Why you should contribute to Open Source

Posted by Sanyam Khurana on Mon 26 June 2017

My first step with FOSS was during the summer of 2014, where I got introduced to DGPLUG (Durgapur Linux Users Group). Every year, they conduct a training over IRC covering a wide range of topics. Since then, I've been contributing to different projects, primarily to Mozilla's Gecko Engine. Recently I also started contributing to CPython.

Over this journey as CuriousLearner over the past few years, I've been fortunate enough to collaborate with some of the best engineers, learnt a lot of skills & gained some nice perspective on different technologies by just contributing to Open Source. I owe my learning to them.

I've been always asked this question by my friends, colleagues, and strangers whom I often run into in local meet-ups and conferences.

  • Why should I contribute to Open Source
  • What's in it for me

So, I thought I would cover this topic from the perspective of a student as well as the perspective of a working professional.

Learn new skills

When I say skills, I'm not referring to just coding skills or learning yet another framework. There are tons of skills to be learnt. These include coding, debugging, testing, writing docs, collaboration, participating in meetings etc. In FOSS, you won't just learn technical skills, but soft skills as well. That means you'll learn how to communicate effectively over different mediums and making sense to other people who might be from different backgrounds.

I've seen many engineers are hesitant when it comes to communication. They can think and write really nice code, but when it comes to explaining themselves, they lack the communication skills, which is vital to be a better professional.

Improve existing skills

It's not always about learning a new tech that you heard about. It's important to improve on things you think you might already know. Contributing to a FOSS project would make you learn intricate details that your mentors have gained working as a software craftsmen for several years.

Meet like-minded people

Many organizations do stand-up / all-hands meetings where everyone comes together and explains what are they're working on, what they plan to do next and if they face any blocker. So, students, there is a high possibility that when you graduate, you'll do this in your organization :) You'll meet a lot of people having similar interests and you'll learn a lot of things just by hanging out with them (most of the time on IRC).

Learn people skills

Learn team management, resolving internal conflicts, brainstorming on a new feature, public-speaking, time-management, conducting meet-ups & learn to prioritize your work. You will just expand your horizons.

Learn to READ

One of the best things I've been ever taught is to "READ". (And those who've met me personally knows how many times I've been repeating this thing :)).

When I say read, I mean you'll read the documentation, development guide and most importantly the source code.

Always remember that code is meant to be read more times than it is written. When you contribute to any FOSS project, one of the important skill you add to your skill-set is to make your brain make sense out of the code that may look gibberish to many people.

This is a very important skill. Once you're in a company, you'll be given the responsibility of maintaining huge code base and constantly adding features to it. There won't be someone who would spoon-feed you by explaining what every line of code means.

I've seen many people struggling hard in their jobs to figure out what a particular piece of code does. But if you've already worked with humongous code bases, this shall be a cake-walk for you. You would already know how to scrutinize bugs, debug errors and most importantly, would have already taught your brain to think and READ.

Find mentors

FOSS is all about mentors & mentees. There are people just like me and you who volunteer their time and skill to do good for the community. You'll find a lot of mentors who would be willing to teach you different skills. Remember, that you've got this opportunity to learn from domain experts :)

And no matter what, always respect everyone's time.

Teach others

While it is important to get your code reviewed, it is much more important to review other's code. This would help you in learning different coding style and also about how someone approached a particular problem. This would help in expanding your logical skills & as always you'll be learning a lot yourself along the way with having healthy discussions in code reviews.

It feels great to make (small) changes

You don't necessarily need to work on big features in a project or become a life-long contributor. Contribute to a project that you use on daily basis (like Mozilla Firefox) and I promise you that it would be gratifying when you see the whole world rely on the small code changes you did.

A small change in the documentation means you might save someone countless hours of debugging and scratching their head on how to use a particular piece of code. Always remember, documentation bugs are not something inferior; you'll learn a lot in writing documentation, right from the tools such as Sphinx and rST to expanding your domain knowledge about the project.

Building your reputation (& career) along the way

All the code you'll write in Open Source projects would be public and can be taken as a demonstration of how you write code & what you can do. It depicts how you work with others and most importantly give you an enormous amount of experience in working with people having diversified skill-set.

Once you get acquainted with the code base, you'll be invited to develop stand-alone features and who knows you might get that commit bit turned on when you've developed enough reputation in the community ;)

Apart from all the things mentioned above, I think Mozilla's mission says a lot about why I contribute to FOSS

Doing good is part of our code

Alright, I didn't realize, I'll be able to write this much. Hopefully, this would help & motivate people to get involved in contributing to Open Source. As always, if you have any queries, or want help in contributing to any project, feel free to mail me on Sanyam [at] SanyamKhurana [dot] com.

tags: foss, remo,



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