The world of open source can appear daunting to people who aren’t part of it. Till a couple of years back, I had never contributed to an open source project despite relying on them in a professional capacity all my life. During that time, I always marveled at people who took time out of their personal lives to offer something of value to the rest of the world, at little or no monetary gain to themselves. It wasn’t until I contributed my first commit that I realised open source (when done right) offers a drug-like feeling.

That was in 2018 when, after completing the Rust Book, I needed a way to quickly apply all the Rust I had learned from it. At that point, the only Rust project I was familiar with was ripgrep. So I went to its GitHub page, identified the simplest looking issue that needed help, fixed it and sent a pull request, which was accepted. So it spurred me on to contribute more to the project, including a fairly large feature. The latter remains my most significant open source contribution till date. Since then, my open source contributions have been mostly non-existent. As a result, I have been left yearning for the drug-like feeling contributing to open source - and most importantly, learning something new in the process - provides.

In that time, I have also been constantly searching for an itch I can scratch in the form of a medium-sized open source project, primarily built using Rust. Finding this has proven to be a significant challenge. It is not that there aren’t unsolved problems in the world of open source, especially in Rust. It is just that unless there is a personal attachment to the idea at hand, my brain tends to get detached beyond a certain point.

In this article, I want to share my journey of discovering that itch and taking the first step with it.

Finding an Itch I Want to Scratch

In late 2018, I discovered You Need a Budget. A year later in 2019, I put my first yearly budget together by following the four simple rules along with my partner. To do this, I used YNAB’s own software, which is proprietary and costs $84 a year. Normally I have an aversion towards anything proprietary, because I can’t say for sure what the company does with my data. In this case, I was convinced YNAB weren’t up to anything untoward after reading their privacy policy. And more importantly, I really needed to kick-start my budgeting journey, so I went ahead with it.

My partner wasn’t convinced. They challenged my inner programmer saying, “You call yourself a programmer who can solve large problems. Why don’t you take this as a challenge and build your own software for budgeting?” (They really felt we could find better use for the money we were giving to YNAB. )

Having used ledger in the past, I knew I may not even have to build one from scratch. I only needed to get it to play nicely with YNAB’s four rules, which is where I hit a roadblock. Going through Plain Text Accounting, I realised every person had their own approach of doing YNAB-style budgeting using ledger. This wasn’t a roadblock in and of itself, as I could always adapt any one of those approaches to my own. The biggest problem was none of the approaches was as seamless as using YNAB’s app, especially in offering the ability to set goals for individual accounts and showing how much should be allocated monthly based on the goals.

I also looked around to see if there was already a widely used ledger-clone in Rust but couldn’t find it. And lo and behold, I had suddenly found my itch.

Why Should I Build This

I recognised a long time ago that getting an idea wasn’t enough. I am a highly distractible person. I had had a number of decent ideas I could have worked on in the past. I hadn’t. With rledger, I wanted to break this cycle. I wanted to primarily prove to myself I could put together a medium-sized project on my own.

To do this, however, I knew I had to give myself some solid reasons to continue working on this project whenever those pesky distractions tried to pull me away. In this regard, I was inspired by a recent presentation given by Simon Michael on hledger, in which he listed “get better at Haskell” as one of his goals for starting hledger. And I told myself, “If that was good enough to get hledger to survive for 14 years, then it’s good enough for me.”

“Get better at Rust” became my primary motivation to work on rledger.

I have been on and off with Rust for the better part of 3 years now without ever really improving my skills with it. By building a ledger-clone using Rust, I knew it will touch upon a variety of aspects of programming I should be able to learn from: building a CLI application, parsing techniques, modularising the core of rledger as a library, packaging a CLI application for a variety of OSes and so on.

I also understood that, while “get better at Rust” might be good for personal motivation, I needed to give rledger a purpose to exist beyond that.

Why Should This Get Built

There are numerous ledger-likes available currently. More keep cropping up from time-to-time, though only ledger and hledger have any real market share owing to being continuously developed and supported. Knowing I might never be able to match up to either of them is one of the excuses I told myself for not starting with rledger in the first place.

With hledger, Simon Michael’s non-personal goal was to “acquire a more robust, usable, evolving incarnation of ledger”. For rledger, I needed to find a similar larger purpose for rledger to exist beyond just “get better at Rust” for myself. And I also knew it couldn’t just be to “acquire an incarnation of ledger in a modern language”, since this was the problem already solved by hledger.

As hinted at earlier, budgeting has long been a thorn in the world of plain text accounting. ledger’s budgeting relies on periodic transactions. For people following a YNAB style of budgeting where the budget can be in a state of flux often changing every month, this means editing the periodic transactions by hand to indicate how long it should be active for. Having tried this, I know it is a pain.

In a Github issue discussion on hledger, the suggested mechanism was to use virtual accounts. In general, this is the widely adopted strategy for YNAB-style budgeting using ledger-likes. However, this does not offer a great user experience, especially if the user has to allocate budget amounts by hand every month.

Most importantly though, none of the above approaches offer something similar to the “goals feature” offered by YNAB. I have found this to be a life-saver for budget allocation. For example, if I tell YNAB how much money I want to save in a particular budget by a certain date, it will tell me how much I need to allocate on a monthly basis to reach my target. Every time I tried plain text accounting after having used YNAB, I missed this feature the most, causing me to relapse.

And so with rledger, my overarching purpose became to acquire an incarnation of ledger offering an out-of-the-box seamless user experience with a goals feature for YNAB-style budgeting.

Taking the First Step

Even after giving myself clear motivation to continue working on rledger and giving it a reason to exist, I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I made the all important Initial commit on my codebase.

For a long time, this proved to be a blocker as I was stuck in a state of analysis paralysis. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, it is a state where we’re basically stuck in the same position without moving forward due to over-analysing. I was stuck here because I was trying to operate in a Waterfall-ish way for rledger. I told myself I was setting up rledger for success by getting all thinking done initially. It turned out I was setting up rledger for never getting kicked-off.

Here again, I was inspired by the hledger presentation I mentioned earlier from Simon Michael. The first Hledger commit had nothing but a simple Haskell data type representing a Ledger transaction. This taught me a valuable lesson.

By observing hledger’s early commits, I realised it’s okay to start small. All successful large open source projects slowly evolved into their current states from humble beginnings.

That’s exactly what I ended up doing recently. Kick-start rledger with a simple commit containing a ledger Transaction data type in Rust and then printing it out. This seemingly simple act meant a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Looking Forward

Now some of you might be wondering why I haven’t linked to a public repository containing some actual rledger code. This is because it still doesn’t exist in the world as such. I am developing it in my spare time and within my own space. When I feel it has reached a shape where I am okay sharing it with others who can also contribute to it, I will make it public.

Till such a time, however, I want this article (and the series which will follow) to act as a record of the process of creating an open source project. I wish to capture design considerations and some of the research that goes into solving a problem, amongst other things in the hope it gives others the motivation that open source isn’t as daunting a place after all.