Flourishing with Community: MLH Fellowships

Flourishing with Community: MLH Fellowships

Open-Source projects are projects who have their source code open to everyone. They are free to use, study, modify and share by anyone who wishes to participate. Today, the open-source projects symbolise a community that celebrates the principles of open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development.

MLH Fellowships by MLH (Major League Hacking) is one of today's most prominent open source fellowship programmes. Major League Hacking (MLH) is a global community of student developers. It supports student developers and engineers worldwide by organising events like career fests, workshops, and hackathons.

Due to the pandemic, many students in the MLH community lost their internships and jobs. So, the MLH launched an education program called MLH Fellowship to help student developers to get hands-on experience. The MLH fellowship programme is a 12-week online remote fellowship programme that provides student developers with a marvellous platform to collaborate on an Open Source project and find and nurture relevant skills required for the industry. 

There are four fellowship tracks that the MLH offers to its prospective fellows-

  1. Open Source
  2. Software Engineering
  3. Production Engineering
  4. Prep Fellowship 

The Open-Source, Software Engineering and Production Engineering are 12-week fellowship programmes where the fellows work with different technologies and tech stacks for various companies. The Prep fellowship programme is simply a shorter version of the 12-week programme, a 4-week intensive programme, introducing the prospect to the open-source world before committing to the 12-week course.

Students from NIT Rourkela recently have constantly been selected as prep fellows and fellows in this esteemed fellowship programme. Rudransh Sharma was one of the fellows in the Fall season 2021 and Ritesh Patil and Sumana Basu were Prep fellows in the same season. Similarly, in the ongoing Spring season, Sumana Basu is a fellow and Aniket Pal and Pritish Samal are prep fellows.

*source: https://news.mlh.io/mlh-fellowship-kicks-off-07-06-2020

Monday Morning recently caught up with Aniket Pal, Pritish Samal, Ritesh Patil, Rudransh Sharma and Sumana Basu to learn more about one of the most prestigious open-source fellowship programmes- the MLH Fellowship/ Prep Fellowship programme and their open-source journey.

Monday Morning(MM): How did you start your open source journey?

Rudransh Sharma (RS): I was always interested in computer science and writing programs, developing something that can come to life right before my eyes so that I can use it. But, the moment I stepped into the National Institute of Technology Rourkela, the developing thing just got away because I was in the Chemical Engineering department. Everyone around told me to focus more on the core aspect of the branch rather than go forward with the software development side. It was not until COVID  that I started programming again. It was then that I discovered MLH and then, I started winning a couple of hackathons, and I found this wonderful organisation named Gina AI, a research company that worked on neural search. I won a consecutive four times of their hackathons so, that was how I got together with this community. Then, I started contributing to their repos. That was how I started my open source journey with Gina AI.

I distinctly remember this particular example that I was trying to run. But due to some dependency issues or some legacy problem, that example was not working. So, I recall making a PR, fixing that example, and making it work for anyone else who would like to try it later. That was essentially the beginning of my open source journey. Since then, I have contributed to the open-source platform and have participated in various hackathons like Hacktober fest.

Sumana Basu(SB): It was Hacktoberfest of 2020, which was the critical point in which I realised what open source is. I am a self-taught coder and have not received guidance from seniors or anywhere else, so things came late to me. But when I did get to know, my friends and I started creating and maintaining some basic projects to get an idea of open source, GitHub, PRs and so on. After that, I tried contributing to bigger organisations where I tried adding small features and fixing bugs. That's how it all started. I don't consider myself a huge open-source contributor. To change this and go more into open source, I chose the open-source track in the main 12 weeks MLH Fellowship to get more into the real-world application and work in production for a big organisation.

Ritesh Patil(RP)My opensource adventure began, as it does for most college students, with initiatives undertaken by our institute's tech clubs, most notably DSC (Developer Student Club) NIT Rourkela, where I assisted in the setup of the node server for the ICS Application. Following that, I worked on a few additional projects and events, such as HackNITR, to better grasp the overall process of contributing to a project.

Pritish Samal (PS): Open source started in my second year. In my first year, I was unaware of what development or open source is. During the lockdown, I started doing a little bit of web development. Then, I was introduced to open source through some small programs like Winter of Code, Girl Script Summer of Code, IIT Kharagpur's Winter of Code etc. Many colleges organise Winter of Code like programs.

I took part in the winter of code which DSC NSEC(Netaji Subhas Engineering College) organised. That was the stepping stone in my journey of open source. I was one of the top 10 among the 400 contributors during the two months. So, that's how my open source journey began.

MM: How did you come to learn about MLH fellowship?

PS: During the Winter of Code program, I contributed to one project known as Rotten Scripts, whose admin was an ex-MLH fellow. He had been an MLH fellow in the open-source track during spring 2020. He was my mentor as well as the admin of that project. He used to tell me that the MLH fellowship is an excellent program for me to get exposure to real-world projects. After that, I started researching MLH fellowship and explored other programs like GSoC, Google season of Docs, LFX  mentorship, etc.

I also constantly participated in MLH hackathons; MLH organises beginner-friendly hackathons each week. So I continuously participated in them in my second year. I also met some hackers who mentioned the MLH fellowship and related stuff. Abel Mathew from our college, a mentor at MLH, also used to tell us about the MLH fellowship. Altogether, through open source and connections, I learned about the fellowship program. 

MM: Can you walk us through the application process?

RS: There are four tracks in the MLH fellowship. Three are categorised under the main Fellowship- software engineering, production engineering and open source, and there's another called MLH Prep fellowship which they rebranded from the "Explorer Program".

You first need to have a project that you built and know from the inside out. Then comes the first step. The first step of application is to go to the fellowship website to find a form that you have to fill up. There are basic questions like asking your time availability and internet connectivity as this is a remote opportunity, so you need a good connection and good video conferencing equipment. So, that's a basic checklist. After that, you have three questions-

  • Why do you want to be a part of the MLH fellowship?
  • MLH has a very diverse background so, what can you bring in terms of diversity, culture, teaching, and so on? What can we expect from you?
  • Anything else that you would like to ask through this application?

The people don't answer the third question mostly because it isn't really specific to MLH fellowship, but, in my experience, it is imperative to answer all the three questions in beautiful English if you can, and it should all make sense. I have seen many people who didn't even make it to the code review phase and got rejected just because of the article. So, these three questions are crucial questions that need to be answered. In the same application, you also have to submit a code sample of a project. It should be publicly hosted, preferably GitHub, such that anyone and everyone with a link can see the code you have written. In there also, you have to have two questions answered, namely:

  1. What did you learn when making this project?
  2. What does this project do?

There are also other simple questions like your skillset and stuff like that. That's the initial phase of the application.

After this phase comes to the interview phase of the application, there are two interviews; the first is get to know you one on one interviews, and the next one is a technical interview. In the first interview, they see what your motivations are behind being an MLH fellow, what you expect out of this program and do you have the soft skills required to become a good MLH fellow- can you communicate easily, do you have any problems, is English a restriction for that matter, so that's how it goes; to gauge your motivation and to learn more about you as a person.

The technical interview is to get to know you better as a developer. The technical interview is not a typical coding interview that most people prepare for; you don't have to write a single line of code in the interview. They aren't going to ask you to do anything in the interview. All you have to do is be present and share your screen showing your project. It depends on the interviewer to the interviewer but, in my experience, it's always better to first demo the project which you have made; show the project which you have made and how the project works, then go over the code and what you have written and how does this entire thing amalgamate into the project that you have created.

Suppose the reviewer has any questions in the middle or the end. In that case, you must be sure to answer them correctly because you only have 15 minutes for this interview, and that's the period you need to make sure at the end of which your interviewer knows what you are talking about. So, those 15 minutes are going to make or break your applications. Thus, you need to know every minute detail of what you did, whatever tech stack you used. From what I have seen, they don't ask tough questions, just that they are pertinent to the project you have so, ensure that you have a good project, it does a lot of things, has a lot of things- lots of moving parts and ensure that you know every aspect of your code with fluency.

That's it, and after that, you need to fulfil some formalities, and you are in.

MM: Is there anything you need to focus on when submitting your sample code in the application?

Aniket Pal (AP): For people who want to be an MLH fellow, you must focus more on the project and the quality of the code you submit because that is what you are to be asked in the interview. You must make sure not to submit someone else's code. The code sample shows your technical expertise and the behavioral questions focus on showing  your interest in the program and your enthusiasm for the community. 

RS: First of all, you need to have a very well documented project so, whatever choices you are making, it is preferred that you comment that when writing the code itself and go through the code again with a fine comb and comment whatever you feel is necessary. When presenting, again- show what the project does rather than explaining as a picture speaks more than a thousand words, so, if you do this, then go over the code; it's much more intuitive and better. Also, during your technical interview, make sure that you go over the majority of your code and your interviewer fully understands your code writing abilities. To ensure that, I'd suggest that you only go over the main files rather than going over the entire project. Moreover, the interviewer may also decide the interview trajectory and go over a particular file and ask you what this specific file does or what you have written in this specific file. So, just be prepared for anything that can break your flow.

MM: How did it help you be an MLH fellow as a prep fellow before? 

SB: It helped a lot being a prep fellow because MLH gives special priority to Prep fellows who performed well while applying for the main Fellowship. So I just had one round of interviews instead of the usual two rounds, and the selection was also pretty fast. Like most people getting a response for the first interview after applying takes around five days but being an MLH Prep fellow, we got a response on the same day as we are prioritised more. Along with that, as I had already given the interviews for MLH Prep, I had a good idea of what they were expecting in the MLH Fellow interview, and I had made a lot of new friends in the Prep Fellowship, including our pod leader, who helped us a lot.

MM: How was your experience as a fellow? Can you share some experiences you had?

RS: Essentially, my fellowship experience has been good. This fellowship program helped me learn how to work technically with teams because I hadn't worked with teams before. I did everything on my own, so I understood how to work with teams, what challenges or difficulties one can face when doing so, and how to work in sync with the team as I needed to ensure that I had an open line of communication. I also learned about the front end because my front end tech stack is different from typical HTML and CSS as I worked more towards Flutter. So, I learned about HTML, React and stuff like that.

Moreover, we also had other events like talks where we had to present on a topic of their choosing so, all the other fellows also had to give talks on their respective chosen topics so, I got to learn about 12 different topics from them, and I had my talk as well.

So, it was a good journey. For anyone interested in learning more about working in a team, GitHub, Front-end development and having a community experience, this program is highly recommended.

RP: In the last year or so, the number of applicants for the Fellowship has increased dramatically, making the process of screening and selecting fellows more difficult. As a result, MLH started a new track called MLH Prep (previously Explorer Track)a four-week programme in which you collaborate on a few projects with other members before heading on to the primary Fellowship. My pod consisted of approximately 16 students from various nations, including India, the United States, Egypt, Nepal, and others. We conducted daily standups where we talked about the project and our responsibilities. (You have the option of choosing the standup times that are most convenient for you.) Overall, it was a fantastic experience in which I was able to meet new individuals and learn about their perspectives and what they have been exploring.

MM: What expectations do you have from the MLH fellowship?

PS: 

There are a few expectations :

  • I would get to connect with people all over the world.
  • I will be getting a dedicated mentor to guide a particular group of 8 people. We can get mentorship from really experienced people.
  • I will get to work on projects which will solve real-life problems. 
  • I will get real-world experience, coordinate with a team, work with new technologies, and get exposure.

MM: Can you brief us about the projects you worked on during your time as a fellow?

RS: As a fellow, the first project that I worked on was the Pod portfolio, a website that had to encapsulate the portfolio of everyone in the pod, including the pod leader. It was written in SASS and HTML. And very minimal use of JavaScript.

For the next two weeks, we worked on React project where we learnt a lot about APIs, how to call APIs in React. The project that we had to make was a weather application/ trip planner. I think that my pod did the best because our pod did make a good looking app, and we also got to implement the trip planer side of it while most of the pods, on the other hand, were not able to do either of the exact ones. So, essentially, it was two projects, and since the second one had a trip planner side to it, I'd like to count it as another project, so we worked on three projects. 

MM: What MLH events did you participate in during your time as an MLH Prep fellow?
RP:
During the four weeks of Fellowship, we did a couple of things. Every day, we had something called 'shows and tells,' where someone from the group would come forward and give a presentation/talk about anything. We discussed a variety of topics, ranging from financial management to physical wellness to technology. Aside from that, we had 'office hours,' where you could meet with any of the MLH mentors, your pod leader, or any of the other fellows to talk about anything. Generally, the fellows spoke to the Mentors about their professions and opportunities, and amongst themselves, they mostly talked about their universities and fields of work.

MM: You have coordinated many events in the institute over the years. Did this experience help you in assimilating yourself into the MLH culture?

RS: I'd say that it kind of helped me because, during my formative years at the institute, I was extensively working with people, improving my talking skills, improving my people skills, time management, having my work done with someone else's help, in case someone else is slacking off, picking up my pace and covering up for them as, in the end, the task was to get work done. So, I believe that it did help me in being a part of a community and having a better experience. As I already had such experiences, it did help me in assimilating myself into the MLH culture.

But, I'd also say that these two are very different things because if you are working on anything non-technical in the institution, you would improve your soft skills but, as for technical skills, I can't say because I have never worked on the technical clubs in the institute so, that was one thing that I had to learn on my own. So, other than that, communicating with people, getting things done, hosting events and so on helped me.

RP: Without a doubt. I've organised several events, ranging from small workshop series to full-fledged hackathons. These encounters have given me a better understanding of the overall MLH community. Past MLH Fellows who had been community members for a long time have spoken at our events. The second important event was HackNITR 3.0, where we could secure MLH as an Event Partner this year, which is a huge accomplishment. This gave me a better understanding of how the entire MLH community operates and what projects they are working on.

MM: What are the perks of being an MLH fellow? 

SB: If you want to be a better coder, you go through a lot of code. People from different backgrounds and places provide you that exposure as everyone's style is different, and you can find something suitable from each of them to write more efficient code. In my pod, I had people from the USA, China, Africa, India and many other places, which created that global network and I got to learn so many new things. Moreover, I also made many talented friends there, which will help me further in my life as well. And, of course, there is this tag of MLH that will help me further while applying for jobs and all. Talking about the full 12-week main Fellowship, you get a huge stipend and a lot of swags. You also get to contribute to a huge real-world organisation like Facebook, which will add a great project to your resume. In the software track, you go through multiple hackathon sprints and create high-level projects, increasing your skills and building up your resume.

RP:

Working on some of the most amazing projects and gaining significant experience is one of the top benefits I can think of. The other thing is that you'll be able to connect with a fantastic community of mentors and students from all over the world. These mentors are highly useful and can assist you with nearly anything, including resume reviews and specific skill development. Aside from that, all students are eligible for a need-based stipend that ranges from $3000 to $5000, depending on their region. MLH has phenomenal support from various MNCs such as GitHub, Facebook, etc and you would be working on their open-source projects which in itself is a very huge thing. 

PS: I am from the Ceramic engineering department, so we aren't eligible for 85-90 per cent of the software companies that come to the campus. I am not interested in the core, and I hope to have a career in software engineering. The MLH fellowship doesn't discriminate against you based on your branch or stream. The best thing is you get to work on real-world projects. We get to work on projects of giants in the tech-world like Facebook, GitHub, American Express, and many other big companies joined the MLH fellowship so, you get to have exposure to real-world problems and solve problems that can make a huge difference. These things will help me in becoming a better software engineer.

MM: What were some of the difficulties you faced during the selection process? 

SB: I was rejected twice before getting selected for the prep fellowship. The first time, I had forgotten to make my repository of the code sample public, due to which they were not able to access it. And the second time, I had applied late, so the batch was full. I was very disheartened and didn't want to try anymore. But then, my friend Aniket encouraged me and made sure I got up from that rejection and applied again.

We decided to change my code sample, and he suggested creating a project which has a lot of impact on society. We then went through all my essays, made sure they were on point, had many mock interviews and tried our best to ensure I didn't get rejected again. Luckily, my application got selected. This is why I feel having one or two people who can help out, i.e. having a good friend circle where everyone has a similar aim, is very important. It will help you grow and create healthy competition as well. After the application, the interviews were very smooth because the interviewers were great and supportive, so I had a lot of fun.

RP: The time it takes for an application to be processed and reviewed was the most difficult of all the challenges. The number of applicants is enormous, and MLH has a limited number of employees. It is always far more advantageous to apply as soon as feasible, i.e. 3-4 months before the cohort's start date. Another difficulty I encountered was during the technical interview. This one is only 15 minutes long, and the project I submitted was really large and difficult. It's challenging to convey all the information and walk through the code in less than 15 minutes. It is also the critical stage at which you must appropriately balance all aspects you wish to offer with the interviewer.

MM: How were you able to balance your academics along with your extracurriculars and your responsibilities as an MLH fellow?

RS: The people in the MLH fellowship, especially the pod leader was very understanding. During October, I was selected as a fellow, so I also had mid-semester examinations. So, I also had to study for mid-semester examinations. Coupled with classes, mid-semester examinations, MLH fellowship, and having hackathons at the same time, it was a little tedious at times, and I could feel the pressure, but the best part is it was only on weekdays and on Saturday/Sunday, the MLH fellowship won't be there so we can pick up the pace of academics on Saturdays/Sundays if you catch yourself slacking off in academics. Since it was in online mode, it made everything super simple because I didn't have to run around the campus, go to different classes and labs. There was also this fallback that I could always rely on- recording as all the classes were being recorded so, I could easily wait for the weekend when I didn't have a lot of work to do; I would go and rewatch those lectures and understand what was happening so that I can catch up with my academics once again. During the days that I had exams, I could talk to my pod leader, and I could get a day off so, I would essentially have no duties to perform that day. That also helped me a lot while giving my exams because that eased off my pressure a bit.

A Day in Life of an MLH Fellow

RP: Maintaining a balance between academics, extracurriculars, and Fellowship was difficult and demanding, especially given we were nearing the end of HackNITR at the time, and there was a lot to do. The day was usually divided into three parts: academic work in the mornings, HackNITR and other extracurriculars in the afternoons, and Fellowship work and standups in the evenings. I would say that the online mode aided me in exploring numerous subjects simultaneously. If I had to perform all of this in an offline setting, I'm pretty sure it would have been more difficult.

MM: What message would you like to send to all starting their open source journey?

Open-source is a journey where you meet lots of multi-talented and amazing people. The main issue that people face from what I see is that people just don't know when to start. But, the best part of open source is that you don't have to write code to contribute to an open-source project. Open source is just contributing to a project. You can write documentation, update documentation, grammar check the documentation or help them find bugs or create an issue- that's also an open-source contribution. So, open-source is not just writing code only so, you don't have to understand the whole code to have your first contribution. You just need to start.

Secondly, if you do want to write a code, but you don't understand some specific part, you can just look for issues like a feature or a bug or an enhancement and just try and understand the code of that part where you need to make changes and learn as you go rather than cramming up everything in the project so, see what you need, learn that, understand that, contribute, and just don't stop. You will have an amazing journey.

Also, the entire concept of open-source communities is around getting to know and working with other individuals. The most important recommendation I would provide to everyone is to join any open-source community they are aware of. Being a part of one is really beneficial since you will have someone to assist and guide you. These community members are exceptionally helpful and open, and they can assist you to navigate your tech stack, contributions, and career in general. Most organisations have an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) i.e a slack channel, or discord or any form of communication, through which you can interact with their entire community. You can meet mentors there, so if you are facing any problem in contributing or are not able to understand something or maybe don’t know where to start, you can just talk to the mentors and they will be more than happy to guide you through the process.

Open-source is a great way to get real-world software development experience. It makes no difference if you join a large organisation or start with a small one. In open-source, every contribution count. Also, open-source doesn't necessarily mean contributing only in terms of code. It can be anything like a typo fix, suggesting design and feature requests, reporting issues, reviewing PRs, etc. 

The clubs in NIT Rourkela - DSC NIT Rourkela, OpenCode, and others - are a wonderful place to start since all of their projects are open source, and they welcome new contributors. Then they can slowly work on levelling up their contributions by exploring more complex projects with large codebases. You also get to network with amazing people from all over the world and get guidance. The most exciting thing about contributing to open-source is that thousands of people worldwide are using the code you'll be writing, which has always motivated me to open-source.

To learn more about other open-source programs, refer to BEYOND THE HORIZON: OPEN SOURCE PROGRAMS AND FELLOWSHIPS.

You can apply for DSC NIT Rourkela here. link

You can apply for the MLH Fellowship programme here. link

Team Monday Morning would like to congratulate all the fellows and prep fellows, thank them for sharing valuable guidance and wish them all the best for their future endeavours.

Design credits: Cyrus Roy

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