Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

26 Feb 2014, 18:10 p.m.

Some Help for New Open Source People

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Berlin Hackathon 2012-40 Wikimedia is participating in this year's Google Summer of Code internships and Outreach Program for Women. This week we are seeing a bunch of new folks try to learn how to navigate the world of open source, and I have some advice for you. Some of this ought to go into the Google Summer of Code student manual and the Open Advice collection.

"Doubt": Lots of GSoC candidates are from South Asia. Indians often say "Can you help resolve my doubts?" where US speakers would say "Can you help answer my questions?" "Doubt" and "question" are synonyms here; the Indians aren't implying suspicion.

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam - Flickr - Sebastiaan ter Burg (10) How we talk: We talk in different places when we want to have different kinds of conversations. Each open source community has "a mailing list, a wiki, and an IRC channel.... a platform for discussion, storage for documentation and real-time communication." (I borrowed this explanation from the hackerspaces wiki.) An IRC channel is a constant waterfall of conversation and you aren't expected to be there all the time or catch everything. A mailing list is more like a slow-moving river, and a wiki changes slower, like a marsh.

AmsterdamHackathon-20130524-2602 Some people prefer for their IRC conversations to be more like mailing lists -- a long, publicly archived conversation where people can see what happened before and take part. Some people prefer for IRC chat to be more like Snapchat -- ephemeral, temporary, so it's easier to be vulnerable. No one agrees on what all of IRC should be. So the community within each channel has a certain culture and each channel can be different. Some channels allow or encourage public logging (example) so anyone can see what happened in the channel. Others don't. This difference is normal.

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013 - Day 3 - Flickr - Sebastiaan ter Burg (32) The rhythm of help: When you are learning how to contribute in open source, you're going to find that people give you links to pages that answer your questions. Here's how that usually goes:

  1. you ask a question
  2. someone directs you to a document
  3. you go read that document, try to use it to answer your question
  4. you find you are confused about a new thing
  5. you ask another question
  6. now that you have shown that you have the ability to read, think, and learn new things, someone has a longer talk with you to answer your new specific question
  7. you and the other person collaborate to improve the document that you read in step 3 :-)
This helps us make a balance between person-to-person discussion and documentation that everyone can read, so we save time answering common questions but also get everyone the personal help they need.

Wikimania 2013 by Ringo Chan 181 What's this project like?: Figuring out whether something's a good project for you is a skill and new folks don't have that skill yet. My friend Mel wrote a guide to how she checks out an open source project -- how she takes five minutes to look on their website for certain things, to see what kind of project it is. It's fine for you to look for projects where you already have friends, or where they have already set up easy tasks for beginners. We hope that in a year you'll be one of the people coming up with new ideas, organizing those easy tasks, and helping the beginners.


27 Feb 2014, 3:01 a.m.

I appreciate very much when people lay out things like this explicitly; thanks for making this post!

07 Mar 2014, 9:42 a.m.

I just saw Sumana using passages of this post on IRC and it's indeed useful. :) Not everyone is cooperative enough to digest this kind of advice, sadly.