Getting into open-source software

  • Published 10 Jun 2015

Easily one of the most popular pieces of advice for newer developers seems to be, “Get into open source development.” And really, they’re not wrong. Open source technology is easily one of largest parts, if not the largest part of modern software and web development today. A quick Google search, and I found this article from The Whir citing the 2015 Future of Open Source Survey, a study by investment firm North Bridge and open source software (OSS) management company Black Duck Software,. The general rub: over three-quarters of all companies surveyed use open source in their IT operations.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a remote interest in the industry. Involvement in popular industry social networks like GitHub is becoming a standard job application requirement, and many of the most popular tools have started as a repo on someone’s hard drive. Ruby on Rails, Golang, JavaScript frameworks, and many other technologies were all built by companies and organizations with huge communities supporting and expanding their capabilities.

With all of this output already in progress, the question still remains. How can I, a fledgling developer, strike a claim in the open source community? With little experience or knowledge outside of how to use the tools I’ve learned, how can I contribute? And, to what? I use the first person here because that’s where I stand now. I’m still learning more about web development as time allows, and this tidbit keeps popping up in conversation and on job applications themselves. Unfortunately, like a lot of things suggested, the process is never explained.

And yet, the answer is really pretty simple. When I hear that suggestion, “Go work on some open-source projects,” my inner developer thinks of scouring repos of Rust or Docker or some other tool I don’t fully comprehend and solve an issue. In reality, the best way to get into open-source is pretty zen: look inwards.

The open source world is all about tools, and that can be easy to forget. Once you realize that, though, the way to open source starts to clear up. At least it did for me. Now, I’ll be honest. At this point in my career, as of this writing, I don’t know many frameworks or libraries all too well. I have an understanding of jQuery, Jekyll, Bootstrap, and Rails; but more in a jack-of-all-trades sense. However, I do log into the Cloud9 IDE at least three times a week to work on this site, tutorials, and other projects. A quick look around GitHub, and lo and behold. All the Cloud9 issues I could shake a stick at, primarily in JavaScript, a language I have some understanding of.

So, really, in the end, this is a very simplistic way of looking at the whole idea of stepping into open source, and far from the only way. You could use a tool and make a suggestion like adding a feature you might have implemented yourself. You could simply join in the discussion on an issue and ask questions; you never know, you might inspire a solution. All in all, open source technology is a really inviting place to explore, and while it can be intimidating, don’t be afraid to try new and different things.