How to Get Started With Open Source Projects

Learning how to contribute to the open source community isn’t as hard as you might think. There is no set way to start, so we’ll cover some useful resources and tips here before you dive in. This guide is intended for developers who are looking to gain skills in software development and/or web design, and will show you how to get started on your first project.

Are you thinking about getting started with an open source software project? Open source projects often grow from small, informal efforts made by individuals or loose teams of coders, but not all of these projects stay small. People can and do band together to change the world by contributing to open source projects in a number of ways, large and small. From fixing bugs to coding new features to writing documentation, contributing to an open source project can be one of the most rewarding ways to spend your free time–and it may even pay some bills.

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. 

EASY TO READ AND COMPREHENSIVE DOCUMENTATION

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.

TAGGED ISSUES AND FEATURES

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.

Conclusion

Getting started on an open source project can be a daunting experience. There are a lot of resources online to help you out though, and some very basic steps that you can follow to get off on the right foot.

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