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How to Contribute to Open Source: The Ultimate Guide to Collaborative Software Development

How to Contribute to Open Source: The Ultimate Guide to Collaborative Software Development
How to Contribute to Open Source.

We’re just beyond Hacktoberfest 2023 where thousands of folks were contributing and getting involved in open source technologies globally. A lot of folks were new to open source and they needed a proper guide. However, open source projects continue on, and November is also a great time to get involved. You may have read our previous beginner’s guide to open source contributions, but we take it many steps further in this edition. Let's take this opportunity to discuss how to contribute to open source projects, and celebrate everything it stands for.

Introduction: A Beginners Guide to Open Source Contribution

Open source refers to software that comes with an open public license, enabling users to access and change the source code as needed. Many developers contribute and work together to develop it in a transparent and collaborative way. Open source software allows for the free use, modification, and distribution of the source code.

The significance of open source contributions in the tech industry is large. It encourages teamwork and sharing ideas, making it easier to build on previous work and come up with new ideas faster. It also promotes flexibility and customization. Developers can make software fit specific needs without proprietary limitations. Open source software is transparent and secure because anyone can quickly find and fix any problems.

Understanding Open Source Development

Open source software stands as a platform that encourages users to study, modify, and distribute the software as needed. It provides developers with the freedom to customize the software to their specific requirements.

In contrast, closed-source software, also known as proprietary software, shields its source code, prohibiting users from modifying it without explicit permission. The benefits of contributing to open source software are that it encourages programmers from diverse backgrounds to participate in its enhancement, thereby fostering transparent development processes and shared knowledge.

The origins of the open source movement can be traced back to the establishment of the Free Software Foundation in 1985 by Richard Stallman. This foundation emphasized the importance of open collaboration. Stallman's efforts were instrumental in the creation of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which has since become widely adopted within the open source community. The term "open source" gained popularity in the late 1990s following the establishment of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) in 1998. The primary objective of OSI was to advocate for and safeguard the interests of open source software.

Influential figures such as Linus Torvalds, the visionary behind the Linux kernel, have made significant contributions to the advancement of the open source movement. Similarly, the establishment of the Apache Software Foundation in 1999 played a pivotal role in supporting and nurturing various open source software projects. These notable individuals and organizations have significantly influenced the open source landscape by fostering collaboration, stimulating creativity, and promoting accessibility in software development.

Benefits of Open Source Development

The qualities of open source software that users value.


Contributing to open source software can significantly reduce costs for individuals and businesses, primarily by eliminating the need for expensive licenses and reducing the dependence on proprietary software. Here are some case studies:

  • OpenOffice and LibreOffice: These open source alternatives to Microsoft Office have saved many organizations substantial licensing costs. For example, the city of Munich, Germany, saved millions of euros by switching from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice.
  • Linux Operating System: Many companies, such as Google and Amazon, use Linux as their operating system, saving substantial costs in terms of licensing fees. For instance, Google's use of Linux helped them create a highly efficient, low-cost infrastructure for their services.

Community and Collaboration

The global community of contributors in open source fosters a collaborative software development environment that encourages diverse perspectives and skills, leading to innovative solutions. Benefits of this collaboration include:

  • Mozilla Firefox: The success of the Mozilla Firefox web browser can be attributed to its open source community, which continuously contributes to its development, ensuring it remains secure, customizable, and user-friendly.
  • WordPress: This popular content management system benefits from a robust community that regularly creates plugins and themes, making it a versatile and adaptable platform for various website needs.

Transparency and Trust

Transparency in open source software development helps build trust among users. The ability to access the source code repository and review it ensures security, reliability, and accountability. Examples include:

  • OpenSSL: Despite some security issues in the past, the open source community promptly identified and fixed vulnerabilities. The transparency of the code reassures users about the reliability and security of the software.
  • GnuPG (GPG): The open source encryption software is trusted by many for securing their communications and data. Its transparency allows users to verify that there are no backdoors or vulnerabilities.

Customization and Flexibility

Open source software can be tailored to specific needs, allowing businesses and individuals to change the code and adapt it to their requirements. Examples of customization include:

  • Android Operating System: The open source nature of Android has allowed various manufacturers to customize the operating system to create their own versions, leading to a diverse range of devices catering to different user preferences.
  • Magento: This open source e-commerce platform offers high flexibility and customization options, allowing businesses to create unique and tailored online stores according to their specific requirements.

These examples highlight how open source contributions deliver numerous advantages that lead to the software’s widespread adoption and success across various domains.

Understanding the Open Source Community

Knowing the general culture, processes, and expectations of open source communities is important to maintain a productive environment, and can help you identify the best open source projects to contribute to.

How the Open Source Community Operates:

  1. Collaborative Development: Open source communities thrive on collaboration, where developers globally contribute to software development and enhancement. This collective effort is often facilitated through online platforms, forums, and code repositories.
  2. Emphasis on Openness and Transparency: Transparency serves as a fundamental principle within the open source community. By enabling unrestricted access to source code, the community fosters trust, security, and accountability among its members.
  3. Regulation through Licensing: Open source projects operate under licenses that govern the permissible use, modification, and distribution of software. These licenses ensure that software remains accessible to all, promoting continuous innovation and collaboration.
  4. Recognition Based on Merit: Open source communities often operate under a merit-based system, recognizing and empowering contributors based on the quality of their contributions. This approach encourages active participation and rewards valuable input.
  5. Establishment of Community Norms and Governance: Open source communities typically establish norms, codes of conduct, and governance structures to cultivate a respectful and inclusive environment. These structures foster a supportive atmosphere for contributors with diverse backgrounds and skill sets.

Key Players and Stakeholders in the Open Source Community:

  • Developers and Contributors: Serving as the driving force behind the development and maintenance of open source projects, they contribute code, documentation, and resources to advance software and drive innovation.
  • Maintainers: Responsible for overseeing the development process, submitting pull requests, reviewing and merging open issues, and ensuring the overall health and stability of the project. They play a crucial role in maintaining the project's direction and standards.
  • Users and Beneficiaries: Benefiting from the accessibility, customization, and security that open source software offers, their feedback and usage patterns often influence the project's direction and contribute to its improvement.
  • Companies and Organizations: Many actively engage in the open source community by utilizing open source software in their operations or by contributing resources, funding, or developers to support key projects.
  • Foundations and Non-Profit Organizations: They provide crucial support, resources, and governance for various open source projects, fostering collaboration, managing resources, and ensuring the long-term sustainability of open source initiatives.

Understanding the dynamics of the open source community and the roles played by various stakeholders is pivotal for effective participation and benefit within the open source ecosystem.

How to Contribute to Open Source

Finding a Project:

  1. Identify Your Interests and Skills: Look for a project that matches your interests, ensuring your commitment and real-world practice of acquired tech skills during the contribution process.
  2. Explore Open Source Platforms: Check platforms like GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket to discover diverse open source projects. Filter projects based on programming languages, topics, and issue labels to find a suitable match.
  3. Join Open Source by Pieces! We recently introduced our Open Source by Pieces initiative, and are welcoming new contributors via our Discord community. We’d love to have you join!

Wondering how to find open source projects to contribute to? You can also find your desired projects from other places on the web.

Getting Started with Contributions:

  1. Set Up Your Development Environment: Install the necessary tools and dependencies mentioned in the project's documentation to begin your contribution journey. Read the project README file for all the information related to the project.
  2. Make Your First Open Source Contribution: Instead of making a feature request right off the bat, start with a good first issue, such as fixing documentation, addressing minor bugs, or fixing typos. Follow the project's guidelines and contributing guidelines.

Collaboration and Communication:

  1. Utilize Communication Channels: Join the project's communication channels, like mailing lists, forums, or chat platforms such as Slack or Discord. Engage with the community, seek guidance, and understand the project's objectives.
  2. Practice Effective Collaboration: Respect fellow contributors, follow communication guidelines, provide constructive feedback, and contribute meaningful ideas.

Version Control and Git:

  1. Understand Version Control Systems: Learn fundamentals of version control systems, especially Git, widely used in open source. Grasp concepts like repositories, branches, commits, and pull requests.
  2. Use Git for Open Source Contributions: Fork the project's repository, make changes in your local branch, commit your work, and create a pull request following the project's contribution guidelines and issue resolutions. Learn git/github from here.

Following these steps and using appropriate tools will enable you to make effective contributions to open source projects and become an active participant in the open source community.

How NOT to contribute to Open Source on GitHub:

  • Understanding Projects: Before contributing to a GitHub project, understand how folders and files are organized, and the tech stack used, and read contributing guidelines and README.md.
  • Raising Issue: Check for existing issues related to the problem you want to solve. Provide detailed context in the issue description, including screenshots, links, and potential solutions.
  • Making Pull Requests: Create separate PRs for different changes or issues. Keep PRs focused on one specific task. Include relevant information and screenshots in the PR description.
  • Approvals and Dead PRs: Wait for maintainer's approval before starting work on an issue. Close any abandoned or inactive PRs, but feel free to reopen them later if needed.
  • Be Meaningful: Contribute meaningfully to avoid minor, irrelevant changes. Maintain consistency in file organization and coding style.
  • Hassling Maintainers To Merge: Avoid tagging and messaging maintainers excessively. Give maintainers time to review; wait before sending reminders.

Challenges in Open Source Development

Maintainer Burnout and Sustainability:

  1. High Expectations and Workload: Sometimes, maintainers face tremendous pressure to manage projects with little assistance, which can result in burnout from the excessive workload.
  2. Limited Resources and Funding: Time and resources are needed for open source initiatives, and they may not always be available. The viability and long-term development of the project may be impacted by inadequate money and resources.
  3. Community Demands and Expectations: Balancing diverse community demands while maintaining the project's vision can strain the maintainers, causing challenges in sustaining the project's momentum.

Tips for Better Pull Requests and Code Review

  1. Organize your thoughts early by creating a PR draft while you're still working on your feature.
  2. Keep your PR concise and well-documented to entice timely reviews and pave the way for future PR success.
  3. Anticipate reviewer queries by scrutinizing your own code and adding helpful comments.
  4. Select the right reviewers to ensure relevance without excessive wait times for approval.
  5. Embrace feedback gracefully, seek clarity, and respond promptly to comments.
  6. Reciprocate by reviewing others' PRs to boost the chances of having yours reviewed too.
  7. As a junior developer or software engineering student, communicate any confusion about the code, as it should be comprehensible to all team members.
  8. Focus code reviews on bug detection, edge cases, and implementation challenges, avoiding irrelevant nitpicking or architecture debates.
  9. Use a constructive and positive tone, suggesting alternatives rather than imposing changes.
  10. Clearly communicate whether suggested changes are mandatory for approval.
  11. Review your comments before publishing to ensure clarity and a helpful tone.
  12. Promptly approve the PR once requested changes are made to avoid unnecessary delays.
  13. When conflicts persist, suggest moving discussions to a different platform and consider involving a third party or arranging a dedicated meeting.

Dealing with Conflicts and Disagreements:

  1. Differing Perspectives and Goals: Contributors might have differing opinions and goals for the project, leading to conflicts over the project's direction, features, or technical decisions.
  2. Communication Challenges: Miscommunication and misunderstandings among contributors can escalate conflicts, hindering the progress of the project.
  3. Managing Community Dynamics: Handling diverse community dynamics, including conflicts between community members, requires effective conflict resolution strategies and communication skills.
The most common problems in open source.

Maintaining Project Security and Integrity:

  1. Vulnerabilities and Security Breaches: Open source projects may be susceptible to security threats and breaches, especially in the absence of dedicated resources for security audits and maintenance.
  2. Code Quality and Integrity: Ensuring the quality and integrity of code contributions can be challenging, particularly when managing a large number of contributors with varying backgrounds and skill levels.
  3. Sustainability of Security Measures: Sustaining a robust security infrastructure that can keep up with evolving threats demands continuous monitoring, updates, and a proactive approach to security management.

Addressing these challenges in open source development often requires effective project management, community engagement, resource allocation, and the implementation of clear guidelines and policies to ensure the long-term sustainability and success of open source projects.

Hacktoberfest 2023 and Beyond

During Hacktoberfest

Hacktoberfest is an annual event that celebrates the spirit of open source software development, fostering collaboration and engagement among developers globally. Organized by DigitalOcean, this event provides an opportunity for individuals to contribute to various repositories on platforms like GitHub. Participants can earn special rewards by making valid pull requests to these repositories. By promoting open source values, Hacktoberfest encourages active participation and engagement within the tech community, reflecting the inclusive and collaborative nature of the open source movement.

Here are some tips to make the most of your Hacktoberfest journey:

  1. Choose Your Projects Wisely: Select projects that align with your interests and skill level. It's about quality contributions, not quantity.
  2. Read the Guidelines: Before diving in, carefully read the project's contributing guidelines. This ensures your work meets their standards.
  3. Start Small: If you're new to Hacktoberfest and aren’t totally sure how to contribute to open source projects, tackle easy or beginner-friendly issues first. Gain confidence as you go.
  4. Ask Questions: Don't hesitate to ask for help if you're stuck. Open source communities are often very supportive and welcoming.
  5. Testing and Documentation: Contributions aren't just about code. Help with testing, bug reports, and improving documentation is equally valuable.
  6. Collaborate, Don't Compete: Hacktoberfest is about collaboration, not a race. Work together with other contributors and share knowledge.
  7. Review Others Work: Give back by reviewing and providing feedback on other contributors' pull requests.
  8. Respect Code of Conduct: Be respectful and adhere to the project's code of conduct. Inclusivity and kindness are crucial.
  9. Celebrate Your Achievements: Each merged PR is a victory. Celebrate your progress and keep the open source spirit alive beyond Hacktoberfest.
  10. Quality Over Quantity: Focus on meaningful contributions rather than trying to hit a specific PR count. Quality work is more rewarding.
  11. Stay Informed: Follow Hacktoberfest updates on social media and join the conversations. It's a great way to connect with the community.
  12. Learn and Grow: Use this opportunity to learn new technologies and improve your coding skills.
  13. Give Back Year-Round: Don't limit your open source contributions to just October. Keep giving back throughout the year.

Remember, Hacktoberfest is not just about earning rewards, it's about building a sense of community, improving your skills, and making a positive impact on the open source world.

Hacktoberfest has served as a gateway for many to begin their open source journey. Numerous contributors have shared success stories, citing how their initial contributions during Hacktoberfest led them to gain confidence and deeper insights into the world of open source. Many have found mentors, improved their coding skills, and even secured job opportunities through their Hacktoberfest participation.

After Hacktoberfest

After Hacktoberfest, you can continue your open source journey by exploring other projects beyond the event. You can increase your credibility by actively engaging in the open source community, attending meetups, and contributing to projects aligned with your interests and skills.

As contributors gain more experience, they can aim to become project maintainers by taking on leadership roles, managing the project's development, and guiding new contributors. Becoming a project maintainer allows you to make a more significant impact on the open source community and contribute to the sustainability and growth of the projects you are passionate about.

Participating in Hacktoberfest is an excellent starting point for individuals to engage with the open source community. Through this event, many have not only discovered the joy of contributing to meaningful projects but have also found a pathway to further their careers and become active members of the broader open source ecosystem.

Open Source Licensing

Understanding Different Open-Source Licenses

Open source software is governed by a wide range of licenses, each with its own terms and conditions. Some commonly used open source licenses include:

  1. GNU General Public License (GPL): This license ensures that the source code remains open, and any derivative works must also be open source. It is known for its strong copyleft provisions.
  2. MIT License: This is a permissive license that allows almost unrestricted use, modification, and distribution of the software with minimal restrictions on how it can be used in other projects.
  3. Apache License: Another permissive license, the Apache License grants more extensive rights and includes a patent grant. It's often used for projects related to the Apache Software Foundation.
  4. BSD License: The BSD licenses are permissive, allowing for the use, modification, and distribution of software, typically with fewer restrictions compared to the MIT License.
  5. Mozilla Public License (MPL): The MPL is a license used for Mozilla projects and allows for the creation of proprietary derivatives, but changes to the MPL-licensed code must be open source.

Understanding these licenses is crucial for both creators and users of open source software.

Choosing the Right License for Your Project

  1. Project Goals and Values: Consider the goals and values of your project. Choose a license that aligns with your intentions for the use, modification, and distribution of your software.
  2. Licensing Compatibility: Ensure that the chosen license is compatible with any third-party libraries or components that your project may rely on.
  3. Community Norms and Practices: Consider the norms and practices of the open source community. Choose a license that encourages collaboration and contributions while protecting your project's integrity and openness.

Implications of Different Licenses on Collaboration and Distribution

  1. Collaboration: The choice of license can impact the collaboration goal in your project. A large number of contributors are often attracted to projects having Permissive licenses, while copyleft licenses ensure that the project remains open and accessible to the community.
  2. Distribution: The license you choose decides how others can share your software. Some licenses have rules on how the software can be shared, while others let people freely share and change it, making open source projects more active.
  3. Legal Considerations: Each license has different rules, so it's important to know what each one requires. This helps you follow the rules for open source software correctly.

Choosing the appropriate open source license is crucial for defining the terms of use, distribution, and collaboration within the open source community. It is advisable to consult legal experts for guidance on selecting the most suitable license for your project. Learn more about licenses.

The factors that are important to open source projects.

The Future of Open Source Software Development

The proportion of permissive vs restrictive employer open source policies.

Current Trends and Future Predictions for Open Source:

  • Open source technology is now widely used in many industries, including cloud computing, AI, and blockchain. Contribute to an open source LLM project by joining the Pieces Discord!
  • Companies and organizations are working together more to support open source projects.
  • Open source communities and developer ecosystems will drive advancements and breakthroughs in technology.

The Impact of Open Source on Emerging Technologies:

  • Open source plays a key part in advancing modern technologies like quantum computing, edge computing, and 5G networks. It provides accessible platforms for experimentation and progress.
  • Open source communities collaborate to rapidly innovate and incorporate new technologies in healthcare, finance, and manufacturing.
  • Many companies are making their source code open to all for contributions and enhancement of the project.


Open source software has revolutionized the digital landscape, fostering innovation, collaboration, and community-driven development. Throughout this article, we have seen the broad benefits of contributing to open source projects, from its cost-efficient solutions to its promotion of transparency and trust. Understanding the dynamics of how to contribute to open source communities, its operational mechanisms, and the pivotal roles played by its stakeholders is crucial for effective contribution and sustainable growth.

Additionally, the promising prospects of events like Hacktoberfest provide a gateway for enthusiasts to immerse themselves in open source contributions, fostering a culture of continuous learning and development. As open source continues to shape the future of technology, it is imperative to embrace the evolving landscape and proactively navigate the challenges, ensuring an inclusive and collaborative environment for the greater good of the digital community.

💡 Additional Resources

  • Find open source resources here
  • Find open source paid internships and programs here
  • Win swag by contributing here

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