The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Open Source: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Contributing

cosmicawareness“I should contribute to an open source project.” – the thought tumbled around the back of my mind for a long time. I think a lot of coders experience this; they want to contribute but a vague sense of anxiety holds them back. I know I was, and still am, rather shy about it.

Just open-sourcing your own projects can be quite intimidating. It’s putting yourself (or your code at least) out there. It’s also feels like taking on a bit of responsibilty – you now have (potential) users to think of. Joining someone elses project can compound all this by adding even more concerns; what if I mess something up, what if they hate my code, etc. It’s no wonder people are sometimes reluctant to do it. I recall having just such feelings, but I’m glad I’ve overcome them.

These days my OSS efforts are focused on my friend Maxime’s JavaScript VM – Higgs. In my spare time I manage to make some small contributions, and it’s probably one of the most enriching things I’ve done lately. I’ve learned a lot from looking at Higgs’ code, and discussing it’s workings with Max; as well as from discussions about possible designs and her feedback on my pull requests.

The ability to read and understand someone else’s code is an important skill to cultivate, and contributing to an open source project is great practice. It’s also helped me develop my skills in collaborating with others. The more I work with other coders the more I learn to appreciate a diverse team. Everyone has different ways of approaching and conceptualizing problems, different areas of expertise – working with others on open source is a great way to develop the ability to consider and deal with such differences. Working on Higgs has also allowed me to step into areas that are fairly outside of what I normally do – I’m generally a web developer rather than a systems programmer. All of these things can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s good to get out of your comfort zone sometimes; it’s one of the best ways to grow.

Since I’ve started working on Higgs, I’ve had the chance to encourage others to help us out on the project and I’ve come to experience the other side of things. A lot of people are interested in contributing to the project but have some hesitation. “I don’t know much about compilers.” or “I’ve never used D.” (the language the core of Higgs is implemented in) are common responses I’ve heard. To those I would say: “Good, This is your chance to learn!”

Beyond that, it’s important to remember that a lot of open source projects are large (Higgs has code in D, Javascript, and Python) and have a lot of different things they need. In the case of Higgs there is quite a lot of Javascript powering the runtime and the standard libraries that doesn’t require much special knowledge to work on. For example, the ability to construct functions with new Function(…) was implemented in pure Javascript (in a PR graciously submitted by Sorella).

Testing and documentation are another area that’s sometimes overlooked by potential contributors. Most open source projects are in constant need of more/updated documentation. Additionally the more people testing the software, the more bugs are found. Maxime and I both exclusively develop on linux, so we were totally unaware that Higgs was failing to build on OSX and BSD until Paul Fryzel was kind enough to let us know and help us fix it.

If you’re reading this and can relate, I hope I’ve inspired you a bit to get out there and push some code. Find a project you’re interested in with a welcoming team and get to it. If you’re interested in helping with Higgs, come talk to us in #higgsjs (webchat) on freenode or check out the open issues.

Some possible ways you could help:

  • Making sure Higgs builds/passes tests on your system.
  • Testing Higgs features/libraries and checking for bugs.
  • Adding more tests.
  • Adding more documentation.
  • Requesting/suggesting new features.
  • Adding new features to the libraries.
  • Writing new libraries.
  • Porting existing libraries to work on Higgs.
  • Anything else you can think of 🙂

Remember, you can do it Duffy Moon.