How to Contribute to Open Source Projects: A Step-by-Step Guide

Imagine a world where the tools and programs you use daily aren’t just created by a few but crafted by many—a global community of developers and enthusiasts who believe in collaboration, transparency, and innovation. That’s the heart of open source. Anyone can contribute to open source projects and improve the digital world.

Open-source projects empower individuals and communities to collaborate, innovate, and make a positive impact on a global scale. The Linux operating system, started by Linus Torvalds in 1991, revolutionized computing by providing a free and open-source alternative to proprietary systems, powering everything from smartphones to supercomputers. The Apache HTTP Server, maintained by the Apache Software Foundation since 1995, has been a cornerstone of the World Wide Web, serving as the most popular web server software for over two decades. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, established in 2009, has created affordable, single-board computers that have made computing and programming accessible to millions, fostering education and innovation in schools and communities worldwide.

Individuals can contribute to these projects or explore other open-source initiatives that align with their interests, such as artificial intelligence, healthcare, or environmental conservation. Read on to learn everything you need to know on how to contribute to open source projects.

What is open source?

Open source is a collaborative approach to software development where the source code is made freely available for anyone to use, modify, and distribute. The open-source model encourages transparency, community participation, and continuous improvement, as developers from around the world can contribute to the project, suggest enhancements, and fix bugs.

By sharing knowledge and resources, open-source projects can evolve rapidly and benefit from the collective expertise of a diverse community. Open-source software has become a driving force behind many of the technologies we use every day, from operating systems and web servers to productivity tools and scientific software, demonstrating the power of collaboration and open innovation.

Examples of open source projects

Open-source projects come in all shapes and sizes, with some catering to niche audiences and others being so widely used that you may have interacted with them without even realizing it. Some notable examples of open-source projects that have made a significant impact include:

  • OpenStreetMap, founded by Steve Coast in 2004, is a collaborative project to create a free, editable map of the world, which has been used in humanitarian efforts, such as assisting rescue workers during natural disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

  • The COVID Tracking Project, launched in March 2020 by journalists and volunteers, collected and published crucial data on COVID-19 testing, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States, filling a gap in publicly available data during the early stages of the pandemic.

  • Mastodon, created by Eugen Rochko in 2016, is a decentralized, open-source social media platform that provides an alternative to centralized platforms like Twitter, offering users greater control over their data and privacy while fostering a more community-driven approach to social networking.

Classic anatomy of open source projects

Jumping into an open source project can sometimes feel like walking into a new city—each has its own rules, culture, and structures to keep things moving smoothly.

Fortunately, most open source projects share a few things in common.

Knowing this structure helps you find your way around and opens opportunities for contributing code, improving documentation, or simply learning.

Here are some of the typical components you can expect in any open source project:

  • Source code repository: At the heart of any open source project is its source code. This is usually hosted on platforms like GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket, where anyone can view, download, and contribute to the code.

  • Documentation: Good documentation generally includes installation guides, user manuals, and FAQs to help users and potential contributors understand how to use and contribute to the project.

  • Issue tracker: This is where the community manages and discusses project-related issues. You’ll find everything from bug reports and feature requests to general tasks and upcoming developments. It’s how owners maintain current project health and plan future improvements.

  • Mailing lists and forums: Mailing lists and forums provide spaces where users and developers can ask questions, share ideas, and discuss the project in depth.

  • Contribution guidelines: Most projects have a set of guidelines that outline how to contribute properly. These might include coding standards, the process for submitting changes, and how to properly communicate).

  • Licenses: Every open source project includes a license that specifies how the software can be used and distributed. Common licenses include GPL, MIT, and Apache—each has its own permissions and limitations.

  • Maintainers and core team: While anyone can contribute to open source, the core team or maintainers guide the project’s direction, review and approve contributions, and keep the project true to its purpose.

Why you should contribute to open source projects

Contributing to open source projects is more than just coding. It’s about learning, sharing, and improving the software that millions of people might rely on every day.

Everyone has their own reasons for contributing to open source projects, but here are some deeper motivations to consider:

  • Improve coding know-how: Open source projects provide a real-world playground to hone your programming skills. You get to read others’ code, understand different coding styles, and receive feedback from seasoned developers.

  • Build a network: Participating in these projects connects you with like-minded professionals worldwide. This network can be invaluable for collaboration, mentorship, and even job opportunities.

  • Strengthen your resume: Contributing to respected open source projects can boost your resume. It demonstrates your proactive engagement with the tech community and shows potential employers your commitment to growth and collaboration.

  • Give back to the community: If you’ve ever benefited from open source software projects (which you likely have), contributing back is possibly the best way to say “thank you.” It guarantees the longevity and progress of the projects you care about.

  • Drive innovation: Open source projects are often at the forefront of technological innovation. Contributing lets you have a direct hand in shaping future technologies and tools.

  • Understand real-world applications: Working on open source projects exposes you to real-world software applications and systems—there’s no better way to gain practical experience.

How to contribute to open source projects

Contributing to open source isn’t just for coders. There are dozens of ways to contribute to open source projects. Some require a bit more technical know-how, while others just demand a bit of time, love, and care.

While we can’t cover every possible way to contribute to open source projects, we’ve come up with a list to get your creative juices flowing:

  1. Code contributions: This is the most obvious form of contribution. Fix bugs, add new features, contribute code, and improve the existing codebase to enrich functionality and performance.

  2. Testing: Test existing features for bugs and report or help fix them.

  3. Writing documentation: Contribute by writing tutorials, improving existing documentation, or translating documentation into other languages.

  4. Design: Open source projects often need help making their applications visually pretty and easy to use. Contribute by improving or creating graphics, user interfaces, or user experiences.

  5. Answering questions: Participate in forums, mailing lists, and chat channels to help others solve problems.

  6. Reviewing code: If you’re an experienced programmer, review others’ code. Your expertise can help guarantee the quality and reliability of the codebase.

  7. Organizing events: Help organize meetups, conferences, or workshops about the project.

  8. Marketing and outreach: Help spread the word about the project through social media, blogging, or speaking at conferences. Raising awareness can attract more contributors and users.

  9. Financial donations: If you can’t contribute time or skills, consider donating money to help the project sustain its operations.

  10. Legal assistance: If you have legal expertise, you can help the project handle licensing issues or other legal challenges.

  11. Accessibility auditing: Help make the project more accessible by auditing for accessibility issues and recommending improvements.

  12. Community management: Help manage the community by organizing discussions, managing conflict, and keeping the community members engaged.

  13. Educational resources: Create tutorials, videos, and other educational materials that help users understand how to use the project.

  14. Project management: Help manage the project’s progress, coordinate tasks among contributors, and guarantee deadlines get met.

  15. Tooling: Develop or improve tools that make development processes more efficient for everyone involved.

  16. Translation: Help translate the project interface or documentation into different languages.

  17. User feedback: Use the project and provide input from a user’s perspective. Note what you like and dislike.

  18. Writing grants: If you have experience with grant writing, help the project secure funding through grants.

  19. Content creation: Create non-technical content that explains the project’s value, use cases, and impact. This can include blog posts, case studies, and success stories.

  20. Performance optimization: Analyze the project for performance issues and contribute optimizations that make the software faster.

  21. Security audits: Offer your expertise in security by auditing the software for vulnerabilities.

  22. Mentorship: Offer mentorship to new contributors who may need some guidance.

  23. Artwork: Contribute by designing artwork or merchandise for the project.

  24. Data cleaning: For projects that involve data, help by cleaning and organizing data.

  25. Fundraising: Assist in organizing fundraising campaigns.

  26. Beta testing: Participate in beta testing new features before they are released to the public.

  27. Documentation audits: Review the existing documentation for outdated information or errors.

  28. Hardware testing: Contribute by testing the software on different hardware configurations to confirm compatibility.

  29. Hosting demos: Host demo sessions to showcase the project and teach others how to use it.

Contribution guidelines to follow

The open source community has rules. While you’ll eventually make mistakes (and that’s okay), it’s best to start contributing on the right foot.

Each open source project will have its own expectations, but here are a few general contribution guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Read the documentation: Before contributing, read the project’s documentation. This includes the README file, contributing guidelines, and any other relevant materials the project maintainers provide.

  • Understand the code of conduct: Many projects have a Code of Conduct—this outlines the behaviors expected from contributors.

  • Start small: If you’re new to the project, start with small contributions. This could be fixing typos, adding comments to the code, or addressing minor bugs. Small wins will help you get familiar with the project’s contribution process.

  • Use the issue tracker: Before adding a feature or fixing a bug, check the project’s issue tracker to see if the work is already in progress or an acknowledged issue. This helps avoid duplicate work.

  • Follow the style guide: This might include specific guidelines on formatting code, coding style, writing commit messages, submitting pull requests, or documenting functions.

  • Communicate effectively: Whether you’re commenting on an issue, updating documentation, or submitting a pull request, always explain your rationale and provide context.

  • Submit meaningful commit messages: Write clear, concise commit messages that explain your changes and their purpose. This helps the maintainers to understand your contribution and serves as a helpful log for other contributors.

  • Participate in discussions: Discuss features, bugs, and improvements.

  • Respect decisions of maintainers: Ultimately, the project maintainers have the final say in what gets included. Respect their decisions.

  • Stay patient and responsive: After submitting a contribution, be patient for feedback and stay responsive to any comments or requests for changes from the project maintainers.

Where to find open source projects

Finding the right open source project sets the tone for your experience. Fortunately, you can find plenty of open source projects across the Internet—the hard part is narrowing down your options.

Here are some places you can start looking for open source projects that pique your interest:

  1. GitHub: The largest and most popular platform for open source projects. Use the search function or check out the ‘Trending’ section to find projects that are gaining momentum.

  2. GitLab: Similar to GitHub, GitLab offers a variety of open source projects.

  3. SourceForge: One of the earliest platforms for open source projects. SourceForge hosts tons of software projects and is well-organized.

  4. Bitbucket: Bitbucket provides a range of tools for developers looking to collaborate on code (especially those already using Atlassian products).

  5. Open Source Friday: This initiative by GitHub encourages involvement in open source communities. Their website provides resources and guides on how to get started and choose projects that suit your interests.

  6. First Timers Only: This site is geared towards newcomers to the open source community. It lists projects that have issues labeled as ‘first-timers-only’—these are meant specifically for beginners to tackle.

  7. CodeTriage: CodeTriage helps you find existing open source projects that need help based on the languages you know and the topics you’re interested in. It sends different open issues to your inbox to help you find projects more passively.

  8. Project websites and forums: Many big-time open source projects have their own dedicated websites and forums where you can learn about contribution opportunities directly from the source.

How to narrow down your options

Finding the right open source project to contribute to can feel like finding a tab in a world of spaces. Here’s how you can start narrowing down your options:

Start with your why.www.digitalocean.com Are you intrigued by data science, excited by web development, or perhaps interested in contributing to health-related projects? Identify your interests to focus your search. Start with something you care about.

Consider your coding skills and how much time you can commit. If you’re new to programming, look for projects that actively welcome newcomers and label their issues as “good first issue” or “beginner-friendly.” These tags are commonly used on platforms like GitHub to indicate tasks suitable for those just starting out in open source.

Evaluate the health and activity level of the project. A passionate project with regular updates and active discussions is more likely to provide a rewarding experience than one with sporadic activity. Check when the last commit was made, how frequently issues are posted and resolved, and whether there are recent discussions among contributors.

Embrace the community. Engage with potential projects by reading their documentation, browsing their issues, and observing or participating in discussions. This can give you a better feel for the community’s responsiveness and atmosphere. Remember, the goal is to find a project where you can contribute meaningfully and learn from others.

The process for submitting your open source contributions

The first commit is always the hardest, so let’s break the ice and get you started. Here’s the step-by-step process for submitting your open source contributions:

  1. Fork the repository: Start by forking the repository you wish to contribute to. Forking creates a copy of the project under your GitHub account, which lets you freely experiment and make changes without affecting the original project.

  2. Clone the forked repository: Once you’ve forked the repository, clone it to your local machine. Download the copy of your fork onto your computer so you can work on it in a local development environment. Use the git clone command followed by the URL of your fork.

  3. Create a new branch: Before making any changes, switch from the default “main” branch to a new branch. This keeps your changes organized and separate from the main project during development. Use the git checkout -b command to create and switch to a new branch.

  4. Make your changes: Now, you can start making changes to the project. Make your changes locally on the newly created branch. Double-check that your code follows the project’s coding standards and guidelines.

  5. Commit your changes: After making your changes, it’s time to commit them. This step involves saving your changes to your local git repository. Use descriptive commit messages that explain the changes and their purpose. Execute git add to add your changes to the index—then git commit -m ‘Your detailed commit message’ to commit your changes.

  6. Push changes to GitHub: Once you’ve committed your changes locally, push them to your fork on GitHub. Use the git push origin your-branch-name command to push your changes.

  7. Submit a pull request (PR): Go to the original repository you forked on GitHub. You’ll often see a “Compare & pull request” button. Click it to initiate a pull request. Choose the correct base repository and branch you are targeting with your changes. Fill in the details of your pull requests explaining your improvements or fixes.

  8. Review and discuss: Once your PR is submitted, the project maintainers will review your changes. Be open to discussion and feedback. Sometimes, you may need to make additional modifications based on feedback from the maintainers.

  9. PR gets merged: If your changes get accepted, a project maintainer will merge your pull request. This means your changes will be added to the project’s main branch.

  10. Sync your fork: After merging your PR, you should sync your fork with the main repository to keep your copy up-to-date. This involves pulling changes from the original repository to your local machine and pushing them to your fork.

Dive into open source with DigitalOcean

At DigitalOcean, we not only rely on open-source technologies to power our products and services, but we also actively contribute to and create open-source projects. We believe in the values of innovation, collaboration, and optimism that the open-source community embodies. We leverage open-source solutions like Linux, Kubernetes, and Packer to provide our customers with reliable, scalable, and flexible infrastructure.

Join the DigitalOcean community and start building your next project with our open-source-powered products today!


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