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Getting into Open Source

When evaluating a potential developer hire, one of the first things we look for is a profile on GitHub, and I’m always surprised when someone doesn’t have one. When asked, the most frequent response is that people don’t know where to begin contributing to open source. This response might’ve had some validity in the SourceForge days, but with the rise of GitHub, there’s simply no excuse. Here are four easy ways to get started.

1. Documentation

There’s a lot of great open source code out there that goes unused simply because people can’t figure out how to use it. A great way to get your foot in the door is to improve documentation, whether by updating the primary README, including examples in the source code, or simply fixing typos and grammatical errors.

2. Something You Use

The vast majority of the plugins and gems that you use every day are one-man operations. It is a bit intimidating to attempt to improve code that someone else has spent so much time on, but if you see something wrong, fork the project and fix it. You’ll be amazed how easy it is and how grateful the original authors will be.

3. Your Blog

I don’t necessarily recommend reinventing the wheel when it comes to blogging platforms, but if you’re looking for something small to code up using your web framework of choice, writing the software that powers your personal website is a good option. The Setup, one of my favorite sites, includes a link to the project source in its footer.

4. Any Dumb Crap

One of my favorite talks from RailsConf a few years back was Nathaniel Talbott’s 23 Hacks, which encouraged developers to “enjoy tinkering, puttering, and generally hacking around.” Don’t worry that your code isn’t perfect and might never light the world on fire; put it out there and keep improving it. Simply put, there’s almost no code worse than no code.


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