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Contributing to Open Source: Where to Begin in 2021

September 27, 2021

people sitting down near table with assorted laptop computers
Photographer: Marvin Meyer

One of the most common pieces of advice given to job-seeking developers is to contribute to open-source projects. Contributing to open-source projects provides an array of career growth opportunities including learning how to navigate a new codebase, gaining real-world experience working in a team environment, and building useful features or resolving issues for the community.

Beyond these benefits, open-source projects can lead directly to landing a job. Your contributions generate legitimate resume & portfolio content. A more direct effect would be how Sophie Alpert’s early contributions in the React codebase led to an offer from Facebook’s React core team.

chart with responses for contributor motivations to free/open source software
Motivations from 2020 FOSS Contributor Survey

That sounds awesome! But where do you start? How does one go about finding an open-source project and actually making a meaningful code change? Let’s explore what open source is and the many ways one can get involved.

What Is Open Source? defines open source as “something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible” and open source software as “software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance.”

As a consumer, open-source projects allow you to download and use products for free. If you’re cheap resourceful like me, you probably love free, high-quality software including the following:

  • LibreOffice (Microsoft Office alternative)
  • Firefox (web browser)
  • Audacity (audio software)
  • FileZilla (file transferring application)
  • BitWarden (password manager)

Contributing to open-source software is like bringing a dish to a potluck to strengthen the overall meal that everyone can enjoy (minus the germs).

Scary Movie 2 Comedy GIF by IFC

Open-source software comes with licenses that can be viewed in the project where the code lives (oftentimes on GitHub). It’s a good idea to check out each project’s license, but most are constructed in a way that allows the sharing, accessing, and modifying of the code.

Example of MIT License
GatsbyJS MIT License

Where to Begin

person's hand over brown floral field during daytime
Photographer: Daniel Jensen

Two common roadblocks with contributing to open source relate to not feeling skilled enough to make a meaningful contribution or not knowing how to actually get involved.

You may be surprised at how qualified you are to make contributions right now. For example, my early contributions were fixing typos in codebases. I felt like my little pull requests were insignificant, but two major things transpired.

  1. I created my first experience forking a project outside of my web development boot camp, submitting a pull request, and having my code reviewed and merged into a project.
  2. I was able to help out on a project I cared about. Although my fixes were not resolving a technical bug or building a new feature, the grammatical sanitization enhanced the professionalism of the sites.
Hacktoberfest 2021 logo

Digital Ocean’s Hacktoberfest is a great resource for getting started. Every October, Hacktoberfest celebrates and encourages participation in open source projects. The initiative welcomes devs of all skill levels and provides suggestions of projects to contribute to. After submitting 4 pull requests to projects with the hacktoberfest-accepted label, you’re eligible to receive some nice swag including laptop stickers and a T-shirt!

Hacktoberfest 2020 shirt and stickers
My 2020 Hacktoberfest Swag Pack

If you look through their suggestions and still are unsure where to begin, you can do an advanced GitHub search for projects with the hacktoberfest-accepted label.

GitHub advanced search for hacktoberfest-accepted label

If you’re not having luck finding a project you feel you can contribute to, you can add the hacktoberfest-accepted label on one of your own GitHub projects. Creating quality pull requests for your own project with this label can count toward the 4 needed to complete the challenge.

For the 2020 Hacktoberfest, my wife and I created a hacktoberfest-accepted project which displays 10 articles each day to highlight entrepreneurship and tech in the black community. The open issues are accessible here , and we welcome contributions big and small! The project is currently in a state of basic functionality and styling, so there is plenty of room for contributions.

For #Hacktoberfest2021, I created and am maintaining the project Open Source Devs which encourages newcomers to contribute to open source. The site showcases each developer that contributes to the project and is accompanied by a step-by-step guide on how to contribute, Contributing to Open Source Starter Guide.

Open Source Devs UI
Open Source Devs UI

For additional resources for contributing to open-source projects, check out freeCodeCamp’s open-source repo . GitHub also has a robust guide for getting started .

Hacktoberfest-accepted infographic

Confused on where to begin or interested in sharing what you plan to work on? Leave a comment below or connect with me on LinkedIn!

Personal blog by Joe Warren.
Career Tips and Insight For Software Developers