23 May, 2013

Getting involved in Free Software

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I frequently get the question, by mail or over social networks:
But how do I get involved in $PROJECT?
Now a common answer is 'just do it' while others often point to resources like the KDE Developers Beginners Guide and Contribute to openSUSE, or write a simple how-to for building a package. But I usually don't actually reply with links to any of those. Mostly, people have found these resources by themselves.

What they want to know now is how to, you know, actually do it! And as that question can actually be answered rather project-independent so I thought it would be useful to write it down here.

Step one - Build the Code and get Familiar

After reading the various guides and how-to's, you set up a development environment. Be sure you can run the unstable application(s) or hack on a package. Getting that up and running is a very good first step.

I would also subscribe to mailing lists, read the blogs and hang out in IRC. Just watch what is going on: it will teach you the culture of the community and that's crucial to get stuff done later.

Step Two - Hack Something

Perhaps you will already find bugs, then: trying to report them is good, trying to fix them is better. It will not be easy to fix them but that is when you can ask for help on IRC, forums or here!

If you don't find any bugs you want to fix, perhaps you can think about what to add, what to change. What do YOU think is important and what needs to be done? It doesn't matter if you pick something yourself or find a todo list or wiki page of the project and pick something there. The hardest part will be: JUST DO IT. Get hacking. You'll get stuck, that is OK: read documentation and when you can't figure it out, just ask for help. Above all: don't give up until you are done! I would suggest not to pick something too big. A one-liner patch will take you a day, easily, and might not seem important, but this first step matters a lot. Don't try to fix the entire user interface or work flow with your first change! For example, fixing code style to comply with the project rules is already a perfectly fine first step.
Not getting Involved

Step Three - Get it in

Now you got something, so get it back to the project. On Github or on the Open Build Service you do a merge request; in other projects you have different work flows varying from sending the patch by mail to using review board or other tools. It doesn't matter.

This won't be easy, but that is mostly due to you being so anxious about it: it can take quite a while for the developers to review the patch and they're sure to have some comments on it. Don't be discouraged and do know that you're allowed to poke them: two weeks waiting isn't much in many projects but it's enough that you are entitled to poke somebody. Send a follow-up mail or ping somebody you know is active in the project on IRC and ask politely if they know how you can get feedback or if you did something wrong in the way you asked.

Note that your patch will not always go in, even in modified form. Not all projects might be OK receiving code style fixes or consider what you fixed a bug. Again, the hardest part here is to not be discouraged. You can ask if they can at least tell you that what you did made some kind of sense; and/or ask for a suggestion for something easy to fix. If they're half-way decent they will be nice about it! If not, perhaps you picked the wrong community to help out in...

Step Four - That's all!

When you manage to fix or hack ONE thing, you have done the hardest part of getting involved in Free Software: you GOT STARTED. From then on, you can find other things and really Make a Difference.


Seriously, there is no more to it. The hardest part is of course the doing itself - but no amount of preparation can make that easier. The most important tip in this is to not give up, the second most important one is to ask for help. All developers had to go through this. Some locked themselves up in a basement, others spend a week banging their head against a computer screen. All of them created a ugly beast of a patch, article, image or whatever your first attempt is. That is perfectly fine. Accepting that is probably the third most important tip ;-)

Of course, I can recommend to check out Open Advice as it contains the lessons of quite a few smart folk. The short essays make for a nice read before bed time or so.

Have a lot of fun and enjoy hacking ;-)

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