The oxygen mask approach to open source

In 2023, Hari Shanker wrote a post on Make WordPress requesting feedback about improving the Five for the Future contributor journey.

I wrote a detailed comment sharing my thoughts. I can’t remember if I also had additional discussions on the Make WordPress Slack. Maybe?

I then met Hari in person for the first time at WordCamp Asia in Bangkok that year and talked with him about it a little more.

From there, he started adding me to more meetings and invited me to keep working on this.

And instead of diving straight in, I… ghosted him.

I don’t feel good about this, but I wasn’t in a place to contribute at the time.

Fast forward to this year (2024), I met Hari and Robert Windisch on Contributor Day at WordCamp Asia Taipei. I was excited to see them both, but also a little apprehensive to say hi to Hari as I was ashamed and embarrassed that I hadn’t stepped up and done more to help when he asked.

I mentioned this to him and apologised.

Immediately, Hari graciously said that it’s totally alright. That I had done so much and that my early comments had helped move them in the right direction.

Then Robert said something that really stuck with me:

When it comes to open source contributions, take a “put your own oxygen mask on first” approach.

Or to paraphrase him more catchily, “the oxygen mask approach to open source”

I’d never heard this before, and feel compelled to write about it, because it’s a really important concept that everybody needs to know.

“In the event of emergency, put your oxygen mask on first.”

4 step diagram showing how to use an oxygen mask on plane.

If you’ve been on a commercial flight before, you’ll be familiar with the safety briefing at the start of the flight.

Every safety briefing has a brief sentence about what to do if the cabin loses pressure and oxygen masks drop down from the top compartment.

Every single time, they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first before you help your children or people around you.

They tell you this because it’s not possible to help people around you if you yourself have passed out.

How this applies to open source

One of the best things about open source is this sense of “software for the people by the people.” That is, if you’re unhappy about something, you are empowered to roll your sleeves up and make it better.

But for some people, like me, this can start to feel overwhelming.

I use WordPress every single day, and I feel a strong responsibility to give back. I don’t do much, but I do try to voice opinions constructively in the right channels, log bug reports, give feedback, get on Zoom calls with contributors and more.

But even this stuff can feel overwhelming sometimes.

I then take a step back, but always feel guilty about doing so.

When Robert said the oxygen masks thing, it totally clicked for me.

Open source isn’t about contributing to every single damn thing until you pass out and die.

Open source is about making sure you’re good, your business is good, and that you have extra bandwidth. And then judiciously deciding how you will use that extra bandwidth to contribute. Or not. That’s fine too.