Creating a more welcoming place for new contributors

Last week I was at FOSSA2012 and attended a talk by David Rajchenbach-Teller from Mozilla. David gave a great overview of all the different programmes and initiatives at Mozilla aimed at helping engage students, schoolkids and new contributors in building the open web, however there was one little thing that stood out for me as being a really nice idea.

On the bugzilla tissue tracker used by Mozilla there are a couple of tags generated automatically by the program for new users. For your first issue reports there is a “new to bugzilla” annotation applied. For your first patch submission, a “first patch” annotation is added.

The principle idea here is that seasoned community members seeing these tags on a new ticket or patch will reflect a moment before commenting, be mindful that these are new contributors to their community, and be more helpful.

For example, rather than just point out any errors of procedure – for example, filing a duplicate, or not providing sufficient information – the commenter would help the submitter understand how to correct or avoid the problem in language that is more appropriate and encouraging for a newcomer.

Likewise on a first patch, a committer would help the contributor fix things like typical code style faux pas – such as using tabs instead of spaces or vice versa, or using the wrong naming style – rather than just reject it or provide a more terse comment.

What struck me about this idea is that it involves no new processes for users, and uses fairly subtle feedback to modify behaviour in favour of a more welcoming community for newcomers. It may achieve similar results to the practice in some smaller communities of having a “greeter” whose role is to provide helpful (even when negative) feedback on submissions from new contributors. (There is an even more lightweight version in MeeGo of just having helpful information links in greeters’ email signatures.)

There is a nice discussion of this idea on a post on David’s blog: “Helping Bugzilla Help Newcomers Help Mozilla Help Users“. There are also some other fun ideas there such as using badges for contributions.

If you’re involved in an open source community, what are you doing to help new contributors? Would this approach work for you?