Getting Started Contributing to Popular Open-Source Projects

Few programming experiences are more informative or rewarding than meaningfully contributing to open-source software. However, even programmers with strong technical skills can experience discouragingly high barriers to entry when contributing to a new project. This barrier to entry feels particularly high for the popular, high-velocity projects. Unfortunately, these projects are often those which first catch the eye, and attract us to open source. Overwhelming. Perhaps Steve Harvey shows it best…

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Fortunately, a couple of techniques exist which can ease your transition and help you make meaningful contributions faster. I suggest these techniques based on my experiences contributing to Kubernetes, a popular container scheduler and manager from Google. In a couple of months this fall, I went from one or two minor documentation commits to ~15 commits. While attempting to ramp up my involvement, I found being a gardener, starting small, and creating routines exceptionally helpful. I explain more about each technique below in the hopes that you’ll find them helpful too.

Be a gardener

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If you haven’t yet read illustrious open-source contributor Steve Klabnik’s How to be an Open-Source Gardener blog post, I’d recommend doing so right now. He discusses how he got involved with Rails development, not through making large commits, but through helping with issue triage and documentation.

I found one idea particularly helpful as I tried to increase my Kubernete’s contributions. In his blog post, he recollects how he read every single open issue on Rails before he began triaging, documenting, or coding. While it is undoubtedly tempting to dive in and start making PRs, Steve’s strategy ensures you have the proper context to make informed decisions. Which sections of the code are buggy? Which sections of the code have heavy churn? Github holds the answers to both these questions and more in either issues, pr discussions, or commit logs.

You might say, “we can’t all be Steve Klabnik reading 800 issues over the course of a weekend. Especially with a large project, I’ll be reading issues forever?” You make a great point, which leads me to my second technique that I’ve found absolutely vital.

Start small

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My previous technique suggested pursuing depth as the way to get your foot in the door on a new open-source project. But unless you are going to spend 16 hours a day working on open-source, you can’t have deep knowledge everywhere. You’ll need to couple your pursuit of depth with a reduced field of focus. In other words, start small. Pick a distinct section of the code base, and dive deep by reviewing issues, past commits and PRs. By focusing on a smaller section of the code base, its easier to develop the context and knowledge allowing you to make intelligent code, documentation, and issue triage contributions.

Picking a section of the code base is a personal decision dependent on a number of factors. Consider what type of velocity you’re comfortable with - do you want new issues to be popping every day, or do you want the ability to take a week long break, and come back and not feel overwhelmed? Additionally, think if there’s an area of the code base in which you have a competitive advantage, or a segment of the project which seems particularly welcoming to newcomers.

For issue triages, code review, and commits, I focus almost exclusively on the auto-scaling components of Kubernetes. Kubernetes. I chose the auto-scaler using the above criteria. It’s not a particularly high-velocity component of Kubernetes at this point, which is perfect for me as I can only contribute on nights and weekends. Additionally, I worked with auto-scaling in Kubernetes a couple of years ago for my undergraduate thesis. While my thesis work resulted in limited open-source contributions, it did leave me with a good knowledge of how auto-scaling, specifically in Kubernetes, works. Plus, I’d interacted with members of the auto-scaling community and knew how insightful and friendly they are.

Create Routines

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My final piece of advice isn’t revolutionary but I think its perhaps the most important. As much as possible, create a routine for yourself when getting started on a new project, and stick to it. In my experience, coding is only half the battle in making open-source contributions. Equally important was diligently keeping up to date on my open PRs and shepherding them along to getting merged. Similarly, keeping up to date each day means I never have to repeat the initial deep dive into the historic PRs.

When contributing to Kubernetes, I maintain the following routine. Each morning, before work, I check in on my outstanding PRs. Depending on their state, I’ll either address code review feedback, give the reviewer a friendly ping, or just wait. Then I’ll check if there are any new issues or PRs in the auto-scaling portion of the code base, and address them if I have the knowledge. Only then will I start working on code.

Summary

In summary, getting started contributing to a new, popular open-source project isn’t easy. But there are some ways to make it easier. Hope this helps - happy hacking :)

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