Contributing Isn’t Just About the Code

By John Hawley, Open Source Hardware & Software Developer

Over the years, I’ve grown to know a lot of different people in the open source world, they are all fighting the good fight for various reasons, in different places.  They all bring together unique skill sets, personalities, experiences and as a result we have the open source world we have.  You might be surprised though, not all of them are coders, and in fact some of them have yet to even be able to write “Hello World” in Python, and yet they are some of the most prolific contributors to open source.  Why?  Because open source isn’t just about writing the code.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s kind of hard to have open source without the code, but to abuse a metaphor – it takes a village to write it.
So you now ask, how can you contribute without coding?
Submit a bug report.
It’s really that simple, and I’m sure anyone will find *SOMETHING* wrong with a piece of open source software.  This isn’t to say the submitting the bug report itself is easy, though it’s gotten a lot better in more recent years (projects should take note to try and lower this barrier to entry as much as possible).  The way you may be using the software, is quite likely, in an environment, or a use case that the developers either don’t have, or never envisioned.  Take the time to try and be as specific, and detailed, as you can be – developers loathe reports that just say “it’s broken”.  If you can screenshots, or logs are very helpful, if you can get debugging information – that’s good to include.
Just getting this information sent back to the developers is good for a numbers of reasons, so don’t believe this isn’t important, for example:
  • Lets the developers know how users are actually using their software
  • What things their own usage is missing
  • Points out issues in the code
This isn’t to say your bug report will actually change things, it’s entirely possible that your specific bug won’t get resolved, or considered a priority, but getting it reported is important all the same.  Be patient, be helpful.
Even the simplest bits of open source code needs infrastructure, and there are folks quietly lurking behind the scenes running servers, making sure that the rust keeps spinnig, keeping build machines and websites running so that projects have the pieces they need to actually be productive.  If you are ever curious, go take a look at what OSUOSL, or ISC, does as they are a great examples of infrastructure just quietly making everything work.
There’s other areas too, mentoring, outreach, community development, even straight up donations that individuals can contribute to that doesn’t involve coding.  So don’t let coding be a barrier to entry for you contributing to a project, step up and offer assistance where you feel comfortable, listen to feedback from the community, don’t be demanding or pushy, and there you go – you can contribute.  You shouldn’t let not being able to code be a deterrent or seem like you wouldn’t be valued as a contributor, because you can be a contributor without being a coder.
John Hawley is an open source software and hardware developer, because he sees fundamental value in being open, and open collaboration. He’s built multiple star ship bridges, robotic dogs, and content distribution and mirroring system. You can follow him on Twitter @warty9.


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