The phrase “in the spirit of Hacktoberfest” is thrown around a lot during the month of Hacktober. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Then, when I was having a conversation with a friend, we talked about it. And what I discovered that really bothered me about it, is that it’s a form of gatekeeping.
When I’ve heard people talk about the spirit of Hacktoberfest, they’ve said it in the context of things like correcting typos or making small word changes aren’t real contributions that should be counted.
Now here’s that word that gets tossed around. Real. When we use the word “real” to describe something like a pull request (PR), we’re implicitly saying that some contributions don’t deserve the “status” of other PRs. And when we do that, when we minimize contributions, we create a separation. We go down the same path that determines who the “real developers” are. And that’s not a tech space I want to be around.
So here’s the thing, I get that some people try to grab the easiest PRs to get the t-shirt. I get that some people take beginner issues when they aren’t beginners. And it’s not acceptable to find ways to get in your PRs faster than everyone else, at the expense of other developers–especially beginners to OSS–but words matter, intent matters, impact matters.
Who defined the spirit of Hacktoberfest? Well, it is Digital Ocean’s Event, so let’s take a look at what they say:
Hacktoberfest, in its 8th year, is a month-long celebration of open source software run by DigitalOcean. During the month of October, we invite you to join open-source software enthusiasts, beginners, and the developer community by contributing to open-source projects. You can do this in a variety of ways:
- Prepare and share your project for collaboration
- Contribute to the betterment of a project via pull requests
- Organize an event
- Mentor others
- Donate directly to open source projects
They also have their quality standards for more developed guidelines. And maybe this is the one that captures what many mean about the spirit of Hacktoberfest:
Last but not least, one pull request to fix a typo is fine, but 5 pull requests to remove a stray whitespace is not.
But, especially as an early career developer, when I hear these conversations around the spirit of things, I also hear people keeping new developers out of open source. I hear people minimizing contributions that might be minimal in their eyes, but that contribution required a person to learn how to fork, clone, submit a PR, and do so many new things.
What I hear are voices that create more barriers, more friction, more space for fear for new developers in a space that already doesn’t have a great reputation for being friendly to early career devs.
Let’s reframe the conversation. Let’s make it more nuanced. Let’s have conversations about how to prevent people from grabbing all of the
good first issue issues, how to prepare maintainers to support developers at all stages or to make it clear what level of understanding is involved in contributing from the beginning.
Because the fact is that sometimes, when you provide a first-time contributor with support, with affirmation, with gratitude when they fix that typo, they’ll be more likely to continue to contribute. They’ll know that they’re welcome. They’ll have an opportunity to be proud of themselves for seeing the typo that no else did or took the time to fix. They’ll be more likely to try something that seemed challenge.
I think it’s ok to have repos that don’t have issues for early career folks. Because having those issues also requires having a support system for them. And if you don’t have that set up first, they’re more likely to leave the repository and the experience frustrated. And what I think is the spirit of Hacktoberfest is being a welcoming community, supporting developers as best as the maintainers can, and giving back to open source software within your capacity–not at the expense of yourself.
And that’s not possible for a lot of OSS repos. However, I do think that pairing organizations like Virtual Coffee can help to alleviate this stress, and it’s something I hope to try to do more next year.
We had about 80 pull requests merged into Virtual Coffee, 85 members sign up for our Hacktoberfest Initiative, at least 8 of our members were active maintainers, 23 of our members were official mentors, and 2 of our members were team leads for our challenge. I don’t know how many different projects we supported yet, but I know that through our support, some members were able to take on issues that would have been beyond their skill level because they support. I know that our members had generally great experiences and will be more likely to contribute or to maintain next year, because they had support. And I know that you can’t create barriers and bad experiences for new folks without costing something to the future of OSS.
Did I make deeply impactful contributions through PRs this year? No, I didn’t. But I think I maintained the spirit of Hacktoberfest–along with our whole Hacktoberfest team–by making sure developers at all stages of the journey had positive experiences, avoided places where they would feel gatekeeping, and working together to show that tech and open source is for all people. And I can’t imagine a better experience than that.