If you’ve ever wanted to contribute to open source projects but don’t know where to begin, here are some tips to get you started.
Good understanding of one programming language of your choice
Understanding of a programming language is not just knowing the syntax or how recursion works. If you already know that, great! You are past the first hurdle. Next, you need to take up the task of learning the multiple major libraries and packages that are going to be used in any medium to large-scale projects. Look up the relevant libraries of your programming language and devote time to learning them. A good understanding of these will go a long way in helping you understand any code base better.
Version Control System
Yes, this is where Github comes in. Distributed revision control (DVCS) is one way to do collaborative coding which makes sure that all the code remains secure and concurrent at any given point in time. All, and I mean ALL, organizations/projects use some form of version control. Major ones are SVN and Git. Although now, mostly every organization/project have switched to Git for some of its features, while some might still be using SVN. Github is just a Git client which lets you host your code online. Learning Github is not the same as learning Git. Therefore, first, learn Git — book then, move on and learn how to use Github. For quick reference, you can also use this: Try Git.
Learn to read the Source Code
There is no substitute for the ability to read through seemingly gigantic code bases. Let’s face it, most of the documentation for any code can be confusing for anyone. It may be useful for the end user, but for any new developer, it’s may appear gibberish. You are on your own when you need to go through the source code of something which spans hundreds of thousands of lines with hundreds of files.
Where does one start? Well, it depends. Learn how to use bug or issue trackers which most likely, every organization/project will have it. If you don’t know what a software bug is, now will be a good time to start. Bug trackers are like the version control systems which we talked about earlier. In fact, most version control clients will have an implementation of the bug tracker themselves. Github has an “Issues” system, which is the same thing. A bug tracker, basically, lists all the “issues” (or bugs) currently identified with the software and their “status” (Are they solved? Unsolved? Being worked on?). Bug trackers provide the non-developer end-users with a way to point out a problem in the software. They might also be used to request a new feature, which is different from a bug.
Once you’ve learned all of the above (and trust me, it is not much), you are ready to submit some patches or bug fixes to a project of your choice. Choose any open-source project — preferably written in a language you know, and more importantly, interests you — and go and browse through its bug tracker. Most bug trackers have issues marked as volunteer or introductory. Search for such issues, or go with any issue which you think you can fix. Comment or write an update on the issue saying you are taking it up. Solve it on your local system (you’ll know what this is once you know how to use version control) and then push it to the organization’s remote code base. This is easier said than done (let’s be honest). You’ll need to know the following, at the very least:
- What DVCS the project is using.
- What are their workflows for code contribution? (Most organizations/projects have a defined way to submit a patch and you MUST follow that).
- How to get involved with the community.
Ask Smart Questions
Once you are up and running with contributing to a project, you WILL face difficulties.
You might not know how a particular piece of code is working, or you might not know about the required technology. This is the time for you to ASK. Ask the established developers in that project, or anyone you think who might know the answer, in general. Asking is not a sign of weakness but it will, instead, help see you through a lot of unnecessary struggle. But at the same time, remember, How To Ask Questions The Smart Way.
Read this amazing article by Sahil Dua on Unconventional way of learning a new programming language.