When Companies Sponsor Their Employees to Contribute to Open Source Software
WordPress, the popular open source CMS, powers a reported 43%+ of the web, including this site. It is backed by a global community of contributors who volunteer their time in all sorts of ways, from code to documentation to training. But did you know that many of the project’s biggest contributors are sponsored by their employer to provide that time?
As we discussed with Brad Williams of WebDevStudios, the success of WordPress has created an economy around the software, growing and launching many businesses that serve the needs of its users, from personal blogs to major corporations. And one of the way those companies give back is through these sponsorships.
No company is more tied to WordPress than Automattic, the owners of WordPress.com, which was founded by the co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg. Hugh Lashbrooke is the head of community education at Automattic, which sponsors him for 40 hours a week, primarily to contribute to WordPress’ training team.
Hugh joins us on this episode to give us an inside look at these sponsorship arrangements and how they influence WordPress team dynamics. Plus:
- What happens when a company stops sponsoring an employee to contribute to WordPress?
- The flexibility you need to work with volunteers on such a massive project
- “Public by default” as a standard of work
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Hivebrite, the community engagement platform.
How sponsored contributors bolstered WordPress’ training team (6:49): “[After COVID struck, the community team] realized that people weren’t getting the training they normally get at events. … It started off as an informal conversation with the existing training team, which wasn’t huge in terms of numbers. … We came together and now, we have this platform called Learn WordPress, which is where all of this content is housed. The idea for Learn WordPress existed in the training team before but because they were a small team … they didn’t have the resources to really get that going like they wanted. When we came on board, and because we are sponsored volunteers and we have more time and access to more resources, we were able to help them do more and now, we’re working alongside them very closely to make the platform better.” –@hlashbrooke
Automattic can’t track the financial impact of contributors they sponsor (21:16): “As WordPress improves, and becomes more popular, that helps Automattic improve profits and revenue. In our division, we don’t track financial ROI at all. We don’t have anything to track in that sense, so we don’t. But our work in the open source project does benefit Automattic financially. … As people get better with WordPress and WordPress becomes more popular, easier to use, and more well-known, Automattic’s business grows.” –@hlashbrooke
COVID led to volunteer drop-off (27:18): “COVID had a big impact on [volunteers dropping off]. The lockdown, everyone being at home, and just the general stress of what’s going on in the world. As we got to mid-to-late 2020, and then going all through 2021 and even now, a big dip in contributors. People weren’t as committed as they were before. People who said they would be committed, they just slowly disappeared. There was just a trend that we saw, and it was very clearly because of the response to everything going on and the world being so stressful.” –@hlashbrooke
Allowing people to weigh-in can slow things down, but increase long-term engagement (35:40): “If you make a decision about how we’re going to lay out the homepage of something, for example, if we say, ‘This is what we do’ and we do it, then people look at it like, ‘Oh, okay.’ If you’ve had 15 people in the community contribute their voice to it and give their input on it, they’ll be more interested, and they might be more interested in contributing further because they’re like, ‘Oh, my voice actually matters, so I want to contribute more.’ Sure, it makes things take longer, but it means they generally stick around for longer because they can see the impact and the effect of their input.” –@hlashbrooke
About Hugh Lashbrooke
Hugh Lashbrooke is a long-time community builder, currently serving as head of community education for the WordPress open source project, sponsored by Automattic. He leads a team that is building and managing an education program for the WordPress community.
- Sponsor: Hivebrite, the community engagement platform
- Hugh’s website
- Automattic, where Hugh is head of community education, sponsored to spend 40 hours per week contributing to WordPress
- Brad Williams of WebDevStudios on Community Signal
- Learn WordPress, an educational resource that Hugh’s team works on
- A Dedicated Volunteer Program for the Training Team by Hugh, covering the “faculty program” idea
- Exploring WordPress Certifications by Hugh
- Hugh on Twitter
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Hivebrite, the community engagement platform. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to the show. We’re talking with Hugh Lashbrooke, head of community education at Automattic, who is sponsored by the company to contribute to the WordPress open source project. We’re going to dig into how sponsorship arrangements help power the WordPress community and how they influence team dynamics, plus volunteer management and working in public by default. Thank you to Carol Benovic-Bradley, Marjorie Anderson, and Jules Standen for supporting the show on Patreon. For more info, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Hugh Lashbrooke is a longtime community builder currently serving as head of community education for the WordPress open source project, sponsored by Automattic. He leads a team that is building and managing an education program for the WordPress community. Hugh, welcome to the show.
[00:01:06] Hugh Lashbrooke: Thanks, thank you for having me.
[00:01:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Your bio mentions that you serve as the head of community education for WordPress, sponsored by Automattic. Can you talk about that arrangement and how that works?
[00:01:18] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes, basically Automattic is a, I want to say for-profit company. A lot of products, WordPress.com being one of them, the hosted version of WordPress. There’s free plans and paid tiers and and all that. Acquired Tumblr a couple of years ago. There’s some WooCommerce and some other WordPress plugins. Simplenote. A bunch of online products, among other things. WordPress itself is an open source project, so it’s community-driven, it’s built by a community. No one actually owns WordPress and there’s a WordPress Foundation that owns the trademark, but the code is built and managed by the community. Automattic contributes to the WordPress open source project in terms of numbers of people and amount of staff contributed.
As far as I’m aware Automattic’s the biggest contributor, one of the reasons for that is Matt Mullenweg, who’s our CEO. He’s also the co-founder of WordPress. We’re intrinsically linked there. Also, Automattic is the only company that’s allowed to use WordPress in a product name. The foundation has given us that exclusive access so we have WordPress.com. We’re differentiated as .com and .org and .org open source projects. The division I’m in with the company, the company is about 2,000 or so people now. Our division is about 100 people and we are the .org division and we’re 100% focused on open source projects.
We don’t actually work on any commercial interests for the company, we just work on WordPress open source project. All the different teams. I think there’s about 18 teams in our division now. All work in different areas of the project. Because we’re working on the WordPress project, we’re described as sponsored volunteers for the project. Other companies do the same. There’s other companies in the space like GoDaddy is one, Yoast is an SEO company that does a lot of this as well. There’s lots of other companies that do it to varying degrees. Automattic, because of our size and position in the community is probably the biggest. As far as I know, numbers-wise, haven’t looked it up recently, but as far as I know. We’re sponsored volunteers because I think it’s the nature of open source. All a bit different.
[00:03:06] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it’s a really interesting dynamic. Like when you say your title is Head of Community Education, that’s a title that is on the Automattic side? You volunteer your time essentially, but Automattic is paying for your time to contribute to this WordPress open source project. How does that work? It’s a fascinating dynamic and I’m familiar with Five for the Future and company sponsors of people contributing to WordPress. My friend Brad Williams from WebDevStudios has been in the WordPress community for a super long time, been on the podcast. When it comes to who decides that you and your team are going to be working on community education for WordPress.org, is that a wider community conversation that involves other contributors? Is it you saying, “Well, hey, I’m willing to volunteer my time and contribute in this way. Does anyone else want to do this instead of me? We could talk about it.” or how does that get decided?
[00:03:59] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes, so it’s a good question. You’re right that my job title’s an Automattic title. It’s nothing to do with WordPress itself. I’m managing a team within– I’m leading a team within Automattic that’s working on community education for the WordPress project. The WordPress project itself has its own structure and there are, I think currently 18 teams in the WordPress project or 20 maybe now contributor teams. There’s core, which is essentially products, there’s marketing, there’s community which is mostly events program, there’s training, there’s documentation, all different teams that contribute different parts of it. My team works most closely with the training team, which is volunteer contributors from around the world.
Some of them have their time sponsored by the company as well. Some of them just do it in their own spare time. Some of them are just freelancers so they essentially sponsor their own time. We kind of slot into what the training team is doing. The training team existed before my team that I’m leading now existed, so they’re already doing some of this work. The training team historically has been pretty small in terms of number of people in the WordPress project. It’s one of the smallest teams in terms of numbers of people. With my team joining and we’ve done a lot of outreach work. The number of people onboard. has changed quite a bit over the last six months, which is great. We slot into what the training team’s doing and because we’re a full-time team, my team was quite small until recently. There are seven of us now. There was two or three more recently because we’ve got full-time people we can obviously do a lot more than people who have a few hours a week.
We’ve spoken to what the training team is doing but because there’s a decent number of us getting a lot of hours we can get a lot more done. That’s how all the teams in our division work. We’re involved with one of the contributor teams in the project. I was previously leading the community team and Automattic which was working with the community team in the WordPress project managing the events program. A lot of other very cross-functional stuff. We all work with different contributor teams in the project.
[00:05:44] Patrick O’Keefe: You have a team of seven. You’re leading a team of six. Are all six of those folks all sponsored by Automattic or are other companies involved too?
[00:05:51] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes, all of my team is Automattic. All of us work at Automattic or are employed full-time by Automattic but we work in with the community team while on paper we’re sponsor volunteers but we’re full-time employees of the company.
[00:06:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Got you. You have this team of seven. You used to be smaller, growing but you’re here to contribute to WordPress open source, the training of using WordPress and how to get the most out of it. You essentially go to the training team that exists and are like, “I want to contribute in this way and these are the people that I’m bringing with me. What can we take on or what needs doing?” Is that the probably loose conversation that occurs or it’s a little more structured?
[00:06:25] Hugh Lashbrooke: It was very much a conversation, very similar to that when we started doing this. Like I said, I was leading the community team. We had this idea or shortly after COVID and the pandemic really happened and lockdowns happened all over the world and in-person events obviously dried-up quite rapidly. We moved the events program online but obviously, as many communities discovered that didn’t take off as well as people hoped it would and we realized that people weren’t getting the training that they normally get at events. We thought, as a community team, let’s provide training for people. The training team already existed in the WordPress project.
At the time, they were very focused on building lesson plans for people to use to teach WordPress. It wasn’t necessarily providing content for people to learn. It was providing content for educators to use to then teach classes or for meetup organizers to use to run educational club meetup or something like that. We’re still doing these events as part of what we’re doing. That’s still a core part of our educational program but we came in as a community team with the idea to do actual educational training content for people, videos, courses, that kind of thing.
It very much started off as an informal conversation with the existing training team, which like I said, wasn’t huge in terms of numbers of people. We kept the key players there and said, “Hey, you all are doing this and it’s going really well. We’ve been doing this quite a while. We’d like to work with you to improve the educational depth around WordPress and help people learn how to use WordPress that this the ideas we’ve got.” We came together and now, we have this platform called Learn WordPress, which is where all of this content is housed.
The idea for Learn WordPress existed in the training team before that but because they were a small team and all the people on it were very much volunteers. They didn’t have any sponsored contributors. They didn’t have the resources to really get that going like they wanted. When we came on board and because we are sponsor volunteers and we have more time and access to more resources because of that we’re able to help them do more and now, we’re working alongside them very closely to make the platform better.
[00:08:24] Patrick O’Keefe: For those who are unfamiliar, can you talk a little bit about maybe the governance structure of WordPress.org like– Easy example, when you say, training team and leaders in different segments of WordPress.org, how are those people chosen? Is it an election? Is it a volunteering process? How do you become a leader within the WordPress.org community?
[00:08:44] Hugh Lashbrooke: It’s a good question. The phrase that is used in not just in WordPress but open source, in general, is it’s very much a duocracy. I think it’s a made up word in open source but it explains… you gain responsibility in an open source project and WordPress is no different in this sense, by doing things well within the project. Each of the contributor teams have two, sometimes three what we call team representatives and they essentially lead the team. Those are generally voted for by other contributors to that team.
They’re sort of if you make.wordpress.org, you’ll find a blog, basically, for each team and then there’s normally voting that’s done on there.
These are the people who are nominated. Anyone else can nominate someone else and then anyone can just come and just vote on the poll basically. It’s very public, very open. Even if you’re not even involved in the team you can come and vote if you wanted to. It’s just open to anyone to do. Generally, the only people interested in what that team is doing come and vote because no one else has that interest. It’s very much decided by the community and team reps generally for most teams, team reps are changed once a year sometimes a bit less often than that. Sometimes 18 months or 2 years and that’s just to make sure we don’t end up with a situation of entrenched leadership where someone is there and then they’ve been a team rep for 3 years and then they refused to run the votes for new reps or we get to a point-
[00:10:06] Patrick O’Keefe: We had someone try to do that in the US last election cycle.
[00:10:09] Hugh Lashbrooke: Familiar. You’re familiar with that, yeah. It’s very much community-focused. These individual teams, overall the WordPress projects and Matt, who I mentioned is our CEO at Automattic, he’s head of the WordPress project and then there’s Josepha ahead of him who’s– She’s actually head of my division at Automattic. She was my team lead previously. She’s what’s called the executive director of the WordPress project. That’s the leadership of the project as a whole and then individual teams and the reps and the reps are very much free to make whatever decisions they want for their team. They essentially are the– We use the term reps but they’re essentially the people managing that team and what work that team does and all that kind of thing.
[00:10:51] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve been using WordPress for a long time, I think my first WordCamp was like ’08. I went to WordCamp Philly, WordCamp Raleigh. Maybe another one. I have seen very casually the economy that exists around WordPress and the companies that have cropped up and the people they employ. This is just ball park. When it comes to leadership of WordPress.org amongst let’s say- define this how you want. Top contributors, team leads. I might not be using the right vernacular, but if you had to guess, how many of those people are sponsored by a company that’s paying for them full time or close to contribute to WordPress.org?
[00:11:30] Hugh Lashbrooke: It’s tough to say because I work with a lot of people in that– Oftentimes the company they work for never comes up because it doesn’t really matter as such and with the training team, for example, that’s currently 320 team reps. One of them works at GoDaddy and part of her time is sponsored not her full time but part of it is. The other two, their time isn’t sponsored, but they’re involved.
[00:11:47] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s a substantial number of people in the WordPress.org community that are sponsored by for-profit companies to contribute back to the project, at least or if not full-time, half-time.
[00:11:56] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. In terms of team reps, people leading the teams, maybe like 50%. That’s very much a guess but that’s my gut feeling because I’m not involved in all the teams and there’s a lot of them now. I said there are like 20 teams. Then with those people who contribute on those teams, some people contribute more than others. The people who contribute more are generally the ones who have more time sponsored by the company because in terms of hours in the day, they actually can do it. If you’re not sponsored by a company, it’s tough to find hours. One of the top contributors, generally speaking, are sponsored to some degree by the company because that gives them the time to actually do it.
[00:12:25] Patrick O’Keefe: You’ve been around WordPress for a long time, I was using phpBB back in ’01 which is open source software, very popular forum software for a very long time. Powered a lot of communities. The open source politics of phpBB, at least around versions one and two were… whew! When I had ads on my website and oh, my gosh so many people just hated that so much that I had ads on my website. Do you feel like WordPress has become a model for a lot of open source projects where there’s almost if not a pressure just a feeling of compelled responsibility that if you are using this open source software, different open source software, not WordPress to profit and build things that you sell services around that you should be contributing a portion of your employee’s time to making sure that thing continues to grow and sustain. Do you think WordPress has been sort of an innovator in that way and that has influenced other open source projects in a meaningful way?
[00:13:22] Hugh Lashbrooke: I think to some degree, yes. You mentioned earlier Five for the Future that’s a very general idea that companies, if you profit from WordPress in some way, should contribute 5% of their companies resources whether there’s time or people or money or whatever to the WordPress project and that Five for the Future program came up because Matt published a personal blog post and used that as the blog post title and then we latched onto it as a phrase that people liked and the we used it for the name of the program.
We did a lot of research when we launched the program. At the time at least, we couldn’t really find many other open source projects that did that sort of thing. Had a structured program for that.
[00:13:59] Patrick O’Keefe: Did you see a lot of donation efforts? Like fundraising efforts, give money kind of thing.
[00:14:03] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes, there is a lot of that. You can donate money to the WordPress Foundation. You go to wordpressfoundation.org/donate and then you can donate whenever you want, so that’s there as well. Most open source projects when it comes to that sort of thing, the only formal thing to have is a donation program.
Some are a bit more structured like Wikipedia, for example, it’s an open source in terms of knowledge and it’s got a bit more on that in terms of our research that we found because the foundation there does a lot of active stuff but most open source projects don’t have that sort of thing. I think since we launched Five for the Future, I’ve seen it come up in other projects. I feel like WordPress is leading the way in that sense to some degree and that’s cool to see.
WordPress is a huge project and it powers– I think the latest stats are at 43% of the web or something which is pretty big. In terms of influence, it spreads pretty far so it’s cool to see.
[00:14:55] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a moment to talk about our generous sponsor, Hivebrite.
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One thing that people might think when they hear this is companies pay people to contribute to WordPress.org. What happens when those people disappear, or those jobs goes away or there’s layoffs and they’re not paid anymore and so they disappear from the community. I flag that not so much to ask a question, but just to point out the nature of open source projects historically has been a lot of volunteering especially unpaid volunteering, especially not being sponsored by anyone.
Individual developers taking an interest in a solution because they find value in it, and they give back, and then maybe they have some clients on the side to keep the lights on, and just like any volunteer project people come and people go when their life kind of demands it or when their work demands it. In that sense, it’s not really so different than it always has been because if someone is no longer sponsored to give their time to WordPress.org then they might stick around but they might simply choose to end their work, hand it off to someone else, and move on to the next thing. That’s been going on forever.
[00:16:34] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes, that’s pretty much how it happens. We’re very used to it in open source or in WordPress where, like I said, people come and people go, and that’s normal. Whether that’s like someone who is just contributing a little bit or someone who’s contributing a lot, they’ll come and go and that’ll fluctuate over time. A good example of that kind of thing, my previous team lead from a while ago, Andrea, she was very involved in the community, and she was instrumental in creating the WordCamp program as you mentioned, she was huge part of the WordPress project and the community team and everything, and very influential. Everyone in the WordPress community knew who she was.
She worked with Automattic and then last year, she moved to Reddit and she’s no longer involved in WordPress, and that’s a very normal thing to happen. I didn’t say that because it’s bad. What she did I’m saying that’s the normal thing that happens. She made it clear when she was leaving, why she was leaving because she was such a well-known person. She made sure anything she was involved in was handed off to the right people and she communicated a bunch of stuff and all of that goes with it.
It’s very normal for people to come and go like that, especially when they’re sponsored by the company. People are involved in the WordPress Project and they leave Automattic, or even within Automattic they switch to a different team in a different division, they are no longer involved in open source project, that also happens. We’ve got people at Automattic who used to be in our division who were very involved, they’re now working on WordPress.com or Jetpack or something else. They’re not involved in open source project at all anymore.
Because of the nature of open source not everyone is essentially a volunteer, a sponsor or not, and we’re used to that. As long as people handle their responsibilities well it all generally goes quite smoothly.
[00:18:04] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, the project’s bigger than any one person. [chuckles]
[00:18:07] Hugh Lashbrooke: Exactly. That’s an important thing to bear in mind. One of the key things that we focus on in WordPress and to be honest, open source projects in general, is very much openness and transparency and communication. Everything is documented heavily. Every contributor team has a handbook with a ton of documentation. If someone does suddenly disappeared in theory, everything should still be able to run smoothly without them. Obviously, if someone’s involved in leadership it’s a bit harder to replace them just because they’re involved in making decisions and stuff, but we generally try to handle things well. That’s the important part of the process.
[00:18:43] Patrick O’Keefe: I want to hone in on something you said earlier and something you shared via the preshow questionnaire, which is basically that, Automattic is for profit, but the section you work on is not for profit, or it’s not driven by a profit motive or a direct monetary ROI. You told me before the show, “Community is highly valued. We have a division of over 100 people who are fully dedicated to the WordPress open source project and community, plus others in the company who also contribute regularly. What’s interesting about our work and open source is that financial ROI isn’t something we focus on, or track in any way.”
People cost money [chuckles] and the money impacts that over 100 people can do this. Automattic has the revenue to pay folks to do this. What does it mean– I think a lot of people will be like, “Okay, that sounds nice. [chuckles] That sounds very utopian.”
The part I’d come at is, what does it mean for that number to go higher or for it to go lower? Automattic is obviously in a unique position given its history with WordPress.org, especially the history of the people involved with Automattic and how it started. The number of people that can be paid to do this is that simply a matter of Automattic’s revenue, a percentage of revenue being committed, and paying people to work on WordPress.org or like, how does get decided if someone is taken away from WordPress.org or we can throw more people at it since it all costs money. How does that financial decision get made when you don’t have anything to track that is financial?
[00:20:12] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes.
[00:20:12] Patrick O’Keefe: Does that make sense? I know it’s a big question.
[00:20:15] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. It’s a big question and it’s a good question. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of companies struggle to sponsor people for the project because of all of that. I can’t speak for other companies, of course, I can only speak as much as I can for Automattic.
[00:20:26] Patrick O’Keefe: Speak for Microsoft if you would. I’m just kidding.
[00:20:28] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. Microsoft is actually great. They’re one of the biggest contributors to open source in the world these days which is not a company you would have thought 10 years ago. Anyway, I’m not involved in making financial decisions for Automattic. I lead a team, I’m involved in hiring but I hire when I’m allowed to hire basically but this also leads back to the whole Five for the Future thing that like, as the WordPress project grows and WordPress becomes more popular companies involved in WordPress can see more profits.
The idea of the rising tides lifts all boats, that metaphor. That’s especially true within Automattic, because like I said, Automattic is able to use WordPress as a brand name for one of our products. No one else has that permission from the foundation to do that, so have WordPress.com and WordPress.com is a common entry point for people into using WordPress. A free plan and they might then pay for a premium tier or something like that.
[00:21:14] Patrick O’Keefe: Little bit of VIP.
[00:21:15] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. As WordPress, the project itself improves and becomes more popular that helps Automattic improve profits and revenue. In our division, we don’t track financial ROI at all. We don’t have anything to track in that sense, so we don’t but our work in open source project does benefit Automattic financially. It’s just not really something we can have a tangible say, “This is work we’ve done building this educational platform for WordPress has made Automattic X number of dollars this month.”
There’s no way we can do that. There’s no joint connection there but as people get better with WordPress and WordPress becomes more popular and easier to use and more well-known, Automattic’s business grows. The same can be said for other companies in the WordPress space, so managed WordPress hosts like WP Engine, Kinsta, Flywheel and all these companies that do WordPress as a core part of their business as WordPress gets more popular, well, more well known and more used everyone’s business starts growing.
We don’t track financial ROI because we can’t, it does have an impact on that, and that allows the company to decide how they’re going to dedicate resources in terms of people into our division and like I said, I’m not involved in those discussions and those decisions because that happens above my pay grade as it were.
[00:22:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, so let’s make it micro then, so what does it mean for Hugh to say, there’s something you see in the training site like, “Hmm, we had this idea and if we had one more person, we could do this thing or we could expand it in this way.” Is that something that comes from you where you make a case based on X, Y, and Z or is that coming from above that there’s another seat available?
[00:22:44] Hugh Lashbrooke: They very much come from me, so I don’t know how the other divisions in the company do it, to be honest. I only know for our division.
[00:22:49] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s keep it micro.
[00:22:50] Hugh Lashbrooke: If I need more people, I would need to motivate why, what they would do. This is what we’re doing now. If we have this person doing this, this is what we’ll then be able to do. Obviously, things evolve over time but a good example is like I said, there are six people on my team at the moment reporting to me and three people create educational content, and the other half are involved in community outreach, so there’s two squads on the team.
Most recently we hired what we call the developer educator or a technical instruction designer. We’re pretty loose on job titles at Automattic. You can make up your own. We’re pretty vague on that and that’s someone who’s creating content for developers, so technical instructional educational content and the case for that was that we don’t have that content and we need it because we are trying to cater to all WordPress users. Users, designers, publishers, developers, everyone, so we need it. In that case, making a case for that thing was pretty easy.
I could say, “Well, we don’t have this content and we really need it. This is the proof that we need it.” and then that gets– I send that to my lead and that gets sent up to the chain, and then we have to get approval and then approval comes back down, and then we can start the hiring process. That’s a very recent one is very easy because we just didn’t have that skillset and we needed it and what’s a bit more tricky is when it’s like, “We have two people but we need a third person to do that same thing with them so they can do more.” and that’s also a bit more tricky. Then things like that which I have done recently as well in terms of hiring outreach people, for example.
In that the motivation, we would say, “Listen, we can onboard 10 new contributors a month and that’s great. If we had another person we could onboard 15 a month at the same time we could improve our documentation, we could improve our processes. We could make decisions more quickly and give some numbers where we can to that thing.” Numbers are a bit tricky and community professionals, in general, would largely agree with that, I think. We motivated our number of contributors, the amount of outreach we can do, how we can improve processes, that kind of thing.
[00:24:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s talk about volunteers a little bit. Sticking with that team dynamic because you’ve worked with just obviously a ton of volunteers over the years and you mentioned to me that, I’m quoting you here. “An ongoing challenge that I have worked with for years and anticipate that I will continue working with for years to come is that of working with an open source volunteer community. My internal team is available full-time naturally but we also rely on the work of contributors who have fluctuating hours of availability, and even fluctuating commitment levels. I absolutely love open source and the benefits that it provides. This is like the ‘dark side’ of online source community building.” How so?
[00:25:14] Hugh Lashbrooke: I’d say that dark side is maybe a bit extreme. It’s other side of open source is that basically you’ve got a lot of people all over the world who are keen to get involved and they contribute different companies, they’re from different cultures, they’re from different countries, they have different time zones, which is great because then we can actually cater to the different time zones and there’s loads of benefits to there in that we have this intrinsically diverse community, which I love.
The flip side of that, what I’m referring to as the dark side, which we can think of as an extreme term, but the flip side of that is that you have these people, but you can’t always rely on them to show up when they say they will. The contributors in the training team in my experience in the time I’ve been working so far are generally all very reliable and that’s been fantastic, but in the past in my experience the contributors have been like, “Cool.”
Someone’s involved, and they get involved in our program and then they start contributing, and then after a few weeks, we don’t hear from them and we reach out and then they say, “Oh, I just changed jobs,” or, “I just had a baby,” or, “I got sick,” or, “My mother got sick.” All totally legitimate things. It’s not like we’re cross with them or anything. It’s not that. It’s just because of how life works, you can’t always rely on volunteers to be there for the amount of time they originally commit to, just because that’s how it is.
I’ve seen my team at Automattic and everyone else in our division, because we work full-time for Automattic and we’re paid by Automattic, we have an obligation to our employer to do this work so we’re here. That’s the flip side of open source where you have these incredible people from all over the world, but you can’t always rely on that just because of the nature of life. It’s not like we’re holding anything against them. That’s just how it works. It’s an interesting challenge to deal with and I’ve been working with that for years, I’ve got used to it.
We try and get people to commit hours as much as they can, but we always know that people might come and say- they might say, “Cool, I can do eight hours a week, or every Monday, I’ll be fully committed to the WordPress project, the rest of the week I’m doing other stuff.” That’s great. That might last for a week, two weeks, a month, six months a year, but at some point, we know that’s going to change. That’s just something that we’ve got used to managing and we factored in. COVID had a big impact on that.
The lockdown, everyone being at home, and just the general stress of what’s going on in the world. As we got to mid-to-late 2020, and then going all through 2021 and even now, a big dip in contributors, like engaged contributors. People weren’t as committed as they were before, people who said they would be committed, they just slowly disappeared. There was just a trend that we saw and it was very clearly because of the response to everything going on and the world being so stressful.
[00:27:49] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting because people might be prone to believe that at a time when most people were at home, which is when you’re contributing to WordPress, they have been WordCamps, there a lot of the in-person stuff that happens, but I would tend to guess that most people contributed from a computer in a room somewhere maybe outside if they’re lucky to have an outside workspace and you might think, “Well, I have more time at home,” and that might lead to more contribution, but in fact, the opposite was true and you said it’s just feeling people just being stressed out, burned out, not wanting to contribute to anything in some senses, not just WordPress.
[00:28:23] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. It’s not like we hold it against anyone for that. It’s not like, “Oh, these people ditched us and they’re terrible people, at all.” It’s just life and the nature of things. Then in some cases, people lost their jobs, because COVID affected a lot of that. They lost their jobs and now they don’t have time to spend a few hours a week contributing to a project where they’re not making any money so they stopped and that’s fair as well.
That’s actually part of the reason why we launched this educational platform, was we wanted to provide a platform where people could learn skills that they could then be employed by. That was also one of our motivations. It comes back to volunteer, contributors come and go for a multitude of reasons. The flip side is that you can’t always rely on that but we factor it into things.
Even with full-time sponsored employees, like volunteers, people leave the company or move to a different team, that happens and you just factor that in just projections for the year and that kind of thing.
[00:29:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Just so people get a full picture because I don’t know how many of my listeners have given a lot of thought to open source projects or how things get made, but with WordPress and most things, we’re talking about a lot of paid sponsorship on this show like full-time people, but if you just made WordPress with just those people, WordPress wouldn’t be WordPress.
It takes everything, it takes those people who dedicate the time like yourself on a full-time basis, but also this international network of massive quantity of volunteers who are doing everything from posting in support forums to give people answers to questions, to writing documentation on how every little feature works, to a bug fix, a design tweak, the slightest little alteration. Everything that makes WordPress and everything going on at WordPress.org happen is this mix of both folks who are paid to contribute and folks who are simply giving back and without either one, it would not be what it is.
[00:30:07] Hugh Lashbrooke: The whole people volunteering their time is an important part of the project. I’m not saying that flip side of things is a problem. It’s just the nature of life.
[00:30:16] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] I think you’re beating yourself up over the dark side of it too much.
[00:30:20] Hugh Lashbrooke: Volunteers around the world are fantastic. Interestingly, you mentioned support forums. The support team does a lot. If you’ve ever Googled how to fix something in WordPress, you’ve probably got one of the wordpress.org support forums as a top search result. Every single person who works in the support forums is a volunteer, none of those people are sponsored volunteers at all. People who moderate the forums, which you know as well as anyone [crosstalk]
[00:30:44] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] Everyone listening.
[00:30:45] Hugh Lashbrooke: It’s tough when people who do a lot of the responses there, a lot of that stuff, none of those people are sponsored volunteers for that team especially. I’m not quite sure why, but just all of them are volunteers. It’s pretty incredible. They’re one of the busiest teams in the project in a lot of ways and all of them are volunteers and documentation is another example, actually. The docs team is as far as I know, there’s no sponsored volunteers there either. They do a ton of incredibly important work. I guess because those things often seem as less glamorous. Companies want to sponsor their people to work on WordPress core because then they’re contributing to the core product. It sounds a bit-
[00:31:18] Patrick O’Keefe: You’re a core committer [laughs]
[00:31:20] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. That’s a cool status thing to have. The company had two people featured in this WordPress release or whatever it is. People like those sort of things, but you seldom see people saying “This month and our company, we had two people contribute to WordPress documentation.” No one says that. That stuff is so core and it’s so important to the project.
[00:31:39] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, I know it’s important. I’d say if you’re listening to this because Hugh tweeted the show or whatever and you’re from WordPress and you’re a company listening and you sponsor someone for the support forum and you do that for like these six months hit me up. Let me know, maybe we’ll talk about it on the show because that stuff is so foundational. Customer service, you don’t call it that obviously in WordPress, but customer service, FAQs, documentation, manuals, that’s all foundational stuff that enables all the other glamorous stuff to happen. Without that stuff, the rest of it wouldn’t matter because there’s no foundation there. That’s super important stuff. I’d love to hear from a company whose sponsored someone to answer questions in the forum. If you do that, let me know.
[00:32:19] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes, that’d be cool. Also a lot of the answers in the forum are just people who found it online and just gave an answer because that’s a nice thing to do. Most of the people, there are volunteers. There’s a WordPress snap group for people who contribute to WordPress. It’s got obviously got hundreds of thousands of people in there or tens of thousands, something like that. There’s a forums channel in there where they discuss stuff. If there’s any moderation issues, they discuss it in there. As far as I know, everyone on that team is a volunteer of their own time. Not like the company-sponsored thing, which I think is pretty incredible to be honest.
[00:32:46] Patrick O’Keefe: On some level volunteers in this way, is it just adding a layer of flexibility to everything you do? Every decision, every initiative, how you name something, what you call it when it rolls out? Is it just adding a layer of flexibility for people to have the time to contribute, to weigh in, for people who commit to give them the time and space to do so? Where at a company where everyone was 100% had to be there at those times and had to be on Slack and had to be looking at their desk. You’d be like, “What are you doing over there? We need this by Monday at 2:00 PM.” You just have to be a little more flexible and understanding with the time it takes people to contribute and to deliver.
[00:33:30] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. That builds into our processes and I’m very much used to that by now. For me, it just comes naturally now in my work. When you’re making a decision about something, if you had a company and that you’re making a decision about your own product, you discuss it as a team. Maybe you get your manager’s approval if it’s needed for that thing and-
[00:33:45] Patrick O’Keefe: Do a little user research, perhaps?
[00:34:47] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. If you need to do user research, but you could make a decision as quickly as you are able to. You can make a decision immediately if you want to. Naming things is an interesting one. We’re having a public discussion with the training team about naming some aspects of the educational platform. All of those things are public discussions. Instead of saying, “Cool, this is what we want to do, and let’s do it now.” Done decision made. We said, “This is what we’d like to do. Let’s discuss with the community.” We have a public discussion. Like I said, we work closely with the training team reps and we discuss stuff with them and we have an open channel with Slack to chat with them. Then we have the training team blog, which is what we use for very public session.
Anyone can go ahead and comment on there. Anyone in the world, even if they’re not involved in the actual work we do which is cool. We’re very accountable to everyone in that sense because everything’s done publicly and yes, all of those decisions tend to take longer to get made basically. You can’t make decisions as quickly. I’ve been doing this full-time for quite a while. I’m very much used to that and that’s just– We work that in. We’re like, “Okay, cool. We need to decide about this. What’s our timeline?” Instead of saying, “Cool, we’ll make a decision tomorrow.” We say, “Well, let’s factor it in by tomorrow.” We’ll know the direction we want to take and we’ll have a proposal post ready and then we’ll publish that tomorrow. Then that will be open for a week or a week and a half or two weeks, depending on if it’s a bigger discussion maybe longer and then we’ll summarize the public discussion and then we’ll say, “This what we want to do.” And we’ll get more public input to confirm that that’s okay and so everyone wants to do. It might take like a month to make a decision that’s for another company might take like two days. That’s must be okay. That’s just part of it.
The benefit of that is that you have more people involved in the discussion, so you got a lot of more diverse voices involved, you got more input. That’s great because if your team’s made up of all white people, you’re not going to get that diversity of input, which is really valuable and if people in the community are involved in making the decision, they’re more invested in the outcome and they’re more invested in seeing it through.
If you make a decision about how we’re going to lay out the homepage of something, for example, if we say, “This is what we do and we do it,” then people look at like, “Oh, okay.” If you’ve had 15 people in the community contribute their voice to it and give their input on it, they’ll be more interested and they might be more interested in contributing further because they’re like, “Oh, my voice actually matters, so I want to contribute more.” Even contributors and decisions. Sure. It makes things take longer, but it means they generally stick around for longer because they can see the impact and the effect of their input.
[00:36:07] Patrick O’Keefe: I was doing some reading on the make that wordpress.org/training site and in particular about a faculty team dedicated volunteer program for the training team and just reading the comments and responses. We shouldn’t name it faculty because X, Y, and Z, or we shouldn’t do this, we shouldn’t do that and took a look at the Google sheet for the documentation and everybody working through the steps of what needs to get done to make this happen? Who’s responsible for that? Where can it be found? What’s the status of it? It gives you a sense of– I say it as a positive not a negative. Some things are in that spreadsheet, they say under review, whether someone did it and didn’t come back to mark it as published, or it’s still happening. Either of those things can be true because of that flexibility.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s interesting to just watch or look at one of those processes at play. It really ties into the subject I wanted to talk about next, which is– Well, for this show you mentioned, and you’ve talked about it already, but this idea of radical transparency and how you like to take a “public by default” approach to your work. I think that’s what you just described over the last few minutes, but just digging in on how that manifests, is it primarily request for comment? Like this blog post I referenced on make that wordpress.org where it’s like, “Here’s my idea, here’s this? Here’s the consensus idea? Here’s what we’re working on. What did we all think? Or what do you think comment. Does it happen in other ways?” It feels like everything you’re deciding is going to be played out in public. How does that work more often than not most efficiently?
[00:37:42] Hugh Lashbrooke: The phrase “public by default” is one I quite like. I’ve been using a lot lately with my team. They probably quite sick of hearing about it from me, but it’s this idea of, whatever we do by default, it’s done publicly and if we have to do something privately or in a sort of exclusive Slack channel or in the DM. We avoid DMs if we can, or something like that, and then we do public by default as far as possible. It’s radical transparency that’s so important for open source, because I said earlier about if contributors are involved in the process, they’re more invested in contributing long term because they can see they’re involved and that’s great. It is interesting. We generally, when we launch a discussion on the training team blog, like a public discussion like this, there’s a few different types of ways we do that.
There’s actually one I that published yesterday, it’s very much an exploration, and that one’s all about certifications in WordPress like a formalized certification system because now we have this educational platform. Are we going to have formal certification? It’s a massive topic. It’s going to have a huge impact on a lot of things in the WordPress space. The post, there is very much a, “Hey, if you’re something you’re thinking about, what are your thoughts about it?” It’s very much an exploration. There’s that type of post, which there’s no proposal, there’s no commitment to anything it’s like, “Hey, let’s talk about this.” Then there’ll be a proposal in the future about a way forward based on what we talk about here. Then there’s another type which is more of a proposal, which is like, “This is something we’d like to do. Please provide feedback on this.”
Generally we try and focus that feedback. We number the points of feedback 1, 2, 3, whatever the things are, what is your opinion on this? What do you think could be done better? What should be take away? That kind of thing. Proposals about a common type of post to see on the make blogs, we just call them make blogs for short, it’s about a common type of thing across all the contributor teams. Then very rarely there’s something that’s a post, which is very much like a decision that has been made and this is what’s happening. I say rarely, it’s rare that that happens if there hasn’t been a proposal post before that, because often we’ll have like a discussion or a proposal and then there’ll be a follow-up post, to be linking to the proposed post.
“This is what was discussed, here’s the decision made, this is what we’re going forward with.” That’ll be based on that discussion and you’ll be able to track that history via the links. Not very often at all. You might see a post about an announcement, a thing that’s happening. There hasn’t been a prior public discussion about it. That generally happens if there’s been a decision from Matt as the head of the project, that’s something that we just have to do. It’s actually been a while since he’s made anything like that but in the past there was more common as the project was smaller. I think as it’s grown now, that’s not really a feasible thing to do anymore, but very rarely you see something like that. Normally be like an inspiration or a proposal and an announcement based on the proposal.
That’s very much how we structure those conversations. In some cases, we might have an internal discussion within my team of Automattic, for example, and about somebody we think will be cool. Then the proposal will come out of that discussion but more often than not, we have a discussion with the mentioned the faculty program those are essentially people who are dedicated to contributing to the training team.
We launched that earlier this year and we’ve got a private channel on the way just for the faculty to connect. Those are volunteer contributors. More often than not now those proposals are discussed with the faculty before they get published on the blog for everyone else to comment on.
[00:40:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Interesting. It would seem like a lot of the things that are proposed and put out there, I would guess a majority of them are probably focused on by people interested in that particular part of WordPress or training, for example, if you post something on the training make blog, people who are interested in training will be more likely to comment. It seems like in a smaller percentage case, there’s probably things that touch off or catch the right amount of people or a generic enough issue that it becomes a wider community thing and receives a ton of public comment. Have you ever posted anything like that?
[00:41:15] Hugh Lashbrooke: Yes. The certifications post that published only yesterday, I’m expecting that as more people find it there’ll be more discussion about it. That’s very much an open-ended post and that’s cool. I was previously leading a community team and I was very involved in the events, programs, meetups, WorkCamps, conferences, and that thing and because WorkCamps, even though it’s managed by the community team, everyone in the WordPress community attends them.
When decisions are made about WordCamps tends to affect more people than just the people who contribute to the community team. A lot of the stuff we’ve discuss there, we get a lot of input from people who aren’t even involved in the community team. Some discussions went much wider than others. Some not so much. There’s some WordPress publications like WP Tavern is a very popular one that post news about WordPress.
If there’s a significant discussion going on the Tavern as we call them more frequently, post an article about the discussion, and then that will drive a lot more people. Generally, people read the Tavern. A lot of people who read it aren’t contributors, but then they’ll find out about discussion and come and comment on it, which is great and we love that because then we get more people and more voices. Some discussions spread a lot further than others.
[00:42:14] Patrick O’Keefe: Does this process tend to make you go with the consensus choice to every decision? Is that essentially the goal is to come to a consensus around each choice?
[00:42:23] Hugh Lashbrooke: If every decision we could have everyone agreed on what to do, that would be fantastic. I would love that. It’s not realistic. We generally go with the majority opinion. It is also weighted by the fact that people have been involved for a longer period of time, their input generally has more weight. Our training team reps, for example, fantastic people, they’ve been involved in the training team for years. If they have an input on a discussion, it has a lot more weight than someone who’s just started contributing last month because they know the team well and the work well and the project well and it seems true to any contributor team.
People who are more heavily involved, their input generally has more weight. If we have a discussion about something and maybe there’s a 50-50 split about the decision that says a yes, no decision and 50% of the comments say yes, do it 50% say no, if in the 50% that say yes, if there’s a lot of the actual project leaders or team leaders or team reps in that path then that one will have more weight and then that’s what we go with. It’s very much just sort of democratic in that sense, I suppose. The leadership does have more weight in decisions.
[00:43:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Is there any limit to public by default, do you think, or does it pretty much work in every case?
[00:43:29] Hugh Lashbrooke: I would like to say it works in every case, but it sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes you get to a situation where maybe like project leadership has said, “We need things to be done this way.” Like in the past, there’ve been decisions where Matt has essentially told us this is what he needs to see happen and as the lead of the WordPress project, he’s allowed to do that. It’s like how Linus Torvalds can make decisions about Linux because they’re lead of the project and that’s fine. We do not have a discussion about it to get more input, but ultimately we know the decision that needs to be made because we’ve essentially have an order to do it.
It’s been a while since that’s actually happened, but in the past that has been the case. And then the discussion is more to get more input on how we can refine it, but not necessarily to actually change the decision itself. Public by default has some downsides in the sense that if you’re making a decision and meeting me as a team sense, we know what the right things to do because we have years of experience for this work.
We know what the right thing needs to happen. We open it up for public discussion and 90% of people disagree with us. That can be tricky because we actually know what’s best because we’d been doing this for a decade and we know what’s best because this is what we do. That’s where the input of experienced contributors and team reps and team leads comes into play because that’s really important.
People who have more experience their voices carry more weight. We’ve had discussions where we’ve had a lot of disagreement on things. We’ve had discussions where things have been very split down the middle like half the community is passionately against it. Half the community is passionately for it and then we have to decide somehow and we know we’re going to really upset a portion of people because it’s a highly contentious topic or something. It does cause difficulties but I think that the benefits outweigh the downsides so I believe open source and this kind of public by default way of doing things is incredibly beneficial. I think it works well.
[00:45:17] Patrick O’Keefe: Sometimes they have a thing that you mentioned you’re so used to it by now that I imagine some of the folks who are sponsored who maybe their background is a more traditional and a no-dev background or whatever discipline they’re coming from used to working at the traditional corporation, Fortune 500 type of deal, and then having to share each decision or share each idea and have them be vetted by the public or the WordPress public is quite a different experience.
I imagine it takes some getting used to to be like “okay, I have to give up this control of the situation and separate it for myself and recognize this is a open source project,” but for the first little while I imagine some folks have to get used to that.
[00:45:58] Hugh Lashbrooke: For a lot of people it’s a big change. I very much got my start in community work in the WordPress space and in open source so it’s been ingrained in me. If I ever move on to a different company in a completely different type of community, these open source principles are going to still be a core part of how I do community because, for me, I find a huge about of value in it.
I think there’s a lot that people outside of open source and community work can learn from open source communities. I just really enjoy talking about this stuff because it’s great. It is a big change for a lot of people. There’s people in my team for example who come from– One of my guys, for example, he used to be a teacher at a high school. Now he’s creating content for teaching people how to use WordPress which is fantastic and he’s loving the work. He’s doing fantastic work.
The concept of these public discussions everything was a new one for him. He caught on to it very quickly which is great. It was a new thing for him. I had to work with him and coach him on how to handle these conversations and how to phrase things and that kind of thing. And this is true of other people in my team. I’m not picking on him if he listens to us, that’s true for everyone. It’s very interesting to see how long it takes people to be okay with that.
Some people, they on board straight away, some people take a little bit longer. It’s difficult for some people, more difficult for some than others. Devs tend to struggle with it more because devs like to make decisions and do things. I used to be a dev myself so owing to this as well. Devs seem to struggle with that more than people in other areas of the project, I find. It is a challenge for a lot of people coming into it.
[00:47:18] Patrick O’Keefe: I hope that we exposed some folks to some of those open source principles on the show today. I think it’s been really fascinating to look at governance of a high profile, very successful open source project and how that has shifted over the years to incorporate sponsored folks, volunteers, and just how the idea of working in public has really impacted the project. Hugh, thanks so much for spending the time with us today. I really appreciate it.
[00:47:43] Hugh Lashbrooke: Thank you. It’s been a fun conversation.
[00:47:46] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Hugh Lashbrooke, head of community education for Automattic. Find him at hughlashbrooke.com and on Twitter @hlashbrooke. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Until next time.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.