How Do Open Source Projects Work

Open source projects are some of the best places to look for a job these days. Open source software and hardware can be found on almost every desktop and laptop computer in the world. Researching and maintaining open source projects is a great way to gain experience both hands-on, which leads to more job opportunities, as well as in the community.

Some people don’t understand how Open Source Projects work. They think that being open source means a project makes no money and is supported by big foundations. That’s both a misconception and there is no such thing as a big foundation. I’ll give you an example from Android.

Get to know GitHub

GitHub is the most popular platform for open source collaboration, so you’ll probably use it when exploring the world of OSS. First, you need to create a GitHub account and read the guide that helps you get started. On GitHub, you can contribute to projects by submitting issues and contributing code. Submitting issues means sending messages about errors in applications and suggesting ways to fix them. Contributing code involves sending pull requests with your corrections and improvements.


The code repository should have an associated license. For example, the MIT license(opens in a new tab) is a popular one. This license determines if the project is open source or not. So it’s important to find the license before working with the project. The OSI provides more information and a list of more popular licenses here(opens in a new tab).

Learn the basics

When working with GitHub, you should know how to use Git – one of the most popular version control tools (also known as revision control tools). Because developers constantly make changes to their code, they need a system that can manage those changes in a central repository. In this way, everyone involved in the development process can download a given piece of software, make changes, and submit updates.


Documentation includes things like project README files and contributing guidelines. README files provide information around the code repository like its purpose, the programming languages and libraries used to build it, and in the case of open source projects, how you can contribute. At times, how well written the documentation is will be a good indication of how easy it is to work with the project because documentation is key to understanding the details, technology, and functions of a code repository.

Join the community

You can easily join an open source project by subscribing to the mailing list for that project. You can find mailing lists on official websites or on GitHub pages. After being accepted to the list, you can communicate with team members and get support if necessary. Thanks to the vibrant communities present in nearly every OSS project, you are likely to get quick replies to your questions.


On a hosting platform like GitHub, you can search for different open source projects. This list(opens in a new tab) of projects are particularly welcoming of beginners. On a particular project, you can see requests for improvements or fixes posted as “Issues.” These issues usually have tags to help developers filter what they can and want to work on. For example, for beginners, pick a project that has issues with the `good first issue` or “good for beginners” tag to work on. You can also peruse the requested work by the languages you know like HTML.

All skills are welcomed

Even non-programmers can contribute to open source projects! Documentation is needed for all projects, and sometimes this is poorly written and maintained. Thus, you can help by writing, updating or even translating documentation. Also, your design skills might come in handy: every application needs an interface, after all. Finally, you can contribute by managing a community by replying to questions and guiding newcomers.


Once you start interacting with the open source software, maybe you notice a bug or potential improvement to the user experience. You can help the maintainers by posting an issue to the issues list for the project even if you’re unsure how to fix it yourself. Provide as much information you can succinctly so the developer who picks up the issue knows how to recreate it and understand the problem.

Create open source alternatives to commercial software

Today’s commercial projects actively engage open source solutions. Many companies base their projects on free tools. When there’s a huge selection of software, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This is why it’s useful to play around with free software that can replace similar proprietary software, or that fixes an issue you’ve recently faced.

Another reason for replacing commercial solutions with open source software is eagerness for real innovation and growth. Commercial software claims to be innovative, but its final goal is turning a profit. Open source software unites best practices, great quality of code and passionate developers willing to code just because they like to.


Developers are opting for words like “primary,” “replica,” “allowed list,” and “blocked list” instead of “master,” “slave,” “blacklist,” “whitelist,” and “redlining” in codebases. This is an effort to make coding inclusive by removing words that reinforce racist hierarchies.

Contribute to existing open source projects

You can find many projects you are free to participate in on GitHub – a developer-oriented platform with a simple but essential set of functionality. GitHub attracts developers with public APIs, a sleek and frequently updated UI, gists (Git repositories) that allow you to share pieces of code or even whole applications, and much more. You can contribute to free software in many ways. Developers can fork projects, make changes to code, and send pull requests. And quality assurance is always appreciated. Sometimes developers are too busy or too lazy to check the quality of their code. So go ahead and report a bug or try to fix it – your help is appreciated.

You can reach the hottest GitHub projects by following the “Trending” link. And in order to make your search more relevant, use advanced search: select the language you would like to code in and choose “best match” criteria. Best match ranks projects according to relevance, taking into account the number of forks (which represents how actively the project is updated) and stars (“likes”, in the language of Facebook). Most projects have known issues (however, some don’t) with labels like “bug”, “discussion”, “security”, or “refactor”, or other labels according to the level of difficulty: “easy”, “medium”, “hard.”


Most open source projects are defined by many hundreds or thousands of volunteer contributors all over the world. This guide gives you a high-level view of how they work. The information applies to most open source projects, but please let us know if it doesn’t seem to fit your project.

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