How to inspire exceptional contributions to your open-source project
Community Jul 2, 2019
Netdata must be doing something right when it comes to inspiring contributions. Our open-source, distributed monitoring agent has on GitHub and has seen contributions from hundreds of people: . We’ve even hired a handful of our contributors to work full-time on making the Netdata ecosystem even more powerful.
The community is passionate about what we’re building, and they’re actively interested in making it work better for their particular needs.
Because that’s what a contributor is: Someone willing to step in and improve your project so that it works even better for their particular use case. Some contributors happily offer their time for other reasons, too, but in our case, they’re mostly sysadmins who will do faster or smarter work once we implement their idea.
But the Netdata community didn’t just appear out of thin air. We took many concerted efforts to inspired these contributions, and we thought we’d share a few of our most successful initiatives.
Now, the process of inspiring contributions for an open-source project has two core components: 1) getting new contributors and 2) keeping them around for the long haul. Let’s talk about these in succession.
Getting new contributors to your open-source project
Just like a startup business, a primary goal for any open-source project is getting the attention of eager and passionate people. Yes, it’s a type of marketing, but we’ve focused almost exclusively on making contributions as easy as possible.
Remember that every issue is a contribution
There is no such thing as an unhelpful issue. But for your project to get value out of these issues, you need to discover the root cause. That means being patient and taking time to discuss the concern with this new contributor. The problem isn’t always a bug in your code—it could be missing documentation, or they could be using your project in a way you hadn’t thought of before.
By always treating every issue, no matter how small, as a valuable contribution, you’ll be able to more effectively help the user solve their problem and make your project better in the long haul.
That’s how we treat incoming issues at Netdata. Everyone helps us better understand how people are using the agent “in the wild.” Through understanding these uses cases, we can make Netdata more valuable to more developers, sysadmins, and DevOps engineers.
Upload and commit to a Contributor Covenant Code of Conduct
The worst thing you can do, as an open-source maintainer, is create an environment that turns people off from contributing to your project. You can’t afford to be vague about your beliefs, which makes a code of conduct a no-brainer for any open-source project. Plus, it takes no effort to implement.
You can download and adapt the latest version here. Adapt it as needed and add it to your the root directory of your project with the file name
CODE_OF_CONDUCT.md. We, of course, practice what we preach. Here’s the code of conduct for Netdata itself.
Create a CONTRIBUTING.md file to explain how and where to help
At Netdata, we have a pretty comprehensive contributing document that we maintain at
CONTRIBUTING.md. In this document, we outline the various ways that people can contribute to Netdata.
CONTRIBUTING.md document, you should be clear and specific about how people of all skill levels could potentially contribute to your project. For those who have never contributed code to a project before, ask them to drop a GitHub star on the project or create an issue to offer constructive criticism. For more advanced contributors, make clear the areas where your project needs the most work. Maybe that’s improving documentation, or perhaps that’s a new feature that’s been heavily requested by users.
This document is also an excellent opportunity to mention that code of conduct, along with other philosophies by which your project operates. For Netdata, that’s performance, meaningful metrics, automated testing, a distributed framework, support for many operating systems, included documentation, and future maintenance.
Make sure this document also explains how you handle workflows and processes like pull requests and code reviews. Do you want contributors to work off the main repo, or fork it to their own GitHub account and work there? How do you tag issues? How do you differentiate between code that’s ready to be merged and code that’s still in progress?
Clarity is paramount in your
CONTRIBUTING.md document. Upon reading this document, potential contributors should
1) be able to self-select their skill level according to your definitions,
2) know where to look next to create their first contribution, and
3) feel as though they can meaningfully help the project move forward.
You might feel like you’re micromanaging, but you’re building efficiency and clarity into the onboarding process. Everyone is on limited time, and a good
CONTRIBUTING.md document makes sure people can get started as seamlessly as possible.
Don’t expect people to fix what you need
Just because you’ve outlined parts of your project in need of work in your
CONTRIBUTING.md document doesn’t mean people will come flocking to fix your requests. Instead, they’re much more likely to seek out solutions to their problems and specific use cases.
A Netdata user who wants to track real-time weather data from a Raspberry Pi in their backyard won’t have much interest in collecting more Varnish metrics, despite us wanting precisely that. But they may be interested in writing a new collector to gather more data from their sensors.
Remember: The user’s needs drive contributions—not just their passion.
Tag specific issues with ‘good first issue’
Here at Netdata, we often drop the
good first issue tag on issues or feature requests around plugins, alarms, and integrations, because working on those don’t require contributors to understand every line of
C that goes into Netdata. For example, we’re always looking for help building better alarms, which use configuration files with a Netdata-specific syntax. If someone wants to help us here, they only need to learn the configuration syntax to get started. Doing so will teach them a great deal about Netdata’s underlying structure, setting them up nicely for a more complex contribution in the future.
Tagging is a simple action that helps drive new potential contributors toward the areas where they can be most helpful.
Whenever you do use the
good first issue tag, make sure you have solid documentation to support it. That’s what we do with extensive documentation about how to write alarm configuration files. If you don’t have documentation for that part of your codebase, then the issue isn’t a good first issue after all.
If nothing else, the global search on GitHub for
good first issue returns more than 200,000 results. Maybe an eager developer will perform that very search and stumble across your project for the first time.
Encourage contributions in documentation
Imagine that you get 100 clones/installs of your code every day. but 10% of those people have trouble with the installation process. Half of that 10%—5 people every day—file an issue asking for help because they couldn’t understand the documentation. You can either spend your valuable time helping them or let the questions go unanswered, creating the aforementioned graveyard. Either way, it’s a bad look for your project.
Now, let’s say a contributor comes along and rewrites the installation procedure documentation cut the installation failure rate from 10% to 2%. Not you’re only seeing 1 issue per day, and that contributor just saved you an enormous about of time and effort.
As a maintainer, your primary job is to keep the project alive, and better documentation is almost always more important than a new feature, even if the former is far less sexy.
Improving documentation, fixing typos, and smoothing out sentences is all part of creating a polished, professional codebase. By encouraging contributions to documentation, you’ll be casting a wider net and will inevitably capture some people you might have otherwise missed.
Keeping contributors around
The longer a contributor sticks around, the better they’ll get at working with you, your code, and anyone else who might be pitching in. Conversely, losing a high-value contributor levels an enormous cost on the project.
Of course, you’ll experience a certain amount of unavoidable attrition over time. People get new jobs, move, start families, and experience tough times. You can’t prevent every departure, but you can rely on a few best practices to keep contributors around for as long as possible.
But you can keep people around by following a pretty simple rule: Contributors are volunteers, and gratefulness always flows toward volunteers. They are not lucky to have the opportunity to work on your project. You are lucky to benefit from their time and expertise.
And here is where we shift away from marketing and toward management.
Address issues before the contributor’s interest fades
Every issue has an expiration date. You have to move quickly, because you can never be sure when that expiration will come.
If you don’t accept the user’s issue as a valid real-life scenario before time runs out, you’re going to lose them as a contributor forever. And that’s a shame, because contributors are valuable testers and quality assurance checkers—they’re running your project in some vital part of their life, after all.
Netdata’s contributors have made it production-quality in dozen of use cases that we would have never been able to figure out on our own. We try to remember that as we consistently work to address new issues quickly.
Find work that your contributors enjoy
Volunteers have little patience for work that doesn’t excite them or give them that fuzzy feeling of helping a good cause.
As new contributors start to communicate with the team and send in PRs, you’ll get a sense as to the work that interests them the most. You’ll also figure out what they’re good at. Encourage your contributors to tell you these things, too. Are they good at CSS and want to make your app’s dashboard look nicer? Do they like creating testing suites? Do they love documentation and know how to write a clear sentence?
Knowing their interests and talents, and delegating work to them appropriately, is one of the most important things you can do as a maintainer and team leader. They might not thank you for it, but they’ll certainly be happier along the way.
Let people work on their own schedules
Again, your contributors aren’t your employees. You shouldn’t put expectations when or how much they contribute to your project in a given timeframe. You shouldn’t expect they respond to every GitHub mention within an hour. As the maintainer, you have the responsibility of delegating work in a way that respects the fact that they too have a life beyond the project.
No contributor should ever feel stressed about their contribution to your project.
If an issue is severe and time-sensitive, such as a security vulnerability or a blocker that keeps people from installing or using your software, it’s your responsibility. Don’t rely on others, and don’t expect a contributor to skip their kid’s violin recital to volunteer more of their time to fix a critical issue.
By building flexibility into your management style, you’ll stave off the threat of burnout for as long as possible. No contributor should feel stressed about their contribution to your project. That’s not just a recipe for burnout—it’s a direct line from point A to point B.
Know when to say no
Active and valuable contributors will often make suggestions or requests for the future of your project that aren’t feasible or you disagree with. Maybe they want to redesign the dashboard and you think that’s a waste of time until features X, Y, and Z are implemented. Maybe they want to refactor your entire codebase into Rust because everyone seems to like Rust all of a sudden.
You need to build (kind, well-intentioned) rejection into the way you manage your team. Allowing contributors to strike off and work on their pet project, while you’re fully committed to not merging that code, is not just a waste of time. It’s also cruel and disrespectful.
This point also applies to contributors who are biting off more than they can chew. Even if a particular project is valid and valuable, but is too complex for the contributor to handle, you shouldn’t be allowing them to struggle their way through work that will inevitably fail.
Instead, get involved when contributors announce their intentions. You might find it hard to dash their vision, but it’ll work out best in the long haul.
Remember: No contributor should ever feel stressed about their contribution to your project.
Expand roles over time
You want your contributors to grow. Grow their talents and their commitment to your project. You, in turn, have to give them the space in which to grow.
That means recognizing when an active contributor can handle more complex tasks without you guiding them through each step. Or allowing them to participate in code reviews for the work of other contributors. And once they’ve proven themselves, it might come time to give them merge rights.
The landmarks for growth can be different for every project and your specific management style, but no one is getting the most from a contributor if their role in the project never goes beyond sending in useful bug reports and hoping for the best.
As Drew DeVault wisely says:
A couple of bugs caused by inexperience is a small price to pay for the gain in experience the contributor gets by taking on hard or important tasks.
The open-source community can be contentious at times. Don’t add to that mentality!
Our community philosophies
And after all that, we can hone in on the core philosophies that make Netdata a mecca for contributions in all shapes and sizes.
- Anyone who submits an issue is a contributor.
- The community’s needs drive Netdata’s future.
- Our contributors make Netdata production-grade.
- Every contributor deserves to know we’re listening, and quickly.
- Everyone should be working on projects they enjoy, on their own time, and without stress.
- We’re going to be nice as heck to each other!
Inspiring new and continued contributors is all about transparency and mentorship
And both those qualities are scary for a lot of open-source project maintainers. They take a lot of time and create exposure for criticism or competition. They require a lot of writing skills, for creating documentation, explaining yourself clearly, and managing the way contributors communicate with one another. You need patience and dedication.
But inspiring contributions from your community is the best thing you can do to keep your project going. There will likely come a time that even you need a break from the project you’ve built, but if you’ve curated a community of people who are willing to take up the mantle, you can keep your hard work alive.
Here are a few interesting resources and takes on managing contributors:
And, conversely, resources for those who want to contribute to open-source projects:
- How to Contribute to Open Source
- What are some blockers for you on contributing to open source projects?
- Open Source: 9 steps to my first feature contribution in Babel
Did we miss an essential tip to helping inspire great contributors? Hit us up on Twitter, and let us know how you’re getting good people and keeping them around for the long haul.