Why non-code contributions matter

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Contributing to open source projects is often considered to be a good career move. Unlike doing work behind the closed doors of a proprietary business, contributions to open source provides visible proof of your skill and accomplishments.

Except that’s not always the case.

Often the most visible contributions are code. There’s an endless number of tools to graph, visualise, plot, and examine code contributions. But software projects are not just code. The people who are doing user experience design and feedback isn’t coding. The people who are building a thriving community isn’t coding. The people triaging bugs, supporting the users, organising events, brainstorming ideas, acting as liaisons, and writing documentation are not coding. The people who notice when someone’s burning out and provide support; the people reminding contributors that they’re valued and doing a good job; the very people who are critical for the long term health of the project aren’t coding.

And often, they’re forgotten.

This is a poor situation for everyone involved. A lack of recognition means these vital people may leave the project, much to its detriment. The same lack of recognition means open source is not always a good career move, even when the work has been outstanding. It’s easy to see code metrics, but it’s much harder to point to non-code contributions.

This is something we need to fix. Non-code contributions come from a diverse range of backgrounds, much more diverse than code contributions. This means a lack of recognition is doubly bad for open source, not only are we failing to support vital contributions, but we’re also impeding diversity.

Leslie Hawthorn has written a brilliant piece on this¹, that goes into more detail, with better explanations than what I’ve written here. If you’re at all involved in open source, you should read it now. Most importantly, Leslie also provides a solution, and one that really should be obvious.

Acknowledge non-code contributions. Not just on mailing lists and support trackers, but in employer-visible locations such as LinkedIn, and across wider audiences such as social media. Leslie calls this “building the hat-rack”, although you’ll need to read her post to understand why.

And so, I’m doing to do that right now.

I wish to say a very public thank you to Michele Ippolito, better known as “Ippo” in the Kerbal modding community. As some of you know, I started the CKAN project, a mod manager for Kebal Space Program. The CKAN has dozens of contributors, and has been a great success, and Ippo has been absolutely instrumental as part of that.

While Ippo has a coding background, he’s been the linchpin of the CKAN community. Ippo has spent countless hours liaising with mod authors, answering user queries, triaging bugs, writing documentation, maintaining the wiki, and making releases. If it were not for Ippo’s efforts, the CKAN simply wouldn’t be the resounding success that it is today.

If you’re involved in open source, or any field where contributions may go unacknowledged, I urge you to read Leslie’s post now and help acknowledge the amazing work that’s going on about you.

With many thanks to everyone who’s building the future,

~ Paul #LABHR

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