What Every Open Source Project Needs

In the last few years open source has transformed the software industry. From Android to Wikipedia, open source is everywhere, but how does one succeed in it? While open source projects come in all shapes and sizes and all forms of governance, no matter what kind of project you’re a part of, there are a set of fundamentals that lead to success. I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from running two of the largest commercial open source projects, Docker & MongoDB , as well as some very successful community based projects (Hugo, spf13-vim, Cobra, Viper, Zoop).

This presentation was delivered at sinfo.org in Feb 2015.

Due to time constraints we only focused on 4 of the 6 principles.


  1. What Every Successful Open Source Project Needs
  2. @spf13 Chief Operator @ Docker Former Chief Developer Advocate @ MongoDB, Author of Hugo, spf13- vim, Cobra, Afero, Viper & more
  3. Mainframe Era : 60s & 70s • Computer companies sold hardware • Software was free • Software was colloborative • IBM dominates
  4. The Software Era: 80s - 90s • Software as a business emerged • Software companies sold “bits” • Software was private and proprietary • Microsoft dominates
  5. The Internet Era: 00s • Internet changes everything • Open source movement gains traction (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) • Tech selling ads, bits, hardware & services • Google Dominates
  6. The Free Source Era: 10s • Technology companies sell Hardware & Services • Software is becoming free ($$) (Windows 10, OS X, Android, IOS) • Game companies still sell bits • Virtually all software companies are now participating in open source
  7. Open Source Companies • Redhat $13B • Cloudera $3B • MongoDB $1.6B • Docker $.5B • Hortonworks $1B • Wordpress $1B
  8. Open Source Companies • Google (Android, Chrome, Docker, Linux) • Apple (Webkit, LLVM) • Facebook (Cassandra, HipHop, Hive, PHP) • IBM (Linux, Eclipse, Docker) • Yahoo (Hadoop, Linux, YUI) • Oracle (Linux, MySQL, Java) • Microsoft (Linux, .net, Docker) • Intel (Linux)
  9. Open Source is taking over the world
  10. Successful Open Source Projects Need Purpose Values Communication Users Contributors Leadership
  11. Today we are focusing on Purpose Communication Users Contributors
  12. Successful Open Source Projects Need Purpose
  13. Why Start a Project ?
  14. To scratch an itch
  15. Hugo Static Site Generator in Go (200+ already existed, but none in Go)
  16. Missing tool or library
  17. Cobra & Viper CLI commander & Configuration management
  18. You wrote something others find useful
  19. spf13-vim My Personal Vim Configuration… now 100+ contributors
  20. You’ve thought of a better way to do something
  21. MongoDB & Docker Changing the way software is built and run
  22. Successful Open Source Projects Need Communication
  23. What is Communication • What you say • What you write • What you do • What you build
  24. Great Communication = Great writing
  25. Great Writing • Requires time • Requires editing • Requires effort • Requires practice
  26. Users will have questions • Need to establish a place for them to ask questions • Public is ideal: • Others can respond • Others benefit from the response
  27. Forums & mailing lists • Google groups ok, but hard to search • Stack Overflow will happen, but not focused • Forums work best, Discourse is pretty good • IRC also works well, but realtime and without integrated search.
  28. README • Your single most important file • First thing everyone sees • Most projects don’t spend enough time on a readme • Where you convey your purpose & values
  29. A Good README Vision, concrete examples, installation instructions, etc
  30. Challenging Communication
  31. One day at MongoDB a couple years ago we received a nasty bug report…
  32. Best way to read, leave only the facts
  33. Only respond to the facts
  34. Now it’s a definitive example on how to respond to trolls
  35. Successful Open Source Projects Need Users
  36. You need users • No matter how good a project is, it can’t succeed without users • Unless you tell the world about your project, people will not come • Unnatural behavior for most engineers
  37. To: Newsgroups: comp.os.inix Subject: What would you like to see most in minix? Summary: small poll for my new operating system Message-ID: <mailto: 1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.Fi Hello everybody out there using minix — I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386 (486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things). I’ve currently ported bash (1.08) and gcc (1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-). Linus (mailto: torvalds@klaava.helsinki.fi) PS. Yes — it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.
  38. Focus on the User • Success depends on a good user experience • Contributions come from happy users
  39. User Experience • Starts with installation • What are the first 10 minutes like? • What could turn a user away?
  40. Good User Experience Requires Listening
  41. Successful Open Source Projects Need Contributors
  42. Contributors are the lifeblood of Open Source
  43. Why Contribute ?
  44. Why Contribute • It feels good to give back • Good way to make friends • Great way to make connections • Gain exposure / personal branding
  45. Best Software Education
  46. Why Contribute • Establish actual real life experience • Better than a resume • Demonstrates that you can do more than code
  47. I’m not a developer • Projects need much more than code • Like saying “I’m not an actor, so I can’t work at a movie studio”
  48. Join the mailing list/ forums
  49. Answer a question on the mailing list
  50. Review the documentation
  51. Write some documentation
  52. Write a tutorial
  53. Screencast a feature
  54. File a Bug Report
  55. Review tickets
  56. Try to reproduce bugs and add information
  57. Contribute logos, icons & designs
  58. How to Contribute
  59. Instead of “This is Wrong”… “How can I help?”
  60. Prepare • Learn the tools of the trade • Git & Github • Read the Documentation • Familiarize yourself with IRC, forums, & the correct channels
  61. Take Iniative • Don’t be afraid to try • Open source loves self starters • Open source authors are usually very approachable and open to ideas • Communicate and collaborate as much as possible
  62. Ask • What can I help with? • I would like to help with X, but would benefit from some guidance, can someone guide me? • If I contributed Y, would that help?
  63. No matter how slow you go, you will always lap those on the sidelines
  64. How to Get Contributors
  65. Most projects have very few contributors • You must give if you want to get • Contributors are an investment in the future of the project • Contributors pay back many times what you put in
  66. Make it Easy to Contribute • Use an “open” open source license (Apache 2.0, MIT, BSD) • Provide contribution guidelines • Provide contribution instructions & tutorials
  67. Treat Contributors Well • Happier developers will contribute more • The more welcome people feel the more they will help your project
  68. Be Responsive • Respond to Pull Requests in a timely manner • Provide and contribute to a channel where people can ask questions • Respond to issues quickly
  69. Invite Contributors • Overcommunicate that contributions are welcome • Ask people to contribute • Ask. Ask. Ask. Invite. Invite. Invite.
  70. It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
  71. Empower Contributors • When someone shows initative and history of good contributions make them a committer • Resist tempation to control • If you aren’t able to be responsive, appoint more committers
  72. Teach • Don’t ever say no. • Teach contributors how it can become a yes • Newly empowered contributors contagiously help others
  73. Docker’s Birthday Open-source-a-thon 18 Cities + Online. Mentorship by Go & Docker. Save Whales. http://docker.party
  74. We live in an open source world
  75. Without contributions open source would not exist
  76. You are the most important contributor
  77. Thank You ! Questions ?Icons made by Freepik are licensed by CC BY 3.0 @spf13