A year ago I decided that I wanted to start contributing to open source projects. I had spent a lot of time working on my own side-projects, but there wasn't really an open source project I was passionate about, so I just picked one (OpenStack) and it went terribly. After signing up I didn't know what to do. I didn't have enough knowledge of OpenStack to really contribute to the project, and there wasn't much direction to go in once you'd signed up past 'pick a group and contribute!'. Fast forward to today, and all I've got to show for my OpenStack signup is 3500 emails from the mailing list.
This seems like a common problem with contributing to open source projects. So common in fact, it was proposed as an open space at DevOpsDays Atlanta and there were about 20 attendants. The general consensus from people who weren't contributing to open source projects was either a lack of knowledge of the project, fear of rejection by the main contributors, or generally not understanding where to get started. So let's discuss how I was able to learn about an open source project, start contributing, and continue contributing.
During PyCon this year I met the SaltStack team. I had looked at SaltStack before, but my employer at the time was heavily invested in Puppet, and so was I since I was writing manifests every day. Fast forward a few months, and I'm looking at Salt again since it's matured and I needed a config management solution for my job. So I started where anyone else would, by looking at the documentation. At this time I also decided that I wanted to try contributing to an open source project again, so I hopped into the IRC. I just hung out in there reading questions and their answers while I read through the docs and experimented with Salt on my own.
This went on for a few weeks, and I slowly began answering questions I had a solution for. I also made notes of pain points in the documentation, typos, or areas I had issues with, and slowly began to fix those. At that point a configuration management solution was put on hold at work, but I was still actively participating in the Salt community. It was just part of my day to hop into the IRC (especially on weekends where I had more time), and answer questions occasionally. I was creating issues for problems I was encountering, or that others encountered in the IRC. I'd also email myself with tasks to accomplish at night that people were encountering with the documentation. Minor code fixes were also part of my off hours work, but the biggest thing was the documentation. As a Puppet user who had struggled to learn through their docs, I felt as though Salt should have the best documentation available, so that anyone could quickly pick things up.
My lack of familiarity with Salt also helped greatly here, as I was able to expand on the documentation in ways that hadn't previously been considered since I was so new to Salt. Yes, my lack of knowledge was actually a BENEFIT in this situation, because I'd get confused and then make a note that I needed to clarify that on the documentation after I resolved it myself. At this point I contribute a wide variety of docs, this even includes the initial commit of the Halite docs, which previously only existed as a general walkthrough on GitHub explaining how to install straight from the Git commit.
So this is all great, but where are the details on how you can get started? Once again this is talking about how someone got started making commits, and how that has gone, as opposed to explaining how you can get started contributing. Let's discuss it!
To begin, you need to pick a project you enjoy. I know Python, and I enjoy automation, so I picked Salt. I had also met the dev team, so that contributed to my interested. I wanted to make sure that I could make code commits, as well as understand what was going on so picking a project in a language I was familiar with was key. If you aren't familiar with the project's language it might not be the best decision for your first venture into the open source community. Additionally if you're working on a project that you have no interest in, there's a good chance you're just going to stop. Having a vested interested in the project makes it a lot easier to work on.
You also want to make sure you like the community that works on the project. Obviously you can't like everyone in life, but being part of a community that fosters new contributors is key. As I said above, I hung out in the Salt IRC for a while before I started answering questions. For me this didn't take too long as I was reading the docs and implementing the technology. Go at your own pace, but try to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Ok, so you've picked a project, read the docs, and hung out with the community. Hopefully at this point you've been taking notes about what people encounter issues. In fact this was my first Salt commit. All I did was update the Readme.rst on the GitHub page because someone in the IRC mentioned they couldn't find the docs. Do you feel comfortable updating this sort of information? If the answer is yes, Congratulations! You're now confident enough to contribute.
Continually keep in mind that open source projects don't just need hardcore coders who know the ins and outs of the tool, they need people to help answer questions in the IRC, update documentation, fix minor issues in the code, and a dozen other things. So start small, and work your way up!