How to be a successful contributor
Who this document is for
This document is targeted at people interested in contributing to the Fedora Project. In the Fedora Project, students, professionals and hobbiests all come together to produce software, marketing materials, art, documentation, etc. We all started as new volunteers at some point. The items below are designed to help you through the process of joining a team. It helps you know what we expect of you and what you can expect of us.
Things to know before you join
Everyone who joins a free software project does so with the best intentions of staying. However, few stay to become regular contributors, and fewer still become leaders within the project. The biggest difference between those that stay and those that leave is commitment and time.
Some volunteers may spend 15-30 hours per week contributing, doing that while holding down a proper day job is a difficult time management skill. As a volunteer, you should ask yourself whether you can devote 2-4 hours per week, even though it's less then an hour per day. 4 hours a week for most people is an entire afternoon one day. That's a significant chunk of time.
Get permission from work
There is a mutually beneficial relationship between working for a living and volunteering. Many contributors will find their skill sets at work increase dramatically just by having access to and learning from another environment. This benefits employer and worker. It is completely worthwhile to sit down with an employer or manager and ask for permission to contribute during work hours, even if it's only a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon. Explain the benefits to you and your employer.
If they say no, then you'll have to volunteer in your own time.
The single biggest mistake most new contributors make is showing up "just wanting to contribute." It's important to take the time to observe the team (refer to the section below) and see how their work aligns with your own skills and personality. Know that getting work to do on day one is very rare, and those who are highly skilled in a specific technology will still have to take the time to get to know an environment before access is granted.
For example, if you're a database expert it is very unlikely you'll be given access to databases (where personal info, passwords, etc) are stored within your first several weeks of volunteering. If you're looking to become an ambassador, it is unlikely you'll get marketing materials shipped to you in your first week. This may seem unfortunate, but it's necessary to keep the project members working well together. The same can be said about any major changes, like a complete redesign of a system or a new look and feel for a website. Don't get discouraged. Show up as often as you can, and get to know the team.
It is important to get to know the organization and teams you are looking to work with before you try to join them. Learn what they do and how they do it, and try to get to know the people involved. It is extremely unlikely you will be able to actually contribute from day one. In organizations with hundreds or thousands of people working together, understanding how things work is critical.
Don't be shy about asking questions and getting to know people. Plan to spend several days or even weeks attending meetings, emailing on mailing lists and hanging out on IRC before you get to do any actual work. Offer suggestions on topics being discussed, and share any experiences (good or bad) you've had that is relevant to the discussion.
Part of observing and making constructive suggestions may require withholding judgement. When making suggestions, don't assume you come with all of the answers or that the Fedora Project is doing it all wrong. There is a good chance we can improve the way we are doing things, however most of our current practices were developed over long periods of time after lengthy discussion. Your criticism may be better received once you have established yourself in the community and are perceived as understanding our culture.
Pick what you want to work on
It's your job to decide what you want to work on. Pick something that's important to you and something you have passion for. You'll see this advice repeated several times in this document: Don't just show up looking to have work assigned to you. Get to know the teams and procedures they have in place. Ask questions and really get to know what you're going to be working on _before_ trying to work on it.
Don't jump into the deep end
When picking something to work on, don't be the sole person to take on a huge task as your first contribution. Picking a task that's too large signifcantly raises the chances of failure. Also don't pick several things on several teams to work on. Start small, picking at most one or two things, and grow from there. The key is slow, steady, and sustainable growth. Don't join with the immediate goal of becoming the next leader of the project. Start small.
After you've decided what you're looking to do and what team you are looking to do it with, it's time to send an introduction to the list. When sending an introduction (usually by mail list), include the following information:
- Time Zone / Country
- Basic skills and experiences
- Why you're joining
- What you're looking to do (be specific)
- How much time you can contribute (usually hours per week)
If any of the above questions are not clearly answered, don't send the email yet. You're not ready. Remember, be specific about what type of work you're looking to do. Saying "Whatever needs to get done" isn't helping anyone. Saying "I'd like to help document system A," "I'd like to translate software for my native language," or "I noticed this webapp is particularly slow sometimes and I'd like to help fix that" is perfect.
Find a mentor or sponsor
This step is both incredibly difficult and important. Finding a proper sponsor will increase your chances of being a successful contrubitor significantly. Sometimes it's absolutely required. A sponsor will help with training, introductions and teaching new contributors how a team works.
Most teams have mailing lists. Email the list, say you're looking for a sponsor, and explain what you are wanting to do. If you haven't heard back in a few days, reply saying that you are still looking. Keep doing this. Most sponsors are people that have been in the project for a long time, and are often very busy.
They don't mean to be rude and don't want to send the impression they don't want new contributors. It's just that at the moment, some people will assume other people will take care of you and so for the moment, no one does. This is a common problem -- in real life as well as in online communities -- and a difficult one to fix. But sticking to it and continuing to ask for help without being annoying will show that you are serious and ready to contribute. Don't send this kind of message more than once every couple of days, but be positive, and persistent if needed.
Once you've got something to work on, it's time to actually do work. The first several tasks you will work on will likely be small or maybe mundane. Do them consistently, conscientiously and well. This will raise the level of trust you have from the other team members.
As with other volunteer organizations, there are high turnover rates in the free software universe. Training volunteers is time consuming, especially for more complex tasks, and requires a commitment from currently busy volunteers. Spending days or weeks training someone only for them to vanish can be disheartening for mentors and sponsors. By giving out small tasks that have been hanging around, a sponsor can help you take small but vital steps, and learn whether or not the work you're going to be doing is really for you.
Look for work
If you have access to a repository, system, or content, consider yourself a partial owner. This doesn't mean you should immediately re-design everything. Remember that other owners have time and effort invested in the current material as well. It does mean, though, that you should take pride in the work you are doing. If you see something not quite right, do research on it and notify the list. Seek work out, keep yourself busy and help others.
If volunteering isn't for you, that's OK. You don't need to be embarrassed that you can't contribute further. Contributors will not make you feel bad about it either. Realize that lots of contributors come and go every day. Being busy with your day job or not having enough free time is a perfectly valid reason for not being able to contribute. It's even possible that you might not feel a good fit with the team or organization. You're entitled to offer help as a volunteer how you want and when you want.
First and foremost, though, don't just vanish. When a contributor or potential contributor agrees to do work, can't follow through for a valid reason, and vanishes, the team may not know the work can be reassigned. In some cases, people in the team may even worry about the contributor's health or well being.
When you've decided it's time for you to go or take a break, let your sponsor or the list know and let them know what you were working on. Having people think you are working on something when you aren't slows the team down, and ultimately doesn't benefit you or the team.