Build Your Skills with the LibreOffice Project

Look around the FOSS world, and you see all sorts of exciting projects being developed—specialized Linux distros, funky window managers, and hot new programming languages. But what about office suites? Can they be cool projects for contributors? The answer is yes. The words “office suite” might not get everyone itching to join in, but LibreOffice has some aces up its sleeve.

For starters, it’s arguably the second most popular desktop FOSS app in the world (after Firefox). We at The Document Foundation estimate around 200 million active users of LibreOffice—and that’s on the conservative side. So, by contributing to LibreOffice, you not only gain experience in a very well-known and established free software project, but your changes—however small—can benefit millions of people around the world.

Let’s take the NotebookBar, as an example. This is a new-ish user interface option, introduced in LibreOffice 6.2 and gradually expanded in subsequent releases. It provides an alternative to the “traditional” menu-and-toolbars approach, and many users love it. And guess what? Much of the implementation was done by one developer, in Vienna, in his spare time. Millions of people are using the UI he crafted, and he can be proud of that.

So you can join and make a difference—and you don’t need to be a programmer to participate. But, first, I’ll provide some background on the project.

Where We Came From

You probably know that LibreOffice is a successor project to OpenOffice(.org), which in turn was developed from StarOffice. Today, LibreOffice is by far the most actively developed project from this codebase (OpenOffice’s last major release—4.1—was back in 2014). Over the years, LibreOffice’s source code has been reworked, revamped, and refactored to be easier to understand and build. If you’ve been in the FOSS world for a while, and you remember agonizing build processes from the OpenOffice days, forget them!

Today, LibreOffice’s community is made up of several hundred people, active in development, translations, documentation, design, marketing, QA, infrastructure, and other areas. These are backed up by an ecosystem of certified developers and companies who provide extra value on top of LibreOffice—such as long-term support versions, custom bug fixes, and other benefits, much like in the Linux distribution world.

At the core of the project is The Document Foundation (TDF), a small non-profit with 11 paid staff members. The foundation is managed by a volunteer-based Board of Directors, who are voted by TDF members, of which there are currently 223. Anyone who is active in the LibreOffice project for several months can apply to become a member.

Anyway, enough background, let’s look at how to get involved.

Why Contribute? And How?

So, why spend your free time poking around in the internals of an office suite? To start, let’s consider what you get: by contributing to a well-known FOSS project, you can build up your experience in a particular area, in preparation for a future career. For instance, let’s say you’re honing your skills in UX and looking for a job in this field. Join the LibreOffice Design team, suggest improvements, help to implement them, and the work will look good on your CV.

Or, perhaps you’re aiming for a career in technical writing. Or software testing. Join the docs or QA teams, work on some guidebooks/issues, and add some extra strings to your bow. 

LibreOffice is about way more than just hacking code—not that development isn’t important, of course. If you have some C++ knowledge, you can start by looking at Easy Hacks, which are bite-size tasks created as good starting points for new developers. The basic steps are:

We have also made a step-by-step guide that details the process.

Whatever you want to do, the best place to start is with “What can I do for LibreOffice?,” which guides you to finding the right tasks and sub-projects for your interests and skills. We at The Document Foundation try to make onboarding into the LibreOffice community as simple as possible, but there’s always room for improvement, especially in a large project with many different tools and services.

But, we encourage you to pop by, say hello, and let us know how we can help you to get started. Every year, in September/October, we have a conference with 100-200 people—so consider joining us there, too. Given the ongoing pandemic at the time of writing, it’s hard to say whether it’ll be an in-person event. But all updates will be posted on our blog.

Now, let’s make awesome things happen and roll them out to 200 million users.

Feature Image: LibreOffice Conference 2019 group photo, in Almeria (Credit: Pedro Silva, CC-BY-SA)

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