First-time open source contributor: Eric Light

Thoughts from a first-time contributor to open source software

In this article, we learn from a first-time contributor to open source. His name is Eric Light and lives in New Zealand. We came in contact via the Lynis project and I interviewed him to share his experiences.

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MB: Thanks for taking the time Eric. Can you describe a little bit about yourself?

I started working with computers when I was eight years old, back when my uncle gave me an Apple 2e. Since then I’ve grown up through all the Windows iterations from Win3.1. When Windows Vista was released, I made the decision to leave the Windows world, and started using Ubuntu full-time. After a while I moved to Linux Mint, then LMDE, and now I use Debian Sid for pretty much everything.

I started a small IT company in New Zealand in early 2007, and spent eight years providing small business IT support, Excel/VBA software development, and a bit of Python development. I shut down the business in early 2015 and took a role as the IT Manager of a local department store, which was my first real introduction into enterprise-grade IT systems. I was only there for 14 months before the company closed down, but it gave me the foundation to move into my current role as a Network and Security Administrator.

MB: Do you consider open source software just to be free software, or is there more to it?

I absolutely believe Open Source is more than just free software. Of course, open hardware platforms such as Arduino show that it’s more than just software. To me it feels like more of a world-view and philosophy. I’m not a zealot! I accept that some businesses need to keep in-house software under wraps to maintain their competitive advantage. But overall, Open Source fits better with my perspectives in life. The concept of incremental improvements, distributed among a potentially large community, for the benefit of an even larger community… I find that idea quite pleasing.

MB: Last year you contributed to the Lynis project. How did you find out about the tool?

I honestly can’t remember how I found it. It seems so long ago… *gazes wistfully into the distance*

MB: What made you decide to invest your personal time and become active as a contributor?

Actually, the majority of my contribution time was during my working hours. I was running Lynis as part of my previous role, there were a couple gaps that I wanted to address, and it was easier to contribute back to the project itself, instead of keeping my changes local. For example, Lynis at the time didn’t detect ESET Antivirus, so I worked with Michael to identify the ESET processes for HRDN-7230. Once we did that, and I saw how he made the changes, I went on to address some other items that had value to my employer.

MB: Lynis was the project to which you contributed for the first time. How was that experience?

Absolutely brilliant. It was a combination of firsts, actually: my first real work in shell script, my first time really working with Git, and my first real contribution to FOSS. At the beginning, I submitted a suggestion and Michael worked with me to create the patch himself. The next time, he encouraged me to write the tests myself. I was reluctant because I was quite aware that my skills were lacking, but Michael was supportive and worked closely with me while I learned.

MB: Did you also try to contribute to other projects?

Nothing so far. I did submit a PR to another project for a simple spelling mistake, but it went unmerged for 9 months so I deleted it.

MB: Most open source projects want more contributors. What do you feel is important to have contributors like yourself to become active and send in improvements?

The biggest drivers for me were:

  • A project I was interested in
  • A project with an active maintainer
  • A maintainer who was responsive, attentive, and helpful

I think I was quite lucky that my first experience as a contributor was with Michael. The Lynis project really ticked all the boxes for me.

MB: Any tips for people who never contributed to an open source project before, but are open to it?

Start with a project that you’re interested in. Then, identify a very tiny contribution that you could make – even just fixing a spelling mistake or adding a sentence to some documentation. The response to your contribution will let you know how responsive and engaging your maintainer is. Once you know that you’ve got support and engagement, then you can feel comfortable putting forward bigger contributions.

Thanks for your time and sharing your thoughts.

Do you have tips or questions regarding contributing to open source projects? Let it know in the comments.

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