Hairy, scary, and quite contrary.
What a year. When I published my two month reflection we had our Executive Director recently leave the organization after concern and frustration over their leadership, a sizable number of co-workers left related to the internal difficulties, and a sizable chunk of our bigger communities were rightfully antagonistic toward the foundation. It’s amazing we got anything done. 🙂
But we did, in spite of it all. I look back at just the teams I work with and can see a marked improvement in the trust in leadership, community relationships, and the actual products we develop and deliver to help folks around the projects.
I’m also encouraged by the formalization of the support community liaisons offer communities and product teams. We’re learning from our mistakes – not all the time, not everywhere – but we’ve built up some intrinsic knowledge on what to do, what not to do, and how to succeed when working with volunteers in the movement.
This is another reflection – mostly a ramble – to help me see what has happened and prepare for what is next. Enjoy, if that’s your sort of thing.
One of the complexities of the Wikimedia movement has recently dawned on me. The movement is vast, like ALL OF HUMANITY-level vast. Anyone with Internet access can be part of it. That’s a lot of voices.
Within the movement there are groups, some tightly affiliated like chapters and user groups, other loosely affiliated around a subject or interests (like maps or COI concerns), and then the multitude of affiliations any individual can muster in their contributions. From wiki gnomes to adopters of typos, to uploads of freely licensed cultural artifacts, to folks to take thousands of photos of video game paraphernalia.
A lot of time these are not separate groups. They overlap and intermingle. There are also editors that are not self-defined members of any group(s).
Then there’s the Wikimedia Foundation. About 285 people trying to understand and respond to the needs of all the above. And prioritize, and accomplish constantly progressing goals.
The scope of needs from the community is inherently diverse – we are a diverse movement and richer for it! 3D files, maps, better vandal tools, anti-harassment, GLAM, reading, mobile, editing, translation…the list goes on.
I sometimes worry that we (the foundation) are small, making it hard to focus on what to take care of next. I grapple with my own agency in the organization and the responsibilities to the teams I support. There’s so much to be done.
To compound that there is a feeling that we have hired volunteers from the community to work on things that interest them, further exacerbating the disconnect between what the communities wants and what we can deliver. What individual engineers like may be different that what the community wants. I’d like to think that the overwhelming majority of the work we do is a direct result of what the community needs and wants, but every once in a while I hear of something that doesn’t make sense to me – I fully admit this could be due to a simple lack of understating on my part.
What the community wants might even be, dare I say, boring and hard to rally the troops around. That can be tough to take on when there are so many shiny and interesting things just in arms reach.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re maturing in many ways and initiatives like the Community Tech team are a marked improvement. This is just a little thing in the back of my mind I’m bringing forward here.
An aside, I sometimes worry about us shying away from work that appears to be impossibly challenging – like say a single responsive design for MediaWiki. I also worry, as I myself have discovered, that once we hire volunteers it is rather hard to keep being a volunteer! I know my own participation in the MediaWiki Stakeholders’ group has waned in the last year, with the only significant contribution being attending and presenting at a few conferences.
It’s like anything you enjoy becoming your work, at the end of a long day you sometimes just want to put that aside and do something else.
I think the way the grant information (and project in general) around Structured Data on Commons is an exemplary case of openness, proper early communication, and quick honest reply to community inquiry regarding details of the grant and otherwise. I think since our new ED has settled in we’re starting to be a little more open and less “gun-shy” in how we operate. I’m encouraged daily by particular staff and community members that keep us honest and remind us of the value of transparency. Many of the folks I work with know how to push on this facet of our movement in a constructive and collegiate way that makes taking that step into the open possible.
Toward a Healthier Community
I still am worried about folks who closely identify their sense of identity/self-worth/value with their contributions to the movement. I think we have many folks who are less than satisfied in other areas of life – or solely find satisfaction in the movement – who persist in our projects. I feel no ill will toward these folks, but genuine concern for their well-being. 1
Sometimes conversations can be frustrating. People on both sides can feel like they’re explaining something to a teenager – lots of talk, trying to make a convincing argument, but sometimes they listen and sometimes they just have to experience the situation themselves before learning.
I think we value too strongly contributions over behavior. While the traditional ‘workplace’ analogies have many flaws in an open and expansive movement like Wikimedia, I do think that if you’re not someone I can work with, I don’t want to work with you. Regardless of how smart, capable, experienced, etc. Life’s too short.
I think about my own experiences as a volunteer in other capacities. I’ve been part of a few communities for only a short time not because I wasn’t interested in the cause, but because the individuals participating were not kind to others – new comers in particular. That removes any emotional energy I could be using elsewhere.
However, I’m often commended by community and staff for remaining level-headed even in some of the challenging conversations that have ensued in the last year. That’s not to brag, but to say that even after a year I’m not yet a cynical husk of my former self. 🙂
The nice folks that I can get along with outnumber any grumps. I’ve even been surprised by how ‘the brightest burn fastest’ – that folks who skew toward extremes often burn out faster than those who follow the slow and steady.
My involvement in the Code of Conduct has been small, but sometimes frustrating. Some folks don’t like it. A lot more do. I recently caught this video from Raph Koster as he talked about the responsibilities involved in hosting online communities. It’s pretty much exactly why I think the behavioral side of our movement is so important.
It’s interesting to me, as a college-educated, straight, white, dude in the mid-west, how often I find myself in conversations with folks not like me. It’s incredibly refreshing. I grew up in a poor, rural, very white county. The diversity in backgrounds, experiences, and voices is amazing. I’m using the meaning of that word in the literal sense – “Fill with astonishment”. It makes my own work better, the output of my team more nuanced, and the impact we have shows more care.
In the last year (and in particular the last few months) I’ve tried to be more aware and involved in discussions about strategy. From our quarterly goals, to annual planning, to strategy-wide discussions on the future of the movement. I have what I think is a decent understanding of what strategy is and why it is important, but never fully felt involved in how strategy is developed in any of the past organizations I worked for.
It’s not my strong suit. I feel like I’m very much a tactical “keep things running smoothly” kind of person, so expanding my knowledge on strategy and annual planning has been challenging. We have an internal study group and one of the suggestions was to read a book called the Starfish and the Spider. I thought it was a good read and helpful to understand the conundrums of being part of a spider organization that supports a starfish organization. 2
Work is Weird
I still struggle with understanding the norms of professionalism in the organization. I’m encouraged by the organization’s support of allowing employees to contribute to participate as volunteers – even when that means expressing options tha counter staff-lead initiatives or work. There are still occasions when I am pleasantly shocked that a co-worker responds in such a public matter. In my experiences at more traditionally organized ‘top-down’ organizations folks wouldn’t even consider speaking so openly and with the fear that the result would not be kind. I’m happy, but still baffled sometimes, that folks speak up regardless of hierarchy.
The diversity of initiatives and voices can make things seem a little like a cacophony. There is a lot of agency, if you’re willing to put in the effort, of defining the work to be done and how to approach it.
Working remotely from home has its ups-and-downs. I’ve started not going out as much with the cold weather over the last few months. I’m hoping to change that as the prospect of leaving my cozy little hole increases with the change in seasons. My wife is currently involved in about a dozen different operations, most of which afford her the ability to work from home as well. Having my family in arms reach can be helpful when having a stressful day. Hugs from a two-year-old a few feet away is a must in any future work arrangement.
I also need to start bugging friends to get out for lunch. I haven’t been very good about that as of late.3
Travel is something I’ve always enjoyed – especially when I have the privilege of doing so for work. I really enjoy meeting new people, listening to their interests and frustrations and learning more about how things work. It’s exhausting, tough work to be “on” for many hours in a day (and many days in a row!) as a representative of the foundation. I don’t take the responsibility lightly and try to get as much out of any event as possible. But I will be honest, I really love it.
I still struggle with confidence in my work. I work for a well-respected organization, with many smart people with impressive professional experience – and that applies equally to the folks I work with in our communities! I’m much more confident now a year later in knowing how to get stuff done, what to pay attention to, who to include, and how to organize discussions, but I’m still very much the “Gee golly, I’m sure glad to be here!” kind of guy. I’ve been a little more bold in asking for help and leading conversations when I think necessary. So far? No one has complained. 4
Things they don’t tell you when you join the foundation
As a small aside, I was recently asked what sort of items would I include in our existing on boarding materials. I found out after the fact that many of my thoughts here are already shared in our documentation, but I must have missed them! Here’s my short list:
- Understanding the relationship between the foundation and communities. It’s different from other open-source/knowledge organizations. The communities came first, then the foundation. That might be different for folks use to a more ‘traditional’ model of org first then volunteers. Especially around decision-making and when and where the WMF becomes involved (or purposefully does not).
- Be okay with asking for help and proactively reaching out to folks with questions. We’re a good-sized organization, with a larger volunteer base that a single person could not be fully be aware of all the things all the time. We are also very remote friendly. These two things can lead to feeling a little lost – especially when new.
- I think this is understood as a certain level of professionalism regardless of your employ, but the movement has a low tolerance of BS. I don’t mean outright lying – which is inexcusable pretty much anywhere – but in over-promising with good intent. Just state the facts, don’t make assumptions (again, even with good intents), and make sure any claims can be backed up with data, experiences, community discussion, etc.
- Many folks are drawn to participate in the movement by ideological goals set forth in our mission and values. These are good, inspiring goals to aim toward. We also live in a world limited by time and space. 🙂 I think it’s prudent to help newcomers understand that the way forward is a balance between the two. Some community members (like any member of society at large) are strongly ideological, others more pragmatic. Being able to understand the two and how to navigate the conversations between is the only way this all works.
- Change is a constant. Sometimes it’s slowly, sometimes quickly. Being OK with that and having a healthy balance in the gaps in between is important. Perhaps not specific to foundation work, but remote work, with multiple responsibilities and efforts (spinning plates) you can sometimes start your day feeling underwhelmed/overwhelmed and end the day with the exact opposite. Ok, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but the fluctuation is noticeably more present here than in past experiences. I think that the fact that our movement is so global, or products/technology so diverse (mobile, to data analytics, to editing, to search to…), and our projects so active that it can be a little jarring.
Wow, I somehow ended up supporting more than just Discovery over the course of this year, and successfully at that! I’ve been helping the Reading department with a few of their products. It’s interesting to see the differences in style between the teams and how they approach organizing their work. So far my plate is full, but manageable.
The search team is almost ready to share some of the really impactful work around search engine results page. Bringing in content from sister projects to the results and showing richer metadata around the results I think will really help folks trying to find information “on-wiki”.
Reading has a new feature that we’re slowly rolling out called Page Previews. It’s currently the most popular beta feature on the English Wikipedia (and pretty popular elsewhere) and will soon be available for all folks as a default setting. While not revolutionary, it’s an evolutionary approach to quickly surfacing more information to folks who visit the site. 5
Something Like a Conclusion
I like the folks I work with. They are some of the most compassionate and supportive folks I’ve been thrown together with. I’m impressed with the leadership folks I work with in trying to keep things organized and well understood across teams and departments. We’re not perfect, but we try to assume good faith at every turn and are genuinely caring in how we work with one another.
I think I’ll stick around.
I’m being purposefully obtuse in describing the book. You should read it.↩
Local friends, if you are reading this, please call. 🙂↩
Which means, to me, that I should be a little more secure in knowing I’m doing the right thing.↩
Oh, and don’t worry. You can turn it off.↩