ve seen a lot of focus on mentorship projects here, including Outreachy. It’s clearly a priority at Mozilla, which makes sense — the company has always worked with volunteers and other non-employees. It’s certainly something I’ve experienced and appreciated firsthand, as a former intern who’s now on the full-time team.

Katherine: I think leadership also understands how important Outreachy and programs like it are for diversity and inclusion, which is something Mozilla embraces. We want to connect with more people from underrepresented groups, who haven’t historically had as many opportunities to contribute as much to Firefox. When I was in university, I was in a program that promoted diversity in technology, and just the fact that it existed helped me find a sense of belonging in computer science. My hope is that Outreachy does the same thing.

What have you learned from being mentors?

Niklas: You really do learn a lot about the code base that you otherwise might not. In my past experiences mentoring, I was sometimes spending a month learning before my interns even started, and then continuing to learn along with them. As Katherine mentioned — sometimes a candidate or intern will come to you with a question you can’t answer. So you say, “Let’s look into it together.” We both get to see how the other approaches gathering information and solving that problem. It’s fun.

Katherine: Something I’ve learned is to document my experiences. For me, writing notes is a way of gathering my thoughts and making decisions, and it’s helpful to look back on. “I suggested that solution to them. How did that go? Would I take that approach again?”

Joel: I’ve certainly learned a lot in terms of my own technical abilities, or things like managing time. I’ve learned to choose interns based less on the code they’ve written and more on their communication skills. But I think most of all, mentoring has taught me that first impressions are often wrong. I’ve seen it again and again: In the first couple of weeks of someone’s internship, I’m thinking I might have to rescope the project, and then something clicks — their confidence, or new skills — and it all comes together. Some of those interns we later hired, and now I’m looking up to them and asking them for help solving problems. If you have 10 applicants, I think all 10 have the potential to be great. You’ve just got to help people find their potential.