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Easy Ways to Contribute to Open-source Projects

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When the jQuery project first started, I remember how passionate the team was about helping developers use the jQuery JavaScript library. It was a labor of love with all of us putting in countless numbers of hours, day and night, to help grow the project and the developer community. And we did those for free because we just loved doing it. But as the project grew, so did the expectations from the community in terms of features and support. And this is where most open-source efforts fail to scale.

I think most developers that put out OSS software do it for altruistic reasons wanting to give back to the community something that may solve a critical problem.

As community needs grow, you need to find ways to have more time to focus on features. You can do this by growing your team but that's not always a solution. On the jQuery project, we increased team size and delegated work but even so, being a volunteer-based effort meant the project was reliant on other people's availability. And with all of us having full-time jobs and many with family responsibilities, I can say that we managed to accomplish a lot with very little availability.

The other option that manifested was the ability to fund time to focus on working on specific tasks. This typically came in the form of sponsorships from name-brand companies that had made substantial internal investments into jQuery and wanted the project to succeed. This actually worked well because it allowed team members to be able to specifically focus on meeting the community needs and focus their abilities on the tough areas that required a lot of dedicated attention.

Now please don't think this just came about overnight. It took a long time before anyone wanted to contribute to the project and proving the value of the effort was the critical component to that. jQuery is an important part of many sites and products but that following developed over years of hard work and consistency and is not the norm for most OSS projects. And most OSS projects will never enjoy the level of success and notoriety jQuery has simply because of timing or even being "too niche".

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think most developers that put out OSS software do it for altruistic reasons wanting to give back to the community something that may solve a critical problem. So how do these projects get a leg up like the jQuery project did?

Let's explore this.


OSS Consumers vs. Contributors

I've not met someone (both offline and online) who hasn't used some open-source software. That's a pretty big deal because it shows that OSS is everywhere. Developers rely on it to start-up their next great idea. Companies leverage it to lower costs. And governments use it to ensure their meeting the needs of their communities. To say it's pervasive would be an understatement.

The one thing I've felt for a long time, though, is that there's a definite imbalance between consumers and contributors. The ease with which someone can grab a piece of OSS software and run with it due to flexible licensing and little to no cost makes it incredibly easy to forget that someone out there is actually writing and supporting that software. If you simply consume without considering the time, effort and costs involved in that piece of software, there's a strong likelihood that down the road you'll be impacted when the project fails. The road to OSS is littered with failed and abandoned projects created by developers with all the right intentions but just didn't have the resources to keep it going.


How to Give Back

It's not to say that you need to go all-in like Facebook did with PHP but there are many ways of helping a project from which you've taken something that's valuable to you and your business. Some low hanging fruit are:

  • Contribute code - Most projects use GitHub which makes creating pull requests insanely easy
  • Contribute time - Projects are always looking for people to help with documentation, support and evangelism
  • Write a blog post - Easy enough to write something that makes using a tool easier for others
  • Ask your employer for time - If you're using a piece of OSS software at work, ask your employer for company time to contribute back
  • Ask your employer to donate back code - Along the same lines, if you're extending functionality consider contributing it back under the same license of the project

Many projects have pages similar to this that explain specifically how to contribute.

If for whatever reason you can't offer any of these, you should consider helping to fund some of these efforts. "How?" you ask.


Donating Online

There have been platforms springing up that are designed to solve this problem and we're going to take a look at two of the most populars ones.

Bountysource - The OSS Projects Funding Platform

bountysource-logo

Recently, I came across a fundraiser for RVM (Ruby Version Manager). If you've ever coded in Ruby on Rails, then I'm pretty sure you know how important RVM is. Unfortunately, it's main sponsor was ending its support and the project needed to find another sponsor so they took to a novel site called Bountysource which aims to provide a funding platform for open-source software.

bounty-rvm

I found this totally awesome because there really wasn't a resource like this for the jQuery project (or MooTools, Prototype, et al) that could allow a project to spin up a fundraising page with all the tools to collect donations. And of course, it allows individuals to browser projects they'd like to help fund and donate via PayPal or Google Wallet.

What really impressed me is that fact that a project can list out the things they want to accomplish and through crowdsourcing, the community can help to fund the completion of the specific features through developer payouts (called a "bounty"). So say that you really wanted $.Deferred functionality in Zepto.js. You could contribute to the feature request to entice the community to implement and once it's done, the bounty would be paid out to the person(s) who did it.

bounty-zepto

The service addresses the need of the project, even to the point of breaking down the bounties to specific tasks and values but also allows the community to decide what's important and fund the development of that feature. It's a bit of a KickStarter for open-source. Very cool.

Gittip - Crowdfunding People Who Inspire You

gittip-logo

Gittip is a service I found out about because of John Resig. He's been a real advocate of the service and that says a lot.

gittip-home

To quote John:

I saw a great opportunity for the development team at Khan Academy to give back to the Open Source community in ways that were not just code-related.

It's very different from Bountysource in that it's meant to offer small weekly cash gifts to individuals that you feel are providing you a value. You can give any amount you want up to $100 per week. This is actually a great resource for those single-man projects where the lone coder is adding features, answering support emails and working the community. It might seem inconsequential but even donating five dollars per week to that developer may be what he/she needs to ensure they know their work is appreciated.

There are over 650 communities listed on Gittip and choosing one will display all of the top givers and receivers:

gittip-js

This also allows you to drill-down into individual profile pages to allow you to contribute to some who inspires you:

gittip-resig

And in keeping inline with its OSS ethos, Gittip even allows you to checkout its source code via its Github repo.


More "Do" than "How"

The point of this article is to drive home the importance of contributing back to open-source. If you're a consumer, then you should seriously evaluate how valuable that library or tool is to you and figure out how to support it. If the project isn't on Bountysource or Gittip, why not reach out to the project owner and ask them to join so you can donate.

And just because you may not be interested in contributing code doesn't mean you can't leverage other skills to help a project grow. In my opinion, the single biggest need of an open-source project are people who know how to work with a community. Soft skills are so important and from my experiences, sorely lacking.

The main thing is that there really is no excuse not to contribute back when you find something valuable. Just because it's "free" doesn't mean that a lot of investment wasn't placed into it and if you don't support it, it may just go away some day.

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