How To Contribute To Open Source For Beginners

Contribute to open source code is a great way to give something back! And everybody can do it. Contribution isn’t restricted to coders—artists, designers, students, teachers, and computer science professionals can all contribute too! It’s often not as hard as it seems to make an impact on an open project you love.

So you want to contribute to open source? That’s great! Open source is a collaborative community, and everybody can contribute in their own way. This guide will walk through some of the basics of getting started: how to find an open source project, how to contribute code and documentation, and how to become an active member of the community.

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.

Understanding how a project works

Not all open source projects operate in the same way. Some allow contributions from anyone. Some require you to work your way up to get contribution privileges. Some have multiple people involved in managing a project. Others have a single person in charge, a so-called benevolent dictator for life. 

Contribution guidelines help you understand how to approach your participation in a project. It will explain how to reach out about a contribution, provide templates for communicating bugs and suggesting features, list work that is needed by maintainers, project goals, etc. An amazing example is the Angular contribution guide which lists all kinds of useful information for new contributors like their commit message guidelines, coding rules, submission guidelines, etc. in great detail. 

In addition to contribution guidelines, some projects will have a code of conduct. It usually outlines community rules and behavior expectations. It’s meant to help you know how to be a amiable and professional contributor and community member. Angular, for instance, has an awesome code of conduct that lists what they consider unprofessional conduct, their responsibilities to the community, and how to get in contact in case someone violates it.   

Big projects may have governance policy and team documents that outline specific roles in the community, teams, sub-committees, contribution workflows, how discussions are conducted, and who gets to commit. These kinds of documents are essential to understanding how the community operates. The about page on angular.io, for example, lists who all the core team members are, their roles, and other contributors. On Github, they also have a docs folder containing policies regarding contribution.  

Even after you’ve gone through the documentation, you may still need to ask questions to active members of the community. Despite doing your research, you may still be stumped on a particular aspect of the project. To interact with other contributors, join community communication tools like Slack, IRC etc., sign up for newsletters, and subscribe to their mailing list. Angular uses Gitter as its community communication tool and directs contributors with questions/problems to Stack Overflow, where they can get help using the angular tag. Connect with community members and develop relationships with them as it will expose you to facets of the project that you may be unaware of. 

Having a good grasp of the technical aspects of the project and how it’s organized is essential to making contributions that meet the project’s standards. To understand technical parts of the project, consult the project README, wikis, tutorials, and documentation. Angular, for example, has docs explaining their Github process, building and testing, their coding standards, debugging, PR reviews, etc. Going a step further, look at past feature integrations and bug fixes in merged pull requests which are full of discussions by other contributors and can be a rich source of context. As the project evolves, pay attention to it, frequently follow issues, features, discussions, pull requests, and bug fixes to continually learn how it works. For instance, a contributor can follow this example of an Angular feature request discussion about a form API to better understand how Angular forms work, bundle size management, etc.

An open source project is sort of like a project at any company you might work at; there will be a house coding style, team culture, and workflows for getting things done. The difference is that open source projects can and will have a much different group of people working on them. 

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.

Open-Source Programs/Contests you can participate in

There are many open-source coding programs that you can participate in.

  • Google Summer of Code (GSoC)
    GSoC is the Olympics of Open Source. It is a global program focused on encouraging more student developers to do open source software development.
    Students work with one of the selected open-source organizations for 3 months and get a handsome stipend on completing the project. Students need to propose changes that they want to work on to get selected.
    It is a good idea to start contributing to your favorite orgs/project much before GSoC.
  • HacktoberFest
    HacktoberFest is a month-long celebration of open source software carried out in October. You can sign up anytime between October 1 and October 31.
    It is open to everyone in the global community!
    One needs to complete a certain amount of quality PRs to get swags in return. The swag motivates many people to get started with open-source contributions through this program.
  • GirlScript Summer of Code
    GirlScript Summer of Code is a 3 month long Open Source program during summers conducted by GirlScript Foundation, started in 2018, to help beginners get started with Open Source Development while encouraging diversity.
    Note that it is open to everyone and not just girls as the program name might suggest.
  • Outreachy
    Outreachy (previously the Free and Open Source Software Outreach Program for Women) is a program that organizes three-month paid internships with free and open-source software projects.
    It is for people who are typically underrepresented in those projects.
    This is generally carried out biannual throughout the year.
  • Rails Girl Summer of Code
    Rails Girls Summer of Code is a global fellowship program aimed at bringing more diversity into Open Source.
    Successful applicants are paid a monthly stipend, from July-September, to work on Open Source projects of their choice.
  • MLH Fellowship
    The MLH Fellowship is an internship alternative for software engineers.
    Instead of working on a project for just one company, selected candidates contribute to Open Source projects that are used by companies around the world and are paid a competitive stipend during this tenure.

Finding projects to work on

One way to find projects to work on is to look to open source software you use often and like. Is there a tool, package, framework, or a language that you work with regularly and enjoy using? Find out whether it’s an open source project by checking its license and if it accepts contributions and is active. Working on things you already use gives you an edge when contributing because you’re already pretty familiar with how it works and have experience using it. As a bonus, you can address problems that have been bothering you or suggest features that you want in the software. If you are going to contribute code to the project, be sure you can work in the language it’s written in. 

If the above approach may not work for you, try using the Github explore page to find projects that are accepting contributions or actively want help. Github suggests projects you may like based on people and repositories you follow, star, and watch. Another way to find projects is to use Github’s search tool by entering beginner-friendly contribution tags like good-first-issuegood-first-bugbeginner-friendlyeasylow-hanging-fruitfirst-timers-only, etc. Filter search results to return issues in open states and in the languages you’d like to work in. There are tons of other tools, platforms, and programs where you could find open source projects that I’ll list at the end of this article to help you with your search. 

To have a positive contribution experience, try to avoid communities that are hostile to beginners and generally problematic. If for example, when trying to ask legitimate questions after you’ve done your research, you receive dismissive and combative comments or insults, it’s best to stay away. Another sign to be watchful for is a pattern of unprofessional behavior within a community. Some open source software projects have been infamous for this sort of thing. So do your research before contributing. 

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.

Conclusion

Have a passion for writing and improving other people’s work? Then contributing to an open source project is for you! In this article, we’ll be going over what exactly open source is, the benefits of contributing to open source projects, the types of projects you can contribute to and how to go about getting started.

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