I think that there are a lot of people looking for ways to get involved in Open-Source projects. I thought I could help by collecting a few stories from people who already started giving back to the community. A few weeks ago I talked with Luca Barbato and today I am going to talk with David Åse.
How David and I met
Recently I started using the Spark web framework, and I wrote a tutorial on it: Getting started with Spark: it is possible to create lightweight RESTful applications also in Java. David saw that post and contacted me. After a few emails, we decided to work together on a series of tutorials for Spark to be published on sparktutorials. While talking with David I learned more about his role in the Spark project and I thought it would be interesting to share.
So let’s get started with the questions:
Hi David, tell us a bit about yourself
Hi! My name is David. I work as a Software Engineer in the UX/UI division of a global telecommunications company, where I’m allowed to do things like create Lemmings-based analytics visualizations, or build a device lab made from LEGOs. When I’m not playing with Lemmings or LEGOs, I do design and web programming with a strong focus on delivering high performance services (~1 second perceived load time for GPRS connections). I hold a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, but I studied music in high school and my parents are both artists.
Is Spark the first open-source project you get involved into?
The first serious one, yes. My master thesis was an open source project which someone else took over, and I created some free mIRC scripts when I was a kid, but Spark is the first project I’ve worked on that’s being used by thousands of people every day.
How did you find out about Spark?
I was looking for a simple Java framework to set up a prototype at work. I had previously worked with Spring, JAX-RS and Play Framework, but I wanted something lighter and simpler. I was googling for lightweight Java web frameworks when I saw Spark. At first I dismissed the project as outdated/dead due to how the website looked, and googled some more. After a little while I came back to Spark again, and I decided to give it a shot when I noticed the website said the project was recently rewritten for Java 8.
How did you get involved?
After having worked with Spark for a day, I was very impressed with how easy everything was and how right it felt. I was worried that other people would (like I did) judge Spark by it’s cover and miss out. So, I sent Per (note: Per refers to Per Wendel, the creator and maintainer of Spark) the following email:
A very intensive three days later, this commit showed up on GitHub:
How did you help?
I completely redesigned and re-implemented the website, then tried to promote it.
For the design part I focused on eliminating unneeded content, only leaving the most important bits. I created a massive banner for the index page to really grab the attention of our visitors, communicating what I think are the main selling points of Spark: Java 8 and “minimal effort”. For the other pages I wanted it to be very clean, so I left everything white. It’s as minimalist as Spark itself.
For the implementation part I focused on writing search engine optimized content and following best practices regarding optimization and accessibility. The page scores 100/100 in mobile usability and 87-94/100 in speed using Google Pagespeed Insight, which makes google like us more and places us higher up in the search results (we didn’t have to worry about Mobilegeddon!). Note: Mobilegeddon refers to the abrupt downgrade Google gave to websites because of their poor performance on mobile usability, read here for details.
After I was pleased with the look and performance of the website, I tried to spread the word online. This was the hard part. I created social media accounts and posted to various Java forums online. The most successful was a post to reddit, which I think got us about a thousand visitors in a few days (which is a lot for a Java web framework).
Talk about the effects of rewriting the website?
It’s hard to say since we did not have analytics on the old page, but I’ve used Alexa and Ahrefs to estimate the past website traffic. When I joined Spark, it’s popularity had fallen from rank 800.000 to about 1.200.000 on Alexa, and it was losing more backlinks than it was gaining. Since then we’ve been on a steady climb up. We’re currently hovering around rank 400.000, and the amount of referencing pages/domains has doubled. The number of visitors to our webpage has increased with 30% comparing Q4 2014 to Q1 2015, so it looks like everything is going the right way. We’ve also increased our google search position a lot, which is important since about 65% of our traffic is from google.
How do you get feedback?
I rely a lot on my friends, colleagues and my girlfriend. I appreciate brutally honest feedback, which can be hard to get from strangers. Other than that I use analytics data a lot to see how the site is performing and how users are behaving, and make changes accordingly.
What plans do you have in the future?
We are currently evaluating if we can establish a dedicated Spark team with paid developers. We recently ran a user survey which gave us a pretty good understanding of who uses Spark and for what, and if our users would be willing to sponsor the project in return for extended support.
If he decides to go that way, I will work part time on the project, expanding the webpage functionality in order to provide better documentation, migration guides and tutorials. If not, I will contribute when I have the time, as I do now.
Are there any other projects which you find interesting?
How was your experience giving back to the community? Did it help you in any way?
I learned a lot about the importance and benefits of analytics and having an “online presence”, which I think a lot smaller open source projects could be better at. There seems to be sort of a “if we build it, they will come” mentality, but people are usually set in their ways and they need to be convinced that your project is worth looking into.
Federico: I fully agree with this. I think everyone is very busy and we have to help them find out immediately what we are providing, and Spark is doing a great job in this respect. “A tiny Sinatra inspired framework for creating web applications in Java 8 with minimal effort” is a clear and effective description of Spark.
What suggestions would you give to people who want to contribute to Open-source, but don’t know where to start?
As I started frequenting Reddit (while trying to build Spark’s online presence), I noticed that people sometimes post about wanting to contribute to open source projects in programming language subreddits. These threads usually rank pretty high for a while, so I would just suggest doing that. If you have Java skills and you want to contribute, just go to /r/java and ask for project suggestions. Otherwise, if you already use open source software, there’s almost always a “Contact” or “Contribute” tab you could click on on their webpage.
Federico: I should probably start adding a “Contribute” section to the README.md of my projects, or maybe a Contributing.md file, as several projects are starting to do.
P.S. In the last days David has released a new project called j2html: it is library to build HTML pages programmatically, and the source is available on GitHub. I find it quite useful when I have to throw in some snippets of HTML for which it is not worthy the hassle of adding a template engine. Give it a try!
I found David’s story very interesting because it shows us how complex the Open-Source world is, and how many different things we can do to contribute. He is a technical person and rewrote the Spark website making it amazing, but he also focused on promoting the framework, finding different channels and communicating on all of them, finding ways to monitor the improvements he was doing and recruiting other volunteers (like me :D).
I also like very much the fact that he found ways to contribute focusing on aspects that the maintainer did not consider. I think this is what is great about having many people involved in one project: everyone contributes according to his/her own specific skills and the result is so much more than the sum of the single parts.
As an encouragement to you: There are many different ways to help Open-Source projects, you just have to find one that aligns with your skillset!