WordPress Contributing Effort and Focus

End of 2014 was a turning point in my life, and I have been thinking a lot about my contributing efforts for a while now.

About a year ago I was teaching at a university, a school, co-organizing WordCamp Europe 2014 and a meetup, spoke at various conferences and meetings for free as well, contributed patches to plugins (plus free plugins and updating themes), mentoring people, teaching interns, and doing a dozen extra things for free.

Things Changed at Work

Working crazy hours.
Working crazy hours.

Our work back then was pretty well organized – we had a large client with an ongoing retainer for SaaS development, and some smaller ongoing projects. The majority of our team was busy with client work, the income was higher then our expenses, and we had another 20% or so time to work on internal projects, open source plugins and handle the load without stress. I had the process sorted out, and my billable work was about 20h/week, which allowed for another 40h/week on other activities. And it worked out well.

However, things have changed since then. We learned a lot of things and had to change the entire process, reorganize the team and our business strategy. We were 6 full-timers then with 4-5 more part-time folks, and about 12 fulltimers now with 5-6 part-time or freelance people in our team.

But due to the complete restructuring of the company, now I have to dedicate at least 50 hours a week on client or team work. I stay in touch with several different “departments” in-house – such as marketing and sales, conduct a lot of brainstorming meetings with Stanko and our business assistant, and with close to 20 people there’s a lot going on at any time. We have some new people who are being trained right now, and interns starting on Wednesday, and a good amount of my time goes into management, training, code reviews, and business development.

And I would still love to contribute, help and give back.

Contributing After Hours

But in a moment of a drastic change people have to optimize their resources: be it money, time, hardware, whatever. And given my incredibly limited time that was spent on free work, I had to do a lot of brainstorming and figure out a way to juggle all of it. Because doing the same work on top of my AT LEAST 50 hours a week would result in 90-hour work weeks which doesn’t make any sense in the long run.

And by a “long run” I mean months without a single day off. Because that happens a lot. It doesn’t for others, and for some it’s normal to chit-chat for hours without appreciating others’ time, but I tend to be highly efficient and the large volume of regular offtopic is against my principles.

Past WordCamp Europe 2015

Contributor Day - Main Room
Contributor Day – Main Room

WordCamp Europe 2015 was my second WordCamp EU as a co-organizer after being lucky enough to have Sofia as a host for WCEU 2014. I was in charge of the Contributor Day this year and I’m really glad that I was able to help with it – with about 900 people attending, it was, as usual, the best place to brainstorm with other WordPress folks on different subjects, and solve problems faster when being in the same room.

But I had a really hard time managing my energy and sanity levels – and not only due to the usual madness the days before (and during) a conference, but also due to everything else going on. I had to work at least an hour every morning and 2 hours after going back to the hotel room at night, and still being behind with a pile of emails and a lot of work. I spent the previous weekend working hard in order to catch up with a large project for the automotive industry we’re working on, and will spend the next one or two at the office, too.

And I genuinely couldn’t enjoy the event as much as I wanted to – simply because my brain was shutting down every now and then.

What Does Contributing Mean?

I’m not going to review any Oxford Dictionary definitions of the “Contributing” word or so, but I had a few discussions over lunch or during the after party that touched on contributing. One of the best ones was a chat with several examples of people doing full-time work for the community and being less respectful to people who stay late at night, after work hours, doing free work, because of their “limited time” – and yet preaching: “You should contribute more!”.

I’ve actually had that conversation with similar people at least a few times – sometimes it is a genuine motivational speech (which everyone needs every now and then), but occasionally it’s a pure misunderstanding of how life works. And while we’re so focused on diversity in terms of gender, race or religion, we completely forget about the different types of people trying to work together on a project.

The Elite Status – The Opposite of “Impostor Syndrome”

I’ve been in other communities where certain companies build a sort of “immunity” status or what I call a “royal family” level. This is normally a well-respected or really powerful group of people that suddenly starts to feel elite and more important than everyone else – often simply due to working for one of those top companies or organizations. That alternative reality may cause damages to people who simply want to give back without being ignored, disrespected or belittled.

Status quo for the alternate reality
Status quo for the alternate reality

Sometimes it’s not even intentional – it’s an “awe” by people who want to see the popular rockstars, and working for, say, Automattic, and speaking at a local meetup is “kind of a big thing”. But if you start taking yourself seriously, then you’re distancing yourself from the reality and the humble and friendly ecosystem which WordPress is (was?) proud to embrace.

And as a catchy question here, you may wonder – how can one compare the 40 hours of week contributed by a full-time well-compensated employee for a community to the 5 or 10 hours a week of hard work for free, during the weekend or late at work, for the sake of the contribution itself?

If you see that as a rant of some sort, you’re wrong. It’s a question that everyone should ask themselves, and validate their own position and understanding of a community. Because when you think about it, the massive amount of time one could spend on anything – be it Core, a plugin, an event – does establish a position of authority.

Recognizing or Eliciting?

I’ve also had a few chats about this Deputy group post by Jen outlining the sponsored deputies helping out. In my opinion it’s great that finally people are being recognized for their contributions for things other than Core, and also the dedicated time is being pointed out. Also, the fact that the Deputy group is distributed and also incredibly diverse (in terms of companies, region and anything) is essential for the development of the group.

But some of the feedback I’ve received was by people who were afraid of the sense of artificial hierarchy. People who contribute more were being promoted, and suddenly two or three different “layers” of management were introduced (or are expected) due to the fact. Being employed and naturally able to help full-time was a definitive factor that would heavily impact a contribution’s significance, and potentially diminish the amount of work contributed by people in their evenings or weekends.

And that is actually a very good point, one on which I don’t have a definitive answer or stand on as of this weekend. I thought about that on Saturday night in the solitude of my room, and remembered a few occasions when I had the advantage of my network of contacts myself – getting patches in Core thanks to meetings in San Francisco, or being able to do things quickly when I was acting as a part-time WordPress ambassador for SiteGround. And while I wouldn’t mind having an infinite amount of money so that I can pay salaries, build free stuff and give back forever, the reality prevents me from doing that, and that is a problem noticeable in various aspects of the community (and many other communities as well).

Blogging Feedback

One of the reasons I decided to share that story and roadmap here was the incredible feedback that I received about my blogging efforts lately. I spoke to 20 different people over at WordCamp Europe who were reading my posts regularly, taking notes, and applying some of my tips in their actual business – improving their freelance career or growing their small businesses.

Some of them were able to find a well-paying job thanks to those, or switch to incredible clients by improving their business processes and planning. Others were sharing my entries with their customers in order to educate them, which was also something that I’m really happy about.

I’ve been blogging since 2006 or so in different blogs, and ever since I started blogging actively about my WordPress community and business experience this year, I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback. Which is why I plan to allocate more time on writing, and cover other problems that I’ve encountered or discussed with people at WordCamps or online, as well as my regular challenges that I’m dealing with on a daily basis.

My Goals Right Now

While I reduced the contributing efforts on my end last year and limiting the amount of activities I was involved with, I will also step down from a few more, and focus on slightly different things.

One of the things I proposed and strongly supported at the last Community Summit was a mandate of 2 years for WordCamp organizers. Which is one of the reasons why I won’t be joining the WordCamp Europe 2016 as an organizer, and will be a “helper” for WordCamp Sofia this year, too.

This is a complex decision that involves different problems – such as political issues and opinions, or working with fewer people with different ideas, values or goals of mine. While more often than not these are not crucial, it’s just an unnecessary burden that leads to some tension, wasted time on Slack, or overall bashing from people on the outside interested in helping out. I truly believe that honest and hard working people with long history in the WordPress project should be allowed to participate and join regardless of their job status and not being restricted for political reasons (or business ones).

So I am more than happy to limit some of those aforementioned activities and:

  • help out for WC Sofia and our local meetup,
  • spend more time on blogging and sharing knowledge,
  • organize my business process so that everyone is happier and could start helping more (we used to contribute more than 5% until a few months ago before the new hires),
  • help new WordCamp organizers with their local communities,
  • start releasing our beta plugins and iterate their development cycles on GitHub and WordPress.org, sharing more of our code base,
  • keep presenting at schools and universities and introduce people to WordPress,
  • continue to work with interns and mentees, and help them become better, more professional and more successful.

And I will choose my battles wisely – help more people who would like to grow their local communities and spread the good Word.

20 thoughts on “WordPress Contributing Effort and Focus

  1. These kind of thought-provoking posts are in minority nowadays and will always find audience among people deeply involved with WordPress. Keep up with the good work!

    ps. It would be great if you enabled the managewp.org button in Jetpack so we can share your articles more conveniently 🙂

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback Vladimir, it’s appreciated! It’s not easy sharing your experience in a way that explains the situation without causing any temperament side effects, but its important for the broad community.

    1. I’m pretty productive and I hate distractions. One of the things I loathe the most are Community meetings or group chats that are full with off-topic and waste a lot of my time, which is unacceptable for any person who works for himself or generally outside of the 9-5 corporate work.

      That’s why I always have a lot on my plate, it’s just without unplanned slacking and jibber jabber.

  2. Fwiw, clarifying deputy responsibilities (promotions) has more to do with reliability than number of hours. Because wordcamp.org is linked to wordpress.org, we have to be careful about how many people are given higher level privileges, since they could inadvertently do something to break wordpress.org. Basically, once those privileges are granted, we want to know that the person will keep contributing in that way, using those access privileges to not only get things done but to improve the experience of more casual contributors by reducing the bottleneck that we’ve had in the past when that access was limited to one or two people. If anything, right now on the community team we are sharing out responsibilities faster than we can document them. Other than the new ‘superdeputy’ role that is specific to site access (not authority), the plan is for the team to be much less hierarchical than it has been in the past. People who can commit to even an hour or two per week are considered “official.”

    1. Thanks for the overview Jen. I’m really happy that the team is distributed across the globe now which I incredibly important in general, in every single aspect related to the future of the platform and the community.

      I’ll contact you in a couple of days since I’d like to discuss the “official” things (interviews, hours) and the overall Deputy team communication.

  3. It would be terrific if more people had both the will, energy and possibility to spend their free time to do just a fraction of what you are stepping down to. Nobody should feel obliged or pressured to do so, though.

    1. Absolutely, Bjorn! It’s challenging and really time consuming, especially when you do it on your own time and not working as a part-time or full-time contributor to the project. Nevertheless, making a living off WordPress requires some sort of involvement, if you’re interested in making this work in the long run, so I kind of feel the reciprocity thing working very well in this scenario.

  4. Great post Mario. I especially like the mandate for WordCamp / meetup organisers. While this isn’t always possible (a lot of people get looked at for being the de-facto leader of a local or national community) I think it’s very healthy to rotate this once in a while.

    Hierarchy based on relative contributions is fine, but human beings have a tendency to never question hierarchy.

    1. Thanks Luc!

      I have another draft on hierarchy, the way I see it. Will try to bring it to live over the next week or two. It’s subjective and all, but that’s my vision of community at least.

Your thoughts?