Easy Pull Requests

Posted on 31 July 2017

There are many reasons to start contributing to open source:

But you don’t always have the time or energy to understand a new codebase well enough to make a meaningful change to it. And even if you do, it’s not clear that this is the best use of your time.

Your pull request might linger untouched for months, like the source control equivalent of shouting into the void. Alternatively, the maintainer might be having a bad day and dismiss your pull request or expect you to do some arcane Git voodoo to bring it up to their exacting standards. All this can turn the gift of patches into a boring and unpleasant chore.

For a long time I mistakenly believed the the only real contributions were those that included code to fix bugs or add new features. Eventually I realised there were simpler ways of getting my name in commit logs and my open source contributions vastly increased.

I decided to focus on easy pull requests as a precursor to, or instead of, engaging more fully with a project. What do I mean by this?

Documentation and typo fixes

Lindsey Kuper has a great post on these. They are my favourite because I am a pedant. Witness the absurd number of README updates I have to my name. They’re as easy as noticing a typo, clicking the pencil icon, and fixing it. Editing project documentation is similarly straightforward.

This is the quickest way I know of to contribute and gauge a project’s health at the same time. If your typo fix doesn’t get merged quickly, then a more substantial change probably won’t either and you’ll have found that out quickly.

Linter suggestions

One day I decided to run HLint, a Haskell linter, on a couple of projects and open PRs accordingly. I had mixed results.

This technique isn’t Haskell specific, and I think it is especially well-suited to Python and Go projects where there is a ‘blessed’ style to work off and tools like flake8 and gofmt are available.

If your change gets accepted, then you’ll be improving code quality and paving the way for future contributors. If it doesn’t, then you might have a discussion about good style that might lead to a documentation PR! If the maintainers are hostile, then you’re probably better off elsewhere.

Automated testing

I’m a big fan of automation, and I’d consider it one of the themes of this blog. A large number of projects don’t have good automated test suites, and even those that do sometimes let their CI setup rot over time. If this is the case, setting up Travis or Circle CI is a low-effort (if occasionally high-frustration) way of vastly improving a project. If information about how to test a specific project isn’t readily available, this is also a great opportunity for a README update (see above).

Again: if you don’t get a quick response, or at least a positive one, I think it’s a good sign that this project is not worth your time and at least you won’t have put a ton of effort into finding that out.

Of course, these aren’t the only types of easy contributions you can make: other ideas are documenting the undocumented, adding or refactoring tests, and using the issue tracker to call attention to bugs. Neil Mitchell has a great presentation on ‘Drive-by Haskell Contributions’, although the general approach is applicable to your programming language of choice.

I hope I’ve given you a few ideas about contributing to open source and how you can make effective use of your time, and I’d love to see more easy pull requests by you!

Thanks to Julia Evans, Harold Treen, and Rudi Chen for comments and feedback.