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How to Talk About Your Open Source Experience in a Tech Interview

· 13 min read
Bekah Hawrot Weigel
Developer Experience Lead

Interviewing is a skill that can be strengthened. Interviews can be frustrating, demoralizing, casual, intense, and occasionally fun. They can make you doubt yourself or they can validate your skillset. There’s a lot being evaluated in these interviews and I know, personally, that nerves have gotten the better of me in that process. But just like any other skill, the more you learn about how to do it, the more you practice, the better you get. When you’re interviewing for a tech job, you’re going to be asked about your experience. Contributions to open source projects are a great way to demonstrate your skills because they can demonstrate your technical skills, showcase your collaboration, problem-solving abilities, and passion for your work. Even if you’ve had a stellar experience as a contributor, you need to know how to effectively talk about your open source experience during the tech interview. In this blog, we’ll explore how to talk about your open source experience in a tech interview.

More Resources on How to Land a Job with Open Source

Highlight the Relevance

When talking about your open source experience, emphasize its relevance to the position you're interviewing for. Make a connection between your contributions and the skills required for the role. Discuss specific projects or aspects of the open source community that align with the company's tech stack or the job description. This demonstrates your ability to bridge the gap between open source and the company's goals.

Example Response - Developer Advocate Role

Interviewer: Can you provide an example of a time when you partnered with an engineering team to deliver educational content to community members, leading to enhancing their skills and product knowledge while also promoting advocacy?

Mia: One significant open source project I contributed to was a developer toolkit for a programming language that closely resembles the tech stack utilized by your company. This project allowed me to immerse myself in the language and gain an in-depth understanding of its intricacies.

As part of the documentation issue that I worked on, my main responsibility was to create educational content, including tutorials, to empower fellow developers using the language. I wanted to ensure that the community had the resources they needed to fully leverage the language's capabilities.

To achieve this, I collaborated closely with the engineering team and community members to identify common pain points and areas that required further clarification. I actively engaged in discussions on forums and organized workshops that specifically focused on your company's technology stack.

Through my open source contributions, I not only enhanced my technical expertise in the language but also developed strong communication skills. I was able to effectively articulate complex technical concepts to a diverse audience, building their skills and product fluency while advocating for the open source project and its relevance to the developer community.

Describe Your Contributions

Start by explaining the problem you aimed to solve or the feature you worked on, providing context for your involvement. If you faced challenges, highlight how you overcame them. If you know the impact of your contributions, such as the number of users, positive feedback, or adoption by other developers, share this information as well. Emphasize the lessons you learned during the process and how they have shaped your technical growth.

babblebey's highlight

Example Response - Front-End Developer

Interviewer: Can you tell me about a problem or feature you worked on, providing context for your involvement?

Tomás: Absolutely! One project I recently contributed to was an open source web application called "Contributions Connect." It aimed to connect local communities and facilitate collaboration among their members. As a frontend developer, my role was to enhance the user experience by improving the application's UI and optimizing its performance.

Interviewer: Did you face any challenges during the project? How did you overcome them?

Tomás: One of the main challenges I encountered was optimizing the application's performance and speed on the front end. The initial version of the UI was visually appealing but lacked the necessary responsiveness. To overcome this, I focused on identifying bottlenecks and implementing performance optimizations, such as minimizing HTTP requests, compressing assets, and leveraging browser caching. By implementing these techniques, I significantly improved the overall loading time and responsiveness of the application.

While working on Contributions Connect, I actively collaborated with the open source community, receiving positive feedback and engagement from both users and fellow developers. Our improvements in UI and performance not only led to an enhanced user experience but also resulted in increased adoption by other developers within the community. This was evident through the growing number of forks, stars, and contributions to the project on GitHub.

Interviewer: What lessons did you learn from this experience and how have they shaped your technical growth?

Tomás: This experience taught me the importance of striking a balance between aesthetics and performance in frontend development. I learned that building a visually pleasing UI is only part of the equation; ensuring optimal performance and speed is equally crucial. Through this project, I developed a deep understanding of performance optimization techniques, such as lazy loading, code splitting, and caching strategies. These lessons have not only enhanced my technical abilities but also instilled in me a passion for creating efficient and reusable code.

Showcase Collaboration and Communication Skills

Open source projects are collaborative by nature, so it's important to showcase your ability to work effectively in a team. Talk about how you interacted with other contributors, how you shared ideas, and how you resolved conflicts or differences of opinion. Highlight any leadership roles or responsibilities you had within the open source community, such as being a maintainer or a project lead. Emphasize how you effectively communicated with the project community, both online and offline.

CBID2's highlight

Example Response - Project Manager

Interviewer: Can you tell me about your experience and skills as a project manager?

Gift: Certainly! While I'm transitioning from a developer to a project management role, my experience with open source projects has provided me with valuable insights into effective project management practices. During my time as a developer and transitioning into project management, I had the opportunity to work on various open source projects. One notable experience was my involvement with an open source project called "AwesomeWebApp." As a contributor, I actively engaged with the project community, collaborating with other contributors and sharing ideas to enhance the project's functionality.

In terms of interacting with other contributors, I firmly believe in fostering a positive and inclusive environment. I regularly participated in online discussions, providing constructive feedback and suggestions to fellow contributors. By actively listening to different perspectives, I ensured that everyone's ideas were considered and respected. This approach helped us maintain a harmonious and productive work atmosphere.

To resolve conflicts or differences of opinion, I employed a diplomatic and solution-oriented approach. One instance comes to mind when our team encountered a disagreement regarding the implementation of a new feature. I initiated a discussion to understand the varying viewpoints, encouraging open dialogue and mutual understanding. Through effective communication and compromise, we were able to reach a consensus that satisfied all parties involved.

In terms of leadership roles, I took on the responsibility of being a project maintainer for the "AwesomeWebApp" project. As a maintainer, I oversaw the project's progress, reviewed and merged contributions, and facilitated discussions among contributors. This experience provided me with valuable insights into coordinating efforts and ensuring the project's overall success.

When it comes to communication within the project community, I recognized the importance of maintaining strong connections both online and offline. I actively participated in online forums, providing timely updates and clarifications to project-related queries. Additionally, I organized and attended meetups and conferences, where I had the opportunity to interact with fellow contributors face-to-face, fostering personal connections and strengthening the project's community spirit.

Overall, my experience as a developer working on open source projects has equipped me with essential skills in teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, and leadership. I believe these experiences have laid a solid foundation for my transition into project management, as they have honed my abilities to work effectively within diverse teams and engage with stakeholders at various levels.

Discuss Your Learning Experience

Open source projects provide an excellent platform for continuous learning and skill development. Share how your open source experience has expanded your technical knowledge and honed your problem-solving abilities. Discuss the new programming languages, frameworks, or tools you encountered during your contributions. Mention any feedback or code reviews you received and how they helped you improve as a developer. Demonstrate your enthusiasm for learning and growth.

Sunday's highlight

Example Response - Full Stack Engineer

Interviewer: Tell us about your open source experience and how it has expanded your technical knowledge and honed your problem-solving abilities. Specifically, could you share an example of a project or issue where you utilized your full stack skills?

Mari: During my open source experience, I've had the opportunity to dive into various projects that have expanded my technical knowledge and sharpened my problem-solving abilities. One specific example of utilizing my full stack skills was when I took on an issue in a popular open source project called XYZ.

The issue involved optimizing the performance of a RESTful API endpoint by implementing caching mechanisms. As a backend developer, I understood the importance of efficient data retrieval and transmission, but this challenge allowed me to explore the frontend side as well. I needed to assess the current caching strategy and propose improvements to enhance the overall user experience.

To tackle this issue, I first familiarized myself with the project's codebase and the technology stack it utilized. It involved working with a combination of Node.js on the backend and React.js on the frontend. Although my professional experience was primarily focused on backend development, I was eager to expand my skill set and embrace the full stack nature of this challenge.

I dove into the existing code, identified the areas that required optimization, and researched different caching techniques suitable for this scenario. Leveraging my backend knowledge, I suggested implementing a combination of server-side caching using Redis and client-side caching through the use of memoization techniques. I collaborated with the frontend team to ensure the integration of these caching mechanisms in the API response handling and UI components.

Throughout this process, I actively sought feedback and engaged in code reviews with other contributors in the open source community. Their insights and suggestions not only helped me improve my code quality but also broadened my understanding of best practices in full stack development. Their expertise guided me in addressing edge cases and optimizing my implementation further.

This experience demonstrated my enthusiasm for learning and growth as a developer. It showcased my ability to adapt to new programming languages, frameworks, and tools by utilizing my backend expertise while embracing the frontend responsibilities in a full stack context. Working on this open source issue allowed me to expand my technical horizons, reinforce my problem-solving skills, and solidify my desire to pursue a full stack role.

Talk About the Open Source Community

The open source community thrives on collaboration, knowledge sharing, and giving back. Talk about your involvement in the community beyond coding, such as participating in discussions, mentoring newcomers, or contributing to documentation. Discuss how the open source community has influenced your professional development and how you have contributed to its growth. Showcase your passion for open source and your dedication to making a positive impact on the developer community.

Nick Taylor's Highlight

Example Response - Senior Software Engineer

Interviewer: Can you provide an example of a leadership experience that demonstrates your ability to mentor and guide junior developers your team?

James: I believe that leadership goes beyond just technical skills and encompasses the ability to inspire and guide others towards their growth and success. One particular experience comes to mind where I had the opportunity to mentor and support junior developers through their open source experience.

At my previous company, we were working on an open source project aimed at simplifying deployment processes for cloud-based applications. As a Senior Software Engineer, I actively participated in the open source community, engaging in discussions, contributing to documentation, and mentoring newcomers who wanted to get involved.

I realized that mentoring early career folks was not just about sharing technical knowledge but also about creating a supportive environment where they felt comfortable asking questions and exploring their ideas. To facilitate this, I organized regular virtual meetups where junior developers could share their progress, discuss challenges, and seek guidance.

During one of these meetups, a junior developer was struggling with a particular feature implementation. Instead of simply providing a solution, I encouraged them to think critically, guided them in breaking down the problem, and suggested potential approaches. Together, we explored different options, discussed trade-offs, and eventually arrived at an elegant solution. It was a gratifying experience to witness their growth and see their confidence increase.

To ensure a continuous learning experience, I also conducted code reviews, providing constructive feedback to help junior developers improve their coding practices and gain a deeper understanding of software development principles. I believe in leading by example, so I made sure to contribute high-quality code and follow best practices myself, setting a standard.

Through this experience, I realized the immense impact mentoring can have on both the individual being mentored and the community as a whole. It's not just about helping someone with their code; it's about empowering them to become better developers and fostering a culture of knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

I also actively encouraged the junior developers to contribute back to the open source project by taking ownership of smaller tasks, reviewing pull requests, and suggesting improvements. By doing so, they not only developed their technical skills but also gained a sense of ownership and pride in their contributions.

Additional Consideration: Be Prepared to Show Your Code

Some tech interviews may require you to showcase your coding skills by sharing links to your open source contributions. Be ready to present your code or other contributions and explain the rationale behind your decisions. Practice explaining concisely and be prepared to answer questions related to the codebase you worked on. One great way to lead the hiring manager to the contributions you’re most proud of is to send them to your highlights page.

BekahHW's highlight page

For most of us, it takes practice and experience to interview well. By highlighting the relevance of your contributions, describing your accomplishments, showcasing collaboration and communication skills, discussing your learning experience, and emphasizing your involvement in the open source community, you should be able to create an impression that interviewers will remember. And remember, this is a great opportunity to share your passion and demonstrate all the things you’ve learned through your open source journey. Good luck!