Reaching higher together: how we all benefit from open source

You may know this open source fanatic as WordPress Core Contributor or esteemed speaker on WordCamps and other conferences. Today, Software Engineer & WordPress Consultant Alain Schlesser shares the details of his first experiences with open source and how to learn from, as well as contribute to open source projects. And, he is clear on one thing: “A world without open source would see less frequent technological advances, and they would come at a higher cost.” Read the 4th interview in our shout-out to open source interview-series, and find out how we all benefit from open source!

Q. Why is open source so important to you?

My belief is that open source is the principle that allows ‘knowledge’ to scale in the software engineering field. Reinventing the wheel before being able to tackle the actual problem can only take you so far. If everyone can stand on the shoulders of others, we can all reach higher and higher with time.

Q. In what way do you contribute to open source?

I contribute or have contributed to a lot of different existing open source projects, the most popular being WordPress Core. I also maintain or co-maintain projects, like WP-CLI, the command line interface for WordPress. Additionally, I also make sure that the client projects I work on contribute all reusable code back as open source packages. I usually collect these projects under the ‘brightnucleus‘ GitHub organization.

Q. When did you hear about open source for the first time? What were your thoughts about open source back then? And what are your thoughts about open source now?

I became more directly aware of open source in the mid-’90s. At the time, I got fascinated with the Sourceforge site, which hosted thousands of open source code repositories. It was the first time I had access to that amount of source code to freely browse and reuse for my purposes. It was a game changer for me. Endless amounts of knowledge in the software engineering field freely shared among peers!

At the time, I did not even have internet access at home, so whenever I had the opportunity to get access to the internet, I browsed the code repositories on Sourceforge and downloaded ZIP archives of whatever I wanted to inspect closer, to take the code back home with me (on floppy disks!).

Nowadays I think that open source is a critical part of our modern society. Almost everything is software-driven, and almost all software builds upon open source code, directly or indirectly.

Q. Does open source say something about the quality of the product?

Open source does not directly state anything about the actual quality of a product, but it does make it possible for anyone to assess the quality of a given product in detail. Proprietary software is not necessarily better or worse, but you only find out about its real qualities after starting to use it, you cannot vet it upfront.

Q. When and what was your first open source contribution?

I’m not entirely sure I remember correctly. I think it must have been a hardware driver for the Linux project, somewhere around the mid- to late-90’s. When I was experimenting with Linux for the first time, the driver situation was still really bad, and a lot of the less common hardware was not supported at all, or only supported in an incomplete and buggy way. It was pretty normal back then to write hardware drivers for more exotic hardware yourself, if you really wanted to get that new gear working.

Q. How do you learn from open source? How can others learn from open source?

Just open the code and read it! Most of it comes with both documentation and inline comments, so it should be easy to figure out what it does and why it does it.

If you reuse existing open source libraries, you can easily jump into and out of the libraries’ code and examine what it does. This open source variant of ‘learning by doing’ is a very fast way of improving your own code.

Projects that are well maintained will also usually provide you with free code reviews when you submit a pull request or patch. This is pretty close to having a mentor looking over your shoulder and telling you where you can further improve, all at the cost of zilch – it can’t get much better than that.

Q. Why is open source important for everyone?

It is difficult nowadays to find an electronic device that does not use any open source tools or libraries. Everyone is literally surrounded by the benefits of open source. A world without open source would see less frequent technological advances, and they would come at a higher cost.

Q. Do you have to be a developer to be involved with open source? How about diversity within the open source community?

No, you can easily get involved in open source without being a developer. Just take a look at the WordPress Community as a vibrant example of this, where people of all industries and backgrounds come together to collaborate on common goals.

Q. I want to contribute to open source! Where do I start?

Take whatever you are very passionate about and be very curious about it! I would bet you don’t have to dig deep to find open source projects that are related and that would welcome your contributions. If you need more hands-on guidance, start with an open source portal like GitHub, where you can browse thousands of popular projects and see what they need help with.

Read more: 3 reasons open source is awesome »

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