Open source projects are created every day as developers find something that needs improvement and with the help of open source communities, these problems can be fixed over time. This guide is a collection of chapters that explain how to get started with the first steps for creating an open source project.
Open source projects are essential to the ongoing development of any technology. Take a look at the steps it takes to start your own, from the initial planning stages to the opening of source code and beyond. Whether you’re looking to create something new or improving an already existing open source project, this article is an important first step.
Setting your goals
Goals can help you figure out what to work on, what to say no to, and where you need help from others. Start by asking yourself, why am I open sourcing this project?
There is no one right answer to this question. You may have multiple goals for a single project, or different projects with different goals.
If your only goal is to show off your work, you may not even want contributions, and even say so in your README. On the other hand, if you do want contributors, you’ll invest time into clear documentation and making newcomers feel welcome.
Define what success looks like
urllib3 is used by millions of people everyday, has 785 stars on GitHub, and has been growing since its creation in 2008. Andrey has another project, ssh-chat, that has 1,560 stars on GitHub, but is only used by about 15 people today. So which project is more successful? In order to answer that question, Andrey described how defining success at the beginning of project will help you understand if it’s successful or not.
The beginning of every open source project looks like this:
- Build something. Anything.
- Get frustrated with the hardest parts, build libraries and tools to help.
- Discard the original project to focus on the libraries, which become your new project.
- Go back to step 2 and repeat.
The story of urllib3 begins with the problem of trying to upload billions of images to S3 in 2008. Using existing Python libraries, this would have taken more than three weeks because there was no good concurrency support. You could use s3funnel, a multithreaded S3 client, but managing threads is painful. You could use a worker pool in s3funnel instead, but existing HTTP libraries didn’t reuse connections, and most solutions weren’t threadsafe or lacked multipart (filepost) encoding. Enter urllib3.
A snippet of requests, a popular function in urllib3
In Andrey’s words, “The solution space [in engineering] is about building something and solving a problem. For urllib3, the space was really small and the solution to other things were really useful, and that’s what made it successful.”
When defining a project’s goals, think about how solving a small problem can make a large impact.
Another form of success in open source is exemplified by ssh-chat, an encrypted chat-over-SSH program written in Go. Andrey started ssh-chat as a weekend project. One of the main contributions to the project’s success started with creating a thorough README. As Andrey puts it, “Having a great README is basically 80% of the work to success. You need to be able to answer three questions for your contributors: “Who else uses it?” “What do they use it for?” and “Where can I get more help?”
A snippet of ssh-chat, a popular ssh-chat program written in Go
But just creating an awesome README didn’t kickstart the impressive growth of ssh-chat. To make it thrive, it needed more traction.
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.
Launching your own open source project
There is no perfect time to open source your work. You can open source an idea, a work in progress, or after years of being closed source.
Generally speaking, you should open source your project when you feel comfortable having others view, and give feedback on, your work.
No matter which stage you decide to open source your project, every project should include the following documentation:
As a maintainer, these components will help you communicate expectations, manage contributions, and protect everyone’s legal rights (including your own). They significantly increase your chances of having a positive experience.
If your project is on GitHub, putting these files in your root directory with the recommended filenames will help GitHub recognize and automatically surface them to your readers.
Recruit core contributors
To spread the word about ssh-chat, Andrey started asking for help, asking for improvements, and finding ways to bring more people into the project. In order to help build interest, Andrey reached out to people on Twitter and offered free Go programming lessons in exchange for opening pull requests. This overcame the initial inertia of getting a few people involved and interested in the project. These early contributors eventually became champions of ssh-chat and started answering questions on Stack Overflow.
Another component of building and maintaining open source projects is learning to be inclusive. Andrey says “accepting pull requests very generously, and very graciously” was a key step in building more community interest and is something that many open source authors miss in the beginning. And asking specific people to make a pull request was much more effective than making more generalized asks of his Twitter followers.
Market and promote your project
In general, programmers tend not to be self-promoting types, so actively marketing and promoting an open source project doesn’t come naturally. With this in mind, Andrey identified ways that programmers can promote their projects without being self-aggrandizing.
One approach is to write interesting blog posts about your projects to provide clearer context of the project’s story and mission. Medium is a great platform for sharing in the technology community and has more potential readers than a self-hosted blog.
Other opportunities for connecting with contributors that worked for urllib3 and ssh-chat included:
- Answer questions on Stack Overflow (set up alerts on Stack Overflow for specific topics)
- Participate in discussions on Hacker News, reddit/r/programming, etc.
- Sell to other open source projects and establish partnerships with them. “The only reason urllib3 is the most popular third-party Python library today is because it’s part of requests.”
- Feed the non-trolls: Getting upvotes on your announcement post is only half the equation. More activity and discussion yields more people clicking on it and more updates, so if you respond to almost every comment, then that’s 2x as many comments.
Some shows take off. Some don’t. There’s no surefire formula for an open source project to take off as well. My hope is that this series will give you the tools to create your own successful show and also help you better evaluate existing ones.