Open source projects are popular because people can improve on what others have done. No need to fix a bug yourself, just report it and wait for someone else to fix it. You can get involved with an open source project any number of ways. We’ll cover three of the most common: reporting bugs, submitting feature requests, and contributing code.
Learn how to get involved in open source projects, including what it means to be a contributor, and the kinds of activities that make up most contributions. Also, learn how to get started if you’re just interested in open source projects as a user. The material is aimed at people new to open source and who want a basic understanding of what it is and what they can do with it.
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.
How GitHub Projects are Structured
Every GitHub project is stored in its own repository, which usually consists of multiple folders and files. Although projects owners have the freedom to structure their GitHub projects however they like, there’s some files that are common across most projects.
When deciding whether you want to contribute to a project or not, there’s a couple of files you should pay particular attention to:
- README.md. This file contains essential information, such as how to build and use the project, and the owner’s contact details.
- LICENSE.md. When you hear ‘open source,’ don’t automatically assume you’re free to do whatever you want with the software, as there’s actually a wide range of open source licenses. You should always read a project’s licensing information carefully, as any contributions you make will also be licensed under these terms. If you can’t find a License.md, the Readme.md may mention the project’s license, and you can then perform a Google search to see exactly what this license entails. If you can’t find any licensing information, the project will at least adhere to GitHub’s Terms of Service, or you can contact the project owner for clarification (the Readme.md usually contains the owner’s contact details).
- CONTRIBUTING.md. Some larger projects have a file containing everything a potential contributor needs to know, which may include project-specific guidelines on how to raise issues and contribute code. If you see a Contributing.md file, be sure to read it carefully.
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-issue, good-first-bug, beginner-friendly, easy, low-hanging-fruit, first-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.
Open source projects are an innovative way to build software that is owned by everyone. There are hundreds of open source projects online and becoming involved with one can be a valuable experience for you personally, professionally and have a direct effect on your career.