When most programmers think of Eclipse they think of the Java IDE but Eclipse is actually a huge group of projects with very little relation to each other except that they are all managed by The Eclipse Foundation.
I had the privilege of working for The Eclipse Foundation this past semester at school as a High School co-op job. The Foundation does not actually employ developers but since I was working for free I was able to actually work on the code base with expert guidance from my supervisor Wayne Beaton at the Foundation.
This was an interesting experience. I worked on fixing bugs in various Eclipse projects including one that had been around for 11 years and likely affected thousands of developers. In this article I hope to share some of the knowledge I gathered about contributing to Eclipse projects.
Edit: To clarify, I am not ranting about how bad my job was. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at The Eclipse Foundation. I also enjoy using Eclipse as an IDE. Yes it is slow and RAM-intensive but it’s amazing auto complete and content assist make it invaluable for Java programming. I use VIM for every other language.
For my first week my supervisor had the idea of using me to figure out how difficult it is to be a new contributor to Eclipse. I was given a bug to fix and no other instruction.
I started off with the assumption that I would have to compile Eclipse. Which seemed reasonable enough given my experience with other open source projects.
Unfortunately, I was dead wrong. I spent many hours reading through outdated wiki pages and filling up my hard drive with build files until my supervisor eventually told me what I had only seen briefly mentioned in a paragraph full of adjectives: you do not need to compile Eclipse to develop it.
Eclipse is actually developed within Eclipse using a plugin called the Plugin Development Toolkit (PDT). This sounds like it is only useful for developing plugins, and it is.
The thing is Eclipse is actually almost entirely made up of Eclipse plugins. This is an excellent architecture once you start developing for it but it is not necessarily easy for new contributors.
Before following this procedure make sure you have the PDT plugin and the EGit plugin installed.
This procedure only applies to plugins that are plugins to the Eclipse IDE.
Clone the right repository in EGit.
Create a new ‘Eclipse Application’ run configuration.
Make changes to the code and run or debug your configuration.
This will launch another copy of Eclipse with the changes that you have made. You can even set breakpoints and run it in the debugger.
All Eclipse bugs are tracked on http://bugs.eclipse.org/. They use the loose definition of the term ‘bug’ that includes feature requests and things that should be made better.
Any code contribution you make as a non-commiter (which you probably are if you are reading this article) must be made through Bugzilla. If you write a new feature and want to contribute it you should create a new bug saying the feature should be added and immediately submit a patch file.
You can either submit a patch by attaching a patch file to the bug or on some projects by submitting a pull request with the bug id in the title to the Github mirror of the project. Keep in mind that not all projects have active committers on Github to see your pull request so you may want to link to it from the bug.
With any luck a committer will see your patch and write a comment about it. This could take anywhere from a day to many months depending on how active the project is.
On some of my patches I got a helpful response within hours, on others I only got a reply weeks later and some of my patches are still sitting there to this day…
The committer may recommend some changes to your patch to fix bugs or make it better. Once your patch is good enough the developer will commit it. They may ask you some questions about originality or have you fill out a form as part of the intellectual property process. I think my supervisor said they should have had me fill out a form but they never did.
Congratulations! You may now enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from contributing to an Eclipse project!
I submitted patches for many bugs during my time at The Foundation. I fixed many small bugs like having the Javadoc for a function show up in the Javadoc view when you select it with autoComplete.
Some of my larger achievements:
My biggest achievement was fixing an 11 year old bug that affects any Eclipse user who has ever had to forcefully stop Eclipse and then lost their place in what they were working on. Bug 2369.
Eclipse is very good at auto-saving state when it is shut down properly but many users like myself keep Eclipse open constantly and only ever start it up again when it crashes or our computer crashes.
The reason nobody experienced had taken it on was probably because it was very difficult. I toiled for weeks chasing through layer upon layer of abstraction trying to untie the workbench save code from the shutdown code.
I eventually settled upon copying the entire workbench model and then cleaning up the parts that were not supposed to be persisted in the copy. I gradually found what parts had to be removed from the model by chasing the causes of various duplicate menu items and toolbars.
I managed to fix the bug just one week before my coop term ended. And I got to feel that warm fuzzy open source contribution feeling knowing that I made a difference people would notice. And they did: