Why Should Students Contribute To Opensource Projects?

At SMCONFB16 which was on the 18th of June 2016, I saw a lot of skepticism from people especially students about getting involved with open source projects. Their concerns were centered around the point, “How do you make money from it, if you give it for free?”.

There are obviously a lot of benefits to anyone contributing to open source projects but this blog post is targeted towards students and especially the ones in a computer science related field of study.

First I would like to say that most of us don’t do it for the money but for the love of it. And contributing to open source is a way of giving back to the community. I know you’d say love alone cannot put food on our tables at least thats what the girls say. But I would like to let you know that as a student there are actually a lot of benefits of contributing to open source projects including financial.

I think the most valuable asset of been part of an open source project is the experience and skills you’ll acquire. Not everything can be taught in class. Open source gives you the opportunity to practice and master software engineering skills taught in class and even learn new things. These include communication skills, project management skills, leadership skills and how to work in teams. You’ll also learn how to use popular software engineering tools like git. Experience gained from open source will help you in your future jobs since most of the tools used in open source projects will be the same you’ll use in your jobs. In open source you get to learn from very talented people who are also volunteering their time to create software and mentor others. You also get to learn about things like convention and culture of a community. You might be the best developer but if you don’t follow a community’s culture, you will not go far in that community.

We usually need internships to master what was taught in class and also learn new things. But getting an internship to work on what you love doing is not very easy. Considering the fact that our environment is made of mostly startups and very little or no giant tech companies, our options for internships are limited because most of this startups will not do what you want. That is, the work that the startup is investing in may not be of interest to you. For example one of my friends loves to do his internship in Artificial Intelligence but how many startups can he find doing that? As a startup, I want to start making money fast so that i can pay my bills, pay my developers and also get something from it. Hence I will always go for the thing that will make it to the market very fast and start selling. As a result most startups do only web development and mobile development using Ionic(if they do any mobile programming at all), since these are easier and can make it to the market very fast. But how many of us actually like building websites or building hybrid apps?  With open source, you have the liberty to choose what you want to work on. There are open source projects for almost any computer science related field for example, Web development, frontend javascript, database, backend, design, compilers, operating systems, systems programming, network security, etc. Hence finding what you love to work on is just a matter of few Google searches.

Your open source contributions will increase your chances of getting your dream job. When you contribute to an open source project, you don’t need to tell employers what you’ve done. You just tell them to Google search your name(that was a joke you obviously have to tell them even if they already know ). Your reputation as an open  source developer will always precede you. Most of our dream jobs will require an experience level of at least 3 years. But after you just graduate, that is something you’ll lack. So you can make up for that by working on big open source projects while you are still a student.

Open source will connect you to the right people. While working on open source projects you get to make a lot of friends. I don’t mean friends that you play football with or go get drunk with(yes you’ll get that too and thats awesome too) but i mean influential friends that can help you attain the level you want in life. Friends that will give  you the advice you never knew existed. Friends that will open your eyes to the opportunities you are ignorant of. Friends that will connect  you to other friends and soon you’ll become a testimony. I mean it, you will be talking with people that others can only read about on the Internet or watch on TV.

That been said, open source is not only about learning and meeting people or increasing your chances of getting jobs. As a student, you can actually make a lot of money as and open source developer. A lot of you are familiar with Google Summer of Code(GSoC) program where Google pays students  $5500 to work on open source projects. For the past years about 30 students from Buea have had the privilege to be part of this program and if you ask from them they’ll tell you that, this is an opportunity you should never miss.  I can vote for this because am a GSoCer my self. Imaging getting paid $5500 to work on something you have passion for. Being a GSoCer will not only benefit you financial but also all the above points will be part of your benefits. GSoC is not the only open source internship out there. You can see more of such internships from this blog post, summer-internships-for-open-source-enthusiasts. The  open source organizations you contribute to may also end up employing you.

A good example of a testimony of contributing to open source is Nyah Check. Most of us know him. If you don’t just google search his name. Due to his contributions to open source, he has done GSoC 3 times and has also traveled out of this country more than 4 times without him spending a dime. Recently he’s traveled to the US twice in 1 month to attend conferences. And while at the conferences he gets to meet a lot of influential people in the tech community.

There are obviously a lot more benefits of contributing to open source projects, but if the above don’t inspire you, then there is no need for me to continue further. For those of you that have been inspired, I encourage you to go to opensource.com and learn about new & interesting projects. Browse projects on GitHub. Or read about GSoC.  There are a lot of articles about how to get started with open source but if you want something that is not already published, all you need do is leave a comment.

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