Getting some Open Advice
If you contribute to a free software or Open Source software (FOSS) project, you probably remember some of your struggles. Struggles to find a project that interested you. Struggles trying to figure out what you wanted and were able to do to help the project. Struggles finding your place in the project and not annoying the folks who’ve been involved for longer than you.
I’m sure that we all made some mistake or misstep. Probably more than one. I know I did. Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have avoided those mistakes? Wouldn’t it have been great to have been able to zero in on a project rather than stumble around in the dark for a while?
That’s the idea behind a book published earlier this year titled Open Advice. Edited by Lydia Pintscher (who works for Wikimedia Germany and contributes to the KDE project), this book attempts to answer the question: What would you have liked to have know when you started contributing?
Pintscher has gathered essays from a variety of contributors to FOSS projects to try to answer that question. The writers cover the gamut of contributions that you can make to a project: from coding to quality assurance to translation to marketing and art work and a lot more.
The breadth of the essays is quite impressive. But, as you might expect, there are some that will appeal to you and others that won’t. The quality of the writing varies, too. None of it is bad, but some essays are better written and more interesting than others.
That said, some of the essays – like “On Being a Lawyer in FOSS” and “Free and Open Source-Based Business Models” – will open your eyes to aspects of free and Open Source software that you perhaps wouldn’t normally have put any thought into.
I was most interested in the section covering documentation and support, partly because I know two of the folks who contributed essays to that section and also because one aspect of my professional life revolves around technical writing. It was refreshing to read some new perspectives on documentation (a line of work that I’m sometimes disenchanted with). And that fact that a couple of those perspectives came from two people I know and respect didn’t hurt, either.
As much as it’s about learning from some of the stumbles that new contributors make, and how to potentially avoid them, Open Advice is also about gaining new perspectives. I learned quite a bit from this book. Not just about how projects handle a myriad of tasks like packaging and distribution and translation, but also about the work involved in keeping a project going and keeping the contributors to a project engaged. I’ve always known it wasn’t easy, but I didn’t realize how difficult it could be.
Open Advice is a free book. You can download PDF, epub, and .mobi versions of the book. You can even get the LaTeX source files. Or, you can buy a printed version of the book. If you’re wondering, I bought a printed copy.
Overall, I found Open Advice to be an interesting and enlightening read. Not every essay engaged me, but that’s to be expected. But the ones that did got me thinking about FOSS projects in ways that I really didn’t in the past. And this book encouraged me to get back on the horse and ramp up my contributions.
My final thoughts? If you’re interested in contributing to a FOSS project, grab a copy of Open Advice. Read the sections covering areas that interest you. Learn the lessons in the book, then find a project. You might bounce around a few before you find the project that best fits you. But chances are, armed with what you learned from Open Advice you’ll be able to find your niche. Maybe even more than one niche …