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Why I still don’t contribute to open source

Posted: May 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Open Source Software, Programming | 74 Comments »

Via zen on Flickr

I am such a hypocrite. A few months ago, I posted about overcoming my fear of contributing to open source software.

Since then, I still haven’t really participated. On Twitter, I commented that OSS looks like a shark tank to newbies, and I need to back that up.

The fact is, I actively contribute in some fashion or other in several open source projects. But I still feel very much like an outsider, as my contributions aren’t typically code-related.

So why am I (and I assume, many others) still an OSS wallflower?

At the profound risk of projecting my feelings onto other people, I would like to share some objections that I feel may cause new(ish) devs to shy away from contributing to open source software.

There’s no certification, ceremony, or merit badge that says, “you’re ready to contribute to OSS”. (Though there is one for afterwards.)

It’s not obvious where to start. From what I hear, a lot of OSS contribution comes because a person needs functionality in a piece of software that isn’t there, or finds a bug. They can submit a failing test case or even a patch. In my daily use, I don’t run into many of these situations. There aren’t many devs sticking their hands out asking specifically for help on a project, and fewer still who would be willing to take a newer developer under his or her wing.

Guidelines often make a maintainer’s life easier, and mine harder. Yes, maintaining an open-source project is an arduous, thankless task. But I’ve looked at contribution rules/guidelines that turn a simple idea for a fix into a bureaucratic brick wall worthy of Microsoft. A notable contradiction to this would be Wayne Seguin’s welcoming contribution page, complete with tutorial video.

Open source is for people who are better at this than me. I realize this is probably a copout for not shipping, but I am just not comfortable that I’m at a place where I could release software that’s good enough for actual developers to use.

Trying to contribute and failing makes me feel stupid. I’ve submitted several pull requests now and had 0 accepted with no comments as to why. It’s like the universe is confirming that yes, I am an idiot, and my “help” is not helpful. What a profoundly embarrassing waste of time!

There’s no time. I have a kid, a new gig, and a mounting set of responsibilities. It takes me 3-10 times the amount of time to write code as a more experienced developer. Now, my non-code-related contributions are now eating up my former “coding time”. Yes, it’s the universal excuse, and one that I think melts away when the other excuses are removed, but it bears mentioning.

It’s pretty lonely. I think most people figure this stuff out on their own, and so maybe expecting a hand to hold is too much. But is this really some spirit walk, where no one is allowed to accompany you, lest you learn nothing?

So yes, OSS can feel daunting, even like a shark tank. I don’t have all the answers to these issues, but I’d like to see more maintainers seeking contributions with some specificity, and then actively responding to pull requests. A call for additional test cases. Bug fixes. And yes, documentation.

For all the openness of Github, there’s no Quora/StackExchange-type system to let you know which projects are in need that you might be a match for. Seems like that’d be a good feature.


  • http://openid.berk.es/berkes Bèr Kessels

    It is more about “fanboyism”, it is more focused.

    No-one jumps on her or hist bike and cycles to Africa to “Go solve all the Aids problems, Hunger and Wars”. No, people contribute to a local fundraiser. Or have fun with their soccerteam gathering old soccer gear to help other children who lack the means to play soccer.

    That is your problem here. Don’t attempt to “help Open Source”. That is far to broad. Help open source hardware drivers for disk encryption chipsets? Help Open Source encyclopedia-entries about some fish? Or join an open source game-development crew? It all depends on where your ambitions lie.

    Start off with your itches. Are you using a blog-tool that you wish to tinker a bit for your own need? Or are you rather interested in learning development of 3D-rendering software? Once you have chosen your area of interest, opportunities are many. A graphics artist who invests time in helping documentation or discussing features for the next Blender-addon will help himself too. A blogger who tinkers with the commenting workflow helps himself too. He scratches an own itch.

    That is what open source is about.

  • Grammarian

    I had a similar issue, so I organized a local hackfest so I could invite smarter people and then see what they were working on. Certainly, it was above my level at the time, but they always had stuff that I could do that got me involved and excited to have actually had something accepted.

    Find a local group and get involved, if you can, then you’ll have people willing to take you under their wing for a couple hours. Tough to do with a kiddo, I know.

    • http://twitter.com/fstrnet FSTR

      YES! I went to a local hack night recently and was really happy with the social & fun nature of the project. We sat around coding and talking code for a few hours and some projects on git were the result. I learned a tonne.

    • Nobleach

      This is a stupendous idea! A good friend once taught me that I’d never become a better pool player if kept playing people I could beat. The same is true for development. I love watching coders that are way beyond my expertise. It makes me ask “wait, now why did you just do that?”. Luckily in my department, we all have pretty good rapport… and they’re happy to teach me things they’ve learned. It makes me comfortable sharing as well.

  • Anon

    You are really over-thinking things. You create something YOU want, then give it away. You fix something YOU need, then give it back. If its not used/wanted, then who cares? You got what you needed out of it.

  • http://twitter.com/migrantgeek Seth

    You can’t contribute for the sake of contribution. It’ll never work. That’s like trying to learn C with no projects lined up to use it. Even if you learn it, you’ll never get good and you’ll forget everything anyway.

    The only thing I’ve ever written that I learned was useful to others was a glued together Python script that alerts you via Growl that a Zenoss monitor was going off. I wrote it because I wanted it. The fact that someone else found it useful is just serendipity.

    Open Source has become some kind of religion. It’s not an end, just a means to an end. All we’re trying to do is make things work and work as autonomously as possible so we can do fun things like ride bikes, have sex, or eat good food.

  • jj33

    As a project maintainer and contributor to other projects, most of your points made me shrug. They’re issues you need to overcome personally, or engage to fix. It mostly just sounds like you haven’t found something you’re passionate enough about to overcome your hangups.

    HOWEVER, your point about having attempted to make contributions and not received any feedback, if true, just sucks. I hate that. I know every project is different, but to me every attempt at contributing deserves a response, even if it’s “This probably won’t work because of X, I’m going to sleep on it for a couple of years”.

    • Nobleach

      The zero feedback syndrome is exactly why I wait a month and then adopt the fork the project and “be the change you want to see”. If they DO respond negatively with no real feedback, I adopt the form-em-and-f**k-em… because no one likes being called stupid.

    • LuitvD

      As long as there’s enough room for discussion in a pull request, and the proper amount of explanation (not just letting the code speak for itself, because that doesn’t work) there’s no reason for the developer not to act on the pull request.
      To avoid not getting any feedback on them, do make an effort to explain as much as you can to at least make the impression that your changes are well thought through. If that doesn’t help, maybe the pull-request didn’t reach him/her: tweet, irc or mail politely ;-)

  • http://beletsky.net Alexander Beletsky

    Great post :)

    I’m having similar feeling toward OSS. It is quite difficult to jump in, so you feel that – noone is actually expecting for my help here. And throught the time I’m OK with that.

    Code is the most interesting, but less valuable contribution you can make to OSS. What I saw – interesting OSS projects already have pretty strong developers team. They are fixing the bugs, producing new features very fast.. so in time you might send some pull request, the problem could be already fixed.. or new feature is implemented :)

    In the same time – bug reports, documentation, annoucements in blogs in twitter could be much/much/much valuable for OSS. And you should start with that. Thats what I was doing with some OSS besided small code contribution.

    I still think I could join some OSS that expect for my skill and could continute it 100%.. or maybe just create my own one :)

  • http://ryanfunduk.com Ryan Funduk

    > Trying to contribute and failing makes me feel stupid.

    Indeed! Before you feel stupid, take a look at the project and see if they are generally accepting patches in the first place. No comments and unaccepted is a pretty big motivation killer, so avoid contributing to projects that don’t engage with their contributors. I wrote a little tool to help with this, showing average and standard deviation of the time it takes a project to close a pull request (yes, if they don’t want it they should _close_ the pull request). Check it out: bigpuller.com

  • http://twitter.com/fstrnet FSTR

    For years I agreed with all of this. The I decided I wanted to learn github. So I opened my account and started pushing things. Does that make me an open sourcer? No not really. I just push stuff to a place where others can read it. :)

    I guess I’d compare it to having a radio show on your local college station. You could do it, but is anyone actually listening?

    Anyways you’ve really hit the nail on the head.

  • Huy Nguyen

    I felt(still feel?) the same way. I’m not even quite sure how I got over the challenges listed either, but it does get better. My first attempt at contributing met with similar responses of nothing when submitting a patch. I think I just dumbly kept banging my head against different projects until I got something accepted. You get hooked though once you help close a bug or just get feedback on some problem. I’m also pretty thankful to github for lowering the entry bar. You can shotgun approach the trivial problems with pull requests until you are comfortable.

  • Tom Rowton

    It looks like some folks either have reading comprehension issues or reading issues. Good article, good points. I’m in mostly the same boat. I’d love to help (with just about anything code), but don’t have any pet projects, pet apps, or pet bugs that *I* need fixed.

    A marketplace would be a great idea, as would better and less byzantine “How to help” processes.

  • http://jarinudom.com Jarin Udom

    “Open source is for people who are better at this than me.”

    I think many good developers feel that other developers are way better than them. It’s called Impostor Syndrome, and you need to get over it.

    • JMT

      The impostor syndrome is interesting, but I think the author has the feeling that the open source community is made of people who are experts in everything, as he has just skills in some specific domains. In fact we just see what the other developers can contribute to and not what they are not able to do.

  • Asheesh Laroia

    Hi there,

    It’s really good to read your blog post. I work on an open source project called OpenHatch that is trying to address these very issues:

    * Certification: See http://openhatch.org/missions/

    * For guidelines: Look at the pages we have for projects, like http://openhatch.org/+projects/PiTiVi

    * re: “There’s no time”: Yeah, that’s a real drag. It’s true for so many of us.

    * re: “Where to start”: see http://openhatch.org/search/

    Our project is itself open source, and we love to help new contributors to *other* projects talk about their experiences so that we know how to focus our efforts.

    I know the site isn’t perfect, and we could use your help — either in helping us pick a direction for our next month’s efforts, or in helping us get there.

    I totally agree with your points; it’s why I’ve organized events like “Debian for Shy People” and an intro to open source workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. I hope you might join our IRC channel and stick around and help us learn from your wallflower-ness. We’re at #openhatch on irc.freenode.net.

    • Anonymous

      Someone showed me OpenHatch via Twitter this morning. What an awesome idea! I’ll definitely jump into the IRC (after work, naturally).

  • http://twitter.com/tbmcmullen Tyler McMullen

    My suggestion would be to try contributing to very small projects initially. Trying to navigate the maze of contribution to some Apache project, or even something like Rails is a nightmare at first.

    Instead, perhaps pick a new(ish) project on GitHub and add something to it. The author will be happy that someone cares enough to contribute to it. The process should be much more straightforward (send a pull request). And the codebase will likely be much smaller, and thus easier to work with.

    • http://twitter.com/thecatwasnot thecatwasnot

      That’s how I got started, how I’m still rolling, small things, (usually) small projects. I think the first project I contributed 1 line of code to a ~200LOC project.

      To the OP: I suggest getting out and playing with new tools, dabbling in new projects a little for a while, live on the edge. Find something that maybe isn’t quite finished, isn’t so established, usually that provides enthusiastic maintainers that are just grateful for the help and are eager to get new changes rolled in.

  • mebigfatguy

    If you’re really feeling overwhelmed and have no passion for anything specific and just want your feet wet, almost any OS project would like more unit tests. It may not be glamorous, but the cost of entry is pretty low (1 test), the scrutiny is less, and it helps you learn how the system/api/product works.

    • Anonymous

      I hadn’t even thought of that. OK, this is definitely getting a follow-up.

      • http://joelhooks.com Joel Hooks

        I’ve done this for multiple projects. Small open-source libraries that do good things but lack tests and documentation are good targets for contribution. I’ve never tried to contribute to a big OSS project outside of a patch at a Django bug-squash event. That didn’t get accepted I don’t think, but even creating it was a pretty good experience for me.

    • Dude

      Unit tests are boring as shit too.

  • Anonymous

    Wow wow wow. Thanks for your comments. I do have a tendency to overthink, and “get over yourself” is not a bad mantra for me to try to carry around.

    Still, insofar as this reflects the experience of others, it’s probably an opportunity to reach out and help people get started who really want to make a difference and aren’t quite certain how to start.

    “Scratch your own itch” is always a good philosophy, but can be hard for new people to locate those itchy spots at first.

    “Go to or host a hackfest” is absolutely a winner. Such an awesome idea. I think pairing with an experienced dev is another way to cut your teeth I didn’t really explore.

    Lastly, open source isn’t the end-all, be-all of software development, and it isn’t a religion. But it does carry a culture that I think is good for new developers to embrace sooner rather than later.

    • http://twitter.com/sgharms Steven G. Harms

      Hi Viking,

      I work on Ruby implementations of verb conjugations in Latin, as in IVVLUS CAESAR Latin. It’s been pretty lonely, but I’ve kept posting to Github along the way (another major release is weeks away as I went through le grande rewrite recently). Obviously no one is really looking at that, no one is asking to help out, and I trudge along on my own private path. The venn intersection between linguists, Latin speakers, and Ruby programmers is tiny.

      By focusing on (what I consider to be) very clever string maniuplators I never do “hard” Ruby (cf. JRuby, rubinius, something that talks to CouchDB). Thus I, too, suffer from the Impostor syndrome. I go to Rubyconf and sit there, enrapt, as Maeda-san explains things so complicated I can’t fathom it, I see O() notations compared for algorithms and I think “Why would anyone ever hire me to do Ruby?”

      But as I was documenting the Latin stuff (solo, of course) I realized that RDoc wasn’t parsing my comment properly. I started digging. I created a cleanroom with RVM’s gemsets and started using RDebug to trace through to find my bug. I wrote a test case to reproduce it (committed) and then I wrote the fix (committed). I submitted the pull request and, after a second “hey could you look at this” mail to the maintainer, my request was accepted.

      Along the way I found a bug (I think!) in Ruby itself and in RDebug. Thus I have two test cases ready to go, and thus two pull requests waiting. Perhaps by operating by tiny “Huh” / test case / fix / pull request I can build up enough of a history to make it feel like I’m not faking it.

      I do most of this at my local Hack Night ( shout out to @carbon5 hack night, SF ) which makes me feel a bit more tied in. It’s the closest I’ve felt to being a non-impostor in several years of trying to get over this same hump.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks so much for this idea. Honestly, this post amounted to some late-night whining and it sorta got out of hand. This is the post that most inspired me to just go out and do something and see what happens.

        I’ll let you know if that strategy works!

  • Scott

    It’s not obvious where to start and Guidelines often make a maintainer’s life easier and mine harder cancel each other out, right? Brick wall is an obvious place to start chipping, especially if you have a Seguin pick in your hand.

    Pair programming with the right friend would be endless fun.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dhgbayne Duncan Bayne

    Contribute to the projects you use. If you run into a defect that effects you, write a test, fix the defect, submit the diff as a patch. Most project maintainers will thank you for it :-)

    If you start small it becomes less daunting with time.

  • pyro

    Worst article ever.

    • ProCoder

      worst comment ever

      • Horse

        Worst comment thread ever.

        • Anonymous

          Worst Simpsons meme ever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.j.sontag adam j. sontag

    “From what I hear, a lot of OSS contribution comes because a person needs functionality in a piece of software that isn’t there, or finds a bug. They can submit a failing test case or even a patch. In my daily use, I don’t run into many of these situations.”

    While you may not run into these situations daily or even with any regularity, on any given day, lots of people do run into these situations on [given open source project], and they file bugs and issues on Github or Trac, etc. A great way to get involved is to get onto the front lines and help out with triaging these issues as they’re filed. It’s a really valuable contribution, and helps acclimate you with the day-to-day pace of the project you’re looking to get involved with.

  • mike

    The solution is called github

    • Horse

      Evidently not, since the author seems to be too focused on Github and its tools instead of on the real social aspects of a project community. I’m sure people do use Github for a lot of stuff to manage their projects, but I’ve seen plenty of projects where the Github stuff is just filled in with some placeholder content (or still shows the “this is your wiki!” boilerplate) because people don’t know what to do with most of it.

      In short, the social interactions happen elsewhere and so they should: no single service should be occupying a person’s attentions entirely.

  • http://eyeburn.info eyeburn

    These are all great points and something OSS maintainers should take to heart.

    Sure, amateur devs (myself included) may take more of your energy to welcome and coddle than their code is worth, BUT, every one of them is a potential evangelist. Just imagine this article as “I usually don’t get involved in OSS, but Project X made contributing a breeze. Visit their site, use their app, etc.” Happy, vocal users are surely worth the effort.

  • BraveNewCurrency

    > which projects are in need that you might be a match for

    This is wrong. Don’t approach a project saying “I want to add come code so I can be an OSS coder too”. There’s no “merit badge” for Love, or for Friendship, or for being a Good Samaritan. Why should there be one for OSS?

    What drives OSS forward is *users* of the code. They are “scratching their own itch” by adding features they need. They are fixing the bugs they encounter. They are writing the documentation they wish they had. The software moving forward is their reward. If you’re not passionate about some code (or at least a user of the code), then you probably don’t have a good reason for writing a patch in the first place.

    A good way to find something to do is to try out random OSS projects that you think might be USEFUL TO YOU. (Don’t start with ones that you think need contributions!) You’ll very quickly find some rough edges, which is a good starting point for a contribution. (Even just saying “I found this confusing” will sometimes help the author.)

  • Crampy

    wtf are you talking about. If you have something to contribute, do it, otherwise, why bother about it? there’s people working here.

  • http://twitter.com/sstrudeau Scott Trudeau

    FWIW I think the ThinkUp (http://thinkupapp.com/) folks have got this right. I’ve mostly been lurking but from what I’ve seen, they go out of their way to encourage and support contributors of all experience levels and are working really hard to make sure the experience of people involved is a positive one. If you’re looking to wade in, this might be a good place to start!

  • http://bluesmoon.info Philip Tellis

    One of these days I should tell the story of George. George is a non-programmer who made some of the biggest community contributions to our opensource project.

  • abhishek

    Open source simply does not have any price tag attached to it, what I have seen is open source project usually come in 2 version 1. free and second commercial where only core team makes money and all contributors are attached to free version.

    Now, if we believe in open source we will all die out of hunger with no money attached to it, I think its a curse for economy

    • http://www.facebook.com/MeanEYE ミヤトヴ ムラデン

      And yet no (good) programmers are hungry in this world. And you are completely wrong about OSS not getting any money. You can earn money for doing OSS software, you can even find a job contributing to OSS project.

      For me personally open source is the right way to go. I like the community, I like the openess. To quote Linus: “People just didn’t understand the concept of creating a program, because you like programming”.

  • Ben

    Well, if the devs of the project suck (think server room geeks which have never seen the sun since 10+ years or any other Feindbild you like) then just make a branch (it’s open source !) and be kind to all contributors which add to YOUR project. In no time, you will have more contributions and let the geeks eat dust because your project progresses faster.

    • http://www.facebook.com/MeanEYE ミヤトヴ ムラデン

      There are good natured geeks, you know. :) But I agree, there are jerks everywhere.

  • Erik Bernoth

    I feel with you. Was in the same situation and for the moment have just given up. In many OS projects it feels like they do you a favor in letting you work for free on their software.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MeanEYE ミヤトヴ ムラデン

    Hm, in my opinion you are thinking too much about this. The more you think about it less possibility is that you will do it. It’s not so scary at all :)

    Need a good place to start? Check this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLBrBBImJt4

    People contribute spelling fixes to Linux kernel. Every little thing matters! :)

    Have fun!

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  • http://twitter.com/nicholascloud Nicholas Cloud

    I started contributing to open source software by preparing a deep-dive presentation on the .NET micro web frameworks Nancy and Jessica for a local user group. It forced me to open the code and really digest what was going on with it, and then explain it to other people, which in turn prepared me to be an intelligent contributor.

    I’ve also found that Github is by far the easiest community coding aid in the wild. It makes it so easy to fork projects, create pull requests, monitor issues and collaborate with other developers.

    My advice would be: pick a relatively new open source project, maybe one that is small, and start using it. Then find something you don’t like, or that could be improved, and code it. Make sure it’s a project you’re interested in, though, and that you will actually use in real life.

  • http://www.ionsquare.com Oleg Podsechin

    http://www.akshell.com is trying to address some of these problems.

    - Akshell already provides a browser based IDE and hosting environment that allows you to write and deploy code very rapidly from any device & without the need to install and start a desktop development environment

    - It will be possible to fork+clone, commit and send pull requests via a GUI and without knowing Git

    - Profile pages for CommonJS packages and developers will make the experience more social and make it clear what the connections are between the various packages

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  • kensho

    I cannot understand this mindset of wanting to contribute to OSS for the sake of contributing. What’s the benefit of grabbing a random OSS project that you probably don’t even use or care about and contributing some code. Better work on your own projects you care about. The only times I contribute to OSS projects is if I’m using that project and it doesn’t do what I need or I found a bug.
    I would even go so far as to say that if you’re not somehow invested in the project and you’re doing it just for the sake of doing it it will probably be crap work. Maybe that’s not true but as I said I’m unable to understand this mindset of “wanting to contribute to OSS”. I mean, it’s not as if you’re getting anything from it and at least I won’t respect you any more just because you contributed to some random OSS project (I don’t mean that as an offense, it’s just that the only explanation for this concept of “contributing for its own sake” I can give is that people with this mindset somehow think it changes anything if they’re an OSS contributor. Everyone and his mom contributes to OSS imo.)

  • Dan

    Open source is for hippies. You get what you pay for. Call me controversial, but open source software is invariably some paler imitation of something that’s a real product somewhere else. Compare Eclipse to Visual Studio, for example. …and I hate the holier-than-thou, free-love mentality that goes along with it. Foul.

  • Some

    Hi,

    I had no scratch to itch either. Instead, I went through Apache incubating projects to find something I liked. Huge established projects have tons of contributors and not enough easy bugs to start with. I hoped that incubating, or recently incubated projects are easier to get in. Something in alpha that has tons of unfinished work and bugs to be fixed. Contribution to big project is often unnoticed in the general noise, even if the work great.

    Good idea is to see their mailing list to see whether they are friendly and how do they reacts to contributions. If their are nice, it will feel less lonely.

    I went through bugs and found something that needed, easy and open. I scratched someone else itch. Anyway, doing something that will be useful to somebody else is motivating for me.

    Or, as someone mentioned before, unit tests may be good place to start. You need to learn their code before you contribute and unit test are nice place to start. Anyway, when you are hired in a company, you start small and only later proceed to big stuff.

  • Some

    Open source is not only for some great uber programmers. I started because I wanted to learn, not because I would know more than anybody else. I started small and hope that I will build up knowledge as I go.

    I also use small trick to conquer weird feelings: I try to think about it as if a contribution would be a job. If you are given assignment, you never say: “I can not do it, I an not good enough”. That would lover your salary. When you have no choice, you are suddenly able perform. I pretend that boss gave you assignment and you want to looks incredibly capable :).

  • http://twitter.com/droope123 Pedro

    Try IRC channels! ^^

  • http://profiles.google.com/codedread Jeff Schiller

    I think most of the commenters got it right. You don’t contribute for the sake of contribution, you do it because you want something. Contributing to something you’re not passionate about won’t get you anywhere.

    As I think you’re aware, most of these are personal issues that you have to overcome. I did.

    I haven’t done the pull request thing, it’s mostly been about opening bugs and attaching patches. That seems to be a more direct way of saying “here, I’m willing to help”.

  • http://www.marcstober.com Marc

    All you needed was the part “I have new kid.” :)

  • Anonymous

    Most people’s initial commits to OS projects don’t make it in, but the input behind those commits can be intrinsically valuable to the entire project. I came here to link the same story eyeburn did.

  • Hyoshiok

    Hi, I understand what you feel. My suggestion is 1) go to users group meeting/meetup, 2) chat with experts. You may find you are not alone.

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  • http://scarydevil.com/~peter/ Peter da Silva

    If you don’t have an itch you need to scratch, if there’s no FOSS project that doesn’t quite do what you want, then don’t sweat it. You don’t NEED to be contributing. I’ve gotten involved in projects when I saw something I could add that looked cool. I’ve ignored others because I’ve been satisfied with what they’re doing. Maybe you’re just, unknowingly, praising them with faint damns…

  • http://twitter.com/elight Evan Light

    Sorry I only just saw this, Brandon.

    Simple fact is this: you will make mistakes. You will feel stupid. No one makes you feel stupid except you. We learn through experience. Mistakes are often the best learning tool although sometimes the most painful.

    Not to condescend, but what I say above is as true for life as it is for OSS. Both occur whether or not you participate. But they both get a lot more interesting when you throw yourself into them with abandon.

    Ganbate!

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  • mony1