This term I'm teaching two sections of our Topics in Open Source Development course. The course aims to take upper-semester CS students into open source projects, and get them working on real-world software.
My usual approach is to put the entire class on the same large open source project. I like this method, because it means that students can help mentor each other, and we can form a shadow-community off to the side of the main project. Typically I've used Mozilla as a place to do this work.
However, this term I've been experimenting with having students work more freely within open source projects on GitHub in general. I also wanted to try encouraging students to work on Hacktoberfest as part of their work.
Hacktoberfest is a yearly event sponsored by DigitalOcean, Twilio, and GitHub, which encourages new people to get involved in open source. Submit five pull requests on GitHub during October, get a T-Shirt and stickers. This year, many companies have joined in and offered to also give extra swag or prizes if people fix bugs in their repos (e.g., Microsoft).
Some of my students have done Hacktoberfest in the past and enjoyed it, so I thought I'd see what would happen if I got all my students involved. During the month of October, I asked my students to work on 1 pull request per week, and also to write a blog post about the experience, what they learned, what they fixed, and to share their thoughts.
Now that October has ended, I wanted to share what I learned by having my students do this. During the month I worked with them to answer questions, support their problems with git and GitHub, explain build failures on Travis, intervene in the comments of pull requests, etc. Along the way I got to see what happens when a lot of new people suddenly get thrust into open source.
You can find all the PRs and blog posts here, but let me take you through some raw numbers and interesting facts:
- 61 Students began Hacktoberfest and 91% were able to finish the required 5 PRs, three completed 6, and one student completed 10.
- 307 Pull Requests were made to 180 repositories. As of Nov 1, 53% of these have already been merged.
- 42,661 lines of code were added, 10,387 lines deleted in 3,465 files. Small changes add up.
- The smallest PR was a fix for a single character, the largest added 10K lines by refactoring an iOS project to use a new Swift networking library (NOTE: there were a few really large PRs which I haven't included, because they were mostly generated files in the form of
node_modules). Many PRs fixed bugs by simply deleting code. "Sir, are you sure this counts?" Yes, it most certainly does.
One of the things I was interested in seeing was which languages the students would choose to work in, when given the choice. As a result, I tried to keep track of the languages being used in PRs. In no particular order:
- Localization files (many types, many, many Natural languages)
- HTML, CSS
- Solidity (Etherium)
I was also interested to see which projects the students would join. I'll discuss this more broadly below, but here are some of the more notable projects to which I saw the students submit fixes:
- Microsoft VSCode
- Mozilla Focus for iOS
- Mozilla Addons (Frontend)
- Brave for iOS
- Ghost (blog platform)
- Monaco Editor
- Microsoft (documentation for various projects)
- 30 Seconds of Code
- Angular Material
- Oh my zsh
A number of students did enough work in the project that they were asked to become collaborators. In two cases, the students were asked to take over the project and become maintainers! Careful what you touch.
I think the most valuable feedback comes from the student blogs, which I'll share quotes from below. Before I do that, let me share a few things that I observed and learned through this process.
Because Hacktoberfest is a bit of a game, people game the system. I was surprised at the number of "Hacktoberfest-oriented" repos I saw. These were projects that were created specifically for Hacktoberfest in order to give people an easy way to contribute; or they were pre-existing but also provided a way to get started I hadn't foreseen. For example:
I'll admit that I was not anticipating this sort of thing when I sent students out to work on open source projects. However, after reading their blog posts about the experience, I have come to the conclusion that for many people, just gaining experience with git, GitHub, and the mechanics of contribution, is valuable no matter the significance of the "code."
For those students who focused too much on repos like those mentioned above, there was often a lot of frustration, since the "maintainers" were absent and the "community" was chaotic. People would steal issues from one another, merges would overwrite previous contributions, and there was little chance for personal growth. I saw many people tire of this treatment, and eventually decide, on their own, that they needed a better project. Eventually, the "easy" way became too crowded and untenable.
Finding good bugs to work on continues to be hard. There are hundreds-of-thousands of bugs labeled "Hacktoberfest" on GitHub. But my students eventually gave up trying to use this label to find things. There were too many people trying to jump on the same bugs (~46K people participated in Hacktoberfest this year). I know that many of the students spent as much time looking for bugs as they did fixing them. This is an incredible statement, given that they are millions of open bugs on GitHub. The open source community in general needs to do a much better job connecting people with projects. Our current methods don't work. If you already know what you want to work on, then it's trivial. But if you are truly new (most of my students were), it's daunting. You should be able to match your skills to the kinds of work happening in repos, and then find things you can contribute toward. GitHub needs to do better here.
A lot of my students speak more than one language, and wanted to work on localization. However, Hacktoberfest only counts work done in PRs toward your total. Most projects use third-party tools (e.g., Transifex) outside of GitHub for localization. I think we should do more to recognize localization as first-order contribution. If you go and translate a big part of a project or app, that should count toward your total too.
Most of the students participated in three or more projects vs. focusing in just one. When you have as many students as I do all moving in and out of new projects, you come to realize how different open source projects are. For example, there are very few standards for how one "signs up" to work on something: some projects wanted an Issue; some wanted you to open a WIP PR with special tags; some wanted you to get permission; some wanted you to message a bot; etc. People (myself included) tend to work in their own projects, or within an ecosystem of projects, and don't realize how diverse and confusing this can be for new people. A project being on GitHub doesn't tell you that much about what the expectations are going to be, and simply having a
CONTRIBUTING.mdfile isn't enough. Everyone has one, and they're all different!
Quotes from Student Blogs: "What. A. Month!"
More than the code they wrote, I was interested in the reflections of the students as they moved from being beginners to feeling more and more confident. You can find links to all of the blog posts and PRs here. Here are some examples of what it was like for the students, in their own words.
Different approaches to getting started
Many students began by choosing projects using tech they already knew.
"I decided to play to my strengths, and look at projects that had issues recommended for beginners, as well as developed in python"
"Having enjoyed working with Go during my summer internship, I was like: Hey, let's look for a smaller project that uses Go!"
Others started with something unknown, new, and different.
"my goal for this month is to contribute to at least two projects that use Rust"
"I'm in a position where I have to learn C# for another project in another course, so the first thing I did was search up issues on Github that were labeled 'hacktoberfest' and uses the C# language."
"My first pull request was on a new language I have not worked with before called Ruby...I chose to work with Ruby because it was a chance to work with something that I have not worked with before."
I was fascinated to see people evolve over the five weeks, and some who were scared to venture out of familiar territory at first, ended up in something completely new by the end.
"After I completed my pull request, I felt very proud of myself because I learned a new language which I did not think I was able to do at the beginning of this."
"I was able to learn a new programming language, Python, which was something I always wanted to do myself. If it wasn't for Hacktoberfest, I might keep procrastinating and never get started."
Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
Perhaps the single greatest effect of working on five PRs (vs. one or two), is that it helped to slowly convince people that they despite how they felt initially, they could in fact contribute, and did belong.
"Everyone posting here (on GitHub) is a genius, and it's very daunting."
"In the beginning, I am afraid to find issues that people post on GitHub."
"As I am looking at the C code I am daunted by the sheer size of some of the function, and how different functions are interacting with each other. This is surprisingly different from my experience with C++, or Object Oriented Programming in general."
Small successes bring greater confidence:
"Fixing the bug wasn't as easy as I thought it would be - the solution wasn't too straightforward - but with the help of the existing code as reference, I was able to find a solution. When working on a project at school, the instructions are laid out for you. You know which functions to work on, what they should do, and what they shouldn't do. Working on OSS was a completely different experience. School work is straightforward and because of that I'd be able to jump straight in and code. Being used to coding in this way made my first day trying to fix the bug very frustrating. After a day of trying to fix functions that looked as if they could be related to the bug without success, I decided to look at it again the next day. This time, I decided to take my time. I removed all of my edits to the code and spent around an hour just reading the code and drawing out the dependencies. This finally allowed me to find a solution."
"I learned that it's not going to be easy to contribute to a project right away, and that's okay...it's important to not get overwhelmed with what you're working on, and continue 1 step at a time, and ask questions when you need help. Be confident, if I can do it, you can too."
"I learned that an issue didn't need to be tagged as 'beginner friendly' for it to be viable for me, that I could and should take on more challenging issues at this point, ones that would feel more rewarding and worthwhile."
A Sense of Accomplishment
Many students talked about being "proud" of their work, or expressed surprise when a project they use personally accepted their code:
"I do feel genuinely proud that I have 10 lines of code landed in the VSCode project"
"I used to think those projects are maintained by much more capable people than me, now the thinking is 'yeah, I can contribute to that.' To be honest, I would never think I was able to participate in an event like Hacktoberfest and contribute to the open-source community in this way. Now, it is so rewarding to see my name amount the contributors."
Joining the Larger Open Source Community
Finally, a theme I saw again and again was students beginning to find their place within the larger, global, open source community. Many students had their blogs quoted or featured on social media, and were surprised that other people around the world had seen them and their work.
"I really liked how people from different backgrounds and ethnicity can help one another when it comes to diversifying their code with different cultures. I really like the fact I got to share my language (Punjabi) with other people in the community through localizing"
"getting to work with developers in St.Petersburg, Holland, Barcelona and America."
"Now I can say I have worked with people from around the world!"
I'm really impressed with Hacktoberfest, and thankful for DigitalOcean, Twilio, GitHub and others who take it upon themselves to sponsor this. We need events like this where everyone is aware that new people are joining, and it's OK to get involved. Having a sense that "during October, lots of new people are going to be coming" is important. Projects can label issues, people can approach reviews a bit differently, and everyone can use a bit more patience and support. And there's no need for any of that to end now that it's November.
Hopefully this helps you if you're thinking about having your students join Hacktoberfest next year. If you have other questions, get in touch. And if you'd like to help me grade all this work, I'd be happy for that contribution :)