Everybody Struggles

January 21, 2019

CC-BY Anna e so, Bethany Lister, and Sage Sharp

We recently asked the Outreachy December 2018 to March 2019 interns to write about a time when they found themselves getting stuck during their internship tasks. By sharing our challenges we hope to highlight the reality that we all get stuck from time to time. Everybody struggles! Even Outreachy interns, mentors, and us organizers behind the scenes.

We hope potential Outreachy applicants will read through these posts and find inspiration and confidence to apply to the next Outreachy cohort. For current and future Outreachy interns, we hope that as you read your peer's posts know that we all experience challenges as we learn. This is normal, and you belong.

CC-BY Damian Gadal

What keeps us from asking for help?

When people struggle, we often have to reach out and get help from others. For most of us, asking for help can be intimidating. When you're an Outreachy intern, communication with your mentor is key. If you're stuck for too long, reaching out to your mentor or your community can jump start your progress. But first you have to get over your internal doubts about asking for help.

People who have impostor syndrome often feel like everyone knows more than they do. They feel like they'll be judged for knowing less. Marty Hernandez Avedon (Wikimedia intern) talks about how tech culture creates this impostor syndrome: “Tech culture heavily encourages you to pretend you are a tireless genius, so I’m going to have to drop the facade.”

People with impostor syndrome are often afraid of reaching out for help. They're afraid it will call attention to the fact that they don't know something other people do. Tina Kallio (Ceph intern) worried about being seen as uninformed when they asked questions. Researching their question thoroughly helped them overcome their worries.

We can run into problems even when we’re prepared to ask questions. Sometimes we get intimidated and shy in the moment. When Skanda B.K. (Mozilla intern) met his mentors for the first time, “I froze off and forgot everything I prepared to ask them.

Reframing asking for help

Many Outreachy interns are afraid to ask for help because they worry about bothering their mentor of the community.

BarbV (Wikimedia intern) was surprised when their mentor said it was interesting to help them debug a particularly tough problem. That side comment helped them overcome their fears about asking for help. "It’s not the end of the world, it’s not failure, it’s not Evidence of My Ineptitude, it’s not obstruction... it’s interesting! A puzzle to be solved. Looking at it that way not only changes how I feel about being stuck, it makes me much more willing to ask others for input on my problem interesting puzzle."

Cess Wairimu (Public Lab intern) also struggled with how the community might see her when she asked questions. "Asking for help might be one of the scariest thing to do. We just have to remember that everyone has been there at some point. When it comes to a community, everyone is always willing to help because we all want the project to be a success and see ourselves grow."

Sharing our struggles with the free and open source community can help us quickly solve them. Gaby Soria (CNCF tracing intern) shares, "The quickest we share our struggles with the community, the quickest we will have an idea about what can we were doing wrong, or we will have another approach to try."

Everybody Struggles

A lot of Outreachy interns feel like their mentors have all the answers. However, learning is a journey. Outreachy mentors may not struggle with the exact same things as their interns, but they still struggle.

Slavica Đukić (Git intern) shares: "Everyone is having difficulties. The problem is, we only see one’s success - we don’t even consider how much they struggled. And just think: is it possible to learn something completely new, to wrap your head around concepts you never heard of, to grow and never get stuck along the way?"

Aimen Batool (Mozilla intern) shares: "When we get closer and see things clearly we realize that everyone has to face challenges, everyone gets stuck with bugs and errors. But through time and experience, we see that they just get stuck on bigger and complex challenges than we do."

Kris Thayer (Mozilla intern) saw many other community members help each other with their questions: "In reading other communication channels in the community, I’ve realized that people ask questions about all sorts of topics. Even people that have a lot of experience in some areas are learning new skills or working with new departments or new data, so they ask questions. And all the answers that I’ve seen have been respectful and helpful."

Teja Cetinski (GNOME intern) encourages interns to get over their doubts: “don't be embarrassed, don't be self-conscious, don't be afraid and just ask.”

What do Outreachy interns struggle with?

Outreachy interns face many common and unique struggles. Let's take a look a couple of categories of struggles.

Struggles getting started

Many Outreachy interns need to spend the first week or two of their internship getting their contribution environment set up. Mamta Shukla (Linux Kernel intern) tells interns to try not to be discouraged if you run into challenges before you even get started on your internship tasks.

Struggles with fear of failure

Kristin Taylor (Mozilla intern) shares how they felt scared to do work without expert guidance. "I felt that I needed an expert to help me. In all reality, I wanted someone who could prevent me from failing... I realized that if I want to become an expert designer, I would have to be OK with the possibility of failing. Innovation comes with the uncertainty of failure."

Struggles with English

Most international free and open source software communities use English for their communication and contribution comments. That can be a hurdle for people who speak English as a second language.

Trang T.H Nguyen (Mozilla intern) shares her anxiousness around organizational culture and community chat and forums. Navigating new organizational cultures and communities can be confusing for anyone. However, it's especially confusing if the community chat isn't in your native language.

It can be a struggle to translate your thoughts to English. Shiwani Sharma (Mozilla intern) shares that it's "difficult to present my point of view being not having English as my first language."

It may be easier to communicate with your mentor privately and work your way up to communicating on public channels. Anastasia Tsikoza (Debian intern) shares, "Being a non-native English speaker I felt more secure when contacting the project’s mentors by email, so it often took more time to get help than if I used instant messaging. Later I slowly began talking in IRC and even got used to discussing my code publicly. There was no pressure to do so, only encouragement, and I just decided to try one day and all went good."

Outreachy interns are required to blog as part of their internship. It can be a struggle to come up with topics to write about for non-native English speakers. Clarissa Lima Borges (GNOME intern) shares, "I struggle to write in English since I don’t have much practice (both to write posts and to communicate with the people with whom I am working) AND with my creativity. I’ve been facing this struggle since I applied to Outreachy, sometimes I find myself late with some post (I have two not-published drafts because I don’t know how to end them)." To show support for Clarissa, her mentor (who natively speaks English) published a blog post written in Spanish.

Struggles with work/life balance

Outreachy interns often struggle to find a balance between their personal life and working a full-time internship. It's tough when you're working remotely, often in your own house.

Some Outreachy interns find themselves pouring all their free time into the internship. Geo D (JupyterHub intern) shares that setting a daily schedule helped her: "I started my second week with a very structured schedule. I’m now working from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M and I have a proper one hour lunch break and I actually also have time to cook fresh meals every day. At the end of the day, I still have time to meet with friends or just go out for a walk. This schedule has proven to make me more productive and disciplined."

Sometimes Outreachy interns spend a lot of frustrating hours on a particular problem. Laura Lazzati shares, "Something that works for me when I am stuck, is taking a 10′ break, focus on something else, or have some fresh air. I know that in background I have a daemon that is still running with what I am stuck 😉 and when I go back, sometimes I come up with an idea of something that I have not tried."

Other Outreachy interns had life interrupt their work. Some Outreachy interns struggle with really big life changes during their internship. Family issues can make it tough to focus on work. Maira Kodama (GNOME intern) shares, "I did inform my mentor of my life partner breaking up with me. And my mentor was highly understanding <3"

Some times Outreachy interns move during the internship. Leticia Portella (JupyterHub intern) shares, "Just after I finished my first weeks of work here I was also finishing my moving from Brazil to Ireland. So things were absolutely crazy and I couldn’t focus at all. I was pretty nervous to move to another city, country and continent and this was making me unable to focus. [My mentor and I] decided that was best for me to take vacations during this stressing period. This was fundamental for me. I could do my moving (and my goodbyes) with calm and so I just started working again this year. My deadlines are all pushed a couple weeks forward, but it totally work it."

Outreachy organizers understand that life happens! We view the internship as a fellowship, and mentors are willing to adjust the project goals. If Outreachy interns take more than a week off, they can extend their internships by up to five weeks.

Tips for people struggling

The Outreachy interns have some tips for people who are struggling with asking questions and asking for help.

Lenka Seg (Fedora intern) has a great tip for ensuring questions don’t get lost and the same struggles aren’t repeated: “Writing notes. Into some personal README. This prevents me from asking over and over the same questions or google for 20th time how to do git stash pop.”

Tina Kallio (Ceph intern) shared a tip for getting unstuck: “Rubber duck debugging is another great thing that (almost) always gets you back on track." Rubber duck debugging is when you try to explain your problem to an object, like a rubber duck. The point is to get you to talk about your problem out loud. Even writing down your problem can help.

Tina says rubber duck debugging "...makes you start from the beginning and reexamine what you are working on. Just the other day my code wouldn't work but I couldn't find the problem. After I wrote a message to my mentor describing what is happening and asking for help, I realized [the error]...”

Normalizing Struggling

We all run into technical and personal challenges. We hope this post has helped normalize that everybody struggles.

We want to encourage everyone interested to apply for the next Outreachy internship round. Applications open February 18. You’ve got this!