The feasibility and governance concerns behind 5% contribution to WordPress Core

5percentAs always on benmetcalfe.com: the views and opinions expressed here are solely my own and may not be opinions shared, supported, or endorsed in any manner by any other entity I may have other interests in. Indeed, these days I work in another realm, transforming the way we use bits to move atoms.

Earlier today Matt Mullenweg (WordPress co-founder, Automattic founder & CEO) publicly stated that companies operating in the WordPress ecosystem should have 5% of their staff base working on the WordPress Open Source Project:

“I think a good rule of thumb that will scale with the community as it continues to grow is that organizations that want to grow the WordPress pie (and not just their piece of it) should dedicate 5% of their people to working on something to do with core — be it development, documentation, security, support forums, theme reviews, training, testing, translation or whatever it might be that helps move WordPress mission forward.” – Matt Mullenweg

His sentiment here is laudable; a well run open source ecosystem requires resources, commitment and talent to ensure it remains healthy, viable and doesn’t stagnate. The Open Source Road is lined with the carcasses of many a failed project that didn’t get this right.

However as the figurehead of WordPress, Matt has the enviable position of being able to set such a lofty vision. It’s the rest of the ecosystem that has to translate that into something operationally feasible and financially viable.

5%, Matt asserts, “looks incredibly modest in hindsight”. I would respectfully have to beg to differ.

5% of head count will require more than 5% of payroll $
While Matt was careful to include numerous non-engineering roles companies could help with, ultimately what drives the open source project is source code contribution by software engineers. Engineers are almost certainly the highest paid individual contributors in any business, and often are paid more than managers and more senior staff occupying other roles.

A reasonable engineer in the US costs $100k/y, and if you factor in benefits (tax funded health-care, anyone?) and overheads you could easily be looking at $130k or more per person, per year.

That’s clearly much higher than the average employee, and so given that a company’s 5% contribution needs to more likely be comprised of this kind of employee, that’s going to be more than 5% of payroll.

A 200+ person web hosting company would need to hire 10 engineers to meet a 5% goal, requiring a budget of anything between $1MM-1.3MM+ per year. Those engineers probably need a manager – to mentor them, provide career development etc. Those 11 people also put pressure on human resources, finance, legal, facilities etc – probably equating to another person again. Now we’re talking probably more like $1.25-$1.5m annually.

Given that the majority of a web host’s employees might be performing technical support, marketing, administration and other functions that don’t attract such salaries, it is unlikely the total annual payroll is anywhere near $20m (200 x $100k), and maybe much less than that.

$1.5Million is a lot of money for any business with an addressable market in the WordPress ecosystem, regardless of size.

It negatively impacts customer-service driven companies
Everyone hates poor service, and guess what – it takes real human beings to staff up a good customer service program. Whether it’s a web hosting company, a fledgling maintenance company like WP Valet or WP Curve or a full-service agency with account managers and, well, I don’t personally know what all those other people do there… but that requires people.

(note: I edited above sentence from original posted version to correct grammar that may have been miss-interpreted)

Just to illustrate the point, get this: As a business owner wanting to keep to the 5%, for every 20 people you hired into any function within the business, you would have to add another engineer to work on WordPress. Think about that!

Or, you might just have to run your business without the customer service folks you need – but that’s shitty for customers, its shitty for the employees who have to pick up the slack and its shitty for those of us advocating WordPress. “WordPress really sucks, no one at my web host is able to answer my questions”.

Bigger guys no doubt get a ‘get out of jail’ card
For example, in the last year the WordPress community has welcomed GoDaddy into the fold. Not only should the company be celebrated for dropping its misogynistic marketing endeavors but it has also democratized Managed WordPress Hosting to even more folks by offering a product at price point only achievable due to the economies of scale a large corporation can enjoy.

And yes, they are a large corporation. Their corporate website stays they have over 4000 employees, and that doesn’t seem to include subsidiaries such as MediaTemple. I doubt GoDaddy will ever have 200 people (5%) dedicated to WordPress Open Source, and of course their business isn’t solely based around WP. But a significant percentage of it is, and as Matt forges closer ties to companies like GoDaddy, it’s growing rapidly.

GoDaddy sells a lot of domains that point to WP sites, and host a lot of WordPress, both on their managed and shared products. Would they be looking to commit even 100 people? How does that stack up against the fledgling guys who have supported the WordPress community from the beginning?

So where do we go from here?

Clearly the time has come for a serious conversation around how WordPress Core is resourced, and who makes up the leadership that decides and directs that resource.

Automattic must be recognized for the significant resources they have provided to date, although even Matt acknowledges in his blog post that at 277 people, Automattic has less than 14 people (5%) dedicated to the WordPress Open Source Project.

Automattic’s contribution may be waning (even if only in percentage terms as the rest of the non-open source part of the business expands), and Matt is rallying others to step up to fill the void/expand the edges. But with that comes the discussion on how that broadened contribution extends into the leadership of the overall direction of WordPress itself.

A conversation that is long over-due.

It’s one thing to be asked to commit $1.5MM of resource a year, it’s another thing to do so with little influence over how that resource is put to work. IRC chat room meetings, P2s, version leads with significant veto over what their release should contain, all with Matt ultimately having the final say as the project’s architect… one could reasonably argue that doesn’t cut it at this scale, when the WordPress Community’s companies are being asked to make $million’s of investment annually. It does begin to feel a little bit too Cathedral and not enough Bazaar.

In addition to being resourced properly, well run Open Source Projects of scale have demonstrable governance and accountability to stakeholders. Elected boards, voted officers, etc who collectively decide longer term decisions and ensure they are being made are in the greater interest for all. Take a look at the Apache Foundation’s make up as a model of good Open Source Foundation stewardship.

Our little WordPress has all grown up, and that’s freaking awesome! The businesses within the WordPress community will have to work out how they can translate Matt’s vision of 5% into something feasible. But at the same time, I urge Matt to also incorporate into his vision reform of the way the WordPress Foundation and Open Source Project is run.

Now is the time to democratize the democratization of publishing.

Update: Some people have been confused by the original title of the post, which in hindsight I could have done a little better job on. My point behind “What do you get for your 5%” title is to say that contribution at a 5% level can’t equate to blindly pouring in these kinds of resources into somewhat of a black hole, ticking a box and that’s it. For the $ amounts we’re now talking about, there needs to be accountability, a seat at the table etc. Thats how other Open Source projects of scale usually operate and this is the other side of the coin that’s missing from the 5% vision.

If people take away from anything from my post, it should be this.

20 thoughts on “The feasibility and governance concerns behind 5% contribution to WordPress Core

  1. Well said. You definitely bring voice to things I was thinking while reading about the 5%, and you are not alone in your desire to see the open source project show some “democratized” governance.

  2. You write as though contributing to WordPress is purely a donation. Let me ask you – when it comes to training, how much time would you recommend investing in your employees?

    In my experience there is NO better way to become a better WordPress support person / developer / documenter (etc.) than by doing these things alongside the greater WordPress community.

    It’s not just an investment in the platform (which of course has it’s own benefits). It’s also an investment in your staff.

  3. The post also said the people could be for development, documentation, security, support forums, theme reviews, training, testing, translation or whatever it might be that helps move WordPress mission forward. — not all of which need to be the more expensive engineer types, and certainly not the super experienced engineers. I mean, sending the super skilled folks at core is awesome, but —

    Imagine an onboarding process for new talent hired straight out of college, where for their first year with the company, they’re paid to contribute to open source software, with a lot more freedom, slightly lower wages (it is an entry-level position, after all) but learning a lot — with the understanding that when their year is up, they can take a pay bump and move onto more profitable enterprises for the company. At the end of the year, you get a much more skilled employee, who is intimately familiar with a number of open source technologies.

    And regarding your GoDaddy comparison, I think that’s unfair, as the 5% seemed to me to be aimed at businesses aimed wholly at WordPress. GoDaddy does a lot of things, only a small subset of which deals with WordPress.

  4. @Luke Carbis:

    “how much time would you recommend investing in your employees?”

    A lot, staff training is not only an initial hump at the beginning of employment but something that occurs on-going. Trouble is, the training that folks need in something like technical customer service at a hosting platform (which is what I have a ton of experience in) overlaps only slightly with what they would do + learn on WP Core. It takes 3 months+ to properly find and train good WP customer service talent, and that process would only be lengthened further in the model you out line. In turn, that means having to hire more people per quarter, etc etc.

    It becomes infeasible and the true value to the community limited compared to laser focused contribution.

    @George Stephanis: “sending the super skilled folks at core is awesome” – we need super skilled folks working on Core’s source code. As expectations have increased on what people want WP to do, the bar has been raised. The quality of coding we need in Core today is far higher than it was in years past. $100k for an engineer in SF is actually pretty low. Someone with a few years experience would be expecting $150k+ and equity, or $200k+ for all cash compensation otherwise you’re just going to lose PHP talent to Facebook.

    As I said above – the model you outline of someone junior spending a year to “on ramp” doesn’t really work operationally or financially from a feasibility perspective in my opinion. You hire people who can do the job now, not for a year’s time. Most startups can’t even plan for a year out, it’s not viable or how the business works.

    I think the GoDaddy comparison is fair, why should businesses aimed wholly at WordPress bare the brunt of the responsibility to contribute. I would imagine GoDaddy hosts more WordPress than all of the big 5 Managed WordPress Hosts put together, and sells domains that directly point to WP. It’s not at all unreasonable.

  5. If I accepted all of your assumptions, then I would probably agree that 5% is too much, but I think you’re off in all of them: that contributors need to be engineers to be valuable, the cost of great engineers, the benefit to the rest of the company, and finally with the assumption that design-by-committee could create a better WordPress than we’ve had in the past 11 years.

    5% might be broken down in a number of ways, and I do think it’s useful even for big companies like Godaddy. Just to make up numbers let’s say Godaddy makes 200M a year, half of it from hosting (100M), and 2/3rds of those customers run WordPress (66M). I think investing 3.3M a year (5%) into WP is not unreasonable, especially if their hosting business is growing a great clip and they want to accelerate it. (Remember many companies in our space are growing 15-100% a year.) They’re also *getting software for free* that allows them to compete with the Wixes and Squarespaces of the world, something that otherwise would require a capital investment of tens of millions of dollars a year. (And if WP starts to fall behind those platforms, they’re in trouble.)

    Back to that 3.3M — it doesn’t need to be engineers! They’ve gone from one of the worst signup flows to one of the best, wouldn’t it be great to have some of those designers working on our toughest flows. They support and scale support to tens of millions of customers, a few of those folks could probably really help out on our forums where we get thousands of posts a day. (I bet their training programs are also really extensive.) They have a marketing staff that has a budget of tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year, I bet those people would have some ideas for how to increase WP’s awareness and reach. Also remember that full-time doesn’t mean 100%, I think reasonable 10% of anyone’s time at a company will still be doing “company stuff” which could include bringing WP knowledge to the rest of the organization. And people don’t need to be dedicated to WP forever, they could do a rotation program where people work on core for a period of time and then go back to their regular job, as Automattic has done for the last few releases. Finally if at the end of it they still are 1M short of their goal to re-invest they could partner with companies in the space, whether that’s A8C or 10up or Webdev or anyone, to sponsor development. Heck, they could run a Super Bowl ad that just talks about WP. 🙂 The one thing I wouldn’t count fully is WordCamp sponsorships, which are fantastic but essentially advertising and I have their own direct ROI. Automattic itself has contributed above and below that % at points in its history, and I think 5% is the sustainable sweet spot.

    The possibilities are endless, and to be honest the implementation isn’t as important, as long as the rule of thumb for 5% and the intention is there. This isn’t a certification program or a membership, it’s just organizations that want to give back and we trust what they say with the honor system. I also think it’s great if people are giving back 3% or 1%, and we should celebrate those folks too as they begin to scale up their contributions. What we can’t do, though, is expect that someone else is going to do all the work and WP will continue to thrive and grow at the rate it has in the past without continued investment.

    It’s not “five for the now,” it’s “five for the future.” 🙂

  6. The things what irritates me the most here is that we only talking about companies and not freelancers. If a company like Automattic spent 5% on WordPress it will have a huge impact because multiple people can work fulltime on it and get recognised for it. But when a freelancer does 5% it means nothing because it comes to “only” 2 hours of it’s time.

    I had exactly this issue where I spent roughly 20 hours of my time to WordPress 3.5 while having a fulltime project next to it. That is a lot of effort that most people didn’t saw because a lot of time went in researching the code base and testing code on 10-15 different setups. I learned a lot but what you see is that all of this had 0 impact on my business. (if you know me, I don’t care about that)

    Also what you see if a lot of companies will follow the 5% is that quite a few people will be able to work fulltime on core (which is a cool thing) but it will become really hard for the freelancer with the right intention to help out. The impact of the freelancer becomes almost nothing, which is dangerous because we depend on them. They are the people who can grow to become a valued contributor and can get in the picture to work at a WordPress focus company.

  7. Marko, I would love love love if more freelancers could contribute 2 hours a week, and I think that you can absolutely have a big impact in that time, whether that’s in forum posts, organizing a local meetup, helping triage issues… Every little bit can help.

    Remember we had close to 30k freelancers who have taken our survey, even 2.5% of that (1 hour a week) would be the equivalent of 750 people.

  8. “Giving up” 5% of your revenue to serve “the greater good” is not something that can be easily swallowed by for-profit organizations and I can understand that. However let’s not forget that we all built our businesses on a product that has been developed by people for free, and we made a good chunk of money simply because WordPress exists and it’s a great piece of software.

    I think Matt nailed it with this: “And if WP starts to fall behind those platforms, they’re in trouble.” Exactly. If you’re not doing everything in your power to keep WP in its leading position then someday in the future you might be surprised to find yourself in a situation where the product you built your company (or career) on has been replaced by something else and no matter what you do your revenues will keep shrinking. Now it may or may not be easy to just switch to another CMS / platform if that time comes, however wouldn’t it be easier to work today on avoiding that depressing future?

    I think 5% is very doable. We should share ideas on how each of us tries to achieve that without risking the “true moneymaker” part of their business, I’m sure there are a lot of ways that this can be done.

  9. Another way to calculate that 5% contribution might be in hours per week per person. Given a “normal” 40-hour work-week, that would only be about 2 hours per week. But, in an organization like Matt described, who uses WordPress as their main money-making tool, that would be 2 hours from *everyone* per week. Though, I might amend that to be just the technical staff, and not necessarily sales or support staff.

    I don’t think that’s too much to give back to an open source project that supports one’s livelihood. And, that can be true for other open source projects, too, not just WordPress.

  10. Hey Ben

    This is an interesting post, it got me thinking and I wrote my own post on it.

    I did want to stop by and provide some thoughts.

    1 – I think the post is clouded by your very narrow assumptions around the interpretation of the 5%.

    2 – I think however that the point of the post was really the latter part of your post – democratize the democratization of publishing.

    3 – Thanks for clarifying in your update, but don’t think the post title is the confusion, as much as the content of the post. Your point in the update however is very succinct, and that’s a different conversation.

    All the best

    Tony

  11. @Matt: thank you for taking time out to respond. Let’s agree to disagree on everything I wrote bar the last point on governance which IMHO is the key point that has been surfaced by the 5% discussion.

    “…the assumption that design-by-committee could create a better WordPress than we’ve had in the past 11 years.”

    I don’t think anyone would assert that the Apache Foundation is “design by committee”. To ask you point-blank, do you feel there is any merit whatsoever in the idea of having an elected board to the WordPress Foundation that includes independent members who are not employed or connected to Automattic or Audrey Capital?

    Would you not agree that that having that board of officers would actually strengthen your rallying call for companies to invest 5% (and maybe that is $MM’s, that would be awesome!) back into Core?

    To me, the notion of having a board of trustees/this model of governance/etc is a fundamental concept that’s established and proven out time and time again. Many others in the community also want it, but are too afraid to call you out on it.

    I raise all of this because I want nothing but the best for WordPress; for the project to remain sustainable and for us to be able to conquer the remaining 77% of the internet.

    So, I ask you again, do you not think it’s time to fully democratize the democratization of publishing?

    Thank you

  12. “[D]o you feel there is any merit whatsoever in the idea of having an elected board to the WordPress Foundation” — I don’t, certainly not as you describe it. For one, the Foundation has nothing to do with setting the direction or vision of WordPress. 🙂 But assuming you meant for the software project in general, not the entity which holds the trademark, the best way to get influence is not going to ever be donating money.

    Like many OS projects, it’s a Doacracy — you do things, you earn trust and influence over the project, given by the people running it. Eventually you become one of them, and the cycle repeats.

    “Would you not agree that that having that board of officers would actually strengthen your rallying call for companies to invest 5% back into Core?” I would not agree. We’ll have the opportunity to see if I’m right in the success of core and the companies built on top of it over the next few years.

    “I don’t think anyone would assert that the Apache Foundation is ‘design by committee.'” I would! It’s the whole point of their model. I love the AF — if you look at their “Thanks” page I’m the only non-corporate Platinum sponsor — but there’s a reason all their successes are backend/tech projects, not consumer-focused ones. We had a group that broke off from WordPress to try this already, called Habari. Voting, be it direct on decisions or indirectly by electing a committee, is never going to create great software.

    Democratizing != democracy. It’s about equality of opportunity, radically lowering the cost and access of the means of production to have your voice heard on the web. And those tools (WordPress and friends) are under the GPL so everyone has inalienable rights to them that can’t be taken away even by the people who created the software. It’s not “democratizing” in the sense that people vote on what can be published or not. That seems silly even writing it out, but that seems to be what you’re implying by asking to “democratize the democratization of publishing.”

  13. I am a single man shop and derive 100% of my income from a freemium WordPress plugin. I have always believed in open source and have contributed to many projects well before WP ever existed.

    I have been discouraged by the lack of a solid process by which my 5% contributions are incorporated or recognized in multiple facets off the WP ecosystem. Core patches that have been vetted get left in limbo. Dozens of doc updates in Codex go unrecognized.

    I continue to contribute where I can because I believe in the product and its success is directly tied to my livelihood. However, I wonder how many “little guys” like me get discouraged and never make future contributions.

    Sponsoring several WordCamp events has yielded some recognition, but I feel patches and other ”geek stuff” has far more to offer to the WP community in terms of lasting positive effects.

    The small guys can make a big collective impact, but contributing needs to be far simpler and better organized. WP issues are big animal and people don’t know where to a start or keep things from falling through the cracks.

    Maybe a “minutiua manager” role is in order. The manager triages bite-sized tasks and then rolls them up into larger cores contributions during point releases.

  14. Well said @Matt =) New technologies are on the rise, and if WordPress doesn’t keep up, other CMSes will overtake it, and businesses that rely on WordPress as a foundation, will be in trouble, no?

    As such, much work needs to be done to continue development on performance, scalability, usability and user friendliness. With much premium WordPress theme and plugin shops out there, and some growing a few hundred percent/year, why not contribute and keep WordPress as the top CMS in town?

  15. Lance’s comment makes an important point when he writes: “However, I wonder how many “little guys” like me get discouraged and never make future contributions.”

    Here’s a man whose livelihood and expertise are all WordPress, but frustrated because his attempts to give back to the community have gone unacknowledged. I manage a small group of WordPress sites on a very part-time basis and my livelihood is well outside the WordPress ecosystem. I’m impressed with WordPress–both the software and the community–but I have no idea where to start.

    Among other things I’m a “word wrangler” and would love to contribute by writing documentation for the “end-user” (instead of some docs that I’ve read that were written by geeks for geeks!), but I have no idea where to look to find what’s needed.

    Maybe a “minutiua manager” is not a bad idea!

  16. @Greg There’s always some part or other that needs a word wrangler, even if it is just to look over and provide feedback on documents written (or perhaps looking into things that may be outdated now)

    One example is the User Manual being worked on (and has been since 2012’ish), since WordPress is always evolving I know for a fact there’s details in need of a revision. And extra eyes help find things others may have missed.
    https://make.wordpress.org/support/user-manual/

    Or perhaps the Training project which focuses on creating material to be used in teaching users how to either use WordPress it self or develop with it.

    I highly recommend anyone interested in giving back to drop by the https://make.wordpress.org landing page as it has a list of areas to jump into, with a short description of each (and if anyone is uncertain there’s always somebody around in the community who will happily help you understand what the different areas deal with)

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