First Steps into Open Source

May 06, 2020

At start of the year, I set a rather nebulous goal:

“become a regular open source contributor”

The motivation was to experience different codebases to gain more experience and (hopefully) improve my employability. 5 months on, I feel reasonably comfortable stating that I’m an open source contributor, and hope to continue doing so.

This is a summary of my journey so far, I hope it’ll be useful for you, especially if you’re thinking of contributing!

First Timers Only

To start, I remembered reading about a first timers “movement” and quickly found a compilation of participating projects. Ruby was what we used at work, so I jumped to that section.

The first PR I tried to submit was for Rails (seemed like it would be something nice on the resume). Rails uses the label good first issue, so I picked an issue near the top, spent a Saturday working and submitted it!

Then I waited.

And waited.

Good things…

In hindsight, that issue was not a great first pick. It already had some attempts, with the most recent just a week before my PR. I think I was so unsure of myself, I figured this would be a super low-risk issue to try. After all, if I screwed it up, there were other attempts that could be picked up.

In the end, one of the maintainers took it upon himself to close the issue and credited all the contributors. His PR was better, but I guess it was mainly a way of navigating this long-drawn issue without stepping on any toes.

While waiting, I decided to try again. We were using a tool written in Go to manage our AWS IAM at work, but there was a good-to-have feature we wanted and an issue for it. So I spent a few week nights and weekends learning Go, doing up the PR and submitting it.

Then I waited.

…come to those…

And someone reviewed! I was energised. I made some changes.

Then he requested a second opinion from another maintainer.

It’s still there, open.

At this point I was starting to get disheartened. (No hate to open source maintainers, it’s pretty thankless work and the world is better for your contributions.)

…who wait keep trying.

I flapped around a bit, and one day decided to look at another gem our company had been using. I saw a pretty steady stream of merges, neatly labelled issues, plus it just felt less intimidating than Rails.

A few days later, my first merge! I was elated.

First Merge!

Huge props to dblock, who somehow manages to turnaround and reply quickly, often within a day or two. Rubyists, if you would love to contribute but don’t know where to, might I humbly suggest anyone of dblock’s projects - it’s a great place to start.

Closing Thoughts

For “first timers” looking to contribute, my takeaways (sample size of 1, take with a pinch of salt):

  • Labels on recent issues seemed like a good sign that a project is well-maintained. Search for a first-timers-only type label - for example, in Rails it was good first issue.
  • Check the CONTRIBUTING.md documentation first before starting on your PR! There’s usually a lot of helpful setup stuff there. For example, Rails was pretty amazing for this, I was kinda worried going in but it was really smooth, they even had instructions on how to use Vagrant to get started.
  • Expect a little trial-and-error to getting your first PR merged, but stick with it! I found the experience super rewarding, and indeed got exposure to different codebases and languages.
  • Make life as easy for maintainers as possible - try to figure out as much as you can first, whether it’s looking at previous PRs, making GitHub checks pass.

I hope that was helpful! Feel free to drop a note on Twitter to discuss / disagree :)


Written by Nick who is a indie-hacker wannabe, living in sunny Singapore. Twitter | GitHub