What you actually need to know about open source to get started

A beginner's guide to open source explained in plain terms.
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So you want (or need) to figure out what "open source" really means. I'll cover the basics of open source, whether you're interested in contributing to a project or want to be in the loop at a new job where the term keeps getting thrown around.

Full disclosure: I am a person with little technical experience, working in the content-design fringes of a very technical open source environment. Given my background in marketing and communication, I felt like a fish out of water when I made this career switch. Git, data science, the ins and outs of software… It was, and still is a year later, a lot to comprehend.

But that's why I'm writing this piece. I want to help make open source a little less intimidating. After all, at the center of open source is a supportive learning community—built for everyone, technically experienced or not.

I'll start with the absolute basics.

What is open source?

For the record, the industry definition of open source is available at the Open Source Initiative site.

However, the popular perception of "open source" software is usually that it doesn't cost anything, the source code is accessible, anyone can contribute to it, and you can redistribute it or do whatever else you want with it.

Some of that is true, and some of it plays into a few common misconceptions, one of which is cost.

Open source costs $0

Is it true? Usually, but not always. By nature of its code being publicly available, open source software can be obtained at no cost. However, for-profit companies do exist around open source projects. But if the software is available at no cost, how do open source companies even exist? How do they make money?

The concept of having a "free product" is counter-intuitive. But that's just the thing: A company doesn't have to sell software to profit from the management of products, storage of data, and customer support.

Many companies follow a subscription model, offering customer support in case of bugs or general confusion. Data storage isn't free, so that is another area where these companies can bring in income. In this regard, the "product" isn't the software; it's the benefit of a subscription.

  1. The source code is accessible: Is it true? Yes, always. This accessibility is a prerequisite for adopting the term "open source." The source code must be available to view, use, modify, and redistribute.
  2. You can do whatever you want with the code: Is it true? It depends. Subject to licensing terms, there are some limitations on how you can use code, but you can generally use it however you'd like. Whether that means tweaking a project to fit a specific need or using it as the basis for something else, open source software is yours, and everyone else's, to modify.
  3. Anyone can contribute to open source projects: Is it true? Yes - within limits. Anyone with the right skill set can contribute to open source. However, that doesn't mean all contributions are always accepted and implemented.

For example, say you're interested in a project where the end goal is a catalog of all the types of birds in the world. You're really into dinosaurs, specifically dinosaurs that may have eventually evolved into modern-day birds. So, you contribute entries for all of the most bird-like dinosaurs. The project owners could see this and think, "Sweet, those are some great prehistoric birds." However, they're also allowed to say, "Hmm, those dinosaurs are like birds, but they're technically not birds yet. They probably don't belong on Birdpedia."

Luckily, projects don't usually work under lawless conditions. Open source projects typically come with contribution guidelines and codes of conduct, so you don't have to worry about your additions flying off the rails.

Why open source?

So, after all the contributions are made (if it's ever actually done), why would people give away their software for no cost? If so many people put their time and effort into creating something, why wouldn't they band together and slap a price tag on it?

This question comes with a lot of answers. Here are a few:

  1. Starting a business is hard, especially if the project you're working on doesn't form the strong foundation for a money machine. It can be easier to rally a bunch of like-minded people without commitments or the expectation of paychecks.
  2. Most open source communities consist of people interested in improving software or bringing it into existence but don't have the time or interest to commit to working full-time on a project. Sometimes open source represents passion projects, geek groups, and crowd-sourced solutions to annoying problems.
  3. The groups that form around open source projects of all sizes foster supportive communities where contributors and onlookers alike can practice their skills, improve software they regularly use, teach and learn from each other, and feel empowered to make their voices heard. Many open source communities are essentially hyper-focused online hobby clubs.

Where do I get involved?

Now you may ask yourself, "But what do I do with this information? Can I contribute to open source projects? What if I'm not good enough yet?"

Never fear—even beginners are welcome to contribute to open source projects. It's a great way to hone your skills while working with a community towards a larger goal. And, as I talked about earlier, the worst that can happen is your changes aren't merged into Birdpedia (and that's because those product owners just can't see your vision of a Birdpedia where birds and their ancestors gleefully coexist in an online world of bird-related knowledge).

[ Related read Why do we contribute to open source software? ]

Do you have to know how to code to contribute to projects? Contrary to popular belief, no, you don't. Projects "take a village" to thrive, which means they need input from people of all different backgrounds. Visual designers, writers, marketers, reviewers, translators, subject matter enthusiasts, and even just users of the resulting product are all valuable contributors. Not only do they help build out and improve products, but they identify bugs, suggest improvements, spread the word about the project, and generally strengthen the community.

In short, no matter what your background or experience, if you're interested in open source or a specific project, you're nearly guaranteed to be welcomed with open arms.

Get started with open source now

Still not sure where to begin? Here are some ideas and resources to get you started:

  • Up For Grabs is a "list of open source projects which have curated tasks specifically for new contributors." This is a great place to find an easy first PR opportunity, which is a great way to find out what kind of contributions you'll enjoy.
  • Check out this list of beginner-friendly projects on GitHub.
  • If you're still not feeling inspired, consider contributing to (or flying with) PatternFly, Red Hat's open design system.
Katie Edwards profile picture
Katie Edwards is a part-time artist, gardener, gamer and amphibian enthusiast, and a full-time UX content designer on Red Hat's User Experience Design team.

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