As 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.