Introduction to GitHub for non-coders

Blockchain software is almost always open source, many projects follow principles of commons based peer production.

GitHub is often where the primary commons for a blockchain project can be found, it is a platform where work on the software is coordinated, where the code is stored, shared, discussed and edited.

In some ways, participation in the production process is permissionless. The code itself is open, anyone can copy it, make some changes, and offer those changes back to the community. The type of offerings a community is likely to accept, and the method of making those decisions, varies between projects.

GitHub presents very few barriers to contributing to projects beyond signing up for a user account. Some projects welcome certain kinds of contribution from non-coders through GitHub.

This post gives a basic introduction to GitHub and outlines a few examples of ways to contribute to Decred, a cryptocurrency project, on GitHub.

This post is itself available directly from GitHub, and I would be happy to consider pull requests that improve it.

git and GitHub

git is a version control system for coordinating and sharing work on computer files. People using git to work on a project keep local copies of the code and push changes to centralized repositories to share them. GitHub provides hosting for these repositories and a layer of extra features like Issues and Pull Requests.

GitHub

GitHub’s own tutorials are quite good, if you want to understand it properly I suggest reading or working through them.

Repositories (or repos) are collections of documents (usually code files). Commits are sets of edits to those files. The owner of a repository decides who has permission to push commits directly to the files, but it is trivially easy to create a Fork (copy) of GitHub repositories, which you then have full control over.

A Pull Request (or PR) is a request to merge a set of changes from one branch to another. Typically some one (or group) has been working on a particular aspect in a branch they started for that purpose, when it’s ready they make a Pull Request to merge it back into the main version of the software (that users download). A Pull Request can be from another branch inside the same repository, or from a branch of a forked repository that is maintained independently — i.e. Pull Requests can come from people who do not have commit access on the main repository.

Pull Requests are reviewed by someone with commit access for the target repository (a maintainer) — they can be discussed and accepted (merged), iterated, or rejected.

How to contribute to a blockchain project on GitHub without writing code — a worked example

This is an example of a repository that is open for contributions. It is for writing monthly editions of a Decred newsletter, and is maintained by a member of the Decred community (@bee on Slack).

Each month, @bee invites feedback on the new version by pasting a link to the latest draft in the #writers_room channel on Decred’s bridged communications platforms (Slack, Matrix, IRC, etc.).

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Anyone who is aware of something relevant to Decred that’s not already covered, or who spots a typo, can suggest edits using the button highlighted above. This opens the file for editing. This file is written in markdown (.md), which is probably familiar and quite easy to read. Here’s a useful markdown cheatsheet.

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If you scroll down and click the green buttons you’ll follow a path through “Propose file change” (which commits the change to your freshly created fork of the original repository), and on to “Create Pull Request”, which invites the repository’s maintainer to incorporate them.

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In general, people probably won’t appreciate one-word Pull Requests, and it may be better to bundle a set of changes together in a PR. There’s a space to describe the PR. When it’s reviewed or someone leaves a comment you should by default receive an email notification.

Pull Requests that are merged become part of the repository’s product, in this case the repository is published along with versions on reddit and medium.

Other ways to contribute through GitHub

All of the Decred.org documentation is stored in markdown files in the dcrdocs repository, Pull Requests there can change the content of the project’s documentation directly. Repositories for documentation, or Improvement Proposals (as used by projects like Bitcoin, Ethereum and Decred to discuss and develop changes to the protocol), are usually quite restrictive in terms of the kind of PRs that are acceptable.

Decred has a variety of other repositories on GitHub where one might make a useful contribution. There are a set of sub-projects within the Decred organization on GitHub, and more beyond this. For example the Raedah Group has assets for video production on GitHub (scripts and storyboards) which are open to community feedback and suggestions.

Repositories are all maintained by different people/groups, who will have different ideas about the kind of input that’s useful. The maintainers of these repositories invariably have a presence on the project’s bridged communication channels so it is probably best to participate in the discussion there before jumping into Pull Requests.

Issues are also a flexible and widely used way of collecting certain kinds of information. For Decred’s repositories most of the issues could be categorized as bug reports or feature requests, discussion tends to happen in the bridged communications channels. With feature requests, for anything major people would typically raise an idea in the bridged communications channels before adding an Issue, but issues reporting unknown bugs are always welcome.

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Issues page for Politeia (8th August 2018)

Issues and Pull Requests are part of the workflow for a project, by reading them you can see what’s going on. By writing them, you can contribute to that workflow in certain ways, but it’s a good to first understand how these tools are being used in the repository you’re interested in, so that you can make contributions which are more likely to be useful.

The barriers to interacting with the workflow of your favorite cryptocurrency project are social. GitHub makes it easy to contribute. The barriers to making useful contributions are about finding places and ways in which do to this that are recognized as useful by the repositories’ maintainers.

I’ve described the GitHub web GUI because that’s the easiest way to get started, but it’s also quite easy to install software that stores repositories locally and pushes locally stored commits online as requested. This would be the more conventional way of using git and GitHub.

Getting paid for contributions

It seems common enough for people who contribute to cryptocurrency projects to be rewarded in that currency. The source(s) of these rewards vary from project to project, perhaps a founder or foundation with ample reserves, or donations from the community more broadly. The projects that interest me have an autonomous source of such funding, usually a portion of the block reward.

Decred is one of these projects, I have also written about Dash. In Decred’s case the process of becoming a paid contributor is social and informal, but it is presently being elucidated and will become more formalized soon through Politeia proposals. The project fund is there to fund work which adds value to the project and furthers its aims. In general work that is regarded as doing so by stakeholders should be compensated, provided Politeia is working well.

git to work

git, and GitHub, can be used to collaborate on documents other than code. This article concludes by considering some pros and cons of git(hub) as compared to alternative tools for collaborative writing, chiefly the ubiquitous Google Docs.

There is a steeper learning curve with GitHub than Google docs, as Gdocs has a more familiar WYSIWIG approach. Direct editing in a shared Gdoc is like collaboration between contributors who all have commit access to a repository — Suggest Mode in Gdocs is equivalent to Pull Requests. Gdocs handles edits or suggestions on an individual basis, whereas with git(hub) the tendency is to group these into larger commits and pull requests.

Gdocs focuses attention on a common live version of the document, it chunks edits into versions on the back-end and these historical versions can be browsed. GitHub represents the history of a document more clearly, presenting details of who submitted and approved sets of changes up-front, and tending towards distributed storage of the documents’ histories.

GitHub’s approach is arguably better when dealing with documents where the detail matters, and changes should only be made with the consensus of contributors — as it affords every contributor or watcher greater opportunity to review the history of edits. I would guess that it also scales better with larger numbers of participants, but I haven’t seen it used by particularly large groups for collaborative writing.

In the context of work on blockchain projects it is worth noting that git is more decentralized and confers greater censorship resistance. Google Docs and GitHub are both centralized services, and it is within the service provider’s power to shut down accounts and documents/repositories. git is decentralized, its users store local copies of the documents and their histories. GitHub is just a convenient place to push changes to, where they can be retrieved and discussed by other participants, although it does add useful features like Issues and Pull Requests to the workflow. Users of GitHub are however likely in a better position to recover from censorship than users of Google Docs, with local storage of files being the norm and open source alternatives like GitLab already available.

A project on GitHub is also more accessible to someone who doesn’t want to set up user accounts with Google or Microsoft, they can push their commits to some other location they control to be retrieved by other contributors directly.

Writing about cryptocurrency/blockchain projects that are doing something interesting with regard to governance. Decred contributor.

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