Getting started with contributing to open source

It can be intimidating to start contributing to an open source project. But with a little research and planning, you can be a valuable part of your favorite open source software.

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Contributing to open source can be intimidating and confusing depending on the project you’re working on. To add to that, most large open source projects have a steep learning curve. However, as evidenced by how widespread open source is, there are a lot of opportunities to break into it and thrive even if you’re new.

Open source refers to source code that is made available to the public to view, use, modify, and distribute under a license. It’s usually developed and maintained collaboratively by a community of its users. Some well-known open source projects include Django, Postgres, MongoDB, Vue, Go, Ruby, TypeScript, Git and so many more.

Although the main point of open source projects is to create valuable and accessible open source software, individual contributors can get plenty of personal benefit from contributing to them. You help maintain the software you use while honing your technical skills. When you’re applying for jobs, you can point to your work on open source software as proof of your skills.

By collaborating with others on open source you use, you get to become part of a community where you can practice your soft skills like communication, giving and receiving feedback, emotional intelligence, etc. These communities also introduce you to tons of people you can network with, who in turn will open you up to worthwhile opportunities.

Below, we’ll explore some strategies that you could use to break into open source. For illustration purposes (and because I’ve contributed some there), I’ll use the Angular project to explain how you could contribute to open source software. Although most of the examples will be of the Angular project, all these strategies described apply to many open source projects.

Ways to contribute to open source

There are a lot of ways you can participate in open source. As a beginner, you could identify and fix bugs in a project. For example, the Angular project accepts issues pointing out bugs and even pull requests that fix them. In these projects, you can propose, help design, and work on new features. Angular for instance accepts proposals for large features and pull requests for smaller features. Larger features will require greater community involvement, and some communities require you to earn a reputation fixing bugs before moving to feature development.

Your contributions do not have to be exclusive to code. You can help a project by making comments on existing code and APIs to add context and writing documentation for the project. As an example, Angular has two whole projects on Github dedicated to documentation, which you can check out here and here.

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.

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.

Picking issues to work on and making contributions

Projects may list the work that needs to be done in task, bug, and issue trackers. For example, Angular uses Github’s project management feature to outline and assign tasks and track their progress. If a project has one, get access to it.

As a rule of thumb, start with the easiest and smallest contributions first that take the least amount of work to build up your confidence and credibility before trying harder contributions. Writing documentation and fixing typos is a good place to begin. Look for issues that are tagged for beginners with the tags mentioned earlier.

After you pick a task you think you can finish, do your research. Read documentation, code, and discussions related to the task to get a better understanding of what to do. If you’re stuck on something even after you’ve researched it, reach out to the community and ask for help, clarification, or mentorship. However, make sure that you discuss issues related to the task publicly so that the rest of the community can benefit from what you learn. For example, discuss an issue publicly on Github versus in a private direct message on Slack. Once you feel like you have enough context on a task and know how to go about it, write some code and submit a PR. Github has a great checklist about what to check for before you contribute to a project so your effort is not wasted.

Submitting your work

After you’ve completed work on your contribution, submit it as per the contribution guidelines. At times, your submission may not get a reply even after a reasonable amount of time has gone by. In such cases, respectfully request a review or get in touch with other contributors for assistance. Post-review changes may be requested. Try to make them as soon as possible so that your contribution is integrated promptly and does not become out-of-date or forgotten. If your contribution is rejected, ask for feedback to understand why. When reviewers ask questions, make comments, or give feedback, be responsive and check on your work for any updates regularly. Treat this like any other work and be professional, courteous, and respectful.

What are you waiting for?

Open source contribution can be an amazing learning experience. It allows you to give back to and be a part of communities that build valuable open source software. It enables you to make software that you use better. Although it can be tough to start, once you get the hang of it, it is immensely rewarding. You do not have to know everything about a project to make a contribution. Pick a project and a community that supports new contributors, find mentors, and make your contributions. You may encounter some infamous communities. Stay away from them as they may put you off open source entirely.

Here’s a list of resources that can help jumpstart your open source career:

  1. Awesome for open source beginners
  2. Bugzilla
  3. Code triage
  4. Contributor.ninja
  5. First contributions
  6. First-timers only
  7. Hacktoberfest
  8. Gauger.io
  9. Issuehub
  10. Open source handbook
  11. Open source programs
  12. Opensource.guide
  13. Pull request roulette
  14. Your first PR
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