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I have a friend who wishes to break into the software development world in the US. They aren't employed right now, so they have the time to contribute to open source projects.

Would it be appropriate to list full time, continual open source contribution on their resume as "experience"?

The goal is to do your best to catch the eye of a hiring manager (or a bot) reading resumes or LinkedIn profiles. "Experience" seems the best way to do so. However, you also don't want to turn someone off or seem dishonest.

If they list it as "volunteer experience" would that get the same kind of respect from a hiring manager?

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    You get experience with working in a team when contributing. Note that it needs to be quite substantial to be valuable. In other words, it should be labor of love, not for putting on your resume. Mar 12 at 9:11
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    Wonder in which section of their resume do Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds put their "volunteer work"
    – androidguy
    Mar 12 at 18:36
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    It's appropriate if you've done significant work. In some ways it can be better than experience at a traditional job, as you can show the work that you actually did.
    – DaveG
    Mar 12 at 20:23

6 Answers 6

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Of course you should list it. If your occupation was relevant to the job you are applying for, and you even worked full-time on it, that's relevant experience the employer needs to know about. It gives them information about your ability, that they otherwise just wouldn't have. Of course whether it is relevant is a different question. If you just dabbled with some of your own code and published it as open source, but there's no-one using or reviewing it - that's probably not worth its own mention (you'd just somewhere mention personal projects and link repos). If it's an established project with co-contributors, users, maybe even other entities using/depending on it, then you deal with so many things relevant to being a software engineer, that omitting it would be a major mistake.

There's some discussion here about what is "work-experience" on a CV and what is not. That it's not "proper" to list experience that didn't have some kind of contract attached to it. That might be true - I didn't go through HR school - but that most definitely is not relevant for the majority of the software engineering workspace (and those that care lose talent i.e. are worse employers anyway). There are not enough devs; you need to give them a good indication that you actually have relevant experience. And then you have got to back that up in interviews. If you can do that, it doesn't matter how you got the experience.

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A lot of more recent Resume formats include options for "Projects" which is where I would suggest including this experience. While some people might not consider this "workplace experience", most if not all SE hiring managers I've known will openly ask if you have any projects you work on in your spare time. The fact your friend contributes to an open source project is worthy of inclusion on a CV/Resume for the simple reason that potential employers like this kind of activity. It's important to understand that your CV/Resume are not some form of official document like College transcripts.

All potential employers want from a Resume is to get a brief list of your professional skills and with some quantifier for total experience with each and any significant personal accomplishments. So the most important thing they need to do if they include it is to qualify how much they contributed and how important the project is. A personal project only they use is worth listing because it communicates how much you like programming. A major open-source library that gets used by a major package is potentially more valuable, but only if you regularly contribute and it's not just a couple of 1-20 line commits.

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    "All potential employers want from a Resume is..." Citation needed, especially in this day and age of automated resume rejection bots.
    – nick012000
    Mar 13 at 1:49
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Yes. You should add your experience with "Open Source Software Development" to your resume as legitimate work experience (if the experience is at least somewhat substantial).

Please make sure that the experience is authentic and valuable before you add that to your resume as you will need explain that contribution to the hiring managers.

Please be honest on your resume as it is always in your best interest. For example, if you work less than 40 hours per week on the open source project, then you can simply say that you contribute part-time to the open source project. If the project is interesting and highly valuable, then the hiring managers would still appreciate that.

Many companies are currently hiring developers with experience in "open source", which means that you should list this experience on your resume whenever appropriate.


Updated: As the proof, here are some current jobs posted on LinkedIn that specifically require "Open Source" experience (as of March 12, 2022):

  1. Senior Open Source Software Engineer (Python)

    (Ethyca - United States - Remote -- $140,000/yr - $180,000/yr · Full-time · Mid-Senior level)

    https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/view/2946868350/?alternateChannel=search&refId=D73X3UkfvzUixPId33eogA%3D%3D&trackingId=Y57xPsiwzw8L23SvPecE1w%3D%3D

  2. Director of Open Source Software / Community Engagement

    (Formidable - United States - Remote - $173,000/yr - $195,000/yr · Full-time · Director)

    https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/view/2950371730/?alternateChannel=search&refId=D73X3UkfvzUixPId33eogA%3D%3D&trackingId=Lu7%2F486M3VV%2FYGvuhOvn0Q%3D%3D

  3. Sr. Software Engineer - Open Source Polyglots Welcome

    (Empower Associates - United States - Remote - $120,000/yr - $150,000/yr · Full-time · Mid-Senior level)

    https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/view/2938391501/?alternateChannel=search&refId=D73X3UkfvzUixPId33eogA%3D%3D&trackingId=E0dJgDu9aX7b7q2MK%2FkC1Q%3D%3D

  4. Open Source Software Engineer - Integrations (Datadog - Poland, IN - Remote )

    https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/view/2921861891/?alternateChannel=search&refId=D73X3UkfvzUixPId33eogA%3D%3D&trackingId=G2RHv4e0Zi%2FG6FY70wvLdA%3D%3D

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    I don't understand why this response has been down-voted, maybe it is just due to cultural differences. If you had climbed Mount Everest, wouldn't you include that as 'experience', even though you haven't been paid to do it, and it doesn't improve your coding skills? So I think open-source projects do count as experience, so long as they are accurately described on the resume. And cynically, I think some HR recruiters just 'weigh the ink' in a resume without really understanding it, so the more ink, the better.
    – jayben
    Mar 12 at 10:44
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    @JoeStrazzere "Resumes are about work." Why does the fact that you are getting paid by a company change whether it is work or not? Mar 12 at 16:48
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    @JoeStrazzere I disagree. When I'm interviewing a potential developer, I care about their experience. Whether they worked at Corporation XYZ is utterly irrelevant. Can they talk knowledgably and coherently about what they did? Can they explain design choices they made? Heck, if they worked on open source, they can show me commits and what their code actually looks like. I don't care how much or how little money they made, I care about whether they are competent or not.
    – DaveG
    Mar 12 at 20:42
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    @MalachiHolden because the experience of writing code in one's spare time is fundamentally different to code written for a job. That's not to say open source is worthless - on the contrary, lacking work experience, open source is a valuable way to develop one's skills. But it's not the same as work experience. You don't have to show up on time to open source. You might never work with anyone else, from other disciplines. If you don't like the project, you can drop it and move onto something else you find more interesting. None of those things might be the case for an actual job. Mar 13 at 19:20
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    These jobs are not for "engineers who have worked on open source". They are specifically for "engineers to work on open source". I'm not sure how relevant they are to using open source work as experience for a job that might have nothing to do with open source. Mar 14 at 10:17
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I would not really list it as experience unless the contributions are significant enough to be roughly equal (or better) to a similar job. Which is almost never the case. And if it is indeed the case, be clear so as to not deceive.

For example, making a couple of small contributions to a small project, amounting to work done here and there during the weekends would not be comparable to a full time job at any software company. If a candidate listed that as experience, and upon checking or during the interview I realized that this is indeed the situation, I would most likely not move forward due to the dishonesty.

Now, being a regular contributor or a maintainer to an established and serious open source, is a different thing. That shows both technical skills, and some non-technical skills such as being able to work in a team, establish priorities, etc. I would list this an experience just again, being clear about the specifics of the situation. Based in my experience, candidates with these backgrounds tend to do quite well compared to the average.

And lastly, there are those people whose job is actually the open source project. If you make money from it, and dedicate a full-time week to it, whether as part of a company payroll or living off donations and similar contributions, I'd definitely put it as experience.

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  • "not really list it as experience unless the contributions are significant enough to be roughly equal (or better) to a similar job" - fair comment if the OP's friend were applying for mid/senior level positions, but the question talks about breaking into s/w dev. so we can assume they are looking at junior/trainee positions where even small open source contributions are more experience than much of the rest of the field, and don't have to equate to a job to be relevant in my opinion. I also don't know why you assume that this would be listed dishonestly - question didn't seem to imply that.
    – Saes
    Mar 13 at 12:23
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Yes. List it. You can consider that experience from the very beginning.

I consider experience experience

Open source contributions are valuable and if that’s the only source of their experience coding then it’s the best they can put on their CV. I don’t know why people is saying otherwise but, as a recruiter myself, when evaluating a candidate it will be an extremely valuable information.

Will I consider the candidate a senior or mid level developer if he only has open source experience? Unless he’s the main maintainer of a sizeable project, probably not.

Would I consider it a very good sign for someone looking for their first job in development? Absolutely. At the very least it indicates a very important quality, a liking for code and a desire to improve and learn. Believe me, nothing gets better than that for juniors.

The point is when you have no other relevant experience then that needs to go in. If you had other significant experience that just nerfs the time spent on open source, then I will still put it, but maybe in an “other” category.

But I can assure you, when I look at CVs i actively look for those things and, in juniors, I consider it a good sign and a much better sign than a CV without anything on the “experience” part.

Just make sure the information there is honest and that, during the interview, the experience is put forward without exaggeration and it ca work very well.

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    The picture here detracts from what I think it's otherwise a good answer. The text is very close to what I would have written myself. For someone looking for their first job in software or related fields, even small contributions to open source projects are potentially a point of difference worth including in a CV. To me, 'experience' doesn't necessarily mean 'employment history' and can be separated out. If there's no paid employment, or only casual work, to list, the open source contributions are potentially more relevant experience than employment history.
    – Saes
    Mar 13 at 12:15
  • 'experience' doesn't necessarily mean 'employment history'. That's precisely what the image intends to convey and one of the fine lines of that movie. Experience is experience, it doesn't need to be of a particular type, it can be success of failure, open source or 3rd party work. Experience IS experience Mar 14 at 13:57
  • I don't know the film. No doubt that's me being out of touch with popular culture. But what I see is two men standing in the dark talking about "hitting on girls". Perhaps it's very profound, or at least amusing in context. Here, I think it detracts from what is otherwise a well-reasoned answer. Your answer, your choice though.
    – Saes
    Mar 14 at 14:27
  • That's because I did not look at the picture and just assumed it was the dialog from the movie. I've replaced it by a simple text image of the script which I still feel conveys the interaction. I'd say it is indeed a poplar culture reference now :) Mar 14 at 14:40
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No. It's not work experience, which is really what "experience" means on a resume.

You can put it down as interests, or hobbies, or under its own section, but it's not work experience.

With work experience, you report to someone, they validate your work, they validate you are contributing an appropriate amount. The arrangement is more formal.

You don't really get that with open source.

People can ask the question: "What does work experience even mean" and to be sure, there are some definitions that could include working on open source projects as work experience, but it's important to remember that people reading resumes are not going to give you time to convince them of your point of view. If 50% of people think you are being fast and lose with the truth, that's 50% of applications that are getting thrown in the bin needlessly.

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    Contributions to Open Source projects are (should be) always validated during the review of a Pull Request. If someone's PR is regularly merged into important projects, we know that these contributions are of good quality and fullfill the requirements regarding style or tests. so in short: If you have multiple (code-)contributions to the Linux Kernel, you most likely are a good developer.
    – FooTheBar
    Mar 12 at 8:48
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    Hobbies seems to be a bit weak section. Wouldn't a projects or personal projects section better. It seems a bit weak to have a relevant experience under hobbies. I wouldn't even add hobby section Mar 12 at 9:55
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    You could call it Development Experience and summarise the contributions with links for the most prominent projects
    – HorusKol
    Mar 12 at 11:49
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    In this generality this is just entirely wrong. I got contracted (not as a junior) on a large project that was already in business and critical with open source experience only. Am I contributing to major projects, hell no. Are the project used by a lot of people and show I can deal with different stakeholders and write long-lived code - they do. Not to mentioning that you can absolute be employed to work on open source software.
    – imsodin
    Mar 12 at 11:50
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    A lot of people say you should work in open source to "get your foot in the door." Should a self taught programmer pour hours of time into contributing to open source projects, only to put it under "hobbies" on their resume? It seems to kind of defeat the point. Mar 12 at 14:16

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