If you're an Outreachy applicant and your initial application has been approved – congratulations! I'm so excited for you! Now you need to choose a project (or two), record your contributions, submit a final application, and hope for the best.
Six months ago, I was in this exact situation. A lot has happened since – I was selected for the internship, spent an amazing summer developing a Python package with utilities for working with Wikimedia SQL dump files, applied for a full-time Software Engineer position at Wikimedia at the end of the internship, and got the job after passing four interview rounds. And just an hour ago, I got a notification from the Apple Store that my brand new work laptop will be delivered within a week!
But this is not a post about my personal wins. Since I got selected for Outreachy, a few people have reached out to me to ask about my experience and how to be successful during the contribution period, which prompted me to put together this blog post with a few pointers I hope will be helpful to you.
Choose your project(s) wisely
Personally, I recommend choosing only one project so that you can really give it your all – especially if you have other time commitments during the contribution period. That said, I know candidates who applied to several projects and got selected for one of them, so your mileage may vary.
Each project comes with a list of desired skills. Make sure you're already strong in the principal skill the project demands as the contribution period is too short for you to learn something from scratch fast enough to be competitive against other applicants who may already master it.
If there's more than one project that fits your skillset, be strategic and choose the one where you think you will face less competition. You will probably find out that the specific project or tech you end up working on if you get selected matters less than other aspects of the internship: being part of an open-source community, mentorship, networking opportunities, etc.
Understand the project
Once you have settled on a project, there will be one or more tasks for you to tackle, and one of the most important things you can do is to understand what is expected of you and what success looks like from the point of view of your mentors. Don't be afraid to ask for clarifications. Try to understand why the project/tasks/subtasks exist in the first place, and what the broader objectives are.
Sometimes, and despite good intentions, task instructions are unclear because mentors assume you know something already, or just forgot to share certain information. It happens. The best moment to clear out any ambiguity is at the very start. Also, consider asking if there are certain processes, methods, or templates you should follow.
It's often said that "there are no stupid questions" but this is not quite true in my experience. Every interaction you have with the project mentors is an opportunity for you to signal who you are and how you approach problems. Don't squander it, and don't act on impulse: everything you do should be deliberate and carefully thought out.
Avoid asking generic questions that can be googled, or found in the project documentation. Try to solve any technical issues yourself first, then carefully document everything you've already tried before asking for help.
Always show that you've done your homework before approaching others – the easier you make it for others to help you, the more likely it is that they will want to do it.
Pay attention to detail
This includes being mindful of your spelling and grammar. Outreachy applicants are from all over the world and many are not native English speakers. Most projects don't expect perfect English. However, it's still a good idea to get in the habit of proofreading and spellchecking all your written communications before hitting send. You can use a tool like Grammarly – the free version is good enough and integrates with Google Docs, internet forms, etc.
Again, this is about sending the right signals. You don't need to be Shakespeare but having errors that a basic spell checker would have caught can reflect badly on you. Unfortunately, all the mentors will have to go on when selecting a candidate is the work you do during the short contribution period – there's not enough time to get to know you closely as a person. If a coworker I trust and have known for a long time sends me an email full of typos, I'd most likely give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were in a hurry or are having a rough day. But if a new intern does it in their first email to me, I'm much more likely to jump to the conclusion that they lack attention to detail, or just don't care.
Believe in yourself
Most projects have some internal chat or project board where the tasks are discussed in the open. This is where you ask questions and discuss project details.
So you are ready to tackle your first tasks, and you show up in the chat just to see that 50 other candidates have already beat you to it, asking all sorts of technical questions at breakneck speed. This is what happened to me the first time I applied to Outreachy. It was the very first day of the contribution period, and already I had to scroll up the project chat to read all the messages. Help! Everyone seemed more competent than me; I didn't even understand some of the concepts that were being discussed.
It was overwhelming.
Paying too much attention to what other people are doing will mess with your confidence and weaken your focus. This is where you need to channel your inner zen and block out all the noise. Easier said than done, I know, but having the right mindset here is key because otherwise you risk coming to the conclusion that you aren't as good as others, or worse, that you don't have the skills it takes to apply in the first place. Pay special attention to this if you're a woman (see: The Confidence Gap), or if you feel there are other factors standing between you and success, whatever they may be.
If your application isn't successful remember there's always a next time. If you are committed to your goals, sooner or later you will get there. Good luck! 🧡