My first contribution to open source: Impostor Syndrome

A new open source contributor documents a series of five mistakes she made starting out in open source.
104 readers like this
104 readers like this
Dandelion held out over water

Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0

The story of my first mistake goes back to the beginning of my learn-to-code journey. I taught myself the basics through online resources. I was working through tutorials and projects, making progress but also looking for the next way to level up. Pretty quickly, I came across a blog post that told me the best way for beginners just like me to take their coding skills to the next level was to contribute to open source.

"Anyone can do this," insisted the post, "and it is a crucial part of participating in the larger developer community."

My internal impostor (who, for the purpose of this post, is the personification of my imposter syndrome) latched onto this idea. "Look, Galen," she said. "The only way to be a real developer is to contribute to open source." "Alrighty," I replied, and started following the instructions in the blog post to make a GitHub account. It took me under ten minutes to get so thoroughly confused that I gave up on the idea entirely. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to learn, but the resources that I was depending on expected me to have quite a bit of preexisting knowledge about Git, GitHub, and how these tools allowed multiple developers to collaborate on a single project.

"Maybe I’m not ready for this yet," I thought, and went back to my tutorials. "But the blog post said that anyone can do it, even beginners," my internal impostor nagged. Thus began a multi-year internal battle between the idea that contributing to open source was easy and valuable and I should be doing it, and the impression I was not yet ready to write code for open source projects.

Even once I became comfortable with Git, my internal impostor was always eager to remind me of why I was not yet ready to contribute to open source. When I was in coding Bootcamp, she whispered: "Sure, you know Git and you write code, but you’ve never written ‘real’ code before, only fake Bootcamp code. You’re not qualified to contribute to real projects that people use and depend on." When I was working my first year at work as a Software Engineer, she chided, "Okay maybe the code you write is 'real,' but you only work with one codebase! What makes you think you can write high-quality code somewhere else with different conventions, frameworks, or even languages?"

It took me about a year and a half of fulltime work to finally feel confident enough to shut down my internal impostor’s arguments and go for my first pull request (PR). The irony here is that my internal imposter was the one talking me both into and out of contributing to open source.

Harmful myths

There are two harmful myths here that I want to debunk.

Myth 1: Contributing to open source is "easy"

Throughout this journey, I frequently ran across the message that contributing to open source was supposed to be easy. This made me question my own skills when I found myself unable to "easily" get started.

I understand why people might say that contributing to open source is easy, but I suspect what they actually mean is "it’s an attainable goal," "it’s accessible to beginners if they put in the work," or "it is possible to contribute to open source without writing a ton of really complex code."

All of these things are true, but it is equally important to note that contributing to open source is difficult. It requires you to take the time to understand a new codebase and understand the tools that developers use.

I definitely don’t want to discourage beginners from trying. It is just important to remember that running into challenges is an expected part of the process.

Myth 2: All "real" or "good" developers contribute to open source

My internal impostor was continually reminding me that my lack of open source contributions was a blight on my developer career. In fact, even as I write this post, I feel guilty that I have not contributed more to open source. But while working on open source is a great way to learn and participate in the broader community of developers, it is not the only way to do this. You can also blog, attend meetups, work on side projects, read, mentor, or go home at the end of a long day at work and have a lovely relaxing evening. Contributing to open source is a challenge that can be fun and rewarding if it is the challenge you choose.

Julia Evans wrote a blog post called Don’t feel guilty about not contributing to open source, which is a healthy reminder that there are many productive ways to use your time as a developer. I highly recommend bookmarking it for any time you feel that guilt creeping in.

Mistake number one

Mistake number one was letting my internal impostor guide me. I let her talk me out of contributing to open source for years by telling me I was not ready. Instead, I just did not understand the amount of work I would need to put in to get to the level where I felt confident in my ability to write code for an unfamiliar project (I am still working toward this). I also let her talk me into it, with the idea that I had to contribute to open source to prove my worth as a developer. The end result was still my first merged pull request in a widely used project, but the insecurity made my entire experience less enjoyable.

Don't let Git get you down

If you want to learn more about Git, or if you are a beginner and Git is a blocker toward making your first open-source contribution, don’t panic. Git is very complicated, and you are not expected to know what it is already. Once you get the hang of it, you will find that Git is a handy tool that lets many different developers work on the same project at the same time, and then merge their individual changes together.

There are many resources to help you learn about Git and Github (a site that hosts code so that people can collaborate on it with Git). Here are some suggestions on where to start: Hello World intro to GitHub and Resources to learn Git.

What to read next
Galen is a Senior Software Engineer at Simple Health in NYC. She loves writing (for computers and humans), lifting, and cats. @galenemco


Thank you so much for this article i find it very useful! It's great toread about how getting involved is a process, and that it's ultimately rewarding!

This reads like a biography of my contributing to open source! I especially had challenges learning git, which is why I write so much about it here to help others along. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

What you say here really resonates with me, but I think that, in general, the fact that you had to go through this alone was a failing of the projects you were contributing to. My opinion, as an open source developer, is that if you want to contribute to open source, then the project you seek to contribute to should aid you in your learning. After all, they will be reaping the benefits of your training, so they should put forth the effort to assist you.

If that's not the case, then maybe ping me and I can help you find some projects where this will be the case!

In every area of IT, just about anything that you know how to do is "easy".

Up until you figure it out though, it's impossible :p

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