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Becoming an Open Source Project Maintainer

November 20, 2017

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Photo by Will Oey on Unsplash


Some tips and tricks that have worked for me.

I have a lot of open source projects that I maintain. I have personally published over 100 packages to npm. Not all of them are widely used (or used at all), but many of them are. I have some ideas about how to maintain open source projects. I've given a talk on this in the past (unfortunately each time the recording sadly failed, but there's a practice run, so check it out here).

In this newsletter though, I want to talk about how you become a project maintainer. The easiest way to do this is to create your own project from scratch, but often what's more needed than a new project is to improve an existing project. So how do you get involved?

good question

Well, "You contribute best to something you use regularly." So before you decide you want to be a maintainer of a project, make sure it's one that you use yourself, otherwise you'll lose motivation pretty quickly.

The first project I maintained that became widely used was angular-formly. Several years ago, I needed a library to make creating forms easier with angular. I tried a few projects and finally landed with angular-formly as the one I liked the most. As what often happens with open source projects, it didn't quite meet my use cases. So I filed an issue and made a pull request. It was great.

Then something else came up and I made a pull request for that too. Then I started helping in issues and reviewing pull requests. Then one day, all of a sudden, the maintainer asked me if I wanted commit and publish access. I was surprised and thrilled. It made so much sense though. I was doing more for the project than he was at the time, so the transition worked well.

So here's the key takeaway:

Are you ready for this?

To become a project maintainer, act like a project maintainer.

That means help with issues, make pull requests, help with documentation, answer questions, make tutorials, review pull requests, etc. etc. etc. There's really no need to get permission for doing those things. Just start doing it as much as you're willing and able and magic things happen.

Now, I can't promise that you'll become a core maintainer of React if you start helping in issues and pull requests. But I can tell you that a lot of the benefits of open source will come even if you aren't the project maintainer. And many projects really do need new maintainers (angular-formly included). You don't need permission to start acting like a maintainer. If you start doing the work, then it's pretty likely that the project maintainers will eventually give you decision making power and you'll be able to make an impact on the project direction.

I should note also that not all maintainers are the same. Some really don't want to reliquish control over the project. If you have an issue with the way the project is maintained and they're not willing to let you help in the way you want, you can definitely fork the project (famous example of this is lodash).

What I love about open source is that you don't need anyone's permission to do good work. So long as you're following the project code of conduct and respect the project maintainers, your help will likely be very welcome. And if that doesn't workout, your BATNA is to fork the project (learn about and be aware of the project license if you ever do this).

I hope this is helpful! I personally have many projects that could use more active project maintainers. And I've transitioned some of them to others in the past as well. So feel free to start helping out on the projects you're using. You never know. Good luck!

Things to not miss:

  • Simplicity Matters — Always a good talk to review every few months.
  • Carbon — Create and share beautiful images of your source code.

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Kent C. Dodds

Kent C. Dodds is a JavaScript software engineer and teacher. He's taught hundreds of thousands of people how to make the world a better place with quality software development tools and practices. He lives with his wife and four kids in Utah.