MD: Hi Suranga. Congratulations on being named the April 2013 contributor of the month! You’ve got a really interesting story about your current activities and how you got involved with OpenMRS. To start, could you tell us a little about yourself?
SK: Thank you! Well, I’m currently an undergraduate university student in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I’m just a few months away from completing my degree in software engineering. My education is only part time, as I’m also employed by Jembi Health Systems in South Africa. Although my educational focus was in traditional software engineering, over the past few years I’ve gradually strengthened my commitment to health informatics, and am planning to make it my life’s work.
MD: It sounds like OpenMRS is a perfect project for many of your interests. When did you first hear about us?
SK: I had a strong biological sciences background from my high school days, and I had always wanted to do something beyond just computer science. You might say I was interested in getting involved in something that would allow me to enjoy the “best of both worlds”. I first discovered OpenMRS while engaged in early planning to participate in Google Summer of Code (GSoC). Several of my friends had been GSoC students working on OpenMRS projects during previous years, and I wanted to do the same. I first checked out the OpenMRS trunk in August 2010. (Back then, we were using Subversion instead of GitHub, and it was called “trunk”.) I followed the written tips online and stated working on some introductory bugs right away. However, I was rather shy at the beginning, particularly since I had never worked with foreign developers before. During those early days, I interacted mainly with OpenMRS developer Ben Wolfe through the JIRA issue tracker. I didn’t actually become very vocal within the community until January 2011 or so.
MD: Well, your early investment paid off. You seem to have had a great time working with OpenMRS during GSoC in 2011, and certainly had a great mentor in Glen McCallum. Tell us what you learned during the experience.
SK: Quite a bit actually. But to put it briefly, my opinion is that anyone studying computer science should do their very best to get selected for Google Summer of Code. From a student’s perspective, it’s not easy to get selected for GSoC, and many fellow students I’ve known who participated are simply the best of the best. GSoC polishes to the “rough diamond” that a good student is already. It’s a real life validation that you can be as good at real life work as you are at passing written exams.
During my internship, I learned to communicate and work with diverse people located all over the globe. If you’re a student, or living in a country which isn’t a leading technological player, you’ll probably never get a chance to gain that kind of first-hand experience so early during your career. GSoC also helped me to improve my soft skills as a contributor to a major free and open source software project, and it allowed me to build many long term friendships with people who I see as role models.
I was also a mentor in 2012, and from that perspective, GSoC and OpenMRS offered me excellent opportunities which I would never have received otherwise. It helped me to network, find smart friends, and even more importantly, to demonstrate my earnestness to stick with this field for the long run.
MD: You mentioned you work for Jembi Health Systems, who among many other things in the Health IT space, build and implement OpenMRS systems around the world. How does your work with OpenMRS relate to your “day job”?
SK: Because early on, my OpenMRS efforts were based on getting selected to GSoC 2011, most of my initial contributions were bug fixing and providing others with help. However, OpenMRS has gradually grown to take up a major part of my life, with a much bigger scope. In addition to the traditional bug fixing type of work, I also got to lead my own development sprint, and now I’m responsible for my own OpenMRS add-on modules. That early participation in OpenMRS helped me make contacts that led to my job with Jembi. I’m really fortunate because my job there deals 100% with OpenMRS, providing me with an ideal mix of work, pleasure and hands-on learning opportunities. Last but not least, OpenMRS was a major player in launching my fledgling academic career. It was friends whom I met through this project that helped me to write my first ever research paper, and thanks to them I’ve come a considerable way.
MD: You sound like an incredibly busy and active person, which is very cool. What have you been working on in the OpenMRS world recently, and what might you like to work on in the future?
SK: So far, my long term interests in OpenMRS are linked to patient matching and HL7 message processing. I figure that right now I may be at my lowest activity of OpenMRS contributions as I finish up my degree in the next few months. However, I’ll be getting more involved with OpenMRS once my final exams are over in May. My next aim is to pick some other innovative area which OpenMRS deals with, and see what more I can learn by working in that field. I’d also like to work more on clinical decision support and syndromic surveillance.
MD: Before we go, what advice would you give people new to OpenMRS who are interested in contributing? Google will soon announce participating organizations for 2013. What tips would you recommend for potential students?
SK: Probably the most important advice I could give GSoC aspirants is to find a project that intrigues them. Give considerable thought as to why you want to pick a given project. The more your project interests you, the more you’ll be motivated to do better. And the more you do well, the more opportunities you will have.
For students who are confident that OpenMRS suits their interests, my advice is, don’t give up. It may not be very easy to get up to speed, and learn all the technologies that we use, but naturally, one must always start from somewhere.
MD: Thanks again Suranga, and congratulations!
More information about the Contributor of the Month program is available on the OpenMRS wiki. We’d love to hear what you think about it as well as your nominations of fellow contributors!