I don’t know about you but when I started using Free Software, I was amazed that I could benefit from all this for free. So after a few months I looked up how I could give something back. That was 13 years ago… and to date I’m still an active Debian developer. :-)
At that time I was a real newbie in the Linux world (and still a student). My initial contribution was limited to providing a Debian package for Sympa, a mailing list manager written by people I knew and respected.
A few months later, I got a phone call from the person responsible of new maintainers in Debian: we discussed my motivations to join the project and he verified that I shared the values of the Debian Social Contract (of course I did, and still do: I have always found this document very inspirational). That was enough to be granted the Debian developer status.
From there on, it snowballed… I had the liberty to pick up more work! Since I had just learned some Perl on Windows, I thought I could strengthen my knowledge of this language by adopting some orphaned packages written in Perl. I did it for 2-3 packages and fixed all their bugs.
During all this time, I was learning a lot by interacting with smart people on several Debian mailing lists. And since I was concentrating on bug-fixing and on improving the quality of packages that we had, I quickly found my place in the Debian Quality Assurance team which was lead by another French guy at that time.
Striving for technical excellence was getting increasingly difficult while Debian was growing, and the QA team needed tools to evaluate the state of any given package. That’s why I created the Package Tracking System.
I’ll stop my story here, this already covers 4 years of contributions in a very condensed form (if you want more, you can discover it here).
I’m not suggesting that you follow my path. I was already a programmer when I started on Linux (although only on Windows with Delphi and Visual Basic, and a bit of Perl) and the situation is different nowadays. It’s unlikely that your experience is going to match mine.
What I want to say is that you should really consider yourself a part of the Free Software community and that you can (and should) contribute at your own level. Be it reporting bugs, promoting Ubuntu to your friends, writing documentation, answering users’ questions on forums, packaging new software, fixing papercuts, whatever that suits you.
Chances are that you’ll find something that you enjoy doing. And you might keep doing it because people will be grateful for the work you do. And you’ll like the feeling of having done something useful for millions of people… even if it’s tiny. Do you know how many days you save by bringing a one second improvement to 10 millions of users? 115 days.
About the author: Raphaël Hertzog is a Debian developer, he works on the package manager (dpkg) and seeks support from users with the goal to be able to spend at least one third of his time on Debian.