Published Apr 16, 2024 ⦁ 20 min read
OSS Developer Essentials: Getting Started

OSS Developer Essentials: Getting Started

Getting started as an OSS developer offers a rich path to improving coding skills, contributing to meaningful projects, and joining a vibrant community. Here's what you need to know:

  • Why Contribute? Learn by doing, improve software for everyone, connect with the community, and pick up valuable tech skills.
  • Understanding OSS: It's collaborative, transparent, and community-driven.
  • Licenses Matter: Know the differences between permissive and copyleft licenses and choose wisely for your project.
  • Setting Up: Familiarize yourself with Git, GitHub, and choose an IDE that suits your needs.
  • Finding Projects: Assess your skills, explore project directories, and engage with community forums.
  • Making Contributions: Start with small changes, create pull requests, and navigate community dynamics.
  • Beyond Coding: You can also contribute through documentation, visual design, and community support.
  • Handling Feedback: Learn not to take feedback personally, and use it as a growth opportunity.
  • Growing Your Profile: Showcase your contributions in a portfolio and find mentors within OSS communities.

Whether you're fixing bugs, writing documentation, or starting your own project, there's a place for you in the OSS world. Dive in, start contributing, and grow your skills while making technology better for everyone.

The Role of OSS in Software Innovation

OSS lets developers use what's already out there instead of starting from scratch every time. This means they can focus on making things better instead of just making them work. Big projects like the Linux operating system, the Python programming language, and tools like Docker have all been built this way. By sharing and building on each other's work, developers can do amazing things much faster.

OSS as a Community Effort

OSS is all about developers working together because they want to, not because they have to. They use sites like GitHub to share their code, talk about ideas, and help each other out. There aren’t bosses in the traditional sense. Instead, people who do great work get noticed, and everyone helps shape how things are done.

This way of working means there’s less fuss about who’s in charge and more focus on making good software. Developers find others who are interested in the same things, and together, they make software that’s not just useful but also something they’re proud of.

The Significance of Licenses in OSS

Open source licenses are super important because they set the rules for how people can use, change, and share software that's open for anyone to look at. Picking the right license is a big deal if you're starting an open source project.

Licenses help make open source work by letting creators keep copyright but also share their stuff so others can use it. Without a license, you couldn't legally use, change, or share the project's code.

There are different types of open source licenses, each with its own rules:

  • Permissive licenses - These are the easy-going types. They let people do pretty much anything with the software, like the MIT, Apache 2.0, and BSD licenses.
  • Copyleft licenses - These have a rule that if you change the software and share it, you have to use the same open license. GPL, LGPL, and MPL are examples.
  • Domain-specific licenses - Some licenses are made for specific things, like fonts (SIL OFL) or databases (ODC Open Database License).

When picking a license, think about how you want your project to be used, like if you're okay with commercial use, or if you want changes to also be open source. The OSI (Open Source Initiative) approves licenses that fit open source standards.

How to Choose the Right License

Here's what to think about when choosing a license for your project:

  • Intended use cases - Do you want your project to be used in businesses? In gadgets?
  • Derivative works - Do you want changes to your project to also be open source?
  • Patent protection - Do you need protection from patent claims?
  • Attribution - Do you want people to give you credit in their code or docs?
  • Compatibility - Will your license play nice with other project codes?

Take your time to look into the details of each license. Permissive licenses let more people use your project, while copyleft licenses keep everything open. The best choice depends on what's important for your project and the open source community.

Setting Up Your OSS Developer Environment

Version Control with Git


Git is a tool that lets developers work on the same project without messing up each other's work. It's really important for working together on open source software (OSS) because:

  • It lets people work on their own part and combine their work later. This is super helpful when people are in different places.
  • Git keeps a record of all the changes. If something goes wrong, you can easily go back to a version that worked.
  • You can make branches, which are like separate paths for trying out new things without affecting the main project. This helps keep everything organized.
  • Since everyone has their own copy of the project, work doesn't have to stop if there's a problem with the main copy.

If you're new, you should download Git and learn how to use basic commands like clone (to get a copy of the project), add (to add your changes), commit (to save them), push (to share them), pull (to get others' changes), and merge (to combine changes).

Leveraging Platforms like GitHub

GitHub is a website that makes it easier to work on OSS projects together. It has tools for:

  • Sharing your project with the world. You can make your code public for anyone to see and use.
  • Organizing work with issues (to track problems) and pull requests (to suggest changes).
  • Reviewing code and managing tasks to make sure everything gets done.
  • Hosting documentation for free, so you don't have to worry about setting up a website.
  • Building a community with features like stars (to show you like a project), followers, and updates.

Start by making a GitHub account, setting up your profile, and practicing how to fork a project (make your own copy), open issues, and submit pull requests.

Integrated Development Environments (IDEs)

IDEs are programs that help you write code more easily. They have features like:

  • Helping you write code faster with suggestions.

  • Checking your code for mistakes as you go.

  • Letting you save your work directly to Git without leaving the program.

  • Adding new tools and features through extensions.

They work on different types of computers, so you can use them no matter what you have. Some good ones for beginners are Visual Studio Code, Atom, Eclipse, and PyCharm. Try a few to see which one you like best.

Getting Git, joining GitHub, and picking an IDE are the first steps to getting ready for working on OSS projects. With these tools, you can start helping out and learning right away.

Finding OSS Projects to Contribute To

Assessing Your Skills

Before diving into open source software (OSS) projects, think about what you're good at and what interests you. Ask yourself:

  • Which programming languages do you know well? Like Python, JavaScript, or C++.
  • What kind of projects grab your attention? Maybe web development, machine learning, or something else.
  • Can you help with other parts of a project, not just coding? Maybe writing how-to guides, testing, or designing?

Understanding your skills and interests helps you pick OSS projects where you can really make a difference. If you're looking to learn new skills, look for projects that welcome beginners.

Exploring Project Directories

Websites like GitHub Explore and Mozilla's Codetribute let you find OSS projects that need help. You can search by:

  • Programming languages - Find projects in languages you know or want to learn.
  • Topics - Pick subjects you're interested in, like science, games, or data visualization.
  • Difficulty - Look for tags like "good first issue" to find projects that are great for beginners.

Spend some time looking through projects to find ones that excite you and fit your goals. Save interesting projects to check out later.

Joining OSS Community Forums

Forums like FreeCodeCamp have special areas for finding OSS projects to contribute to. These forums help you:

  • Get recommendations - People often share projects they like working on.

  • Find project postings - Project owners post about their projects to find helpers.

  • Ask questions - If you're curious about how to start with a project, just ask.

Using these forums helps you find coding projects that are looking for new contributors and match what you're good at and like to do. Start by figuring out what you can do, use directories to find projects, and talk to people in OSS communities to find projects you'll enjoy helping with.

Making Your First OSS Contribution

Contributing to open source software (OSS) might look tough at first, but it's really not when you break it down into easy steps. Let's walk through how to make your first contribution to an OSS project:

Forking the Repository

To start, you'll need to fork the project. This means you make your own copy of it on GitHub. Look for the "Fork" button on the top right of the project's page on GitHub, and click it. This copies the project to your account.

Now, you've got your own version of the project that you can change without messing up the original.

Cloning the Fork Locally

Next up, clone your fork to your computer. This means you download it so you can work on it. Open your terminal and type this, but swap YOUR-USERNAME with your actual GitHub username:

git clone

This lets you make changes, test them out, and commit them on your computer.

Making Changes

Start with something small for your first go. You could:

  • Fix a spelling mistake
  • Make the documentation better
  • Add comments to make complex code easier to understand
  • Sort out a small bug

Keep your changes simple so they're easy to check and test.

Creating a Pull Request

Pull Request

After you've made some changes in your fork, commit them and push them back up to GitHub. Then, on GitHub, start a pull request so your changes can be added to the main project.

Explain what you did clearly so the people running the project can easily see what you've added. They might ask you some questions or ask you to tweak a few things.

And that's it! You've made your first contribution. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Understanding OSS Community Dynamics

The Significance of Codes of Conduct

Codes of conduct are super important in open source software (OSS) communities. They make sure everyone knows how to be nice to each other, which makes the community a welcoming place for everyone. Here’s why they’re a big deal:

  • Make everyone feel welcome: These rules show that a project wants all kinds of people to help out and feel safe doing so. This attracts more helpers from different places.
  • Stop bad behavior: They make it clear that being mean, like bullying or discrimination, won’t be tolerated. This keeps the community friendly and working well together.
  • Help everyone focus: When people feel safe, they can concentrate on making cool stuff instead of worrying about conflicts.
  • Protect the project: Having these rules can also help projects stay out of legal trouble in some places.

In short, codes of conduct make sure everyone can contribute in a positive way, which makes the project better and more creative.

Engaging with Project Maintainers

Project maintainers are the ones who make sure everything runs smoothly in OSS projects. Talking to them the right way can help a lot. Here’s how:

  • Look at the guides first: Before you ask anything, check the project’s guidelines. They’ll tell you how to ask questions and where to talk to maintainers.

  • Talk in the right places: If you have a big idea or need to discuss something important, use the private channels or forums the project suggests, not the public comment sections.

  • Ask smart questions: Show you’ve tried to figure things out on your own first. This makes it easier for maintainers to help you.

  • Be okay with feedback: Sometimes you might get feedback that feels tough, but remember, it’s all about making the project better. Don’t take it personally.

  • Let them know when you’re around: Tell maintainers when you’re available to chat. They’re juggling a lot, so this can make things easier.

By following these tips and respecting the project’s way of doing things, you can have a good relationship with the maintainers and help make some amazing software.


Alternative Ways to Contribute to OSS


Documentation is super important for open source software (OSS) projects because it helps people understand how to use the software and get involved. Here are some ways you can help with documentation:

  • Write simple guides and instructions for getting started
  • Make tutorials for doing common things with the software
  • Explain how people can contribute to the project
  • Describe how the project is put together and why
  • Put together a list of frequently asked questions and answers

Good documentation makes it easier for everyone to jump in and use or contribute to the software.

Visual Design

How an OSS project looks can really affect whether people are interested in it. Good design makes a project look professional and inviting.

Here's how designers can help:

  • Create logos and icons that make the project stand out
  • Choose colors and fonts that look good together
  • Design web pages, the main GitHub page, and presentations
  • Make charts or diagrams to explain hard concepts
  • Create cool graphics and pictures for the project

When a project looks good, it's easier to find and people are more likely to take it seriously.

Community Support

Building a strong community helps an OSS project grow by keeping users and contributors engaged.

Here are some ways to support the community:

  • Help out in forums by answering questions
  • Set up meetups online or in person
  • Keep chat channels friendly and welcoming
  • Share news and updates on social media
  • Write community rules and codes of conduct
  • Give shoutouts to people who contribute a lot

A friendly and welcoming community makes it easier for an OSS project to keep going strong.

Developing Thicker Skin

Managing Subjectivity

When you help with open source projects, it can feel like you're putting a piece of yourself out there. But it's important to remember that when people give you feedback, they're not trying to be mean. They're just looking out for the project's best interest.

Here's how to handle feedback without taking it personally:

  • It's not about you - Try to see feedback as a way to make the project better, not as a personal attack.

  • Ask for more info - If feedback seems harsh, it's okay to ask why they think that way. Sometimes, things get lost in communication.

  • See their side - Try to understand where the project maintainer is coming from. They might know things about the project you don't.

  • Think it over - Decide if the feedback is helpful or just someone being picky. Use it to learn and grow.

Getting used to feedback helps you learn from both the good and the not-so-good comments. The more you put yourself out there, the better you'll get at knowing what advice to take to heart.

Fostering Accountability

Even when feedback doesn't seem fair, you're still in charge of getting better. Here are some ways to keep yourself on track:

  • Make a plan - Decide what skills you want to work on (like coding or writing) and how helping with open source can help you get there.

  • Track your progress - Keep an eye on how you're doing. Celebrate your wins and learn from your losses.

  • Talk about it - If you think the project maintainers don't understand where you're coming from, tell them about your experience and what you're trying to achieve.

  • Try different projects - Look for projects that match what you're good at so you can show off your strengths and work on your weak spots.

Taking charge of your growth turns feedback into steps toward your goals, not just criticism. This way, you can learn from every comment, even the tough ones.

Growing Your OSS Developer Profile

Showcasing Work Through Portfolios

If you're a developer, having a portfolio is a smart way to show off your open source work to people who might want to hire you or work with you. Here's how to make a good one:

  • Pick your best projects - Choose a few open source projects where you really made a difference, like fixing big bugs, adding new features, or making the documentation better. Link to your contributions, like pull requests or commits.

  • Talk about what you did - For each project, describe the problem you solved or what you achieved. If you can, say how many people benefited from your work.

  • Highlight your tech skills - Mention the programming languages, tools, or technologies you used. Explain how working on open source projects helped you get better with these skills.

  • Share positive feedback - If people said good things about your work, include that. It shows others value your contributions.

  • Tailor it to your audience - Change which projects you highlight depending on the job you're applying for.

A portfolio lets you show not just the projects you've worked on, but how you've made a real impact and grown as a developer.

Finding Mentors Within Communities

Experienced open source contributors can teach you a lot, not just about coding, but also how to work well with others on projects:

  • Asking questions - They can show you how to do your homework before asking questions, how to ask clearly, and give enough background.

  • Receiving feedback - They can help you understand feedback, not to take it personally, and find the helpful bits in it.

  • Pushing changes - They can teach you when and how to follow up on your contributions, ask for reviews, and keep things moving.

  • Community norms - They can tell you about the best ways to communicate, follow style guides, and understand how decisions are made.

Finding a mentor who is willing to explain these things can make a big difference. They're usually happy to help newbies get into the open source community.


Helping out with open source software is a great way to get better at coding, help others, and even improve your job prospects. But, it's not always easy and you need to be ready to keep at it and learn. Here's a quick summary of what to keep in mind:

Key Concepts

  • Understand licenses - It's important to know and follow the rules of the open source license for any project you work on. Common licenses like MIT, GPL, and Apache 2.0 have their own specific rules.
  • Follow community guidelines - Stick to the community's codes of conduct and other rules that make sure everyone feels welcome.
  • Start small - Begin with easy tasks like fixing spelling mistakes or making documentation clearer. This is a good way to learn how things work.
  • Expect feedback - Remember, when people review your work and give feedback, they're trying to make the project better, not criticize you personally. Learn from the feedback and don't mind the negative stuff.
  • Highlight contributions - Keep track of your work on open source projects and show it off to potential employers or people you might want to work with.

Looking Ahead

The open source community is always looking for people who want to make software better for everyone. Keep contributing, learning, and growing your skills. You'll gain valuable experience and make a real difference. Find mentors, keep your goals in mind, and don't get discouraged. Your work is important!

How do I become an OSS developer?

To start as an open source software (OSS) developer, follow these steps:

  • Find a project you like - Look for OSS projects that catch your interest and are suitable for beginners. Many projects use tags like "good first issue" to help newbies find easy tasks.
  • Check the project's license - Ensure the project has an open source license such as MIT, GPL, or Apache, so you know you're allowed to contribute.
  • Read the project's documentation - This will tell you how to set up your development environment, how the code works, and how you can contribute.
  • Sign up on GitHub - You'll need an account to fork project repositories and make pull requests with your contributions.
  • Start coding! - Fork the repository of a project you want to contribute to. Begin with small contributions like fixing bugs or improving documentation to get the hang of things.

How to make money with OSS?

There are a few ways to earn money through open source software:

  • Donations - Ask for financial support from users.
  • Paid hosted version - Offer a cloud-based version of your project for a fee.
  • Paid support/training - Provide expert help or training for a charge.
  • Open core - Keep the basic version free but charge for extra features.
  • Dual licensing - Offer the open source version for free but charge for a commercial license.
  • Selling complementary services/products - Use open source software to boost demand for other services or products you sell.

How do I get started with open source programming?

Here's how to dive into open source programming:

  • Choose a programming language you're comfortable with, like Python or JavaScript.
  • Pick a project type that interests you, such as web applications or data science.
  • Begin with small tasks like bug fixes or updating documentation to learn the ropes.
  • Create a GitHub account to find and contribute to open source projects.
  • Learn the basics of Git to manage your contributions.
  • Join online forums and communities to find supportive OSS groups.
  • Focus on building skills that are useful in many areas, like how to do code reviews.
  • Think about starting your own project to show off your skills.

What OSS products do you use day to day?

Here are some commonly used open source software:

  • Operating Systems: Linux, Android
  • Browsers: Firefox, Chromium
  • Media Players: VLC Media Player
  • Office Suites: LibreOffice, Apache OpenOffice
  • Web Servers: Apache HTTP Server, Nginx
  • Programming Languages: Python, Perl, Ruby
  • Databases: MySQL, PostgreSQL, MongoDB
  • Dev Tools: Git, Visual Studio Code

Open source software is part of many tools and apps we use every day.