Getting into open source for the first time

By: Dean McDonnell

Open source can be a thrilling hobby. My own contributions include work on projects like a IoT & Robotics framework, a Microservices deployment tool, and a self created theme for GitHub’s text editor, to name a few. The breadth and variance of open source means that anyone with a text editor, terminal, and an internet connection can help build some really cool things with really cool people.

Tools of the trade

Specific tooling requirements vary depending on the particular language or environment you are working with. In most cases, along with any SDK’s, having a GitHub account, a robust text editor, and Git installed on your machine should be all you need.

Types of contribution

A good open source project has input from people of many different disciplines. Not all contributions need to be to the code proper, there are many different parts that come together to form a good project, working on code is only one of them.

  • If you have design skills you could create and contribute assets for use in the project, it’s social media accounts, or it’s site.
  • Front end skills can be put to use creating a project’s home site, interactive samples, and tutorials.
  • Anyone with a flair for writing can contribute to documentation. Every OSS project out there could benefit from more quality documentation.

By not focusing solely on committing to the code portion of a project the work available greatly increases. Taking on work outside of your comfort zone is a great way to expand your skillset.

Selecting a project

A big issue for people new to open source is simply selecting a project to help out on in the first place. The advice I always give here is choose something that interests you. Below I’ve listed some points to consider when making your decision:

  • Does the project want or need outside contribution? Not every project wants or needs outside help. There are lots of projects that exist solely to scratch an itch, as experimentation, or even as a personal fork to play with ideas. In general if there is no contributing guide or no specific call to help it may be that the author isn’t accepting contributions.
  • Does the repo’s purpose interest you? Working on a project when you are not really all that interested never ends well. Open source contributions should be challenging but fun, if you are unhappily slogging away on a given project you may need to revalute your continued contribution.
  • Are you happy with the project’s License and Policies? Some projects have clear policies in relation to its License and Contributions, some don’t. Before pulling the trigger and jumping in, it may be wise to do some research here. As an example, I rarely contribute to anything that has restricted licensing, including GPL. It’s a personal choice, but one that needs to be made before you start contributing.
  • Is the repository active? Are there many outstanding issues and pull requests? Contributing to a dead repository is no fun and reviving one is no easy task.
  • Is there work to be done for your skill level? The best repositories to fork on are ones with work available you could tackle. Check the issues tab, run through the docs, look over tests. If there is something that needs to be done and you feel you can complete it, go for it!

Keep an open mind about what projects you would like to work on and also the varying ways which you can help out. Sticking within your comfort zone is boring!

Contributing, step by step

Contributing to any repository follows a familiar pattern of steps, once you cycled through these steps a number of times on different repos the speed at which you can contribute increases.

Create a fork

Navigate to your chosen repository on GitHub. In the top right hand corner of the page, notice a small button named fork. Hit that to create a linked copy of the repository under your username.

Getting into Open Source for the first time

Clone a local copy

Navigate to your newly created fork, it will be named the same as it’s parent. On the right hand side a clone link is presented. Hit the button to the right of the link to have it copied to your clipboard.

Getting into Open Source for the first time

Next, on your machine select a location to clone this repository, navigate to this place using whatever console app you prefer and enter the command below, you only need to type git clone, the rest can be pasted from the clipboard.

git clone<your-username>/<repo-name>.git

A local copy of your repository will now reside in a folder named the same as the repo’s name in your current working directory.

Set up remote tracking

The local copy you just made needs to track both your remote repository as well as the original forked repository. By default, when cloning, a link is created back to your copy but not the original fork. Let’s check what remote links are present:

git remote

You should have one remote named origin and may have one either named after the original author on GitHub or named upstream. By convention GitHub names the direct remote (in this case your copy) origin and the forked copy upstream but this is not a hard requirement, many people instead name their forks after the forked author.

Since your repository is most likely missing the upstream remote, let’s add it. If we navigate to the original repository we can use the same copy button to copy the fork’s URL:

git remote add upstream<orginal-author>/<repor-name>.git

Run, Git remote a second time to confirm the remote was correctly added, if it was you should see both origin and upstream listed.

Create a feature branch

In general, any changes made to a repository should be on a branch. All repositories will have a masterbranch which usually represents the latest clean version of the repositories content, unless otherwise stated by the repo owners this will be the branch you should base your feature branch off. Let’s first ensure we are on the master branch:

git checkout master

Next, we are going to create a copy of master, as it is currently, on a new branch, which we can then modify without fear of breaking anything.

git branch -b name-of-branch

In general one branch equates to one PR, keep branches focused to a single concept, if you need to add multiple features it may be better to create multiple branches, and later, multiple PR’s, rather than sending a single gigantic PR to the upstream repository.

Commit contributions

A commit should be created every time it makes sense to do so, for instance, if you need to fix a bug, add a feature, and update tests, each should be done in a separate commit. Think of commits as natural checkpoints in your work.

Before you commit, you must first “stage” your files. Staging is a way of grouping together a set of modified files to add to a commit. Only files specifically “staged” can be committed. To stage all files for commit, run:

git add --all

If you need to be more specific with what you need to stage you can also stage a single file at a time using paths relative to the repository’s root directory:

git add /lib/my-file.js

You can also check the current status of the repository using Git status, which will tell you which files are modified, added, or deleted, as well as what is and isn’t staged for commit.

When you are happy with your staged changes it’s time to create a commit and give it a message.  Simple commits can be done like so:

git commit -m “Fixed Bug”

For bigger commits, Git supports multi-line messages. By leaving off the closing double quotation mark and pressing enter, Git will insert a new line which allows list style messages to be created as below.  Notice that once the second double quotation mark is added the next enter key press will complete the message and save the commit.

git commit - m “Added Feature
- updated function to include callback
- merged to and from logic
- removed semicolons”

If you need to construct more complex commit messages you can tell Git to open up a text editor when the -m flag is missing. Simply set the following in Git, Where EDITOR is the named command you would use in the terminal to open this editor.

git config --global core.editor "EDITOR"

From here it is simply a case of using Git commit. When you push enter Git will detect no message and open up your editor of choice. When you have completed the message save and exit from the editor, Git will pick up your changes and use them for the commit message.

Staying up to date

Your copy of the original repository will invariably become stale. To keep up to date is actually very simple. First we need to checkout the master branch:

git checkout master

Next we need to rebase our master branch so that it matches the upstream master branch. Rebase is too complex to detail here but essentially it rewrites your master branch so it matches the upstream master branch exactly.

git pull --rebase upstream master

Finally because rebase is destructive and may rewrite your current master branch we need to tell Git to force update our remote fork:

git push -f origin master

Finally we need to check out our feature branch and rebase it with our local copy of master. This will yank any commits we have and place them at the end of the commit list. The importance of this will become apparent when we create our PR, the receiving repo will see our commits on top of theirs which makes merging much easier.

git checkout my-branch
git rebase master

Prepare pull request

Pull requests are created on GitHub’s website. Before creating a pull request we first need to push our branch up to our fork. It is good practice to first ensure your fork and branches are up to date, refer to the last section for how to do this. Once up to date we need to push our branch up to GitHub:

git push -f origin my-branch

To create a pull request, navigate to your fork and hit the pull request button on the right hand side of the repository explorer. Make sure you are on the right branch, by default, master will be selected but you can change to your branch using the branch drop down to the upper left of the pull request button.

Prepare Pull Request

Before you do, take note of the detail to the left of the pull request button. It will tell you how many commits ahead you are (these will be included in the PR) and how many you are behind (a pull and rebase is required). In general, you should never submit a PR that is behind, if you do, you will inevitably be asked to update.

Having your code reviewed

Depending on the contributors you may be subjected to a pretty lengthy and sometimes intense code review. While these can seem disheartening, look at them as a learning experience. Sometimes it may be that your changes simply need some tidying up, other times the way you went about solving a problem doesn’t fit with the repositories overall theme. Generally the advice or direction given during a code review is designed to improve the PR but let you have the experience of doing so, the language may be neutral or questioning but the intent is to let you make the PR better. Most contributors understand the importance of letting a person make any changes needed rather than doing it for them.

A review should never be personal, it is the code, not you, that is up for review, with this in mind the following is never ok:

  • Name calling, snideness, chiding, insults, or mocking.
  • Comments and/or assumptions on your gender, sexuality, or person.

If you feel a review has become personal depending on the circumstances you may be able to have a discussion with the repository owner to resolve any issues. In general, I find it is simply better to drop the PR and move on. Like any massive gathering of people there are good apples and bad apples. 

Fortunately, many Open Source projects now have express Code of Conduct or Contribution Guides to ensure that sound policies and procedures are in place, understood, and most importantly, enforced. A project with a solid Code of Conduct or Contributing Guide is usually a better place to spend your effort than one without.

Getting into Open Source for the first time

As your code is reviewed a timeline is created under the PR, each commit added and any notes from reviewers are all listed in the same place. This cycle may repeat a number of times, it’s not unusual for multiple extra commits to be required before a PR is accepted.

Handling rework requests

Chances are, after a code review, you may need to add more commits to your pull request for any rework that needs to be completed.

Handling work requests

Luckily as long as you keep adding commits to the same branch and then pushing them to your fork, the PR against that branch will be auto updated. If any of your changes out date the previous diff, GitHub will automatically hide any associated comments, this allows PR’s to evolve without becoming overcrowded with older review messages.



When your PR has been accepted you will need to pull the changes back into your fork, via your local repo. This is the exact same process as keeping your repository in sync, as listed above.

git checkout master
git pull --rebase upstream master
git push -f origin master

All that is left to do is clean up your local and remote branches by removing the now unneeded feature branch in both places.

git branch -D my_branch
git push origin --delete my_branch

From here, to kick the process off again simply checkout master, create a new branch, rinse and repeat. It is important to note that just because your changes are now in the main repository, it does not mean they have reached user yet. Generally a release is a bunching together of many PR’s into a single public release.


Open source is both thrilling and mostly a joy to do. Using the information above it should be easy, with some practice, to get working on some cool and interesting projects. It’s important to remember that everyone in open source started the same way.

Let me know how you get on with your first foray into open source. I’m always interested in how we can make it easier to help people get started. If you’d like to know more about nearForm’s approach to Open Source take a look here and you might even consider adding to our open source projects nScale and Seneca too. Best of luck!

Want to work for nearForm? We’re hiring.


Twitter @nearform

Phone +353-1-514 3545

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By: Dean McDonnell

Dean is a self-taught software engineer who cut his teeth on .Net and Microsoft-oriented technologies. Having initially worked in the food sector and specialized in traceability, he has a wide range of experience with large systems and industrial hardware. He made the transition to Node.js quickly, having already made contributions to Johnny-Five, an IoT-focused robotics framework, as well as nearForm's nScale and Seneca. In his spare time, Dean contributes to open source software (see his GitHub profile and plays retro games.
  • DannyOHanlon

    Very good article Dean. Well written and very informative, especially for a noob like myself. Looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

  • Christos Matskas

    Very nice post mate. I love the true step-by-step guidance you provide for getting started with OSS. I’m definitely sharing this one :)