A Call for Better Open Source Onboarding Processes



Photo by Gilles Roux on Unsplash

Would it surprise you to hear that most computer science majors don’t learn about open source technology in their university classrooms? Drawing from her experience working with open source beginners, Fiona Whittington believes this is part of a bigger problem. According to the data, not knowing where to start is one of the leading obstacles keeping new people from getting involved in open source. 

In this interview, Whittington, director of strategic initiatives at Major League Hacking (MLH), offers a fresh perspective on how to make open source a more inclusive and welcoming place for beginners.  

Listen to the full Open at Intel podcast episode here. This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity. 

Katherine Druckman: Will you tell us about MLH? 

Fiona Whittington: MLH is a B Corporation with the mission of empowering the next generation of developers, or “hackers” as we like to call them. We have a community of over 150,000 developers each year. To put that in perspective, one in three computer science graduates in the US is a graduate of one of our programs. I always like to lead with that to give people a sense of our scale. What that means in action is we help run over 200 events globally each year—in person, digitally, hackathons, events. One program that I’m most excited to talk about here at All Things Open is our MLH Fellowship Program, a 12-week internship alternative that pairs students to work on open source projects. It gives students hands-on experience, going from zero to one with open source, and also gives companies like Meta, Royal Bank of Canada, and others opportunities to get people contributing to their project. 

Barriers to Entry

Katherine Druckman: The open source world has evolved tremendously since its inception. We’re in a very different place than we were even 10 years ago. For the next generation of contributors, what are the barriers to contribution? 

Fiona Whittington: We did a presentation on this topic today at All Things Open, where we shared insights from 11,000 early-career developers. In our biannual survey data in which we ask the community what they think about open source, one of the questions is about what prevents them from getting involved. One of the leading blockers the students reported was not knowing how to get started. That’s interesting because the number of open source contributions is at an all-time high. So while students are more interested than ever in open source, they’re also really confused about how to get started.  

Katherine Druckman: I often think that wherever you are in your software journey, imposter syndrome can keep you from getting involved. Doing something completely out in the open is intimidating. 

Fiona Whittington: A lot of my career has involved talking about imposter syndrome and technology. I think we give it too much credit. Most of getting started is tactical. With better onboarding ramps, instruction, and guidance, we can easily conquer imposter syndrome. There’s a perception that it’s them and not us—we say students are just too scared to get started—but the data shows that students are interested but need the community to invest more into helping and educating them. That includes education in other forms of contributions beyond code, which we also saw from our data. 

There’s Room for Everyone

Katherine Druckman: You’ve got feelers in many different communities. Can you give us examples of getting it right in terms of valuing non-code contributions? What are people doing well and not well? 

Fiona Whittington: We need to onboard students starting from ground zero. So many maintainers that I talk to are eager to get people to contribute to their projects, but their go-to for helping people get started is writing better documentation. That’s a piece of it, but another piece is starting from even further back. I’d say that around 50 percent of the computer science students we work with don’t even have GitHub accounts. You’d be surprised how much it unlocks for students by just teaching them about GitHub.  

Katherine Druckman: What advice would you have for community leaders who want to encourage non-code contributions and show community members that they value them? 

Fiona Whittington: I just had a thought yesterday that we need to reframe what community is. We almost need to use the term “community” less because that puts an image of what the community is in someone’s mind. When we say open source community, we immediately think of code contributions. We think of developers. But it’s more than that. You can contribute other things that are valuable, such as UX, writing documentation, and reporting bugs. Getting more specific about the different personas of people who can partake in your project—not just labeling it as a general community—can really help people see the representation and aspire to it. And then, putting the pathways and instructions on how to get there upfront can help people engage in other ways. 

Katherine Druckman: Open source is ubiquitous today, whereas, in the past, it represented more of a revolutionary ideal. How does this shift impact involvement in open source? 

Fiona Whittington: When I started my career at Red Hat, open source was the cool thing. It was more a circle of people or philosophy, not necessarily a business. Now that it’s more widely adopted into people’s workflows, we’re seeing more adoption and engagement with open source. That’s what the fellowship program is all about. Companies have open source projects, and we have students who need experience, so we’re trying to merge the gap because both are looking for what the other has. 

Katherine Druckman: Do you find that people who are new to open source have the same excitement about the ideology, or is it less important? 

Fiona Whittington: I think that the ideology of open source is a little bit lost on our generation, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Open source has become more open. As the definition becomes a little broader, it invites new perspectives and previously excluded people to be part of the ecosystem. For example, when I contributed to open source for the first time, I was a designer, and I built a wireframe for an accessibility app. It was cutting edge to do a design contribution—back in the day, contributions were purely code—but now it’s a normal thing. Open source and design are becoming an increasingly popular topic. 

Advice for Beginners

Katherine Druckman: If you were going to advise somebody new to the open source world or technology in general, what skills should they invest in that are going to be the most relevant to whatever the next big thing is? 

Fiona Whittington: Don’t invest your time into what’s going to be the next big thing because it moves so fast. Don’t worry about relevance in the world of technology because it moves so fast. The evolution of the languages that have come in and out of popularity in the last five years has changed rapidly. In terms of open source and getting started, Hacktoberfest and all of the partner events around it are a wonderful place to start. You can also start with the Linux Foundation. They have so many incredible programs for students or for industry professionals to get involved as a mentor. 

Katherine Druckman: You mentioned changes since you got involved in open source. How did you get started? 

Fiona Whittington: As an intern at Red Hat, I’d never heard of open source—which at Red Hat is the most basic thing; it’s so core to their business. I read former CEO Jim Whitehurst’s book [The Open Organization]. Open source was an innovative approach that I didn’t learn about in the computer science classroom. I didn’t even hear about it until my time at Red Hat. Hopefully, things have changed. 

Katherine Druckman: Would it be fair to say that your advice to college students might be to create a GitHub profile?  

Fiona Whittington: Absolutely. The best form of education is exploration and hands-on experience. I mean, it’s free, so create an account and explore. An interesting thing that I heard at this conference—and maybe this is for maintainers who are listening—is about the velocity of how open source moves and how fast tickets are closed for beginners. Someone was saying that they wanted to contribute to Hacktoberfest, but all of the beginner-friendly tickets were taken so fast that every time they made a pull request, it was already closed. This means there are fewer opportunities for beginners to learn, grow, and contribute.  

Katherine Druckman: One of the reasons I was so interested in speaking with you is because of this exact type of insight. Those of us who have been around longer don’t always get to hear these voices.  

Fiona Whittington: People at open source events are always shocked to hear most students don’t have GitHub. They create their accounts when they come to our events, and that’s why our events are so pivotal for people’s careers.  

Katherine Druckman: A GitHub profile is basically your resume today. 

Fiona Whittington: Yeah. The gap between the classroom and industry is just so wide, and very few universities are up to speed. They’re constantly having to catch up. 

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About the Author

Katherine Druckman, Open Source Evangelist, Intel 

Katherine Druckman, an Intel open source evangelist, hosts the podcasts Open at Intel, Reality 2.0, and FLOSS Weekly. A security and privacy advocate, software engineer, and former digital director of Linux Journal, she’s a longtime champion of open source and open standards.