Orange is my favorite color

People get an ego stroke by seeing their name in the credits of something. We all love it. Yet how many of us have contributed code to an open source project they didn’t start? I can’t tell you how many times I have considered contributing to a project I use only to be completely baffled by how to get started. If you’re some kind of rock-star developer or you enjoy copious free time, these may not be issues for you. But every project looking for contributors (and show me a project that isn’t…) should be spending some effort on lowering the barrier to entry and keeping the learning curve shallow.

I came across this example on the Mozilla Calendar project today and it does a great job of introducing the process so that even a novice developer could poke around with the source. That poking might lead to a small patch. That small patch would get her name in the credits. That ego boost might lead to bigger contributions which might eventually generate a future project leader. There’s a lot of talk about the long tail of customer acquisition and market sizing but I think more talk should focus on the long tail of cultivating people and projects.

What are you doing to help people pick up something you’ve created and run with it? It could be a tool, library or even an API you’ve published. If open source projects could find a way to increase contributions just 10%, it could be a watershed shift for community produced software.


  1. Jim Priest said:

    on January 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    There are also MANY ways to contribute to an open-source project besides coding. Documentation, helping out with mailing lists, site maintenance, wikis, bug reporting, etc….

    It would be fun to download every project on RIAForge and see how many had any usable documentation…

  2. brian said:

    on January 21, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    @Jim – FUN??? You, sir, are a masochist. :)

    In all seriousness, you’re totally right. And usually it’s these “other parts” that make or break an open source project; particularly documentation, but also graphic and interaction design, usability, and so forth. I created a slide for a preso once that charted the “Chasm of Usefulness” and the 80/20 principle. The idea being that you could get often as much as 80% of the value of a tool with 20% of the effort but to reach truly “great” software you had to cross a chasm to the “other side” of professionally designed and executed software. There’s no question it’s hard; more contributors in all disciplines would surely help.

    Of course, more indians means you need some chiefs. Now we need open source project managers/leaders…

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