Published Dec 22, 2023 ⦁ 16 min read
OSS Contribution Essentials for Developers

OSS Contribution Essentials for Developers

Most developers would agree that contributing to open source software can be incredibly valuable, yet also overwhelming for beginners.

This guide outlines the fundamental steps and best practices to start contributing to open source software, whether you're just getting started or looking to expand your involvement.

You'll learn what open source contribution entails, how to find beginner-friendly projects, make your first contributions, communicate with maintainers, write effective commit messages, follow community guidelines, become a maintainer yourself, and more.

Introduction to Open Source Software Contributions

Open source software (OSS) is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. Contributing to OSS projects is a great way for developers to improve their skills, build their professional network, and give back to the community.

Defining Open Source Software

OSS has the following key principles:

  • Free distribution - anyone can obtain the software for free
  • Accessible source code - the code can be viewed, modified, and distributed
  • Open collaboration - contributors work together from around the world

Some popular OSS projects include Linux, TensorFlow, React, and Kubernetes.

Growth and Relevance of OSS

OSS now makes up most of the software industry. According to recent statistics:

  • 90% of enterprises use OSS components
  • Over 57 million developers contribute to OSS projects
  • OSS generates an estimated $143 billion in revenue

With the majority of new software being developed as open source, contributing to OSS is an essential skill for developers.

Benefits of OSS Contributions

Developers can gain the following benefits by contributing to OSS:

  • Improve coding abilities by working on real-world projects
  • Expand professional connections through open collaboration
  • Enhance resumes and build reputation through visible contributions
  • Give back and share knowledge with the global dev community

Contributing to OSS is rewarding both personally and professionally. It allows developers to showcase their talents while moving the industry forward.

What is OSS contribution?

Open-source software (OSS) contribution refers to individuals or organizations contributing code, documentation, testing, design, funding, or other value to open-source software projects.

An open-source software allows the source code to be freely used, modified, and shared. Contributing to OSS involves improving existing projects or creating new ones that fill a need.

Some examples of how one can contribute to open source projects:

  • Reporting bugs and issues: Testing software and reporting bugs or issues you find helps improve projects. Even just trying out projects and providing user feedback is a valuable contribution.

  • Suggesting new features: If you have ideas for features that could enhance a project, suggesting them on forums or opening GitHub issues brings awareness to project owners.

  • Improving documentation: Fixing typos, clarifying instructions, or rewriting sections to be more beginner-friendly makes projects more usable.

  • Fixing bugs: After identifying a bug, submitting a pull request with the fix lets owners easily integrate it. Fixes could be code changes or documentation tweaks.

  • Adding features: More advanced contributions like building out new components or integrating new APIs helps projects expand.

  • Donating: Even small financial contributions to projects you use supports maintainers dedicating time.

The main goal of open-source contributions is to help projects grow sustainably through community effort. Even small improvements make a difference!

How do I start contributing to OSS?

The first step in contributing to open source is to find a project that aligns with your interests and expertise. Consider the project's popularity, community engagement, and the technology stack used. Websites like GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket are excellent resources for discovering open-source projects.

Here are the key steps to get started with open source contributions:

  • Explore projects on sites like GitHub to find ones that interest you and match your skills. Look at the number of contributors, frequency of commits, and recency of updates to gauge project activity.

  • Review a project's CONTRIBUTING file to understand their specific processes and requirements for contributions. This will describe how to submit issues, what types of contributions are accepted, code style guides, etc.

  • Introduce yourself to the project owners/community by joining discussion forums or commenting on issues. Get to know the norms of the community.

  • Start small by fixing typos, improving documentation, adding comments to help readability, etc. These don't require coding skills but let you get familiar with the project workflow.

  • Find beginner-friendly issues labeled "good first issue" or "help wanted" that match your abilities. Comment on the issue to indicate your interest to work on it.

  • Fork the repository and create a branch to isolate your contribution. Make your changes while adhering to project conventions. Test thoroughly.

  • Create a pull request (PR) describing your changes. Link to the relevant issue if applicable. Request a code review from project maintainers. Be responsive to any feedback.

  • Get your PR merged once all requirements are met! Congrats on your first open source contribution! 🎉

The key is to start small, be helpful, patient, responsive to feedback, and respect a project's norms. Over time you'll gain experience and familiarity to take on more impactful contributions.

Is open source contribution worth it?

Contributing to open source can provide immense value, both to the projects and to your own development skills. Here are some of the key benefits:

  • Learn and improve coding skills: By reading other people's code and collaborating, you expand your knowledge of programming best practices. Understanding large codebases also develops your ability to organize and contribute to big projects.

  • Gain experience: Open source contributions allow you to apply what you're learning and gain valuable experience in a real-world setting. This can impress future employers.

  • Build public portfolio: Your open source contributions publicly display your coding abilities for others to evaluate. This portfolio can demonstrate skills and help land jobs.

  • Contribute to community: By fixing bugs, building features, or improving documentation, you help projects succeed. This cultivates relationships and feels rewarding.

  • Discover new tools: Contributing exposes you to new frameworks, libraries and development workflows you may not otherwise encounter. This allows you to expand your toolkit.

In summary, contributing to open source, even in small ways, fuels personal growth and supports the broader dev community. It's worth the effort for any developer looking to elevate their skills or support collaborative software.

How to make money with OSS?

Here are 6 ways that open source companies can generate revenue from their projects:


  • Individual developers can solicit donations from users who want to support their work. Platforms like GitHub Sponsors facilitate this.
  • Works best for developers who create very popular or essential projects.

Hosted Version

  • Companies can offer a hosted or "enterprise" version of the open source project, with additional features, support, or customization.
  • For example, offers hosted WordPress sites with extra capabilities beyond basic open source WordPress.
  • Provide technical support, maintenance, or consulting around the open source project for a fee.
  • Sell training courses and certifications for the open source technology.

Open Core Model

  • Open source the core software, but create proprietary commercial add-ons, plugins, or modules that offer more features.

Dual Licensing

  • Open source the core software under one license, but sell commercial licenses with additional rights/terms for enterprise use cases.

Sell Complementary Products

  • Offer other proprietary software, tools, or services that integrate or work well with the open source project.

Open Source Contribution for Beginners

How to Contribute to Open Source GitHub as a Beginner

Contributing to open source projects on GitHub as a beginner can seem daunting, but it's easier than you think! Here are some tips to get started:

  • Browse beginner-friendly projects. Look for projects that specifically welcome new contributors with labels like "good first issue" or "help wanted." Popular beginner projects include Homebrew, Kubernetes, and React.

  • Set up your GitHub account. Make sure your GitHub profile clearly identifies you. Add a profile picture and your full name if you feel comfortable.

  • Introduce yourself to the community. Lurk in issues and pull requests to understand the norms before posting. Then introduce yourself on community channels like Slack or Discourse.

  • Find an issue to tackle. Search issues for labels indicating newcomer-friendly tasks. If stuck, ask maintainers if they have any suitable issues for your skill level.

  • Fork the repository and make changes. Forking creates your own copy to safely experiment with code changes. Test your work thoroughly before submitting a pull request.

  • Create the pull request. Open a PR with a clear title and description. Link to related issues. Request a code review from project maintainers.

Evaluating Your Skills and Finding Projects

Honestly assessing your current skills helps find open source projects well-matched to your experience level:

  • List your coding languages and technologies. Which languages, frameworks, tools, and systems are you familiar with? These shape the types of projects you can comfortably contribute to.

  • Identify your experience level. Are you a coding newbie or a veteran? This determines whether you should look for introductory issues or more complex enhancements.

  • Find your OSS passion. Contributing is more rewarding if you work on projects relevant to your interests and goals. Search GitHub Topics to explore options.

Once aware of your abilities, browse projects that offer issues tagged for your coding languages and at your experience level. If stuck, ask for mentorship opportunities on community forums.

Understanding a few key GitHub project management features helps beginners grasp OSS contribution workflows:

  • Issues track tasks, bugs, feature requests, and questions related to the project. Commenting on issues is a great way to start engaging.

  • Labels categorize and filter issues for easier management. Common labels indicate good first issues, available mentoring, bug reports, and enhancements.

  • Milestones organize issues and pull requests into phases of development. They provide visibility into release planning.

  • Projects display issues and PRs on Kanban-style boards to visualize progress. This shows what's being actively worked on.

Identifying Good-First-Issue Opportunities

Issue labels like "good first issue" indicate tasks suitable for first-time contributors:

  • They often focus on documentation, like fixing typos, adding code examples, or updating contributor guidelines.

  • Commenting on issues to ask for clarification or share ideas is another friendly starting point.

  • Small bug fixes that touch isolated areas of code make ideal early PRs. Browse the 'bugs' label for options.

Before claiming an issue, discuss with mentors on communication channels to validate your approach. Share your intended solution to get feedback.

Making Your First Contributions

Contributing to open source can seem daunting at first, but following this step-by-step guide will set you up for success in making your first contribution.

Understanding the Open Source Contribution Checklist

Before you start, be sure to read through the project's:

  • Code of conduct - Outlines expected behavior and norms for the community.
  • Contribution guidelines - Provides instructions for making different types of contributions.
  • README - Gives an overview of the project and how to get started.

Following these guides will help ensure your contributions align with the project's standards and goals.

Addressing Issues Pointing Out Bugs

  • Search the project's issue tracker for bugs marked "good first issue" or "beginner-friendly". These are suitable for first-time contributors.
  • Clearly understand and reproduce the bug on your own before working on a fix.
  • If you need clarification, ask a question in the issue comments.
  • Once fixed, open a pull request with details explaining your fix.

Tackling beginner-friendly bugs allows you to make meaningful contributions while learning the codebase.

Preparing and Submitting Your First Pull Requests

To contribute code changes:

  1. Fork the repository to your own account.
  2. Create a new branch. Give it a descriptive name relating to your fix.
  3. Make your changes, ensuring to follow project conventions.
  4. Commit your changes with a descriptive commit message.
  5. Push your commits to your forked repo.
  6. Open a pull request against the upstream repository.
  7. Engage in code review feedback from maintainers.

Following these steps helps get your contribution reviewed and merged smoothly.

Engaging with Open Source Community Members

  • Participate in discussions on pull requests and issues. Offer help or feedback.
  • Attend project meetings and introduce yourself to other contributors.
  • Ask questions if you need guidance. Document issues you run into for others.
  • Follow the project's code of conduct. Be collaborative, not combative.

Engaging thoughtfully establishes you as a member of the community and encourages future contributions.

Best Practices for Contributing to Open Source

Contributing to open source software (OSS) can be an incredibly rewarding experience. However, it's important to follow best practices when making contributions to ensure they are meaningful, effective, and well-received by maintainers and the community. Here are some key areas to focus on.

Communicating Effectively with Maintainers

Clear communication is essential when contributing to OSS. When you encounter an issue or bug, comment on the relevant GitHub issue thread with a detailed description and any useful supporting information. Be responsive to maintainer questions.

Similarly, when submitting a pull request, provide a clear overview of what changes you made and why in the description. Highlight how it benefits the project. Respond promptly to any maintainer feedback.

Overall, be courteous, patient and understanding. Maintainers volunteer their time and aim to collaborate effectively.

Writing Good Commit Messages and Pull Requests

Well-written commit messages and pull requests greatly improve the contribution process.

For commit messages, summarize the changes briefly in the subject line. Provide more detail in the body if needed. Use the imperative mood and keep things concise.

When submitting a pull request, choose a descriptive title summarizing the purpose. In the description, explain your changes at a high level, providing rationale and highlighting benefits. Reference related issues/bugs.

Adhering to GitHub Sponsors and Funding Protocols

Many OSS projects rely on GitHub Sponsors to provide financial support for maintainers. Before using sponsored projects, consider making a small monthly contribution.

When seeking support for your own projects, set up funding tiers that offer reasonable rewards. Be transparent about how funds are used. Thank your sponsors and provide status updates.

Following the Open Source Contribution Guide

Most OSS projects provide a CONTRIBUTING guide with project-specific contribution information and best practices. Follow these guides closely when making contributions.

Look for a CODE OF CONDUCT as well. Ensure you understand and adhere to behavioral standards set by project maintainers. This helps create a welcoming, inclusive open source community.

Beyond Code: Non-Code Contributions in OSS

Contributing to open source software (OSS) goes far beyond just writing code. There are many ways developers and non-developers alike can meaningfully participate in OSS projects.

Improving Documentation and Tutorials

Clear, up-to-date documentation is critical for onboarding new contributors and helping users understand how to properly use an OSS project. Here are some ways to help improve docs:

  • Identify confusing or outdated parts of the docs and open issues suggesting improvements
  • Submit pull requests to fix typos, grammatical errors, or formatting problems
  • Add more examples or tutorials demonstrating real-world usage
  • Translate documentation to new languages to increase accessibility

Design and User Experience Contributions

For developers less experienced with coding, contributing design and UX improvements is another great way to participate. Some ideas include:

  • Creating mockups for new features or page layouts
  • Designing logo and branding assets
  • Putting together style guides and design systems
  • Identifying pain points in the user experience and suggesting improvements

Project Management and Organizational Roles

Maintaining and organizing OSS projects also takes considerable effort. Non-code ways to pitch in here include:

  • Triaging issues and pull requests
  • Engaging with users to gather feedback and feature requests
  • Creating project roadmaps and release plans
  • Helping make decisions about project direction and priorities
  • Promoting the project through social media and conferences

Participating in Open Source Programs and Events

Programs like Hacktoberfest make it easy to get started contributing to OSS. The open source community also hosts conferences and meetups worldwide. Attending these events helps you learn while supporting projects you use.

Contributing to open source requires no coding experience whatsoever. All members of the community are welcome to pitch in where their unique skills can improve OSS projects!

Sustaining and Expanding Your OSS Presence

Becoming a long-term open source contributor requires commitment and participation beyond just fixing bugs or submitting pull requests. Here are some impactful ways to expand your involvement with open source projects over time.

Becoming a Maintainer and Accepting Contributions

After consistently providing high-quality contributions, you may be offered a maintainer role. This comes with leadership duties like:

  • Reviewing and merging pull requests
  • Triaging issues
  • Enforcing code of conduct
  • Planning new features

As a maintainer, you'll guide the project's direction and community. You'll ensure contributions meet coding and documentation standards.

Organizing OSS Events and Hackathons

Consider organizing open source workshops, meetups or hackathons. These events allow contributors to collaborate in-person while supporting the project. Tips include:

  • Partner with local tech communities or companies
  • Plan beginner-friendly activities
  • Provide mentors to guide newcomers
  • Award prizes for best contributions

Events boost project visibility and lower entry barriers for new contributors.

Mentoring New Contributors

Offer to mentor new contributors to pass on tribal knowledge. Help them through their first contributions. Guide them towards good first issues to start. Review their pull requests thoroughly. Answer usage questions.

Great mentors shape the next generation of maintainers.

Creating an Open Source Handbook for Your Projects

An open source handbook codifies processes, guidelines, and best practices for your projects. Include:

  • Contribution guidelines
  • Code of conduct
  • Release processes
  • Testing and documentation standards
  • Community communication channels

Handbooks ensure consistent, high-quality contributions at scale.


Contributing to open source software can provide many benefits for developers at all experience levels. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • OSS participation enables you to improve your coding skills, gain experience, and build your professional profile.
  • Finding beginner-friendly projects, starting with non-code contributions, and reviewing guidelines/documentation are great ways to get started.
  • Following best practices around communication, testing, documentation, and licensing is critical for successful OSS engagement.
  • Platforms like GitHub provide tools for discovering projects, tracking issues, submitting pull requests, and connecting with maintainers.
  • Developing a thoughtful OSS strategy focused on value creation, aligned with your skills and interests, will lead to the most meaningful contributions.

While contributing to open source can take some effort to do properly, it is an incredibly rewarding endeavor. We encourage all developers, regardless of their current skill level, to explore OSS as a way to accelerate their careers while collaborating and creating value for the broader tech community.