Contributing to open source

What open source is

Open source software is software that can be freely used, changed, and shared (in modified or unmodified form) by anyone. [1]

Generally open source software is maintained by inidividuals that work on the particular project for free. However, various companies allow and even encourage their engineers to contribute to open source for various reasons. In my experience the hardest part of contributing to open source is getting started so I will give some advice and pointers to some resources to anyone wanting to contribute to open source.

Why you should collaborate

Working on an open source project gives software engineers the opportunity to work on a set of skills they wish to enhance while benefiting of the support they get from other contributors.

Secondly, experience gained from open source sontribution is a great topic to talk about in an interview in industry. It shows that you got to practice a set of skills that are important for the job you are applying for.

Last but not least, it is a great way to give back to the community. Most of us use open source software (e.g. Android, Linux) so I consider only fair to give a hand in fixing bugs, or writing test or documentation, or in any other way that will make the porject better.

On  a side note, during lectures we’ve been told that companies choose to create an open source intiative that will go hand in hand with or support some other source of revenue (e.g. their servers or the ads they serve). It makes sense, and I don’t want to disagree but to add that, for example, I have seen interviews where Google engineers were saying that the reason why Chrome started is that they were Firefox, but Mozilla was being slow with improvements, so they decided to create their own browser to create competition for Mozilla. Another version I heard, is that they just thought why not have their own browser. I would have found the second version hard to believe, but then it’s very similar to how Gmail started so it is plausible. Unfortunately, I can’t provide references to these two stories, as I have seen them a while back and can’t really remember where.

How to start

The first time I contributed to open source was in  the second year of my degree when we were required to contribute to an open source project of our choice as part of a Software Engineering coursework. We did receive advice on how to pick a project: ensure there are multiple contributors to the project (minimum 2), ensure the project is not stale (i.e. there have been recent contributions made to the project), pick something that seems interesting to you. In my case, lack of experience did take its toll because while I did try to follow recommendations I still didn’t fully understand them.

Since then, I’ve become slightly wiser. My following advice is not a secret, they are the usual advice one finds in blog post of this type, but this is also what experience has taught me and I hope it will help anyone thinking of contributing to open source but doesn’t know where to start.

Don’t just look for a project with a couple of developers, look for a project that has whole community behind it. In most cases, these communities have a forum, a mailing list or irc channels which they use to communicate, which are a great media to get in touch with people already working on the project and ask for help. It is often the case that an active wi,ll be beginner-friendly and have good tutorials that will get your started. [2] and [3] are great examples of good communities where one can start contributing to open source. In my opinion it would have been a good idea for my course to allow students to contribute to such projects as long as each student brings different contributions (e.g. fix different bugs, add tests for different parts of the project or write documentation for different parts of the code).

When checking whether a project is stale, don’t only check when the last release was made (this should be in the last month) but also how often code submissions are made and how active the community is in terms of posts.

[4] is also great resource that helps people to start contributing to open source. They provide tutorials that teach people how to use tools such as version control and working with tar archives. They also have a database of tasks that need work which can be filtered by project, skills or difficulty. Moreover, most of the tasks have mentors, or people that are ready to help anyone willing to contribute to their project.

Finally, anyone can start their own open source project then get other people to contribute to the project. If you have an idea get some friends and start your own open source community.

References

  1. Open Source Initiative [online]. (2014). Available from: <http://opensource.org/>. [Accessed 14/03/2014].
  2. Ubuntu Wiki [online]. (2013). Available from: <https://wiki.ubuntu.com/ContributeToUbuntu>. [Accessed 14/03/2014].
  3. Mozilla Developer Network [online]. (2014). Available from: <https://developer.mozilla.org/en/docs/Introduction>. [Accessed 14/03/2014].
  4. OpenHatch Community [online]. (2013). Available from: <https://openhatch.org/>. [Accessed 14/03/2014].