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Building the Open Source Community We Want

Software Engineer, React Training, Testing JavaScript Training

Photo by Duy Pham


Let's be intentional about the open source community we want and work hard to build it.

I've been participating in the creation of open source software since 2012. My first pull request was to fix a typo I saw in a comment of the Java Playframework. It wasn't much, but being my first ever contribution, it was new, exciting, and even a little stressful. And on the same day a maintainer named James Roper commented with:

Thank you for your contribution. Would you mind signing our CLA?

"Thank you for your contribution." Simple words, but you know, we've all got a limited number of characters we can type in our lifetimes and it just made me feel good that James decided expressing gratitude to me for such a small contribution was worth those 32 extra keystrokes.

I don't know whether James knew the impact he was making on me. He didn't know whether I would ever contribute to the project again (I never did), but he treated me well anyway. He was building the community that he wanted to live in.

I recently read a story about a couple named Larry and Sharon Adams. Over two decades ago, Sharon moved back to her childhood home. She was a senior citizen at this point and the neighborhood was completely unlike what she remembered as a child. Crime was rampant. Several police captains told her to not go out, even during the day. Several homes in her neighborhood were abandoned and people would dump garbage in the lots.

Sharon saw the crime as the symptom of a deeper problem. She and Larry formed a nonprofit organization and with the help from local redevelopment programs, grants, donations, and dozens of volunteers, they went to work to fix up the community. They cleaned up and renovated over 100 abandoned homes and vacant lots which were sold (many to first-time home buyers through low-interest loans they helped provide). Before long, a grocery store, coffee shop, and smoothie cafe moved into the community as well.

Through their efforts, crime dropped by 42% from 2007 to 2018. They've been going at it for years and plan to keep it up even though they're retired. They've touched the lives of everyone in that community, making their corner of the world a better place. A place they were happy to live and felt safe to be a part of, and now more and more people want to be a part of it as well.

Sharon and Larry

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What strikes me about this is I think a lot of us would think that she and Larry would have been best served to just leave the community for their own safety. I don't think anyone could have blamed them for doing that and I don't think we can judge anyone for leaving a community (physical or digital) for their own physical and mental health.

For Sharon and Larry, instead of moving to a different community in the hopes it would be better for them, they changed the community where they were to make it one they could be proud of. They saw the good that could be had in their neighborhood and intentionally put forth effort to enhance and build that. They improved it so that it not only improved the community for themselves, but for others in the community as well and eventually others wanted to join their community.

I think this is a beautiful thing. Sharon and Larry worked to improve their physical community, and I think we can do the same to our digital communities. I think that in general, the open source community is a positive one that I want to be a part of, but there are definitely areas for improvement. Homes need a fresh coat of paint, grass needs to be cut, weeds need to be pulled. We need to be mindful of these things and intentional in how we address problems.

Having and enforcing a code of conduct to ensure people feel safe in our community. Giving newcomers a place where they feel safe to try and succeed through their slip-ups by doing some hand-holding. It will take extra effort. You'll definitely be able to get things done quicker by just doing it yourself. But that's not the community I think we want to live in, and it's certainly not sustainable.

I want to be a part of a community that builds people up and helps people become the best version of themselves. We have no idea the kinds of contributions people could make if they just felt like they could join our community and were empowered to start contributing.

So I want to leave you with a challenge to be intentional about improving your corner of the open source community. Stop working on the code of your projects for a moment. Lift your head up from the computer and consider the health of the community that you're a part of. Identify the rough spots and form plans to improve those areas. Pull some weeds, paint some walls, plant some trees. I think by doing this, you'll create a community you and others enjoy more and you'll find more people who want to be a part of your community as well.

I'll see you out there. Bring your working gloves and a shovel.

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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.