Skip to main content

Open Source 101: A Beginner's Guide to Getting Started

· 12 min read
Bekah Hawrot Weigel
Developer Experience Lead

The story of open source is a story about community. It’s about people coming together, learning from each other, growing together, and creating, of bringing their talents and perspectives to build something great. It’s a story of what humanity can do when we work together. I don’t know what Linus Torvalds thought when he created the Linux operating system and released it to the public for free in the early 1990s, but I’m sure it was about doing things differently.

At the time, most operating systems were proprietary software, and users had to pay for them. Linux was different. It was open source software, which meant that the source code was freely available for anyone to use, modify, and distribute. The story of open source is one of innovation, collaboration, and community. And it’s a story that invites you and me into it every day.

The term open source was originated by Christine Peterson. You can read about that here.

In this beginner's guide, we'll explore the fundamentals of open source development, including project selection and meaningful contributions–how we can be part of the story. And if you’re ready to start on your open source journey or to share your work in open source, sign up for!

Benefits to Contributing to Open Source

My favorite benefit of contributing to Open Source is meeting new people and being a part of new communities. The long-term benefits I’ve had because of those relationships have been incredibly rewarding. But that’s not the only reason to contribute. Here are a few more reasons:

  • Learn new skills: Open source projects are a great way to learn new programming skills. You can learn from the code of other developers, and you can get feedback on your own code from the community.
  • Make a difference: Open source software is used by millions of people around the world. By contributing to open source projects, you can help make that software.
  • Gain real-work experience: When you contribute to an open source project, you are demonstrating your skills in a number of areas, including:
  • Programming: Writing code that is both functional and readable.
  • Problem-solving: Identifying and solving problems in code.
  • Collaboration: Working with other developers to achieve a common goal.
  • Communication: Communicating your ideas clearly and concisely, whether that’s in writing documentation or discussing the issue you’re working on.

You can check out more reasons in Beyond Content Creation: How Open Source Contributions Can Help You Get Noticed.

Getting Started with Open Source

There are a lot of things to consider when you’re trying to get started. If you need help understand the terminology, start with this post: Open Source Terminology 101: A Primer for New Contributors. Once you’re familiar with the terminology, you need to find the right project. Check out Choose Your Own Adventure in Open Source: Paths to Success to explore different reasons for getting involved in open source projects to help you figure out where to get started. Some other considerations when you’re getting started, include: Find an active project. If a repository hasn’t been updated in a while and the maintainers aren’t responding to issues, discussions, or comments, that’s a sign that the project isn’t active.

If you look at their repository, you should be able to see when the last PR was merged in.

last contribution

  • Talk to people who are contributing to open source. The best introduction to a new project is often a personal one. Ask people in tech communities you’re a part of, or go to OpenSauced Insights, and check out the list of contributors for the technology you’re interested in and reach out to them to learn more about their experiences contributing to the projects they’re a part of.
  • Find a project that has beginner-friendly issues. Projects with "good first issues" or "beginner-friendly" labels are often good for beginners.

good first image

If there aren’t any labels for beginners, don’t forget that the best first issue is the one that you write yourself.

  • Read the project documentation. Once you’ve found a project that you want to contribute to, it’s important to read the project documentation. This will help you understand the project's goals, its codebase, and its coding standards. Always read through the README and CONTRIBUTING guides. Not only can you get a better understanding of the project, but the expectations for how to contribute should be explained and clear.

Check out OpenSauced Community Health Files.

  • Engage with the Community. Join the project’s communication channels, like Slack or Discord, discussion forum, or their blog, and introduce yourself. Ask questions and express your interest in contributing. Becoming a part of the community will expand your connections, help you to gain insights into ongoing discussions and development timelines, and may be an opportunity for mentorship from experienced contributors.
  • Start small. Look for issues that are small and easy to fix. As you gain experience, you can start working on larger issues or taking on more responsibility. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to let the maintainers know if you’ve taken on an issue that you can’t complete. It’s all part of the process.
  • Be patient. It takes time to learn how to contribute to an open source project. Don't get discouraged if you don't get everything right the first time. Just keep learning and practicing, and you'll eventually get the hang of it.

Community Collaboration

Being part of an open source project is being part of a community. They are there to support and help you within their capacity. Here are some tips to get the most out of the community experience.

  • Review the Code of Conduct (COC)–or if they don’t have one, create an issue asking for one. The COC is there to keep the community safe and supported and it’s essential to understand what that means in the context of your community.
  • Ask for help. If you’re stuck, not sure what to do or how to communicate, ask a question. Be specific about the issue you're facing and the steps you've already taken to address it.
  • Offer Support and Assistance. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, there’s always someone a step behind you that you can help, and recognizing that you can help others at all stages by providing your support and unique insight can help strengthen the community and foster a positive environment for learning and growth. Actively participate in discussions, share insights, and contribute to the project and community.
  • Code reviews are an important part of the open source contribution process. Embrace code reviews as opportunities for growth and improvement, and respect the feedback and suggestions provided by reviewers and project maintainers, even if they challenge your initial approach. Incorporate the feedback gracefully, and strive to understand the concerns raised.

Documentation and Technical Writing

Contributing to documentation is an impactful way to support an open source project. Some ways to do this include:

  • Identify areas where documentation can be improved, like missing or outdated information, unclear instructions, or incomplete explanations. Improving the documentation makes it easier for new contributors to understand and contribute to the project, which leads to a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
  • Document your changes clearly and concisely. Explain any code modifications, including considerations. Clear documentation helps future developers understand and maintain the codebase effectively.
  • Creating guides or tutorials is another way to contribute. Share your knowledge and expertise by creating or improving user guides, tutorials, or other educational materials. Having resources helps to effectively onboard new users and empower them to make the most of the project's capabilities.

Contributing Beyond Code

You don’t have to know how to code to contribute to open source. Non-code contributions can have a huge impact. Here are some other ways to contribute:

  • Project management: organize issues, create project roadmaps, or coordinate releases.
  • Translations:Many projects need translations to make the project accessible to a wider audience.
  • Triaging: Helping with bug triaging or participating in forums supports the community. You can address user-reported issues, reproduce bugs, or offer help. This improves the project's stability and the user experience.
  • Promotion: Actively sharing the project helps raise awareness and attract more contributors and users. Sharing your positive experiences with the project, writing blog posts or articles about it, or speaking at conferences or meetups about it, helps its growth and impact.

Dealing with Challenges and Learning Opportunities

Imposter syndrome and self-doubt can affect anyone, especially when you’re starting out. It's normal to feel uncertain. Everyone’s journey will look different. It’s important to surround yourself with supportive community members, seek encouragement, and remember that this is a learning journey–there will be growing pains.

Part of this journey means that you’ll receive feedback and constructive criticism. These are opportunities to grow. Listen, understand the perspectives of others, and use feedback to grow as a contributor.

Embrace collaboration as an opportunity to learn from others, share ideas, and build meaningful relationships.

Learning the Basics of Contributing

As you progress, it’s important to learn the basics as you begin your open source journey. Here are some key concepts to understand.

Version Control System

Version control systems (VCS) are tools that help developers manage changes to source code and other files in a collaborative development environment. This means that multiple people can work on the same codebase simultaneously while keeping track of changes, facilitating collaboration, and providing a history of modifications made over time. Git is one of the most widely used VCS, allowing for capabilities like forking, cloning, and pulling. You can check out the official documentation for Git for more information.

Coding Techniques

Every project will have its own strategies for writing efficient, maintainable, and high-quality code. Some of those considerations include:

  • Code Organization: How the code is structured will impact readability and maintainability. To learn more about how these decisions are made, look into concepts like modularization, separation of concerns, and design patterns.
  • Code Readability: Writing code that’s easy to understand helps in collaboration and reduces the likelihood of bugs. Ways to do that include using descriptive variable names, writing clear comments, and consistent formatting.
  • Performance Optimization: Writing efficient code can improve the speed and resource usage. Ways to improve performancing include: algorithm optimizations, data structure choices, caching, and profiling.
  • Error Handling: When we ship software, it’s important to think about how to handle errors. What happens when an error occurs?
  • Code Testing: Each project will have different approaches and use different software for writing tests. They might implement unit testing, integration testing, and test-driven development (TDD) or other methods or combinations of methods to ensure they’re shipping reliable code.

Project Contribution Workflows

Because open source projects have maintainers and contributors collaborating to create, it’s important that there are processes that help to ensure a positive experience working together, ensure code quality, and maintain a healthy codebase. As part of this, there are some workflows implemented, including:

  • Code Versioning and Collaboration: We talked about this above with Version Control Systems. It’s important to learn how to clone repositories, create branches, commit changes, and push code as well as understand collaboration workflows like forking, branching, and pull requests. I highly recommend creating your own projects for practicing, and even better, bring in a friend who’s new to coding and practice together! For more information on how to do this, check out our Intro to Open Source section on How to submit a contribution
  • Issue Tracking: Issues are used to report bugs, suggest features, or discuss improvements. Understand how the project you’re working on uses issues, labeling, and prioritization. You can check out how we handle issues in our Insights repository.
  • Communication: Take some time to explore how the project communicates. Are they using discussion boards or async communication platforms like Slack or Discord?
  • Contributing: Before contributing, review the project's guidelines and standards. Be prepared to update your Pull Request (PR) based on feedback and work collaboratively with other contributors. There’s a lot that happens after your PR is submitted. So much so, that I wrote “What happens after you submit a PR to an Open Source Project?”. There can be a lot of reasons why a PR isn’t accepted. You can find out more about that here.

First Time Contributor Resources

For more resources on getting started, check out the following:

Contributing to open source is an opportunity to learn new skills, connect with other contributors, and to make a positive impact. Keep in mind that maintainers are human beings who work hard to keep projects going. Always be respectful, patient, and kind. Hopefully, this guide is helpful on your open source journey. If you have any questions, let us know! We look forward to seeing your highlight on OpenSauced soon.