Getting Started In Open Source

date:Mar 24, 2014
author:Trevor Bramwell

I have been an open source contributor for over 3 years now, and ever since I started I have heard this question come up over and over again:

How do I get involved in open source?

Here are 5 things I have learned through my experience that I feel will help answer this question.

1. Scratch the Itch

The next question I usually hear is:

How do I choose a project to contribute to?

The answer to this question is simple: Just choose one.

Choose a project, any project, any project at all. As long as it’s something you find fun and interesting, you won’t fail in making a successful contribution.

2. Take Ownership

Once you’ve found a project, tell yourself you’re a contributor. Heck, tell your parents, your significant other, your dog. That’s it, you’re a contributor now! This is the Fake It Till You Make It or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy method.

For the first few days or weeks you commit to working on the project, most of your time will be spent reading, not coding, not writing documentation, not building cool things, not really contributing.

Telling yourself you are a contributor right away will help you get over this initial hurdle of feeling unhelpful. Since you’ve already made it, there is nothing left to prove.

3. Set Aside Time

Time scheduled is time saved, and life is full of distractions. That time you’ve been looking for, you know that time you “don’t have” to contribute to the project you want? You create that time by scheduling it in your calendar.

When you schedule time to work on projects, you will find that time magically appearing. It can be as little as 30 minutes, or as much as a weekend, just as long as you schedule it. The time you think you “don’t have” exists in the many random minutes you spend browsing the web, shopping for those shoes you don’t need, reading hacker news, or watching other people’s lives go by on Facebook.

4. Provide Support

The most useful contributor is the one who builds community.

Most open source project are run by a small team of volunteers who, like you, have a very limited supply of time. The time they have they spend programming, or building the project, because it is the best investment they can make. Anything other than the code gets neglected because of this.

When you spend time providing support through IRC, email, or the bug tracker, you learn more about the project yourself. Providing support is alway appreciated, and will make you visible to the community and leadership.

5. Document ALL the things!

Through providing support you are helping people find solutions to their problems. You might realize after a while you’re solving the same problems over and over again.

Writing these solutions down will help save time for you and others. These can either be added to the project FAQ, or user documentation. That way in the future you can kindly point other to the solution, and spend your time answering other questions and documenting more solutions.


Finding a project that is fun and interesting to work on is the first step in a long journey to becoming an open source contributor. Taking ownership and setting aside time to contribute will help get you over the initial hurdle of reading. Providing support and documenting solutions will help others getting started with the project.

Best of luck on your contributions!

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