The Gift of Code

I was exploring programming, and helping open source projects with this advent calendar of code.

I like advent calendars a lot. They can bring a lot of surprise, preparation, focus, and joy. They can come in many shapes and forms, and they encourage DIY – make your own calendar, count the things that are important.

This year, I got to play with a very interesting “advent calendar”, called 24PullRequests. It is the kind of thing that I don’t understand why people haven’t done it before. The mission: help out open source projects by submitting enhancements and fixes (i.e. “pull requests“), and do that for 24 days counting down to Christmas.

my 24 Pull Requests calendar
my 24 Pull Requests calendar

I had to take part in that one, and while the result wasn’t as successful as I wanted, it was so far my best contribution to open source.

My pull requests

Instead of 24, I managed to make 4 enhancements that were ready to be sent off. That’s not consoling me that it seems nobody managed 24, but never mind. Here are the things I made:

  • SmoothieCharts: make the charts use newer browser animation technologies that have better performance, and save on battery as well. This one was prepared somewhat earlier than December, but the final version was pushed within the right time frame. Being tested, not merged yet.
  • OpenHack: I’m organizing the event in Taipei, and noticed that some other place has broken image link. Hunted down the same pic from Google Cache, and set it up again.
  • Python Guide: added some info about installing certain Python packages in Arch Linux and Ubuntu. This is¬†embarrassingly¬†tiny fix, there’s so much more to do here
  • AngularJS: this is fixing that one couldn’t run the build script if the system Java can’t run in 32bit mode. I didn’t know that this was a Google project, until they sent me a request to sign some contributor agreement. I feel strangely humbled.

Lessons learned

Four contributions were already a lot of experience, because all of them were so different. Here are some lessons learned:

  • Write good pull requests – that starts with writing good commit message! People keep saying that, but seriously, no excuse not to do that.
  • When the changes have been sent in, don’t mind that they are not accepted yet. Every project have their own pace. Keep working on whatever you like
  • I was looking for ow hanging fruit, but one has to go in there still to make some meaningful contribution.
  • The issue tracker is a good start to see what to fix, but not always helpful, as it can be difficult to understand what propblem the others try to describe, if you are new to the project. On the other hand, try to use the code, I’m sure you’ll find some pain points right away (that was AngularJS). Also, the busiest issue trackers are not the best, they are full of things that would side-track you for a long time. Projects with a medium count are good for such an improve-and-run contribution.
  • Don’t be afraid to do things, but still do them the best you can. Your contribution doesn’t always feel meaningful, but still a little improvement is more than most people do. (just like PythonGuide was)
  • Keep things simple – easier to do, easier to pull. Even if sometimes that takes longer to write (the AngularJS contribution srunk to the quarter of its size while I was trying to figure out the simplest way to achieve what I wanted)
  • If interested, don’t worry if the project uses programming language you don’t know. You can pick up new things easier than it seems. Also, many projects give you feedback on your contribution, to help you improve it.
  • This project don’t encourage to work on your own stuff, but that doesn’t matter, there are another 11 months for that, or every day after these contributions are done
  • How to do this for the whole year? Bug squashing day in general? Still need to get deeper in projects, but go and explore. Can also see CodeTriage and ContribHub, linked from 24PullRequests
  • If stuck in the fixing, but the problem is interesting, don’t worry if it doesn’t fit in the 24 days. Keep working on it, the recipients will be happy any time (I have have 1 or 2 such patches)

Now let’s be a better coder in 2013.

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