Lessons Learned Contributing to Bitcoin Open Source

2022-05-26

Introduction

Welcome back to my blog! This week, I'm going to share my experience making my first contribution to a Bitcoin open-source project and the lessons learned while going through the process. In addition, I will like to convince you that contributing to a Bitcoin/Lightning open source project is something you should consider.

What is Open Source software development?

Open-source software is software whose source code is open and readily available for anyone to improve, review and use as long as they are not breaking any of the terms specified in the license of the open-source project. Open-source software source code has the advantage of being peer-reviewed by a wide variety of programmers with varying levels of technical expertise. This peer-review process produces high-quality software. These projects are also avenues for developers to collaborate and learn from each other. As example, this website has been built using a Rust open-source static site generator called Zola. This site generator could also be used by a commercial company for their shopping website so long as Zola's license allows them to do so. I'm able to build a cool website today because I can leverage an open source tool developed by the community.

Why will you want to contribute to an Open Source project?

As Bitcoiners, contributing to open source Bitcoin projects ensure that we have well tested tools and libraries that can be used by people building for end users. In addition, contributing to a good open-source project will improve your skills as an engineer and at the same time also help you build relationships and a reputation. This is because you will write code that is going to be peer-reviewed by many other engineers and you will be forced to learn good software engineering practices along the way.

My experience contributing to Bitcoin Development Kit?

Since starting my Bitcoin/Lightning developer fellowship at Qala, I have been looking forward to contributing to open source in the space. I have been learning Rust, so I was mostly looking at projects written in Rust like the Bitcoin Development Kit, Lightning Development Kit and Rust-Bitcoin. Honestly, most of these projects were intimidating to me, given that I was still trying to understand the Rust syntax and language. After roaming around these Bitcoin project repositories, I finally found an issue that was a good fit for me given my experience with Bitcoin and Rust. The BDK project is relying on rust-bip39 implementation of the BIP39 improvement in the source code. The maintainers want to use their implementation of the BIP given that the rust-bip39 library is not actively maintained. For this change, an issue was opened.

To take this issue, I commented on it asking if anyone was working on it and one of the maintainers replied saying they don't have knowledge of anyone working on it. It turns out that someone had started working on it without mentioning on the issue. After my comment, they commented with a link to their patch asking if we could collaborate. I agreed to collaborate with them, but I felt the issue was too small to be divided into two, so I asked them if they were okay if I worked on it alone. They said they had already invested a lot of time into it and thought it was best we collaborate. After giving it a second thought, I agreed to collaborate with them. During this conversation, I shared with them my toy implementation of that BIP, after a couple of hours they replied with an updated implementation of their patch with code snippets that looked very similar to what I had written. I felt a little left out at this point because they wanted us to collaborate but continued working on their implementation and shared with me a nearly finished patch. I also had the impression that my code had inspired them. As a result, I contacted one of the maintainers and informed them that they may have taken inspiration from my code and I would no longer collaborate with them. According to the project rules, the first to open a working PR to an issue wins. I decided to work on opening a PR to the issue. They opened a PR before me because I wasn't able to finish my implementation before them. I again complained to the maintainers on the PR about our unsuccessful collaboration.

In a communication with one of the project maintainers, they asked if I wanted to review the PR because I had worked on it and had a lot of expertise about it. Without a second thought, I agreed. After making some suggestions in my review, the creator of the PR asked if I wanted to add those improvements. I agreed, and worked on a small improvement with companion test and pushed it to their branch.

Looking back, I believe my ego got in the way of our teamwork at some time, which is why I asked if I could work on it alone. I also felt cheated in the process because I believed we were going to discuss and agree on what each of us would work on, but the other party shared with me a nearly finished patch. Part of my frustration is because I was doing this on the side in addition to my already intense Qala curriculum. This means, I could not dedicate as much time as I will have loved to this issue. Last but not least, I have no way of knowing if they drew inspiration for their implementation from my code. This is because the BIP technique is quite standard, therefore it makes sense for all implementations to appear similar. Overall, I should have responded more slowly in the moment, since this would have given me more time to consider the best reaction. It was also pointless to complain about it on the PR because I had previously spoken to one of the maintainers about it. Most importantly, I should have discussed it with my mentor.

Lessons learned contributing

While working on this first contribution, I have learned both technical skills and interpersonal skills. Let me start by outlining the non-technical skills I learned in the process.

  • As a contributor, it is always important to ask yourself, the following question: "What is in the best interest of the project?" whenever you are unsure of what action to take.

  • If you are unsure how to deal with a particular circumstance, reach out to a mentor or anyone senior in the field for advice.

  • Try as much as possible to put your ego out of the way when it comes to working with others. If you feel cheated in any way, reach out to a mentor and ask them what to do. If you don't have a mentor you can reach out to one of the maintainers for advice.

  • Contributing to open source is about giving to a project. It does not have to be about code contribution. For example, you could contribute my improving documentation, or writing new documentation for newly created features.

  • While interacting with others online, be slow to respond. Time will generally give you room to respond without reactive energy.

  • Last but not least, you are on a marathon and not a sprint so if you make a mistake in the process of contributing pick yourself up and continue finding other issues and other avenues to contribute. If your intention is genuine, it will generally be appreciated in the long run.

Having looked at the non-technical lessons I learned while contributing to this project, let's now look at the technical lessons learned.

  • It turns outs that reviewing pull requests are as important or even more important than opening a pull request. Opening a PR means someone else will have to review your code while you don't need anyone's collaboration to review a PR. Reviewing PRs are low hanging fruits to contributing to projects in the space. In case you are thinking of reviewing a PR, this Jon Atack's article is a great place to learn how to.

  • While adding a patch to this PR, I learned how to write good commit messages and also about atomic commits. You can read more here.

  • While running a patch in your local environment, run all the existing tests to make sure the test is not breaking anyone of them. Most of the work I did on this particular PR was highlighting failing tests and adding an extra test to the changes suggested by the PR.

  • While reviewing a PR, is important to get a sense of "what stage the PR is currently in". This will help you provide the necessary feedback for the author to move it to the next level. For example, giving feedback on variable and function names is not very helpful to a PR that has just been opened, you should rather focus on reviewing the algorithm implemented at a higher level and potentially adding code suggestions for the test.

  • Start by reading the contribution guidelines of the project you want to contribute to, they are usually in the CONTRIBUTION.md file in the root directory of the project.

Other Avenues for Contributing to Bitcoin/Lightning

Conclusion

Contributing to open-source Bitcoin projects is a great way to contribute to Bitcoin's adoption as most of these projects are used by developers to develop products for end-users. In addition, it is also a great way to create a relationship with people in the community and build a reputation for yourself. When you start contributing if you have any doubts, reach out to one of your mentors or a maintainer on the project. If you reach out to a maintainer, be respectful of their time as most engineers don't get paid to work on these projects full time.

Thank you Jonas for the review and feedback.