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How to Start Contributing to Open Source Projects

How to Start Contributing to Open Source Projects
Nimrod Kramer
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Learn how to start contributing to open source projects on GitHub as a beginner. Find beginner-friendly projects, understand contribution guidelines, and make your first pull request.

Most developers would agree that contributing to open source can be intimidating at first.

But with the right guidance on where to start and how to make your first contribution, you can overcome that barrier and begin meaningfully engaging in the global open source community.

In this post, you'll get a complete overview of the step-by-step process to start contributing to open source projects on GitHub as a beginner - from evaluating your skills, finding the right project, understanding contribution guidelines, making changes, and submitting your first pull request.

Introduction to Open Source Contributions

Open source software is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. Contributing to open source projects is a great way for developers to gain experience, expand their portfolio, and give back to the developer community. This beginner's guide aims to help you take the first steps towards making your first open source contribution.

Understanding Open Source

Open source software has source code that is publicly accessible, allowing anyone to view, modify, and distribute the code as they see fit. The open source movement focuses on transparency, collaboration, and the free exchange of software innovation. Key benefits of open source include:

  • Transparency - The code is open for anyone to inspect, enhancing accountability.
  • Collaboration - Open source projects bring together developers from around the world.
  • Real-world experience - Contributions let you work on real projects used by people globally.

The Value of Contributing to Open Source

Here are some of the top reasons to contribute to open source projects:

  • Improve coding skills - Work with experienced developers to become a better coder.
  • Expand your network - Connect with developers worldwide who share your interests.
  • Portfolio building - Open source contributions showcase your skills to potential employers.

The key steps we'll cover to make your first open source contribution include:

Let's explore each of these steps in more detail throughout this guide.

How do I start contributing to open source projects?

Getting started with open source contributions can seem daunting, but breaking it down into simple steps makes it very achievable:

Read Project Documentation

The first step is to read through the project's README file and documentation. This will give you an understanding of:

  • What the project is about
  • How to set up the development environment
  • The contribution process and guidelines
  • Open issues suitable for first-time contributors

Find A Beginner-Friendly Issue

Next, browse the project's issue tracker to find a beginner-friendly task you can work on. Look for issues labeled good first issue, beginner, easy, starter, etc. These are specifically marked for first-time contributors.

Some projects even have curated lists of good first issues, like First Timers Only.

Make Changes and Open a Pull Request

Once you've identified an issue to fix:

  • Fork the repository - This creates your own copy of the project you can edit
  • Create a branch - Avoid making changes directly on main
  • Make edits to fix the issue - Use clear commit messages
  • Open a pull request - Submit your changes for review

The project maintainers will review your changes and provide feedback. This gets you familiar with the open source contribution workflow.

With these basic steps, you'll be on your way to making your first open source contribution in no time! Be sure to thoroughly read project guidelines and don't hesitate to ask questions.

Should I contribute to open source as a beginner?

Contributing to open source as a beginner can be very rewarding for several reasons:

Improve existing skills

Whether it's coding, user interface design, graphic design, writing, or organizing, there's likely a task for you on an open source project. Contributing is a great way to improve skills you already have.

Gain new skills

Open source projects expose you to new technologies and approaches you may not use day-to-day. Contributing is an excellent way to expand your skillset.


Connecting with other developers working on open source projects allows you to build your professional network. You may make connections that lead to career opportunities down the road.


Open source contributions add projects and code samples to your portfolio. This can demonstrate skills and experience to potential employers.

Give back

If you've benefitted from using open source software, contributing is a way to give back to the community. Even small fixes help improve the software for other users.

The open source community welcomes new contributors. Start small by fixing typos or improving documentation. As you gain experience, take on larger tasks like fixing bugs and adding features.

Can you make money contributing to open source?

While open source projects are often created as a labor of love by developers looking to build something useful for the community, there are a few ways that open source contributors can potentially earn some income for their efforts:


Platforms like GitHub Sponsors, Open Collective, Ko-fi, and Buy Me A Coffee allow people to make small, one-time donations or set up recurring monthly donations to support open source projects and contributors. This provides a way for grateful users to give back. However, donation income tends to be relatively small and unpredictable.

Crowdfunding Campaigns

Some open source projects run crowdfunding campaigns on platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo to raise money for specific features or improvements. This can generate a bulk amount of funds, but requires a lot of upfront effort and is still an unreliable source of long-term financing.

Another option is to offer paid support, maintenance, hosting, or additional services around an open source project to generate revenue. This can work well for popular projects, but requires a significant time investment.

Overall, while some money can be made via open source work, it rarely results in a full-time income stream. Most contributors do it as a side project or out of personal interest rather than primary financial motivation. Reliable income tends to come from separate full-time employment.

Is contributing to open source hard?

Making your first open source contribution can seem daunting. With so many projects and repositories on platforms like GitHub, deciding where to start can be overwhelming. However, the open source community is very welcoming to new contributors. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Selecting a Project

Focus on beginner-friendly projects that actively seek new contributors. Good projects to look for will:

  • Have clear contribution guidelines and documentation
  • Use the "good first issue" tag on simpler tasks
  • Label issues as "beginner-friendly"
  • Have a code of conduct promoting an inclusive environment

GitHub makes it easy to find such projects with these tags. You can also reference sites like Up For Grabs that aggregate projects seeking help.

Understanding Contribution Guidelines

Before contributing, read a project's contributing guidelines to understand their specific processes. Most will cover topics like:

  • How to set up your development environment
  • Expected coding styles and conventions
  • How to submit a contribution via pull request
  • Who to contact with questions

Following these guidelines is key to getting your contribution approved.

Starting Small

Look for simple tasks like fixing typos, improving documentation, or correcting broken links. While minor, these help you get familiar with the project's contributor workflow.

The First Timers Only site also aggregates various starter issues for new contributors. Tackling these small tasks first makes adding bigger contributions later much easier.

With the right project and following their guidelines, your first PR can be painless. The open source community encourages new contributors and will help guide you.


How to Start with Open Source Contribution

Contributing to open source can be intimidating at first, but is very rewarding. Here are some tips on selecting a project and making your first contribution:

Evaluating Your Coding Skills

Honestly assess your current skills before jumping into open source. As a beginner, look for documentation fixes, easy bug fixes, or simple features. Avoid large complex projects.

Aligning Projects with Your Interests

Contribute to projects you actively use and are passionate about. This helps you stay engaged and learn more deeply. Look at the tech stack, language, tools, and concepts used in the project.

Finding Beginner-Friendly Projects

Seeking out beginner-friendly open source projects helps ease the initial learning curve. Look for the labels "good first issue", "beginner", "easy", or "help wanted" in the project's issue tracker.

Understanding Contribution Guidelines

Carefully read a project's contributing docs and code of conduct before contributing. Understand how to set up the development environment, the project workflow, coding conventions, and communication protocols.

Start small, be patient with yourself, ask questions, and have fun with open source! The communities are welcoming and want to help you learn.

How to Contribute to Open Source GitHub as a Beginner

Forking and Setting Up the Repository

Forking creates a copy of the project repository that allows you to freely experiment with changes before submitting a pull request to the original (upstream) repo. Here are the steps to fork and set up a project:

  • Navigate to the GitHub project you want to contribute to and click the "Fork" button in the top right. This creates your forked copy.
  • Clone your forked repository to your local machine. Run the following in your terminal, replacing YOUR-USERNAME with your GitHub username:
git clone
  • Add the upstream repository as a remote to sync changes:
git remote add upstream
  • Create a new branch to isolate your changes:
git checkout -b my-new-branch

You now have a local version of the project to start contributing to!

Branching for Isolated Changes

Always create a new branch when working on changes to isolate each set of edits from the main codebase. Some tips:

  • Give branches descriptive names like "fix-typo-readme" or "update-contributing-md"
  • Use kebab case for multi-word names
  • Delete branches after merging pull requests to keep things tidy

Branching allows you to safely experiment and collaborate within the same project.

Implementing Your Changes

Once your dev environment is set up, start making changes! Some ideas:

  • Fix bugs - Search issues for bugs and provide a fix
  • Add features - Implement a requested enhancement
  • Update docs - Improve documentation and examples

Be sure to follow project guidelines and coding styles. Test your changes thoroughly as well. The goal is to improve things for users and the maintainer!

Committing with Clear Messages

Commit changes frequently with clear messages explaining each:

git add .
git commit -m "Fix typo in contributing doc"

Some commit message tips:

  • Keep messages short (under 72 chars)
  • Use active voice
  • Use imperative mood
  • Capitalize properly
  • Don't end in punctuation

Atomic commits make pull requests easier to review and merge.

Opening a Pull Request on GitHub

Once you feel your changes are ready for review, open a GitHub pull request with:

  • A summary of the changes
  • Which issues are fixed (if any)
  • Relevant screenshots, examples, etc

Be open to feedback and iterate if necessary. Congrats on your first open source contribution!

Finding Open Source Projects to Contribute

Leveraging GitHub Labels for Newcomers

GitHub makes it easy for newcomers to find beginner-friendly issues to contribute to. Look for repositories that tag issues with:

  • good-first-issue - Marks approachable issues for first-timers.
  • first-timers-only - Issues specifically for new contributors.
  • easy - Quick issues ideal for beginners.

Filtering issue searches by these labels helps surface welcoming projects.

Platforms Showcasing First Contributions

Websites like First Timers Only and Up For Grabs curate projects with beginner-friendly issues specifically seeking new contributors. They list details like assumed experience level, expected time commitment, and contact information.

Subscribing to CodeTriage for Alerts

The CodeTriage platform sends email alerts for new approachable issues requesting help across open source projects and languages. Set filters for technology, experience level, and time commitment.

Engaging with Open Source Events

Events like 24 Pull Requests and Open Source Friday highlight projects seeking contributions around the winter holidays and summer months respectively. They showcase meaningful projects to contribute to.

Exploring Curated Lists like Up For Grabs

Sites like Up For Grabs actively curate lists of projects seeking new contributors through GitHub issues explicitly marked for first-timers.

Resources and Tools for Open Source Newbies

GitHub's Open Source Guide

GitHub provides an extensive guide for those looking to contribute to open source projects. It covers everything from finding the right project, understanding licenses, to making your first pull request. The guide has advice from open source maintainers and links to useful resources like the First Timers bot. It's a great starting point for open source beginners.

Git and GitHub Cheat Sheets

There are many handy Git and GitHub cheat sheets available online. These quick reference guides have commands for common workflows like staging files, committing changes, pushing code, fixing merge conflicts, and more. Keep these close by when learning Git to quickly look up syntax.

Joining Open Source Communities

Developer forums like GitHub Discussions, Stack Overflow, and Reddit have dedicated channels for open source projects. Join the community to exchange ideas, ask questions when stuck, and find mentors. Seasoned open source contributors participate in these spaces and are eager to help newbies.

Courses for Making Your First PR

Interactive courses like GitHub Learning Lab and Egghead have free lessons walking first-timers through making open source contributions. They simulate the pull request workflow from forking a repository to submitting code for review. Completing these courses gives hands-on practice with GitHub's contribution flow.

Automating with GitHub Actions

GitHub Actions are a powerful way to automate routine open source tasks like testing, linting, building, and deploying. By setting up workflows, you can streamline contributions and let automation handle repetitive jobs. Read this guide on using GitHub Actions to simplify maintenance for open source projects.

Conclusion: Starting Your Open Source Journey

Recapping Key Steps for Beginners

Contributing to open-source projects can seem daunting at first, but getting started is easier than you think. Here are the key steps covered to make your first open-source contribution:

  • Find projects that interest you and match your skills. Look for tags like "good-first-issue" or "help wanted" to find beginner-friendly opportunities.
  • Review contribution guidelines to understand how to submit changes. This usually involves forking the repo, making edits, and opening a pull request.
  • Start small by fixing typos, improving docs, adding comments, etc. These simple contributions help you get familiar with the workflow.

Emphasizing Beginner-Focused Contributions

When first starting out, look for issues specifically marked for new contributors. These are often simple changes like:

  • Updating README docs
  • Fixing typos and broken links
  • Adding comments to explain the code
  • Suggesting text improvements

Rather than diving into complex code, focus on updates that improve understanding and accessibility.

Growing from Small Contributions to Larger Impact

While initial contributions may seem trivial, each one provides valuable experience. Over time, you'll learn processes, tools, and communication norms that allow you to take on more impactful work.

Keep an eye out for issues suited to your evolving skillset. Before you know it, you'll be a regular contributor shaping future product direction!

Becoming Part of the Global Open Source Community

Beyond the code itself, contributing creates connections with talented peers from around the world. The open-source model thrives on collaborative efforts across time zones, backgrounds, and borders.

Joining these communities expands your network while allowing you to support incredible software. Buckle up for an exciting journey ahead!

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