Battle for the soul of the WMF
- staff morale at the WMF is at an all time low (only 7% feel informed, only 10% feel confident in senior leadership, as reported last week in The Signpost);
- over the last year, there has been extreme "churn" in senior staff, as noted by William Beutler (WWB) and MZMcBride and most notably by former WMF Director of Features Engineering Terry Chay;
- there has been a "transparency gap" including the mid-2015 major, yet secretly planned, "re-org" of the engineering department (see the list on this talk page);
- last week was the unprecedented dismissal of Dr. James Heilman (Doc James), a community-recommended member of the Board of Trustees who I personally know and trust, due to a loss of “mutual confidence”. The decision was persuasively defended by Denny Vrandečić, a community-recommended member of the Board who I also know and trust, but with insufficient justification for many – including the longest-serving employee of the WMF, Tim Starling;
- this week, in a blow in terms of diversity-of-perspectives, two American, San Francisco bay-resident, tech industry insiders, have been appointed to the Board – one of whom (appointed specifically for his human resources experience) was named in a US Department of Justice investigation into anti-competitive wage-fixing cartel among tech companies, as comprehensively summarised by Jim Heaphy (Cullen328)
It is my supposition that this is not a list of unrelated incidents, but that this is part of a wider theme: That a portion of the Board of Trustees and the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation believe that it should be treated as a technology organisation in the style of a dot-com company, out of step with the staff and without the awareness of the community. By contrast, it’s always been my belief that the Wikimedia Foundation is an education charity that happens to exist primarily in a technology field. Of course software engineering is crucial to the work we do and should represent the major proportion of staff and budget, but that is the means, not the end.
All this background makes the draft Strategic Plan a very important document. For the 2010-15 plan there was a massive community consultation project, but this time around there was only a 2-question survey. As Philippe Beaudette (Philippe), the Community Facilitator on that original strategy process and later the WMF Director of Community Advocacy (who also recently left the organisation), said to me [with permission to publish here]:
||The Wikimedia Foundation has one unique strategic asset: the editing community. Other orgs have great tech resources, tons of money, good software, and smart staff… but none of them have the editing community. I am, frankly, saddened by the fact that this one unique strategic asset is not more central to the developing strategy.
The November staff presentation gives a strategy preview that speaks of three priorities (slides 28-30): “1. Engage more people globally (reach) 2. Facilitate communities at-scale (community) 3. Include broader content (knowledge)”; and describes a need to “prioritise core work” (slides 32-33). All laudable goals, but they only include “example objectives” such as “build capacity”, “improve trust”, and “improve tools”.
Nevertheless, I suspect that the major strategic direction has already been privately determined. In short, it appears there will be an attempt to create the internet's Next Big Thing™ at the expense of improving the great thing that we already have.
- In May, as noted by Risker, "Search and Discovery, a new team, seems to be extraordinarily well-staffed with a disproportionate number of engineers at the same time as other areas seem to be wanting for them."
- The June staff presentation “strategy preview” talks about creating a “knowledge engine where users, institutions and computers around the world contribute and discover knowledge”. The FAQ page for the “Discovery department”, describes this project as “…improving the existing CirrusSearch infrastructure with better relevance, multi language, multi projects search and incorporating new data sources for our projects.”
- In September, the Knight Foundation announced a grant of $250,000 to build a "knowledge engine". This was announced by the WMF two days ago. This is a “restricted grant” but, as has been described by Pete Forsyth, there is none of the associated documentation – for example the formal grant deliverables – except for a short FAQ.
- As mentioned above, we now have two new Silicon Valley executives appointed to the Board of Trustees. They join the previously appointed member of the board Silicon Valley venture-capitalist Guy Kawasaki, as well as internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales himself. There is no one appointed for their professional experience in education, charities, communities, or developing countries.
While I agree with the general premise that the search system on the Wikimedia projects can be improved, I don’t know anyone who thinks "an indexed & structured cache" of "Federated Open Data Sources" should be the strategic priority. Starting something entirely new like Federated Search is hard and trying to include external sources (that link also suggests trying to also integrate the US Census, and the Digital Public Library of America) is even harder, especially when there are so many existing technical needs. Quoting Philippe again: "for instance, fixing the inter-relationships between languages and projects, or creating a new admin toolset for mobile, or paying down our technical debt, or establishing a care/command/control operation for critical tools to ensure their sustainability, etc...."
The Funds Dissemination Committee (on which I sit as a community-elected member) declared in November that it is "…appalled by the closed way that the WMF has undertaken both strategic and annual planning, and the WMF's approach to budget transparency (or lack thereof)." In response, the WMF is considering submitting its 2016-17 annual plan, based on the aforementioned strategic plan, to a "process on-par with the standards of transparency and planning detail required of affiliates going through the Annual Plan Grant (APG) process".
We will see over the next weeks to what degree the apparent shift towards a Silicon Valley mindset – whether the staff and community like it or not – is indeed true. As the then-Chair of the Board Jan-Bart de Vreede said in describing Lila Tretikov’s appointment as Executive Director:
||We are unique in many ways, but not unique enough to ignore basic trends and global developments in how people use the internet and seek knowledge…I hope that all of you will be a part of this next step in our evolution. But I understand that if you decide to take a wiki-break, that might be the way things have to be.
Meanwhile, you might be interested in the roadmap for the Discovery department or for the more technically minded there is the "Discovery" workboard on Phabricator and associated mailing-list. Finally, for what it's worth, the term "knowledge engine" itself is now deprecated.
This article was originally posted on the author's blog and is reprinted with his permission.