The cat-flap of open source

I have been coding for a long time. My interest began as a child, I’ve been using computers since I was 3 years old and my mom is a software engineer. Later, I got into civil engineering and coded my way to graduation and now I’m doing artistic stuff that uses code in one way or another. But even when I’m constantly using open source projects as parts and gears of my own projects and all my own code (and even some notes) is publicly available in my GitHub account, I have yet to actually participate in one.

The doors of the Open Source world are not as “open” as the name implies. It’s more like a cat-flap: you know you can get in, but you don’t really know what’s behind. And it’s not really your house. And you’re kind of invited, but you’re not really sure. At least, that’s how I’ve felt about it and why I am so excited to start.

Commit(ment) and gatekeepers

“Commit”, one of the big words in open source. You fork a repository, you modify the code and commit the results to create a pull request and have your changes incorporated to the project. Sounds easy, right? Well, there are many gatekeepers on these communities that want to be open.

a fork engagement rings
This is not what “fork” and “commit” means in the Open Source World

As Sumana Harihareswara says on her presentation Inessential Weirdnesses in Open Source Software, that “inessential weirdness” plays a huge role when people look at communities and feel like they cannot get inside. From shared beliefs to weird jargon that someone might be too shy to ask (not to look like a noob), or a very high entry cost in the form of “syntactic hell”, all of that contributes to a feeling of alienation for newcomers that is hard to overcome (specially for more introverted individuals).

Another gatekeeper (and one that has affected me personally) is the impostor syndrome. As Vesha Parker shares on her interview with Jen Kagan she had fears about contributing in an open source project. I was not until it became a necessity for her, that she got to cross that line. This is always a tough gatekeeper. It depends on each individual to fight their own demons. But communities can make it easier on them and provide tools and gestures that are exclusively directed at newcomers. Scott Hanselman shares in his article “Bring Kindness Back to Open Source” some great ideas on how to create a more welcoming culture and Vesha Parker shows that there are things besides code that these projects need.

I am excited to start contributing to open source projects. My fear of “committing” to one gives in to my impostor syndrome, but I know that there are incredible welcoming projects with beautiful communities out there, waiting for new coders and enthusiasts. And I know I can help even by passing the word about them.

Leave a Reply