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Ashley Willis for GitHub

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How to Be a Good Open Source Contributor During Hacktoberfest and Beyond

Ah, the leaves are changing color, and you know what that means— Hacktoberfest is upon us!

Digital Ocean's annual rally for open-source enthusiasts has contributions flooding repositories, much like kids in a candy store during Halloween. As we light virtual candles at the altars of open-source pioneers—like Christine Peterson (she coined the name, people, keep up!)— it's important to also think about our dedicated maintainers. They're gearing up for an email onslaught that could make even the most resilient among them question their life choices.

Now, before you plunge headlong into a frenzy of pull requests, let's hit the pause button. I'm Ashley Willis-McNamara, Senior Director of Developer Relations at GitHub, and I've got a nuanced perspective for you. While I work at GitHub, the insights I'm about to share come from personal experience— from being an eager first-time contributor to becoming a seasoned maintainer.

To help guide you through this, I'll be sharing nine tips to help you make more meaningful contributions. The aim is to elevate Hacktoberfest this year by focusing on enriching both contributors and maintainers, instead of sifting through— let's be generous— "creative" submissions.

  1. Why Are You Even Here? Reconsider the Swag Chase
    Before you start churning out pull requests like a factory assembly line, pause. Take a moment and ask yourself why you're participating in Hacktoberfest. Are you here for the limited-edition swag or because you genuinely want to contribute to a project? In an era where connectivity and meaningful engagement surpass superficial gains, aim for more. Try to make this Hacktoberfest a launching pad for long-lasting relationships and diving deeper into the areas you claim to care about. When motivations are clear, every contribution becomes more authentic, and aligning with projects that resonate with personal values becomes easier.

  2. The Quality Imperative: Diverging from a Quantity-Driven Approach
    Oh, you managed to submit 50 pull requests in a day? Impressive, but let's not forget that maintainers aren't exactly celebrating your "quantity over quality" mantra. Beyond just coding, think about where you can genuinely add value— Open Source is thirsty for meaningful contributions. Sure, every little bit helps, but let's aspire to contribute in ways that make a dent, shall we? Are you a fantastic UI/UX designer? Your skills are sorely needed. Excel at organizing? The project roadmaps are messy and could use your help. Think beyond code and understand that quality is multi-dimensional. Don't let Hacktoberfest be a sprint to mediocrity; aim to contribute consistently and impactfully.

  3. The Rules Aren’t Just Guidelines: Respect the Rhythm
    That file you've bypassed? It's not just decoration. Don't be that contributor who waltzes in and starts making changes without reading the guidelines. It's like going to someone's house and rearranging their furniture without asking. The guidelines are the playbook, the operating manual. They set the stage for equitable collaboration, where novices and experts can contribute meaningfully. While it may seem like rules are killjoys, they're more like traffic signals—with hundreds of developers working on the same project—especially during high-activity events like Hacktoberfest—it becomes imperative to follow established protocols. These rules help us navigate the complexity of human dynamics in an open project.

  4. Ensuring a Safe Environment: A Non-Negotiable
    Code of Conduct. If you find these three words annoying, or even mildly inconvenient, then perhaps Open Source isn't the landscape for you. The Open Source ethos is built on mutual respect, effective collaboration, and yes, even kindness. To ignore or trivialize the Code of Conduct is to violate the core of what makes this ecosystem sustainable and inviting. Robust reporting mechanisms are also foundational in maintaining a safe environment for all. As contributors, we have a duty to not only uphold but to champion these principles, advocating for a culture of respect and security for every individual involved. A community that doesn't prioritize safety is one where creativity, collaboration, and innovation go to die.

  5. The Human Element of Open Source: Engage Beyond the Keyboard
    Don't be just a GitHub profile with a laundry list of repositories. Engage in meaningful dialogue through issue discussions, webinars, and even social media. Be a mentor, seek mentorship, contribute to community wikis, share valuable articles, and participate in code reviews. The Open Source space is a rich land for holistic development—if you're merely focused on code, you're missing out. Speaking from experience, while contributing to open source projects has undoubtedly refined my coding skills, I've learned even more about people skills than I ever did about binary trees. The vibrancy of your participation defines not just your contributor experience but your standing in the community at large.

  6. Recognize Maintainer Burnout: Compassion Over Code
    Maintainers are already bracing for the annual Hacktoberfest tsunami. Your "quick and simple" pull request might be the straw that breaks an already overloaded maintainer's back. Don't confuse their silence for apathy; they're juggling more than you can imagine. It's not a lack of interest, but a lack of time and resources. Moreover, their openness to contributions might be a function of where they are in their project lifecycle. Sometimes they're not actively seeking new contributions; perhaps they're in a bug-fixing phase or focusing on core development. It's their prerogative, and that's completely okay. If you want your contributions to matter, start by recognizing the human effort behind these projects. Aim to be a relief, not a burden. Your first step could be identifying projects that explicitly welcome newcomers by tagging issues with “good first issue” or “help wanted.”

  7. The Virtue of Patience: A Long-Term Commitment
    Open source is a marathon, not a 100-meter dash. Realize that maintainers have lives outside of GitHub. Your pull request might take time to review; this isn't the DMV—there's no ticket number for faster service. While instant outcomes can be deeply satisfying, they are often the exception rather than the rule. Whether awaiting feedback or maneuvering through tense collaborations, patience is the very fabric that holds everything together. Practice it generously, not just during Hacktoberfest but as a habit in your contributor journey.

  8. Stay Humble, Stay Grounded: The Foundations of Meaningful Contributions
    A meaningful contribution is its own reward, and hey, if you get a t-shirt out of it, consider it a bonus, not the end goal. Every single contribution, regardless of its size, is a building block of the broader OSS ecosystem. Engage with the idea of Open Source as a public good that thrives on humility, cooperation, and collective well-being. Celebrate the small wins, learn from your mistakes, and remember that you're part of something much bigger than yourself.

  9. AI Isn't a License to Spam: A Tool, Not a Replacement
    So you've rigged up a bot to auto-submit pull requests? Neat, but let's not roll out the red carpet. While these tools are indeed impressive for streamlining operations, they're not about to win any awards for emotional intelligence or contextual reasoning. AI may optimize workflows, but no AI can fully replicate the human intuition, experience, and perspective needed to make meaningful contributions. Trust me, maintainers are not waiting for your machine-generated tweaks that lack context and understanding. If anything, these automated actions are a disservice, creating more noise than utility. For those participating in Hacktoberfest, remember: AI is an enhancement, not a replacement for genuine human engagement.

Hacktoberfest is not just a magical time when maintainers get starry-eyed at the flood of 'helpful' contributions or when newcomers think they've hit the swag jackpot. No, let's remember that at its best, Hacktoberfest can be a transformative experience for everyone involved. It’s when maintainers who are actually looking for quality help and fresh faces diving into open source can find each other. So sure, dip your toe into this burgeoning ecosystem but keep coming back for more than just the loot.

After all, we're collectively contributing to something far greater than a month-long treasure hunt. So let's be the kind of contributors that maintainers don't dread but actually celebrate. And let’s not forget, whether maintainers are in a phase of welcoming new contributions or taking a breather to focus internally, that’s their choice, and it's all part of this rich tapestry we call the open source community.

Contributor and Project Evaluation Checklist

Before You Contribute:
  • Read the Code of Conduct: Understand the values and principles that govern behavior within the community.
  • Review CONTRIBUTING: Familiarize yourself with how to contribute effectively to the project.
  • Engage Beyond Code: Participate in discussions, forums, and issues to understand the community better.
  • Be Patient: Understand that contributions may require time for review and don't rush the process.
  • Aim for Quality: Prioritize quality contributions over quantity, focusing on meaningful changes.
  • Extend Your Reach: Offer to help maintainers and community members in non-code capacities.
  • Celebrate Your Progress: Small wins are worth recognizing. Make sure to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small.
  • Respect is Non-negotiable: Maintain a respectful demeanor in all interactions.
  • Communicate Clearly: Use descriptive commit messages, comment your code, and clearly articulate your changes when submitting PRs.
Evaluating a Project:
  • Verify Open Source Status: Ensure a license file exists, usually named LICENSE, in the root directory of the repository.
  • Assess Activity and Receptiveness: Check recent commit activity and gauge the responsiveness of maintainers to new contributions.
  • Examine Issues: Assess the number and nature of open issues, keep an eye out for tags like “good first issue” and “help wanted”— these are signs that maintainers are actively seeking new contributors, and check for timeliness and engagement in issue discussions.
  • Scrutinize Pull Requests: Observe open pull requests, response times, and identify how actively pull requests are discussed and merged.
  • Feel the Pulse of the Community: See if maintainers are helpful and responsive. Look for a friendly atmosphere in discussions and comments.

Top comments (3)

akuoko_konadu profile image
Konadu Akwasi Akuoko

9 strong points I'll use as my checklist 💯

Thanks for writing this, I think any one looking to partake in this must read this.

mynameisares profile image

This is a must-read for anyone stepping into Hacktoberfest for the first time. Thank you, this was a great read!

staceyluvstech profile image
Stacey Graham 🌺💻

These are really great tips! Thanks for creating this!