Who Can Contribute to Free Software

A common misconception is that only programmers can contribute to free software. The first significant reference I recall to this was in a presentation by Pia Waugh [1] where she mentioned that she felt that the way words such as “coder” and “hacker” are used in the community as synonyms for “contributor” are denigrating to people such as herself who aren’t coders!

I’m certain that no-one in the Australian Linux community would have any doubt about Pia’s contributions, not even when they mis-use terms such as “coder“.

Non-coding ways of contributing include writing documentation, arranging meetings and conferences, and serving on the committee of LUGs and other organisations. I’m sure that there are many other ways of contributing that I can’t think of at the moment.

The development of the free software community depends on a wide range of skills, and many of the best coders don’t have great skills in other areas. The meme that you have to be a great coder to contribute causes two problems, one is that there is a lack of contributers to non-coding tasks, and another is that coders end up doing non-coding work that they are often not particularly good at and which takes them away from things that they do well. I recently refused a nomination for the committee of my local LUG because I believe that most members can do the committee work as well as I can and many of them can do it better than me – so it’s best if I spend my time coding and preparing presentations about code that I write instead of joining the LUG committee.

I was reminded of Pia’s presentation (from some years ago) by a comment on my blog post about Ideas for a Home University [2] where the commenter seems to believe that they can’t adopt the university degree equivalent via free software contributions that I suggest because of not being a programmer or sys-admin. I really doubt that anyone would care if Pia has a university degree (I don’t know whether she has one), I’m sure that the companies that hire Waugh Partners [3] do so because of the reputation that Pia and Jeff have for getting things done and for their positions in the community and not because of whatever certificates that the partners may have.

I suggest to the commenter in question (and anyone else in a similar position) that they become involved in running their local LUG (or starting one if there isn’t one already). You would really be surprised by the number of job opportunities that arise from running such a community organisation.

3 thoughts on “Who Can Contribute to Free Software”

  1. While I agree with you that the term “coder” does not apply here, I think “hacker” applies well to people who do not necessarily work with code. “Hackers” can easily include documentation hackers, artistic hackers, bug wrangling hackers, and code hackers.

  2. This is a relevant contribution. Many free software packages lack documentation, so providing documentation would be very useful. It would also be very nice if authors of free software would encourage and support this.

    I myself am a programmer, but I would never touch C/C++ in which most of these packages are written. However, I would love to provide or extend documentation to packages which I use.

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