How to Encourage Developers to Engage with Open Source
March 22, 2023

Ash Arnwine
Nylas

Contributing to open source is a rewarding opportunity for many software developers. Open source software is ubiquitous in our daily lives and offers a variety of opportunities for people outside of the developer world. On a day-to-day basis, we all interact with open source software in many ways, whether we know it or not. As just one example, many of the most popular mobile apps on our phones rely on open source at some level of the code base. The reality is that open source touches almost every aspect of our digital lives.

While open source software can benefit developers and other tech users, many developers need help to engage in open source development in a meaningful way. This post encourages businesses to understand reasons to contribute to open source, explore ways to promote open source development, and find a balance between software delivery and open source contributions.

Why Contribute to Open Source?

Contributing to open source software is an opportunity to make an impact in the world of software beyond our day-to-day work. Take the JavaScript ecosystem as one example. When using JavaScript to develop, we often consume multiple node package modules, also known as JavaScript libraries. Making improvements in any one of the libraries will have an impact on software developers around the world and their downstream users.

Contributing to open source is not just limited to software changes. Open source contributors can also improve documentation, support product development, submit bug issues or feature requests, and provide a perspective on open issues. Open source software is the largest developer community where the value comes from within the community of developers supporting and learning from one another.

Enabling development teams to contribute to open source software will give them a chance to give back and grow their development portfolio. Open source contributions provide learning opportunities for developers to engage with experts and receive mentorship in real time. Supporting active professional development is essential to retaining developers.

Additionally, from the business perspective, this is an opportunity to improve the skill level of developers. Employers can take this opportunity to increase public visibility by showcasing your company and its contributions to the open source community. As described shortly, open source is also a tool to improve technology in your business-critical dependencies.

Encouraging Open Source Development

Now that we understand why contributing to open source is so beneficial, we should also better understand the opportunities where developers can get involved.

One example of how developers can contribute to open source is by finding in-person or virtual hackathons. Having a time-specific deadline is a practical constraint to bringing focus and fit into the current software delivery flow. For example, take Hacktoberfest, an annual worldwide open source hackathon in October each year. Many companies participate because of the ability to open their source code or code sample repositories to open-source contributions. Hackathons are an excellent opportunity for contributors and maintainers to participate in open-source software.

Another area to explore is contributing to open source tools used in-house. Encouraging developers to provide feedback and take on opportunities to improve open-source tools will benefit teams and developers using the tools. Improving tooling is also an opportunity to level up developer's knowledge of the tools they use and keep abreast with recent updates, especially security updates.

Another area to consider is software that the development team is interested in using. Whether it be creating proof of concept or interacting with the maintainer and addressing an open issue, this is an opportunity for a developer to explore and bring back knowledge to their team. Possible outcomes of encouraging open-source development are:

■ The experience contributing to open source.

■ A proposal to incorporate the tool.

■ A lunch-and-learn for knowledge sharing.

Balancing Software Delivery and Contributing to Open Source

As we think about why and where developers can contribute to open source, it is also essential to understand how to balance contributing to open source and software delivery. Software development teams are high-performing teams with high demands on their time and focus. In a delivery cycle known as a sprint, the teams work on delivering features on a weekly or bi-weekly cadence.

One way to explore and create space for open source contributions is to allow developers to use the backlog to capture tools or projects they would like to explore. Having a place to capture interest is a great way to put a stake in the ground without getting in the way of sprint goals.

Another path to consider is reducing the sprint goals to allow space for developers to contribute to open source and bring back these learnings to the team. So blocking off sprint points or story points for open source contributions allows for one or more developers to tackle projects that provide for a variation in their daily work. It's essential to start by tackling more minor changes, such as documentation or creating a code sample, before taking on larger open-source feature requests that may have stricter timelines.

Additionally, it's crucial to create tickets or tasks that enable developers to take a step back and go on a scouting mission to see what libraries they use internally and create tickets for areas to explore contributions. In other words, it's not just about tackling open source tasks but also exploring and learning about opportunities to contribute to open source.

When completing a sprint, it's also important to celebrate and share learnings about working in open source. Examples of celebrating include activities such as a lunch-and-learn, a demo, or even using the company's social handles to celebrate the open source contribution.

Contributing to open source will promote professional development increasing the competency of your software delivery team. Encouraging developers to further explore and improve open source tools used in-house through documentation or feature development will benefit software delivery for all developers using the tools. Starting small by tackling minor improvements and documentation is a great way for software teams to find a balance between software delivery and open source contributions. Contributing to open source is an excellent way for teams to grow together and contribute to software that impacts the lives of many developers and their downstream users.

Ash Arnwine is Director of Developer Relations at Nylas
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