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Understanding the Role of an Open Source Maintainer

Being an open source maintainer can be a very gratifying and rewarding experience. But a lot of work goes into maintaining an open source project. You will have many responsibilities as a maintainer, including being a contributor, leader, mentor, and community manager.

This course will provide you with a comprehensive overview of how to start an open source project, including information on the maintainer's role, insights into daily tasks, long-term responsibilities, and the overall impact of a maintainer in an open source project.

What is an Open Source Maintainer?

An open source maintainer is responsible for maintaining the health and success of a project. Maintainers help define the project's goals, work with other contributors, help build a community around the project, and uphold the project's quality standards.

A Guide and Feedback Provider

Being able to work with contributors from all backgrounds is an important skill to develop as a maintainer. Some contributors will be seasoned developers who are interested in getting started with your project, while others will be new to open source and development in general. So, it would be best to communicate well with your contributors.

Working with contributors will include assisting them with any blockers they might have and providing constructive feedback so they can grow and strengthen their contributions to your project.

A Welcoming Community Nurturer

Not all open source communities are welcoming and inclusive, which can deter people from wanting to participate in open source at all. So, you must consistently lead your community with kindness, patience, and understanding.

People are volunteering their time to contribute to your project with the intention of helping it grow. Setting a standard that your community is inclusive and helpful to everyone will trickle down to all community members and create a community that contributors will want to be a part of.

A Project Quality Assurance

One of the maintainer's responsibilities is to review and maintain the project to the existing quality standards. When you receive a pull request, you are responsible for ensuring that all of the tests are passing and the feature or fix is working as expected. It is also important to check and make sure that the new changes do not accidentally break something else in the project. Having a good testing suite and process will help with that.

Maintainer Benefits

Being an open source maintainer has many benefits, including career, leadership, and personal growth.

Personal and Professional Growth

As a maintainer, you are in a leadership position helping to guide contributors to success in contributing to your project. Leadership and mentorship skills are essential to develop and will help you grow professionally.

Being a maintainer also helps you grow your technical skills. You will be responsible for contributing, reviewing pull requests, writing technical articles about your project, and possibly giving technical talks at conferences.

Networking Opportunities

Building relationships in the tech industry is a great way to connect with talented technologists worldwide and advance your career. By working with other contributors, you will get to learn from them, and they will get to see your leadership and technical abilities.

There have been many instances where long-term open source relationships have become possible business ventures or future job opportunities. And if your project ends up being used by many people, you will be able to connect with a larger group of technologists.

Maintainer Challenges

While there are many benefits to being an open source maintainer, it can also be challenging. Here are a few challenges that maintainers face:


Many open source maintainers have felt burned out by the sheer volume of work and responsibility it takes to maintain the project. Some have even gone as far as to walk away from the project when the work became too much to handle.

If you feel overwhelmed by the workload and getting close to burnout, it is time to get the right support for your project. Identify regular contributors in the community and reach out to them to see if they are interested in becoming a maintainer. Onboarding new team members will help offload some of your responsibilities and decrease your stress around the project.

When identifying possible new maintainers, look for contributors who have been invested in the project for some time and go above and beyond. Most contributors will be casual contributors to your project, which is fine. But there will be those who will regularly contribute and start to integrate more into the community. You will want to reach out to those individuals to recruit them to be a maintainer.

Dealing with Loneliness

Maintaining an open source project can be challenging and overwhelming, and it sometimes feels lonely and isolated. Most contributors will come and go, and you are still left to maintain the project alone or with a small group of people. However, it's essential for you not to go through this journey alone.

Connecting with other maintainers from various open source projects is highly recommended so you can share your challenges, feelings, and experiences. Fellow maintainers can relate to the difficulties you are facing and offer suggestions on how to make your project and community better. By reaching out to others in similar situations, you can grow, learn from, and support each other.

Key Responsibilities and Expectations

The role of the maintainer is a multifaceted one. This section will discuss a few key responsibilities of an open source maintainer.

Triaging Issues

Learning to triage issues is essential for any open source maintainer. This involves going through the existing list of open issues and prioritizing them in order of importance. Some open issues will be critical bug fixes, while others might be nice to have feature requests. Sometimes, you might have issues opened for things that are not a right fit for the project.

Reviewing Pull Requests

Reviewing pull requests is an important part of a maintainer's job. It is the maintainer's responsibility to ensure that the suggested code or documentation update meets the standards of the project and doesn't introduce any new issues for the project. You will also need to work with the contributor to unblock them on issues they have or help them resolve failing tests.

Testing and Stability

A maintainer is responsible for making sure the application is working as expected. This will involve a combination of manual and automated testing.

For manual testing, you will want to set time aside once in a while to run through new or existing features like a regular user would. If there are any bugs or poor user experiences, you must document them and create an issue.

For automated testing, you can set up an automated test suite that runs on every pull request and merges into the main branch. If the test suite fails, you can reach out to the contributor and help them debug the error. Good automated test suites can help catch bugs from going into production and breaking the application.


A good open source project will have a comprehensive set of documentation so all users will know how to run and maintain the project. In your project's README, you will want to have a basic overview of the project, along with how to set it up and how to contribute. As your project grows over time, you should keep your documentation up to date.

If you are maintaining a larger project, consider using documentation builders like Docusaurus, Starlight, or docsify to host your documentation. Documentation also includes writing tutorials, building diagrams, or creating in-depth guides for the project.

Community Management

A vital component of any open source project is its community. Building a strong community can help accelerate the growth of your open source project. As new contributors discover and start to contribute to your project, you will want to create spaces for communication and collaboration.

If your project is on GitHub, you can use GitHub Discussions as a way for contributors to post questions and facilitate conversations. Consider creating communities on Discord or Slack and holding office hours or other events like X Spaces to encourage engagement. At one point, as you grow your community, you will want to recruit moderators to help maintain the healthy environment you set up.

The next chapter will teach you how to set up an open source project.