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Working in public from day one

In the wide world of software, maybe you’ve heard someone say this, or maybe you’ve said it yourself: “I’ll open source it after I clean up the code; it’s a mess right now.”

Or: “I think there are some passwords in there; I’ll get around to cleaning it out at some point.”

Or simply: “No way, it’s just too embarrassing.”

These feelings are totally natural, but keep a lot of good work closed that could easily have been open. The trick to avoiding this is simple: open source your code from day one. Don’t wait for a milestone, don’t wait for it to be stable — do it from the first commit.

Here are a few reasons why you should feel good about working in the open from the moment your shovel goes in the ground:

No one’s going to read your code. Your code is almost certainly boring. Most code is. Instead, people will evaluate your work based on how they’d interact with it. Is it easy to learn how to use it from the README? Is development active? Have many GitHub users starred it? And none of that will matter until your project is far enough along that it’s useful. You will not be in the spotlight until you deserve to be.

You will make better decisions. At the most basic level, you will be vastly less likely to accidentally commit a password to an open source project than a closed one. But more than that: even though no one is reading your code, you’ll still feel a bit of natural pressure to make better decisions. You’ll hardcode less, and move more into configuration files. You’ll make things slightly more modular. You’ll comment more. You’ll catch security holes more quickly. That’s a healthy pressure.

It will not waste your time. It may feel like some of those “better decisions” take more time. But even if you’re the only person who will ever work on this project, you have to live there. You’ll greatly and immediately appreciate having made those decisions the minute you return to your own code after taking a month off. And when making better decisions becomes routine, they stop taking more time — and you become a better coder.

You might just help people. And people might just help you! The internet is a big place and a small world, and GitHub has a way of making unexpected connections. If your work is even a little bit useful to someone else, there’s a good chance they’ll find their way to your door, start poking around, and find a way to be useful right back. Even if you’re working on what you think is the most niche project that no one else would ever use: leave the door open for providence.

Once you get used to beginning your work in public, it stops feeling like performance art and starts feeling like breathing. It’s a healthy routine that produces better work and personal growth, and opens the door to spontaneous contribution and engagement. When your default is open, everyone wins.

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