Getting Started in Open Source Software


UC Berkeley students attend an event to help teach students how to contribute to open source as part of the OpenHatch Open Source Comes to Campus program. Image credit: Flickr, creative commons.Open source software is everywhere, and chances are high that you’ll be writing, deploying, or administering it when you enter the workforce. Hiring managers are looking for candidates with experience in open source. Employers will often ask you for your GitHub username along with – or instead of – your resume. So, if you’re all new to open source, where should you get started?

If you’re feeling a bit intimated about the wide world of open source software, it’s totally understandable. There’s thousands of projects, and it’s hard to know which one will give you the best experience you can use to build your skill set. And it can be even harder to know which one will give you the best experience as a contributor and human being.

Fortunately, there are quite a few resources available for the would-be new contributor.

Free Online Resources

Open Advice

Available free of charge under a Creative Commons license, open advice is a collection of stories from long time open source participants, answering the question “What would you have liked to know when you started contributing?” If you’ve never participated in an open source software project, this book was made for you. 

Producing Open Source Software

Available free of charge under an open copyright at

You don’t need to be starting your own open source project to use this book. Some of its greatest value lies in helping you understand the processes and terminology related to open source. It’s a longer read, but well worth the time to read cover to cover.

OpenHatch is a non-profit dedicated to matching prospective contributors to open source with communities, tools, and education. Projects looking to mentor new volunteers have listed themselves on the site. Plus, many have also provided a set of “bite size” bugs. Bite size bugs are issues that you can get started on more easily that also teach you a lot about how the codebase – and project – work.

OpenHatch’s awesomeness doesn’t end there, though. You can also find a set of tutorials on their site that walk you through using common tools needed for participating in open source, from Git to using diff and patch.

In-Person Events

Open Source Comes to Campus

OpenHatch also runs events to help teach students how to contribute to open source. Open Source Comes to Campus chapters are actively running events in the Canada and the U.S. If there is not a chapter near you, ask if people in your school computer club or student IEEE chapter are passionate about open source. If they are, you can encourage them to run one of these events at your school. All the curriculum and supporting materials are available free of charge and under a Creative Commons License.

Grace Hopper

For the past four years, members of the Systers community working on open source projects have teamed up with the Anita Borg Institute to run Grace Hopper Open Source Day. A one-day code-a-thon designed to help new contributors get up to speed, it’s a ton of fun and a great way to boost your skillset. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet project mentors in person and learn more about the folks you’d largely only interact with online.

And there’s much much more…

This post has barely scratched the surface of getting started with open source software. The most important thing to remember when beginning your journey is to have fun while learning. Find a group of people you enjoy spending time with and learn from them. You’ll have a referenceable body of work and many new friends in no time.