Open Source Software Contribution: A Starter's Roadmap

published on 15 December 2023

We can all agree that contributing to open source software can be an intimidating process for beginners.

But with the right roadmap, new contributors can smoothly navigate the initial steps - from finding welcoming projects to making that valuable first pull request.

In this post, you'll get a comprehensive guide to starting your open source journey, including choosing beginner-friendly projects, leveraging mentorship opportunities, understanding contribution workflows, and joining the community.

Introduction to Open Source Software Contributions

Open source software is software with source code that is publicly accessible for anyone to view, modify, enhance and distribute. It is a collaborative development method that leverages the effort of a global community of developers who contribute code, find bugs, suggest improvements, and help fix issues.

What is Open Source Software

Open source software has the following defining characteristics:

  • Publicly accessible source code: The source code is available for anyone to view and study. This transparency allows widespread collaboration.

  • Free redistribution: Software can be freely copied, modified, and redistributed by anyone without restriction. This facilitates community adoption.

  • Universal participation: Anyone in the world can contribute to open source software projects by submitting code, documentation, graphics, localizations, and more. This harness the power of global developer communities.

Open source platforms like Linux, MySQL, and Firefox rely on voluntary communities of programmers who contribute code enhancements and bug fixes, which benefit the broader ecosystem.

Why Contribute to Open Source

Contributing to open source software provides many advantages, both for the projects and the contributors themselves:

  • Improve software for everyone: By finding bugs and submitting fixes, enhancements, and features, you help improve the software for all users.

  • Give back to the community: Open source developers share their work freely. Contributing gives you an opportunity to give back.

  • Enhance skills: Working on real-world projects with experienced coders helps improve programming abilities.

  • Gain recognition: High-quality contributions earn recognition within vibrant open source communities.

  • Solve your own issues: Modify projects to add functionality that meets your specific needs.

  • Connect with developers: Collaborating in open source projects allows connecting with talented programmers worldwide.

Overview of Contribution Process

The process of contributing to open source software involves several steps:

  • Find projects: Search repositories for available projects appealing to your interests and skills. Look for beginner-friendly ones actively seeking contributors.

  • Review contribution guides: Carefully read the project’s contributing guides to understand their specific processes expectations.

  • Make changes: Enhance code, fix bugs, update documentation, add examples, or translate text.

  • Submit a pull request: Request project owners pull your changes into their repository for review and potential acceptance.

The remainder of this guide explores each of these steps more deeply. We'll review how to locate starter-friendly open source projects, comprehend expectations, and submit your first contributions.

What are the contributions of open-source software?

Open-source software is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. Contributing to open-source software involves making changes and improvements to these public codebases for the benefit of the wider community.

Some of the key ways people contribute to open-source projects include:

  • Reporting bugs: Testing software and reporting defects and issues you encounter helps improve quality.

  • Suggesting enhancements: Recommending new features or improvements to existing ones.

  • Improving documentation: Fixing typos, clarifying instructions, and updating docs.

  • Fixing bugs: Diagnosing issues in the code and submitting patches and bug fixes.

  • Adding features: Developing and implementing new functionality to enhance the project.

  • Building integrations: Creating plugins and extensions for wider compatibility.

  • Testing: Helping test releases and validate functionality to ensure quality.

  • Code reviews: Analyzing others' contributions to spot issues early.

  • Community support: Answering questions for newcomers and offering mentorship.

  • Evangelism: Promoting projects you find valuable to help them gain popularity.

Making these contributions helps improve open-source software over time and allows the community to benefit from better tools. Participating also allows you to learn, practice your skills, and build connections with other developers working on the project. Overall, it advances open technology ecosystems that influence software well beyond their code alone.

What do you write in contributing to open source?

When contributing to open source projects, it's important to provide detailed information about the changes you make. This helps maintainers and other contributors understand what you did and why.

Here are some key things to include in your open source contributions:

Changes Made

  • Describe all code changes, bug fixes, enhancements, or documentation updates
  • Explain your reasoning and logic behind each change
  • Provide context by linking to related issues or discussions

Testing Done

  • Mention any manual testing or validation you performed
  • Share testing steps and expected vs actual results
  • Highlight areas that may need additional testing

Documentation Updates

  • Note any docs that were added or updated as part of your changes
  • Specify where new or updated docs can be found
  • Call out anything that still needs to be documented

Closing Notes

  • Thank project maintainers for the chance to contribute
  • Ask for feedback, reviews, or any clarification needed
  • Reference related issues and offer your availability to discuss further

Keeping contribution notes clear, complete, and courteous gives maintainers confidence in pulling in your changes. It also enables other devs to smoothly build on top of your work later on.

Contributing to open-source projects is an incredible way to grow as a developer and make a positive impact on the software community. By writing thoughtful contribution notes, you help open source collaboration thrive.

What percentage of developers contribute to open source?

According to the Stack Overflow Developer Survey, 63.9% of surveyed developers contribute to open source software. This indicates that open source contribution is extremely common within the developer community.

There are a few key reasons why open source contribution rates are so high among developers:

  • Open source aligns with developer values like collaboration, transparency, and democratization of software. Contributing allows developers to live out these values.

  • It helps improve programming skills. By reading others' code and contributing new code, developers constantly learn.

  • It looks good on a resume. Open source contribution shows practical experience and allows developers to build a portfolio.

  • Many developers use open source tools daily. Contributing back helps the community and can improve the tools they rely on.

With open source being integral to modern software, most developers interact with and contribute to open source projects. The collaborative aspect often attracts those new to coding too. Overall, the vast majority of developers find that participating in open source enriches their work.

Is contributing to open source good for resume?

Contributing to open source projects can significantly boost your resume and help you land your dream job or clients. Here's why:

  • Demonstrates real-world coding skills: By having open source contributions on GitHub or other platforms, you showcase your ability to write production-grade code that solves real problems. Recruiters can review the quality of your code.

  • Shows you can collaborate: Working on open source requires coordination with maintainers and contributors around the world. This collaboration ability is hugely valued by companies.

  • Proves passion for coding: Devoting unpaid personal time to open source reflects genuine interest and commitment to improving skills. It signals you code because you love it.

  • Builds portfolio and name recognition: Consistent contributions to popular projects get your name out there. Over time you establish expertise in communities related to the projects.

  • Grows professional network: Connecting with open source contributors, many working at prominent companies, expands your professional circle. This facilitates job referrals and career opportunities.

So take stock of your open source contributions and highlight them prominently in resumes and interviews. They offer tangible proof of skills that help open doors.

Open Source Contribution for Beginners

Embarking on your open source journey can be overwhelming; this section will guide beginners on how to get involved and make meaningful contributions.

Understanding the Open Source Philosophy

The open source philosophy is centered around collaboration, transparency, and community. Some key principles:

  • Transparency - Most open source projects share their code publicly so anyone can inspect, use, and modify it.

  • Collaboration - Open source projects rely on contributors working together to improve the software. There is usually no single owner or company behind a project.

  • Community - A strong community keeps projects active. Mentors help new contributors learn the codebase and make valuable additions.

  • Free distribution - Open source licenses allow free distribution and modification of software. This encourages adoption and innovation.

  • Pragmatism over purity - There can be disagreements on technical decisions or which contributions to accept. Compromise and practical solutions that benefit the project overall rule the day.

Getting involved means understanding and supporting these principles that make open source communities thrive.

Setting Up for Success

Before contributing, take some time to configure your development environment and learn key tools:

  • Version control: Git & GitHub - Version control systems like Git track changes in projects and enable collaboration. GitHub hosts Git repositories online. Knowing basic Git commands is mandatory for contribution.

  • Coding tools - Have the expected programming languages/frameworks installed for the projects you target. Text editor or IDE configured with code linting/testing tools.

  • Explore projects - Spend time understanding potential projects before contributing. Read documentation, build the software locally, look through open issues to find opportunities.

  • Learn guidelines - Each project has contribution guidelines explaining the best practices for submitting patches, reporting bugs, requesting features, and overall being a part of the community.

Following these preliminary steps prepares you for making useful contributions. Don't hesitate to consult mentors if you need direction.

Finding Mentors and Resources

While official documentation for projects can be helpful, connecting with experienced open source contributors takes things to the next level:

  • Many projects have public chat channels/forums to ask questions and discuss contributions with maintainers and other contributors. Don't be afraid to speak up!

  • Check if the project offers a mentorship program. This pairs you with a longtime contributor who coaches you through initial contributions and answers all your queries.

  • Learn from other contributors on the project. Look through pull requests and issues to understand discussion etiquette and contribution standards maintained by the project leaders.

  • Well established open source organizations like OpenStack Foundation and Apache Software Foundation organize frequent conferences and webinars to highlight impactful contributions. Attend these to gain insights.

The open source community strongly believes in "paying it forward". As you learn, be ready to guide aspiring contributors down the road.


Finding Open Source Projects to Contribute

Identifying open source projects that welcome new contributors is an important first step. Focus on projects that interest you and match your skill set.

Using Tags to Find Beginner-Friendly Projects

Many open source projects on GitHub and GitLab use tags like "good first issue" or "help wanted" to highlight tasks suitable for new contributors. Filtering by these tags makes it easier to find approachable issues to work on.

Some key tags to look for:

  • good first issue
  • up-for-grabs
  • help wanted
  • bug
  • documentation

Start by searching for projects with these tags. Review the open issues to find ones you are comfortable tackling.

Platforms like GitHub and GitLab host millions of open source projects. Use their search features to find repositories in need of help.

Filter by topics like programming languages or software categories to narrow down projects relevant to your skills and interests.

Check if a project has clear contributing guidelines. Well-documented projects make it easier to get started.

Evaluating Project Health and Community

Before contributing, assess the project's community health:

  • Recent activity - Lots of stale issues may mean less active maintenance.

  • Issue resolution speed - Faster responses indicate a more engaged community.

  • Tone of communication - Friendly, constructive discussion creates a welcoming space.

An encouraging community improves the contribution experience and increases the impact of your work.

Prioritize projects where maintainers and contributors create a positive environment. Your efforts will have greater effects.

Up-for-Grabs Open Source: Making Your Choice

Focus on 'up-for-grabs' projects that are specifically marked as accessible for newcomers. Learn how to identify and choose these projects to get your feet wet in open source contribution.

Spotting 'Up-for-Grabs' Opportunities

Many open source projects on GitHub use labels like "up-for-grabs" or "good first issue" to highlight tasks that are well-suited for new contributors. These are focused on being easily achievable even if you're new to the codebase.

Some tips for finding up-for-grabs opportunities:

  • Check the project's CONTRIBUTING guide or README for info on how they label entry-level issues. Common labels include "beginner", "starter", "low-hanging-fruit".

  • GitHub allows searching issues by label. Try searching "label:up-for-grabs is:open" on projects you want to contribute to.

  • Sites like Up For Grabs and First Timers Only aggregate beginner-friendly issues across many projects.

The key is looking for issues purposefully marked to welcome newbies. They generally provide context and guidance needed for you to get started.

Assessing Your Fit for the Task

Once you've identified a promising up-for-grabs issue, assess if it matches your skills and goals:

  • Required skills: Does the task require proficiency with languages, tools or areas you are unfamiliar with? Up-for-grabs issues minimize this requirement but some experience is still useful.

  • Scope: Estimate the effort involved. As a beginner it's better to start small, like bug fixes, rather than big feature additions.

  • Interests: Contributing is more rewarding if you work in domains that genuinely interest you. An up-for-grabs task might make a great stepping stone into the project.

  • Learning goals: How will this task expand your skills? Set some personal development goals around techniques, architectures or code quality you want to improve.

If the task sparks your interest but you need help getting started, interact with project members over GitHub discussions.

Making the Commitment

Once decided on an up-for-grabs issue:

  • Comment expressing interest in working on it. Core members can offer guidance or coordinate if someone else is already assigned.

  • Familiarize yourself with the project's contributing policies. Common requirements are adhering to style guides, providing tests, marking WIP pull requests, etc.

  • Break down the task into smaller chunks if needed but avoid going dark for long periods. Regular status updates are key even if you're struggling.

  • Ask questions! Request assistance if blocked or having difficulties. Good open source projects actively welcome newbie questions and help unblock progress.

  • Finally, remember your goal is to contribute back useful improvements to the project. Focus on quality and you'll be on the road to becoming an open source contributor!

How to Contribute to Open Source GitHub as a Beginner

A step-by-step guide for beginners to make their first contribution to projects on GitHub, the largest host of source code in the world.

Setting Up Your GitHub Account

To contribute to open source projects on GitHub, you'll first need to set up a free GitHub account. Here are the steps:

  • Go to and click Sign Up in the top right corner. Choose the free plan when signing up.
  • Complete your user profile by adding a profile picture, bio, location, website, etc. This helps project maintainers get to know you.
  • Enable two-factor authentication for additional security.
  • Install Git on your computer and configure it with your GitHub username and email.

Once your account is set up, you'll be ready to start contributing!

Understanding GitHub Workflow

The core GitHub workflow involves forks, branches, commits, pull requests and merges. Here's a quick overview:

  • Fork - Make a copy of a repository to your own account. This allows you to freely experiment with changes without affecting the original project.
  • Branch - Create a new branch to isolate your work from the main codebase. For contributions, create your branch off the project's master branch.
  • Commit - Save your changes by committing them to Git. Commit messages should describe what you changed.
  • Pull Request - Open a pull request to propose and discuss your changes. Project maintainers will review your PR before merging.
  • Merge - If accepted, your pull request will be merged into the project's master branch, making it part of the code!

Getting familiar with this workflow is key to making contributions.

Finding Issues to Work On

  • On a project's GitHub page, click "Issues" to find open issues, which often contain contribution opportunities.
  • Issues labeled "good first issue" or "help wanted" are ideal for new contributors.
  • You can use GitHub search filters to find issues that match your skills, like "language:python".
  • Check a project's CONTRIBUTING file for guidelines. Some projects have dedicated areas for easy or starter issues.

When you find an issue of interest, comment on it to indicate you'd like to work on it!

Here is the typical process for having your changes merged via pull request:

  1. Fork the repository to your own account and clone it to your machine.
  2. Create a new branch off master. Give your branch a short, descriptive name relating to the issue you'll fix.
  3. Make your changes to code, tests, and documentation as appropriate. Commit often with clear messages.
  4. Push your branch to your fork on GitHub.
  5. Open a pull request against the upstream repository. Reference the issue and provide details in the description.
  6. Work with project maintainers to address any code review feedback on your pull request.
  7. Celebrate when your PR gets merged! Make sure to thank the maintainers.

And that's how you get your contribution accepted to an open source GitHub project! With practice, you'll get comfortable with this process.

Making Your First Contribution

Forking the Repository

Forking an open source project creates your own copy of the repository that allows you to freely make changes without affecting the original project. Here are some tips for forking effectively:

  • Navigate to the project's GitHub page and click the "Fork" button in the top right corner. This will create your forked copy.

  • If you plan on submitting changes back to the original (known as "upstream") repo, configure Git to track the upstream remote as well as your own origin remote. This allows you to easily pull latest upstream changes into your fork.

  • Keep your fork up-to-date by periodically syncing with the upstream repository so your pull requests are based on the latest code. Nothing is worse than putting effort into code that's already outdated!

Creating a Branch

Instead of making changes directly on the master branch, use feature branches to isolate your work:

  • When starting work, check out a new branch based on master. Give your branch a descriptive name like "feature-x" or "issue-#123".

  • Making changes in dedicated branches avoids accidentally modifying the default branch and provides an isolated environment.

  • Once your changes are complete, merge your feature branch into your local master via a pull request. This lets you preview changes before publishing them publically.

Modifying Code and Assets

Now you're ready to start contributing! Some ideas what you can modify:

  • Fixing bugs: Do thorough testing and troubleshoot issues to determine root causes. Submit bug fixes that address the underlying problem.

  • Adding features: Brainstorm useful enhancements you'd like to see. Design and code well-architected solutions that align with the project goals.

  • Updating docs: Improve accessibility and clarity of documentation. Fix outdated info, add missing pages, or translate to new languages.

  • Refactoring code: Restructure code to improve internal quality without affecting external behavior. Enhance readability, simplicity, and flexibility of program structure.

Stay focused in scope and style - avoid large unrelated changes spanning multiple components or introducing major new frameworks unless discussed with maintainers first.

Submitting a Pull Request

Once you push your branch with changes into your public fork, you're ready to submit a pull request:

  • Navigate to your fork and GitHub will automatically prompt you to create a pull request from your recent branch commits.

  • In the description, explain at a high-level what changes you made and why. This provides critical context to reviewers.

  • Request that interested maintainers review your PR. They may discuss, request changes, approve, or ultimately merge your code into the upstream master!

Following these steps will get you started making your very first open source contribution. The most important thing is to keep trying - don't get discouraged if your early PRs take a few rounds of changes before getting merged. With experience comes mastery!

Improving Your Open Source Workflow

As you make ongoing contributions, optimize your processes to be an effective community member.

Communicating Effectively

Communicate clearly and openly with project maintainers and contributors. Before starting work, ask clarifying questions to understand requirements and expected outcomes. Provide context around your decisions by explaining your thought process and welcome feedback.

Participate actively in discussions by commenting on issues and pull requests. Seek to collaborate and find solutions rather than debate. Frame feedback and criticism constructively by focusing on the code rather than the person.

Overall, strive for kind, patient and inclusive communications that build trust and facilitate collaboration.

Receiving and Responding to Feedback

Interpret all feedback professionally, even if it seems confrontational. Assume good intentions and recognize that much gets lost in translation over text.

Ask follow-up questions if you need clarification or more context around the feedback. Use empathy and aim to understand the perspective of others before responding.

Update your contributions based on feedback provided. Explain reasons if you disagree with any suggestions and propose alternatives.

View feedback as an opportunity for growth. Maintain composure in discussions and let your work speak for itself.

Expanding Your Skill Set

As you gain open source experience, look to broaden your technical abilities. Learn new programming languages, frameworks, tools and best practices.

Increase both depth and breadth over time - become an expert in your domain while expanding horizons into adjacent spaces. Master your core technologies before jumping into too many new ones.

Look for ways to apply emerging knowledge to help improve project codebases, tooling and processes. Share what you learn with others.

Continuous learning is key for effective collaboration. It makes you more valuable to the community and opens new opportunities to contribute.

Joining the Community

Beyond submitting pull requests, engage more deeply by chatting on forums, attending events, becoming a maintainer, and finding mentors.

Forums and Chat Platforms

Forums are a great place for community members to have thoughtful discussions about project roadmaps, issues, pull requests, and more. Getting involved in these conversations allows you to connect with other contributors and better understand the maintainers' vision for the project.

Some popular platforms used by open source projects include:

  • GitHub Discussions
  • Discourse
  • Slack
  • Discord
  • IRC channels

Start by lurking in these discussion spaces for a bit to get a feel for the community before actively participating. Be sure to read any guidelines around posting etiquette as well. When sharing your thoughts or asking questions, provide as much relevant context as possible and communicate your perspectives constructively.

Events and Meetups

In-person and virtual meetups related to open source projects can help you make connections within the community. Usually these are casual social gatherings where you can chat with regular contributors, influencers, and even project maintainers.

Events like hackathons also present opportunities to team up on focused tasks that advance the project. And conferences allow you to learn more deeply about project roadmaps directly from the experts.

Finding these community events tends to require some proactive searching as they are not always heavily promoted. GitHub event calendars, groups, Twitter chats, mailing list updates, and conference programs are good places to uncover upcoming gatherings.

Becoming a Maintainer

After you've built trust through consistent, high-quality contributions over a period of time, consider asking about becoming an official maintainer. These are trusted members with extra permissions allowing them to help steer strategic project decisions.

First take an honest self-assessment around whether you can commit to the increased expectations and workload. Maintainership is no small responsibility requiring ample time devoted to code reviews, issue triaging, release management, and community moderation.

If ready to level up, tactfully express interest to current maintainers. Be prepared to discuss your vision for advancing the project as well as your bandwidth for handling additional maintainer duties. If they seem receptive, negotiate realistic next steps around ramping up involvement.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Contributing to open source has personal and community benefits. We covered getting started by finding projects, making changes, joining discussions, and potentially becoming a valued maintainer.

Key Takeaways

The key points include choosing suitable projects, thoroughly reviewing contribution docs, optimizing processes, and engaging deeply with the community over time. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Carefully evaluate projects to find ones that match your skills and interests
  • Thoroughly read contribution docs before making changes
  • Start small with minor bug fixes or documentation updates
  • Use best practices for forked repositories and pull requests
  • Participate in discussions to understand project needs
  • Be patient and make consistent high-quality contributions

Continuing Your Open Source Journey

Use the steps here as a starting point. Set goals, expand your skills, find mentors, and make consistent high-quality contributions over time. Consider defining a contribution roadmap with milestones for:

  • Number of contributions
  • Complexity of contributions
  • Responsibilities within projects
  • Mentor relationships established

Stay motivated by tracking your progress and recognizing community impact over time.

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