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Contribution as culture

This post spends a lot of time analyzing and referencing two other blog posts. Excuse me for that, but also be sure to read both, as they are relevant for this post and also interesting in their own right.

Matt Mullenweg wrote a blog post called Five for the Future yesterday that advocates his belief that WordPress-centric companies should aim to utilize 5% of their company resources toward contributing back to the project.

He noted in the post that Automattic isn't quite to this point, but that they are working on it, and describes why he believes it's important. He closes with this:

It’s a big commitment, but I can’t think of a better long-term investment in the health of WordPress overall. I think it will look incredibly modest in hindsight. This ratio is probably the bare minimum for a sustainable ecosystem, avoiding the tragedy of the commons. I think the 5% rule is one that all open source projects and companies should follow, at least if they want to be vibrant a decade from now.

This was followed up by one of the co-founders of one of the very hosting companies Matt partially referenced in his post — WP Engine's Ben Metcalfe — who responded with a blog post of his own: WordPress: What exactly do they get for their 5%?

I think I was immediately thrown off by Ben's post title, but so many times throughout reading it I was shocked at how he made assumptions of Matt's intentions or missed what I would call “the point”.

5% is not a decree

Obviously, Matt is not speaking from the mountaintop with a proclamation of law. This is his recommendation — one that he believes will reward the firms that strive for it.

I believe that the community has already shown us that those that invest into WordPress are rewarded from it. We improve our understanding of a foundational software of our careers, improve our skills, are more marketable, more attractive to employers, and create natural opportunities for developing industry relationships.

How should 5% of “people” be defined? I'm pretty sure Matt would agree that 5% of people or 5% of revenue toward people doesn't really matter to him; yet Ben makes a continuous sticking point about the cost of — and need for — engineers.

Additionally, while Matt utilizes full-time employees, the same (or better) effect could be had with shared time from more employees.

I'm not big into absolutes, so it's important to remember that while I'm advocating that Matt's recommendation of 5% time, I think it's simply a good recommendation. This is a free economy and companies can do what they want. But I think in the current and long term, contribution will be key to greater corporate success for those that choose to do so.

What does 5% cost, and who does it require?

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. …

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. …

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.

First, I believe Ben has spent too much time in the world's largest cities if he believes engineers cost $100,000 per year on average. In my experience (yes, I interview people myself), that's not the case, and based on my decent view of the ecosystem it's not an appropriate going rate — especially if the offer on the table is a particularly desirable position.

More importantly, the project needs far more non-technical contributors. Ben's assertion that “ultimately” software engineers drive the project is not true. Users drive the project. A technically savvy user-minded contributor can be a beacon of light to a group of software developers. And given the user-facing nature of WordPress itself, non-engineer contributors could drastically improve the less code-sexy parts of the WordPress ecosystem: project management, docs, training, testing, support, translation, etc.

Additional to “core” contributions, WordCamps, plugins, themes, communities, and many other venues are outstanding places where contributors — yes, they're still contributors! — can impact the overall project.

Finally, as I noted above, I think companies could quite effectively contribute parts of employees' time versus dedicated 100% time, which would also prevent the need to have dedicated managers for open source contributors.

Foundational software to your business

Ben spends a chunk of time saying that big companies like GoDaddy get a “get out of jail free card” and that obviously Matt wouldn't expect they dedicate 5% of their thousands of employees.

GoDaddy definitely benefits from WordPress and they also contribute to it; and no, they don't contribute 5% I'm sure. But WordPress is not foundational to GoDaddy's business. They have a dedicated sub-product for it, and they also have many contributors to it.

WP Engine, and many others (including mine), are almost completely or completely reliant on WordPress as a platform. WordPress and its underlying technologies are foundational to our careers and businesses.

It is simply a different story to compare a company that would continue on pretty much fine without WordPress and one that would have to seriously reconsider their entire business model.

For example, let's compare the scenario to a publisher. Re/code is built on WordPress. They have a staff of 20+. Do they completely rely on WordPress for their website? Yes. For their business model? No. In their scenario, it makes sense for them — and could benefit them pretty directly — to allocate some time of some employees to WordPress, but if WordPress disappears they can and will migrate to a different platform.

Contributing to the full stack

It was questioned to me on Twitter, after my initial reaction to Ben's post, whether I contribute 5% of my time to open source projects like PHP, MySQL, and other tools that WordPress relies on.

This is a good question and point, but it does not cause me to stumble in my opinions. I believe open source contributions in general benefit the entire software stack.

In my scenario, I can be more impactful on the WordPress project than others. But I believe contributions can take many shapes, in both directions.

Some folks, like Daniel Bachhuber, greatly contribute to the project as a whole by supporting upstream projects like WP CLI.

Automattic is a fantastic example of a company that has both upstream and downstream contributions. They are active contributors to, employers of contributors or founders, or monetary sponsors to a huge number of downstream projects: WordPress, PHP, Nginx, jQuery, Elastic Search, Node, Socket.io, and probably a bunch I can't think of or don't know about. Additionally, they are a driving force behind dozens of upstream, open source themes and plugins.

Edit: Matt says in a Tweet where Andrey Savchenko asked for clarification about PHP contributions that Automattic doesn't actively contribute to PHP. Though I think I define contribution a bit more loosely than Matt does.

Whether a company is contributing to their foundational piece of software, a downstream or upstream application, or on an adjacent aspect that leads to the betterment of the platform that is foundational to their business objectives, then I believe it will in turn be beneficial to their bottom line.

Contribution as culture

Contribution should not be considered an isolated cost, but an enabling investment.

If I run a business that relies on a foundational piece of software like WordPress, then it benefits me greatly for my employees — no matter what role they play within the company — to be intimately familiar with that software.

In my last job, I was tasked with guiding a transition of my company from developing mostly on a proprietary CMS to WordPress. I consistently preached the importance for everyone in the company to understand some fundamentals of WordPress itself. During my time there and since I've moved on, I've seen other members of that company learn the software, get involved in our local community, and even contribute back to WordPress itself; and both they and the company are better off for it.

Whether an employee is in sales, customer service, design, development, management, or wherever else — every employee knowing your product is important. I firmly believe this. I would want anyone in an organization I'm part of to be able to discuss our product in detail and with confidence to anyone.

When your company relies on a foundational piece of software — such as those we're discussing in this post — that's in effect part of your product. We are building products and services around and for WordPress. How important should it be that our company's employees understand it?

And how can they understand it better? By contributing of course!

Have a new support rep? Show them the WordPress.org forums to get their feet wet. New designer or front-end developer? Have them sit in on default theme conversations or read through the Make UI blog. New sales person? Get them involved at your local meetup and WordCamp. This list can go on.

Avenues for contribution are an incredible gateway for learning WordPress. Blogging about WordPress (another avenue of contribution) has greatly enabled me to be better at my job, and therefore made me significantly more valuable to the companies I've worked with.

Five for now

Matt called his post Five for the Future, and talked specifically about how a 5% investment by a company will ensure a greater future for WordPress and therefore said company. I disagree.

Contributing now will benefit the company and its employees right now. And while both Matt and Ben focused on individuals within the company being targeted contributors, I think it's much more beneficial to have a much larger percentage of a company contributing a portion of their time (even if small). I'd rather see 2 of 200 employees be full time contributors and then have 80 10% contributors than have 10 full time contributors.

I think we've seen many, many examples of contributors (people and companies) reaping tangible and intangible benefits from when they contribute — whether that contribution is to the codebase or the community. Contributors in this ecosystem come out on top.

Contributions are not an isolated cost or burden. Nor should their effects be limited to good faith investments to the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Contributions benefit the bottom line, and they benefit the bottom line right now.

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38 Comments

  1. I like your thinking on this Brian. This stands out for me in particular:

    “Contribution should not be considered an isolated cost, but an enabling investment.”

    I’m a huge believer in contributing back to WP (or whatever open-source project impacts your life/business) and to think of it as an investment is far more beneficial than thinking of it in terms of cost to company.

    In the WP ecosystem there are plenty of ways to contribute that both you and Matt mentioned. Unfortunately, I think people stick on core code contributions as the only way that matters, but everything else counts too and it’s important that as members of the WP community (as individuals or companies) we contribute in ways that are relevant to us (sponsoring or organising WordCamps, publishing plugins, improving docs, etc.). All of that is significant and as Matt says it “helps move the WordPress mission forward.”

    What we really need to do is open people’s minds to what forms contributions can take and then I think the 5% will seem like a much easier goal than the initial knee-jerk reaction would imply.

  2. It’s interesting to read all three of these posts and see the discussion be largely about theoretical and philosophical motivations. While those are both worthy (and close to my heart), I wonder if anyone has actually discussed the practical motivations – the ones which answer the question “What do I get for my 5%?”

    Contributing to WordPress Core was (and remains) the single greatest decision of my entire career. It opened more doors and opportunities for me than anything else I’ve ever done, and I can say without question: The time I invested in contributing paid itself back 10x over.

    Matt talks about flawed assumptions in his comment on Ben’s post – which is important – but I think he missed one: The assumption that investing 5% of anything results in a couple of “thank you” notes and not much more. That simply isn’t the case.

    – Contributing to WordPress core gives you the opportunity to work with some of the smartest developers on the planet and learn from them. Over and over again.

    – It gives you the opportunity to put “My work got shipped to ~80million people and powers 23% of the web” on your CV.

    – It gives you, as a company, a competitive advantage to know where WordPress Core is going – and what features you can hook into before anyone else.

    – It gives you the opportunity to double your prices as an agency because you’re more qualified than your competitors.

    – It gives you the opportunity to work with much, much larger brands – because having a core contributor work on their project is a big deal.

    I’m sorry – but money couldn’t buy any of those things – and WordPress gives them to you for free in return for your contribution. That’s what you get for your 5% – and if you don’t think that’s valuable – then you’re in the wrong game.

    You don’t have to contribute because you believe it’s the right thing to do. You don’t have to contribute because you believe growing the WordPress pie for everyone is important. But you’re crazy if you think that contributing is purely altruistic and you’re not going to get anything out of it. So, if nothing else: Contribute to WordPress (or any OSS project) for personal gain. I guarantee you that if you invest (that’s the key: invest) 5% in WordPress, it will pay itself back many times over.

    Open source economics don’t only work in theory; they work in practice, too.

    1. Thanks, John. I fully agree, and do hope I represented the business reasons for contributing in the post.

      I also think these benefits apply at an individual and a corporate level, but are quite powerful at a corporate level, as part of the culture, hence the post title. 🙂

      1. Generally, yes – however WordPress has by far the largest reach and market share. As a contributor to any OSS project, WordPress is the one that’s going to give you the largest personal benefit by a significant margin.

        It’s also one of the most accessible and best organised to start contributing to.

        1. @nacin

          These *are* typical results.

          Just saying it does not make it so.

          John O’Nolan: Contributing to WordPress Core was (and remains) the single greatest decision of my entire career. It opened more doors and opportunities for me than anything else I’ve ever done, and I can say without question: The time I invested in contributing paid itself back 10x over.

          What’s your source of statistically valid data that says those results are typical?

          Why do I think John atypical? John became involved in WordPress early on in its life when it was less political and he was able to gain benefit from his early contributions during it’s growth, and because he started at the beginning of his career and devoted most (all?) of his time to open source during the years and hence derived much benefit from, but that’s a path few people besides just graduating college students of at least middle class families can afford to take.

          Also when John was Deputy Head of UI for WordPress in 2009-2012 was he doing so in a completely volunteer capacity, or was he paid a salary by Automattic?

      1. Hey Mike, that’s a really interesting comment for several reasons.

        First of all, to answer your question above, I was always a volunteer contributor and never sponsored in any capacity by Automattic or any other company. I contributed in tandem with both a full time job and a freelance career. I woke up early and stayed up late. I didn’t have any special benefits, I was just willing to work hard because I liked it.

        I believe very strongly that everyone has equal opportunity to get as much back from their contributions as I did, and indeed, I believe that most actually do. Every core contributor that I know is doing incredible things outside of contributing to WP, generally as a result of contributing to WP.

        I don’t believe that it was any less political back in 2009, or that it was easier to get involved. I would suggest that the barrier to entry is actually far lower these days. When I started there were no contributor handbooks, there were no make.wordpress p2 blogs, Trac looked like GeoCities, and the only guide to contributing with SVN was a very vague post published by Mark Jaquith in 2005. (Posterity: http://markjaquith.wordpress.com/2005/11/02/my-wordpress-toolbox/ ).

        The perception that it’s hard to get involved or that you won’t get anything out of it may be the very reason itself for why you believe that’s true. Approaching anything with a negative outlook quite often manifests a negative outcome.

        When I started contributing to WP I had no agenda or ulterior motive, I was simply excited to show up and do the things that needed doing. So that’s what I did. I showed up, again and again, and learned what it meant to be a contributor. There were occasions where I stopped my car by the side of the highway just to show up to the weekly UI group meeting via my phone.

        You want typical results – well if there are 3 open source lessons that I could point to from my time working on WordPress which are very easily repeatable, they would be these:

        1. Decisions are made by those who show up
        2. Trust is given to those who show up consistently
        3. Respect is earned by those who get things done consistently

        The third one is important because it comes with an addendum: “even when they don’t agree with what needs to be done.”

        Years ago, when we were working on getting 3.1 out the door, WordPress was introducing the admin-bar on the front end for the first time. It was decision which was very much top down, and I wasn’t super happy about it.

        The admin bar idea came from WordPress.com, which is a very controlled environment. Now, we were going to slap it on the front end of every WordPress instance in the world. What could possibly go wrong?

        CSS, to name but one thing. The admin bar would overwrite the theme’s CSS, and vice-versa. It took almost no work at all to make the front end of a site completely collapse into an absolute-positioning atrocity. It was a disaster not just waiting to happen, but already in trunk and in progress.

        “Do you realise how shit this is?” I said to Nacin one day in a private message – “This is going to be the defining feature of 3.1 – that we fucked everyone’s theme up for the sake of a gimmick feature.” — “This is broken beyond belief”

        “So help me fix it.” – Nacin said

        For the next couple of weeks, that’s what I did. I hunted down every possible unscoped class and easily overwritten property. I refactored the CSS so that it would neither affect, nor be-affected-by third party CSS.

        https://core.trac.wordpress.org/changeset/16415
        https://core.trac.wordpress.org/changeset/17017
        https://core.trac.wordpress.org/changeset/17064
        https://core.trac.wordpress.org/changeset/17532

        When we finally shipped 3.1 some people liked the admin bar, and some people hated it – but everyone was united on one thing: it didn’t break.

        I didn’t believe in the feature, but I still showed up and got shit done. The resulting outcome (of changing my negative outlook to a positive one) produced the single contribution to WordPress that I’m probably most proud of, because I learned so much from it.

        I would suggest that anyone who wants to get the same results as I did from contributing need only follow the 3 steps above. Anyone who wants to get far more results could also follow Nacin’s guide:
        http://nacin.com/2014/02/07/how-wordpress-chooses-committers/

        It’s not hard. It just requires an open mind and a willingness to get things done that other people ask for.

        I think if more people tried it, they would be less inclined to debate “what 5% means” and more inclined to throw significantly more than 5% at it. If your business is in any way reliant on WordPress and you don’t contribute to core – you’re quite simply missing out on a massive opportunity.

        1. Hi @John,

          Thanks for your long and detailed comment, especially because you made the point better than I even could that your results were not typical.

          By many measures, you are an extraordinary person. You launched a successful Kickstarter campaign which resulted in a new open-source project you lead that has received a large amount of attention. How many other people have done something similar? As a percentage of the population, few that I know of.

          Back in your WordPress days, you “contributed in tandem with both a full time job and a freelance career. You woke up early and stayed up late. You didn’t have any special benefits, you was just willing to work hard because you liked it.” If you follow the rule of Internet culture (the 1% rule), you are the 1%. You “showed up, again and again.” That, by definition, is not typical.

          By saying answering my comment as passionately as you have you seem to assume that I was implying that contributing to open-source does not have it’s benefits, yet that assumption is wrong. I know that contributing to open source can have great benefits. Just not the level of benefits that you quote for those who can’t devote effectively all their free time.

          You even end with strongly implying that it takes a lot more than 5% contribution to get significant return “I think if more people tried it, they would be less inclined to debate “what 5% means” and more inclined to throw significantly more than 5% at it.

          But that’s a life choice, not one everyone can make. Many people have children, elderly parents to take care of, extracurricular activities the contribute to, outside interests, etc. Not everyone can or even wants to devote the majority of their free time to contributing to open-source.

          But that’s okay.

          Except when people imply that other people should be contributing 5% and justify it with tales of extraordinary results (I’m actually not pointing fingers at you on this, so don’t react defensively please.)

          I’m surprised you responded as you did because your situation is clearly atypical. Is it not? (Seriously?!?)

          But that does not mean large contributions can’t be beneficial, it just means that small contributions are not likely to provide the same benefits you saw. Do you still think I was off base now that I’ve explained?

          -Mike

          P.S. You are probably right about the early politics. Politics get ugly as soon as their are 3 people. I probably should have said that in earlier days pre-Automattic VC it would be much easier to find a spot where you could contribute than today when WP runs 23% of the web and there are tens of thousands of people involved in the WordPress economy. It’s no different than an entry level employee expecting a significant role in Walmart in short order when they could be an early employee at a fast rising startup. It is simply a numbers thing. Is that really controversial?

          1. I think we have arrived (perhaps converged is a better word) on common ground! I guess I’m not typical, but I think – circumstance permitting – what I did is something that anyone else *could* also do, if they wanted to.

            I totally agree with you that it’s a choice, and whether or not it’s the right choice depends on many factors. I think the only remaining area where we interpreted something differently is that I don’t believe Matt was implying a moral obligation to contribute to WP (to put it in your words, that people *should* contribute) — I believe he was evangelising an encouraging people to make the choice to do so where possible. Which, subjectively, I think is exactly what the leader of a large OSS project should do 🙂

            (fwiw. I didn’t think you were personally implying that contributing to WP has no benefits. That part of my comment was more in response to Ben’s blog post.)

  3. Many people seem to narrow down on how much (practically or impractically in their opinion) is 5% to give to WordPress.

    And, as usual, completely skip over the point that WordPress is hardly the single most important project in the world.

    How much can company or person give *in total*? Let’s say it is 10%, that is about in line with person very dedicated to charity or some tax. 5% (half of that) to WordPress means it that it matters as much as *all other projects combined*. That is simply not true and will never be, even for considerably WP–centric projects.

    Even if WordPress “deserved” bigger share because it’s free and other pieces are not… PHP is the free and open source project which lies in WordPress foundation. How much Automattic gives to it? Nothing at the moment (asked and answered on Twitter, contrary to what your post says).

    The 5% is not a sustainability argument, it’s a yet another push to conventionalize tithe in WordPress industry. Religious–alike conversion of people’s faith into resources for the project. And the thing about tithe is that it’s not about rational, fair, or sustainable. It’s about putting yourself on top of importance ladder and pushing everyone else down.

    And while other industries are struggling against “free work”, WordPress continues to struggle for it. No matter how rosy it sounds and how dreamy we are about it.

  4. Hi @Brian,

    Interesting how people have taken sides on topic of Matt’s post: an implied obligation to give 5% back to WordPress (vs. for example 5% back to their choice of any part of the open source stack they depend on.)

    While I won’t take an explicit position I would like to posit a (rhetorical?) question, assuming most WordPress-centric companies did as Matt advocates. Which one person would stand to the gain the lion’s share of the benefit of said contribution?

    -Mike

  5. @mike –

    It is not one person that gains, we ALL benefit.

    I, for one, sell more product the better WordPress becomes. Better product = wider adoption = greater market size for the thing I do to earn a living.

    Repeat hundreds of thousands of times for each person that is directly or indirectly earning and income due to the strength of the WordPress platform.

    It is not about who gains more or less on an individual basis. It is better for all. As @Nacin said “we’re in this together”.

    1. @Lance – Yes “we” may all benefit, but those who give 5% may not benefit that much.

      But you are missing the point. If someone gains power and wealth from advocating a “moral” position is, are they actually being ethical to just the “moral” justification? I would say definitively no.

      We may “all be in it together”, but we don’t all benefit equality. Not even close.

  6. There’s always a lion’s share. Why resent it if you’ve got yours?

    Some people see 5% and they can’t get past a dollar figure they imagine as a fee. Their focus is minimizing costs and maximizing profits, so this is a slice out of their pie. Others see it as a guideline for giving. Their focus is on collaboration and mutuality, so giving means getting. It’s good to hold both perspectives in a respectful tension with each other.

    I don’t believe the opposite of the “tragedy of the commons” is the utopian “comedy of the commons.” The true opposite of tragedy is farce. A complete lack of concern with bottom line realities will fail in an absurd way, while an obsession with them will fail in a spectacularly cold, vampire-like logic. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

    1. There’s always a lion’s share. Why resent it if you’ve got yours?

      Where did I say I resented it? I did not. You also focus on reinterating the point of Brian’s post, which I explicitly said I was not going to take a position on.

      My point, since I see now that I have to be explicit about it as subtly is too easily missed: I take ethical issue with Matt presenting it as a moral issue, when he gains to benefit in such a major way. I also take issue with television preachers that present themselves as all holy but rake in huge sums from the mostly poor to support a lavish lifestyle.

      My comments were not at all about supporting or not supporting open source; I actually lean toward the latter. Instead, if someone is going to present themselves as being ideologically pure they shouldn’t take positions where their purity can be questioned. That’s just how I see it, at least.

      -Mike

  7. I guess it’s just a question of what it is you resent. You resent people like TV preachers who profit from the gifts of others if these gifts are presented as a moral obligation, and all the more so if the gifts go from the poor to rich people living lavish lifestyles. I can see how this applies to TV preachers who produce no real, tangible, or economic benefit in exchange for your gift, but Matt and people who contribute to WP somehow? They’re mostly poor? Where has a moral obligation been presented?

    I guess I have missed Matt passing by in his gilded carriage, mystifying the masses with his claims of perfection and purity, while taking candy from babies. What he actually said is really only going to bother one very well-heeled constituency: profitable and visible WP businesses who fear they’re going to be evaluated negatively and pressured with carrots and sticks to “pay their dues.” I think the vast majority of small firms and users can see the positive benefit for them of having some pressure flow that way.

    1. @dan,

      Strange. Again you mention resentment when I never used that word nor intended to project resentment. Maybe you are instead projecting?

      Anyway, sorry you missed the gilded carriage, it is easy to miss with so much being published on the web. But no worries, here it is:

      http://recode.net/2014/05/05/wordpress-parent-automattic-has-raised-160-million-now-valued-at-1-16-billion-post-money/

      Automattic is now worth $1.16 billion, with Matt as a major shareholder. In the modern era, I’m not sure how much more of a gilded carriage one could ask for? And I doubt any of the companies in the WordPress ecosystem are worth even 1/100th of that amount.

      And as far as paying their dues, the fact these companies offer services to WordPress-specific is a major beneficial to the community. Why are so many of them treated like 2nd class citizens? (Answer: Because they are resenting for profiting from WordPress rather than embraced for the value they do bring.)

      FYI, I’m working on a plugin that I hope to see added to core, and while I am getting a small stipend I’m probably making less than minimum wage doing so. This is not about me defending what benefits me, this is me taking issue with ideological rules (WordCamp) and ideological pressure (WP community) when the company that oversees WordPress doesn’t let ideology get in their way when it benefits them financially.

      My position: Either practice what one preaches even when it goes against one’s own financial interests, or loose the pretension of ideology. And if not, expect criticism for hypocrisy.

    2. What he actually said is really only going to bother one very well-heeled constituency: profitable and visible WP businesses…

      I am exceedingly small business and I am bothered very much by it. You do not speak for me and I am missing what gives you confidence to speak for “vast majority”.

      1. You don’t think you’d be bothered more by having Automattic and Audrey steered by WPengine and similar interests? What exactly bothers you about “the 5%” idea, as a small business? I don’t think anyone is going to be judging whether you’ve met quota.

        Mike, you seem entirely resentful of the fact that Matt is a major shareholder in Automattic, that it crossed some threshold of monetary value that has some moral significance to him, and that Matt is somehow a “hypocrite.” Being a shareholder in a successful company is one thing, TV preachers living “lavish lifestyles” are another.

        Pinning that image on Matt sounds like projection to me — it’s a hostile subjective judgment being made about an individual’s personal motives — an individual we don’t know personally. What most people do know, if WP is a substantial part of their lives and work, is that Matt has been a big part of WP’s success and value to them. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, or that anyone should assume all his choices and motives are unquestionably great.

        Let me put my perspective in context. Back when WP was for blogging only and a very small part of the work I did — after MovableType imploded — most of my work projects went into the big shot open source CMS of the day. It was the leader, but it was headless, and it lost its position for a lot of reasons that might boil down to the lack of a single and capable executive figure. The core project made bad technical choices where Matt made good ones, and without an Automattic it did not have the means to manage growth. As a community that project turned on itself and nursed a running battle between core and third party developer interests. The reality was complex and not at all helped by people framing the narrative as selfish commercial interests versus self-giving altruistic one, or hardworking business owners versus shakedown artists.

        I don’t see that Matt has framed things that way, but you seem quick to do so. The necessary give and take has to be talked about, but if the talk becomes toxic and compromises trust, the results will be bad for everyone.

        1. What exactly bothers you about “the 5%” idea, as a small business?

          I wrote that in my comment above?

          I don’t think anyone is going to be judging whether you’ve met quota.

          And yet that’s precisely what happens. I just came from WordCamp Europe, where one of the hottest (in intensity, if not volume) in-the-corridors topic was one of the companies present not attending contributor day.

          People and companies are being judged on amount and kind of their contributions. I have been judged and will continue to be for the ways I choose to contribute in, which are not in precise alignment with WP’s golden idol of core development.

          Again — stop trying to inflate your opinion by throwing “majority” and “anyone” around. You do not speak for them.

          1. @rarst I’m not trying to “inflate” my opinion; I’m trying to provide some context and perspective. These are facts: most people don’t go to WordCamps. Most people are not capable of contributing to core but contribute in other ways and seem to be extensively recognized and appreciated for that. Most people who fill out the WP market/industry surveys are unknown quantities (hence the surveys) and cannot be the target of judgment or much dogsniffing until the day when Automattic has organized them all into local union halls.

            Your experience (and Mike’s) is not the experience of most people who are involved with WP. From rank and file perspective (down here) it sounds like your complaints are along the lines of “It’s HOT in the kitchen.” Well yes, I imagine it is. That’s not because of anything Matt said. Heat and pressure are messy and unpleasant, but they can also generate enormous value. Maybe a few talented individuals and a few successful companies are pressed and prodded to contribute in ways different from what they want. And this is a terrible tragedy?

          2. @dan:

            > Your experience (and Mike’s) is not the experience of most people who are involved with WP.

            How would you know what @Rarst or my experience is, and why would you presume to comment on it? Nor can I imply out of context what you are assuming it is, so your assertion is lost on me.

            > From rank and file perspective (down here) it sounds like your complaints are along the lines of “It’s HOT in the kitchen.”…

            At this point I have no idea why the discussion has devolved to the point it has. We appear to be talking past each other.

            I’ve probably said all that I need to say sono need to throw good time after bad. Let’s just let others read the words we have already written and leave it at that.

            -Mike

          3. @Mike – For someone concerned with shall we say “controlling” personalities, you’ve spent a lot of time telling me I can have no insight into anyone’s perspective if it differs from your own. I was replying to rarst, not you, so maybe you lost the thread.

            I do know what you and rarst have shared of your experience, and that is what I was referencing. You didn’t actually disagree with the statement that you’re operating in a more exclusive arena in the WP ecosystem than most, and I doubt you would disagree. My point is simply that it’s natural, inevitable, and probably necessary for Automattic to lean on the upper shelves and inner circles of the WP market; most people aren’t at that level and aren’t likely to see it as inappropriate, threatening, or bad. You say you value the prevention of gross inequality — maybe you know the federal government exacted a 90% corporate tax rate that applied to a small number of the most successful US companies for most of the 20th century — particularly the period when the middle class grew and flourished. That is how I am look at Matt’s modest 5%. I wonder if your reaction is similar to how FDR was regarded by Wall St., as a traitor to his class. I don’t like everything he does, but I think Matt does try to keep the market crunchy and keep value flowing down to the common user. It doesn’t trickle down, you have to pump it from the well.

            I appreciate your perspective and assume we do want the same thing. I echo John in seeing Matt’s 5% as evangelism (not a dictat) that should be a choice, but if it’s challenging and a bit uncomfortable for people who have had no problem with the “raise your prices!” theme of the past few years, I think that’s a good thing.

          4. @dan

            For someone concerned with shall we say “controlling” personalities, you’ve spent a lot of time telling me I can have no insight into anyone’s perspective if it differs from your own. I was replying to rarst, not you, so maybe you lost the thread.

            Sorry if I misunderstood, but when you included “(and Mike’s)” I assumed you were referring to me.

            I do know what you and rarst have shared of your experience, and that is what I was referencing.

            Totally irrelevant for this discussion, but Rarst and I worked together for about 2 years. Remotely together, in the sense that Automattic employees work together. So I know him pretty well (as I’m sure he knows me.)

            You didn’t actually disagree with the statement that you’re operating in a more exclusive arena in the WP ecosystem than most, and I doubt you would disagree.

            I didn’t realize I needed to disagree. I’m not sure what “exclusive” means, but I generally believe it means more access or ability to follow rules others don’t have to follow. In that respect, I’d say I have no more exclusivity in the WP arena than most. I have no commit access, I have no special person at Automattic or on the core team I can go to and get my concerns elevated any more than you do.

            If by “”exclusive” you meant that I have PHP, MySQL and jQuery skills and can thus build plugins that most WordPress users cannot, then guilty as charged.

            My point is simply that it’s natural, inevitable, and probably necessary for Automattic to lean on the upper shelves and inner circles of the WP market; most people aren’t at that level and aren’t likely to see it as inappropriate, threatening, or bad.

            So in other words, because you are not paying as much attention you are happy to watch football no matter what goes on behind the scenes?

            Agreed, most people are blissfully unaware of “inside baseball” (mixing my sports but not my metaphors.)

            You say you value the prevention of gross inequality — maybe you know the federal government exacted a 90% corporate tax rate that applied to a small number of the most successful US companies for most of the 20th century — particularly the period when the middle class grew and flourished. … I wonder if your reaction is similar to how FDR was regarded by Wall St., as a traitor to his class.

            So I was qualifying my statement and I was referring to my belief that gross income inequality is bad for a nation, but by the same token we now know on what side of the political spectrum your sympathy’s lie as well. 🙂

            Speaking of, did you know that the level of inequality between wealth and poor today is on par with the inequality that occurred just before the stock market. If not, you might find this video enlightening.

            I don’t like everything he does, but I think Matt does try to keep the market crunchy and keep value flowing down to the common user. It doesn’t trickle down, you have to pump it from the well.

            I agree. I think he does. In general. But he’s not above bullying people to get his way (that episode was want caused me to first start to question his ethics.) And there are many smaller episodes where I’ve seen him make use his bully pulpit to bully others into changing things to have it his own way.

            He and his minions actively makes it difficult for companies that want to service the WordPress market yet Automattic continues to grow their business and revenues. It’s monopolistic behavior, at least for 23% of the web. And when Bill Gates exerted similar influence he was hated for it.

            That said, I think Matt is a marketing genius and think he has created incredible value. But I don’t think that should put him above any criticism either.

            but if it’s challenging and a bit uncomfortable for people who have had no problem with the “raise your prices!” theme of the past few years, I think that’s a good thing.

            I’m not sure I follow? Are you implying that you resent those who have said “Raise your prices?” (FYI, I at times have publicly said that. But I assume you didn’t know that?)

            Are you saying you want prices to be lower, and that’s a driving motivation for you, especially in context of this discussion? Are you a fan of Matt in part because he puts pricing pressure on a lot of companies in the WordPress ecosystem?

            Are you one who is more interested in lower prices than in seeing the companies offering goods and services in the WordPress ecosystem to be fairly compensated for their risk and efforts? Are you more concerned about the prices that you have to pay than the corporate health of these companies to be able to continue servicing the products you purchase?

            (I’m not saying you are, just asking if you are.)

          5. Mike, I think you’ve made the point I was trying to make better than I could. Access to the “inside baseball” of WP is a marker for who is and isn’t in its inner circles or upper tiers. You know more of the who’s who, and who connects to who, and backchannel backhistory than the average WP follower, and you’ve made an effort to convey this even as you also position yourself as an outsider to the inner sanctum. (I’m not suggesting that’s contradictory, I think it’s accurate.) So you have a perspective tied to certain knowledge and experience others don’t have. But so does everyone.

            I care about the implications of the inside baseball, but I don’t have access to it, and I really don’t want to. (Too much noise, too much drama, too much time.) I do want to read about it as it’s broken down by civil, evenhanded, professional, accessible, but critical-when-they-need-to-be sources like Post Status. Not the daily churn of gossip, innuendo, and careless characterization — but a dialogue about the reality of different, conflicted perspectives that each have merit.

            Thanks for the video link. I know the numbers but have not seen that particular visualization. It’s very good — the kind of thing I send to the kids to wake them up to what they’ve been born into.

            I appreciate your questions. I distantly followed the Thesis GPL controversy and the more recent iteration with Envato. IMO and Matt made the right call. I think his interpretation of the GPL is totally contestable on an legal level, but lacking someone willing to test that in a court, he can push the interpretation he likes which to me makes a lot of pragmatic sense. Joomla went a different way and ended up with a boom and bust commercial ecosystem that was thinking very short term as it rose up on a bubble. It was at odds with core development, which stagnated and became completely out of touch with its mass market base. Somehow the third party devs must have thought this wouldn’t hurt them, but of course it did. The same thing would happen if the WordPress mass market was dominated by “kitchen sink” ThemeForest themes. I am not sure what Thesis’ threat was, if anything, other than the principle involved. The principle Matt defended then mattered later relative to Envato. So good call, if you’re Automattic or your core value is core WP. That’s just my own interested outsider perspective.

            On the “raise prices” thing, no I have not resented that. I like bargains as much as anyone, but only recently have the people I think ought to be charging more started to do so, but my concern is that they may stray from thinking about themselves as trusted service providers and think they are selling a fungible commodity. I want good people and products to stay solid with the unique value they provide. I do think, on the whole, a lot of the WP market has historically undervalued itself, and that makes me worry about some vendors’ longevity. I can’t generalize though; some people push out subpar stuff and charge more than I think it’s worth. But I would avoid them at any price because I don’t trust them or see stable, sustainable value. I have certainly seen and benefited from a market where the value and appeal of a WordPress site has gone up considerably. In that context, balking at a 5% guideline — especially one that came as a response to a direct, public question — seems problematic.

          6. You know more of the who’s who, and who connects to who, and backchannel backhistory than the average WP follower, and you’ve made an effort to convey this even as you also position yourself as an outsider to the inner sanctum. (I’m not suggesting that’s contradictory, I think it’s accurate.) So you have a perspective tied to certain knowledge and experience others don’t have. But so does everyone.

            Okay, that’s a fair assessment. Basically, I’ve paid attention to it in ways some others have not.

            IMO and Matt made the right call. I think his interpretation of the GPL is totally contestable on an legal level, but lacking someone willing to test that in a court, he can push the interpretation he likes which to me makes a lot of pragmatic sense.

            Understood, see your perspective. OTOH I myself the way he went about these issues extremely distasteful. There are also many other subtle little things that happen “inside baseball” that I feel like do not equate to his espoused ideology, when they benefit him or his companies. And that’s fine if we call it all a business enterprise. But if we wrap it in the shroud of greater benefit for all then it rings very hollow. At least to me.

            Joomla went a different way and ended up with a boom and bust commercial ecosystem that was thinking very short term as it rose up on a bubble.

            I thought Joomla failed for a whole slew of missteps, not just one.

            The same thing would happen if the WordPress mass market was dominated by “kitchen sink” ThemeForest themes.

            Funny, from what I’ve seen I think it is!

            I am not sure what Thesis’ threat was, if anything, other than the principle involved.

            EXACTLY. It didn’t matter because Chris copyrighted the images effectively making it non-distributable (that may have changed since I last read about Thesis.)

            What Matt did was crucify Chris in a public forum. From what I’ve seen Chris has acted publicly like a jerk on many occasion but that didn’t mean he deserved what Matt did to him.

            In many ways the WordPress community resembles a very large cult (read The Culting of Brands to understand what I fully mean) and for Matt to use his position as the “cult leader” to demonize Chris so that all the true believers would verbally attack him goes beyond the pale IMO. I had a lot of respect for Matt and his ideals before that. I lost it all when I saw him do that.

            What Matt SHOULD have done if he wanted to defend the GPL was file a lawsuit alleging that Thesis violated the GPL and ask for a court to demand Thesis be relicensed as GPL. That would have done much more for the cause than his public shaming of Chris because it would have set a legal precedent, one that the GPL still does not have.

            But my guess is Matt didn’t go with a lawsuit because 1.) he didn’t want to spend his own money for this, and 2.) more importantly he was not confident the courts would actually agree with him. If he lost then the precedent that would stand would be opposite his ideology and his position of “It must be GPL” would loose credibility among many people.

            So instead he used what as “free” to him, Matt used his bully pulpit to bully Chris into submission. To me that is abuse of the power he has gained from championing the causes he has championed. And that is just ugly as far as I am concerned.

            I believe in releasing software as GPL in many cases. I just don’t think it should be forced on people without a legal precendent.

            The principle Matt defended then mattered later relative to Envato.

            Yes, and he caused good people to feel the brunt on the battle, much like how Amazon and Hachette have caused authors to feel the brunt of their battle. But at least in Amazon v. Hachette Amazon is not gathering up all it’s loyal customers to attach Hachette.

            So good call, if you’re Automattic or your core value is core WP.

            We’ll just have to disagree on that.

            my concern is that they may stray from thinking about themselves as trusted service providers and think they are selling a fungible commodity.

            Let me understand; as long as they are providing services it’s okay, but if they productize their offerings so they don’t have to work by the hour for income then it is an issue for you? Or do I completely misunderstand?

            I want good people and products to stay solid with the unique value they provide.

            I agree.

            I do think, on the whole, a lot of the WP market has historically undervalued itself, and that makes me worry about some vendors’ longevity.

            I agree too.

            I can’t generalize though; some people push out subpar stuff and charge more than I think it’s worth. But I would avoid them at any price because I don’t trust them or see stable, sustainable value.

            I see that too. But one of the reasons is that neither Automattic nor the WordPress Foundation have provided any leadership, guidance, or oversight to allow commercial vendors to establish themselves as legitimate and to generate enough revenue to reasonably survive, so we continue to have the wild, wild west.

            Marketplaces need structure, but because of ideology WordPress marketplaces have no structure. And because of that void companies like Envato emerge to fill it, but they don’t do it in a manner that is best for WordPress at large, they do it in a manner that is best for Envato, in their case at least (and who can realistically blame them?)

            I have certainly seen and benefited from a market where the value and appeal of a WordPress site has gone up considerably. In that context, balking at a 5% guideline — especially one that came as a response to a direct, public question — seems problematic.

            The problem with this said “guideline” is it is a one-size fits all solution and that rarely works. Rather than guilt people why not do things that would create tangible value for those that contribute? For example, why not set up a program where people can dedicate people to work on WordPress and in return they gain promotional credits they can use for advertising on WordPress.org, sponsorships at WordCamps, and so on? Why not entice companies to contribute rather than try to shame them? I’m certain they’d get a lot more contributions that way, but it requires engaging with commercial suppliers instead of shunning them.

            Ironically, what WordPress needs to increase the value and appeal of a WordPress sites now (to benefit you and me) is strong commercial vendors to support the types of clients that have demand that commercial products and commercial support are available. In the past year I’ve had 3 major agencies hire me for Fortune 500 WordPress projects because of my LinkedIn page that says I’m a WordPress Architect yet prior to that I saw nothing from major agencies. Those agencies and those clients need more than the touchy-feely free unsupported plugins and themes. Yet I don’t see WordPress embracing or supporting them because of ideology.

            In summary on this point; yes, the WordPress ecosystem should support those with more time than money as it always has, but it does not do a good job of supporting those with more money than time.

          7. You’re right about the distastefulness. I did not see any of the Thesis interchanges back in 2010. I just looked that stuff up. Yes, very ugly, but I guess that’s how the sausage gets made. Matt is not afraid to “break the eggs,” and I feel certain that is an absolutely necessary executive trait. Has he always broken the right eggs? I don’t know, but I’m mostly pleased with the end result.

            On the other hand, what is the place for critics and pointed reportage in the WP community — the mediating institutions and less interested sources of insight that can moderate market and political frictions? What Brian does here is seldom attempted and seemingly never successful.

            Perhaps there are more figures than Matt who have interests to protect and clout to wield, so we don’t get a fully mature and healthy public sphere that includes a wide array of voices and perspectives. Is there a festering undercurrent of dissent and yes “resentment” that will poison the community in time? I’m always a bit worried about that. The culty, churchy, vendetta and scapegoating phenomenon seems endemic to popular open source projects whose principals and hopefuls live out their lives in the social ego space. To me it seems chronically unprofessional and immature, but repressing it to invisible back channels might be worse if it were possible, and it probably isn’t.

            Your closing paragraphs pose a lot of good questions and theses to ponder. Especially this: “the WordPress ecosystem should support those with more time than money as it always has, but it does not do a good job of supporting those with more money than time.”

        2. “Mike, you seem entirely resentful of the fact that Matt is a major shareholder in Automattic…”

          “Why do you persist in putting words in my mouth (3rd time now) that I never used, nor implied, and why have you not acknowledged my protests on this word? It’s downright rude. ”

          “Being a shareholder in a successful company is one thing, TV preachers living “lavish lifestyles” are another.”

          “You are taking the analogy I used far too literally. I have nothing but admiration for many of the people who have launched companies far more successful than Automattic: Jeff Besos, for example. And some of the nice things about Jeff is that he is unassuming when compared with people like Mark Zuckerberg and he is clear that he is a business person vs. being “a spiritual leader” of sorts.”

          “and that Matt is somehow a “hypocrite.””

          “Yes. I believe he has evolved into being one. But he’s not unique in that manner. In my life I have seen many evolve from an ideologue to a success, any as ideologue gain power, the rationalizations begin. ”

          “And it’s been true throughout history. Have you ever read The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements? That book describes rather clearly the pattern I called out.”

          “Pinning that image on Matt sounds like projection to me — it’s a hostile subjective judgment being made about an individual’s personal motives — ”

          “Read the book I just mentioned and you may realize that, in the “men of words'” own mind, they still believe they are pure of heart and conviction. But their reality has evolved and they’ve chosen to ignore how the power and wealth they’ve amassed has changed them. I expect the same is true of Matt.”

          “an individual we don’t know personally. ”

          “How do you know I don’t know him personally? I’ve met him and had several long discussions with him. I read many interviews with him and watched most of his keynotes. I’ve read countless posts he has written, on his blog, on trac and on mailing lists. ”

          “So true, what defines really “knowing someone personally?” I probably do not know him personally. ”

          “But I daresay that I know Matt far better than you know me, yet you are making similar “hostile subjective judgments” of me simply because of my criticism.”

          “What most people do know, if WP is a substantial part of their lives and work, is that Matt has been a big part of WP’s success and value to them. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, or that anyone should assume all his choices and motives are unquestionably great.”

          “No argument there, except I don’t see how that is relevant.”

          “Let me put my perspective in context….”

          “Again, not relevant, especially because it’s about the past and I’m addressing where the future leads.”

          “I don’t see that Matt has framed things that way, but you seem quick to do so. The necessary give and take has to be talked about, but if the talk becomes toxic and compromises trust, the results will be bad for everyone.”

          “I believe the talk has already become toxic, but I don’t see how it’s bad for everyone. ”

          “What’s bad for everyone is groupthink, i.e. “If Matt says it that it must be true and without agenda.”

          “I’m not resentful, I’m shining a light on the groupthink that happens in the WordPress community because I think it’s helpful to all of us to do so. If you’ve studied your history or your psychology you know that Groupthink can be much more dangerous than a bit of constructive criticism.”

          “And what’s also bad for everyone is faulty logic: It weakens an argument when faulty logic is used. By succumbing to groupthink we are leading with faulty logic. And that can be even worse.”

          “I daresay we probably want similar outcomes, but I’m just willing to say the emperor has no clothes when most everyone else is praising his new suit. And if you reply, please acknowledge what I’m actually saying vs. constructing a strawman to knock down instead.”

      2. @Dan,

        Thanks for that thougthful reply. I think we’ve reached eye-to-eye on our discussion, thanks for working it out.

        As for the last comment you quoted of mine about “more money than time” I can’t take credit for it. It was said by Marten Mickos, former CEO of MySQL and by Jonathan Schwartz, former CEO of Sun Microsystems. Not actually sure who first said it, though.

  8. @Mike –

    Nothing is life is “equal” or “fair”. Whether or not I make and equivalent portion of the wealth of the original core developers, people like Matt for example, is not what you should be concerned about. Is there a benefit to you or your business? Then contribute.

    I would not be able to live the lifestyle I do, which I very much enjoy, if it were not for WordPress. I feel I’ve received plenty by standing on the foundation of FREE and open source software the WordPress provided. Free to use the WordPress software. A free and open API on which I built my software ecosystem. Anything I can do to contribute back to those efforts is time well spent, IMO and will cost me far less in equivalent labor than the $20,000 Google charged me this year for using their “free and open” APIs.

    I may not get my 0.00001%* of the earnings back from WordPress that I put in as a direct result, but I certainly will reap the rewards in some fashion while providing others the opportunity to do what I did: Start working from home, part time, and enjoy my son and family while earning a decent wage.

    * I figure the dozens of hours I’ve spent on Codex and patches is a very small percentage of the millions of hours spent by others to get WordPress where it is today. If you contribute 8 hours of your time per month to contributing, what percentage of the lifetime effort of this project do you feel that equates to? 0.00001% is probably far too high.

  9. Nothing is life is “equal” or “fair”.

    “All in it together” implies equality. I was simply highlighting the irony in that statement as it relates to the WordPress community, nothing more.

    Whether or not I make and equivalent portion of the wealth of the original core developers, people like Matt for example, is not what you should be concerned about.

    Where did I say I was concerned about the wealth of others? You read meaning into my words that I did not intend.

    I have no issue with inequality (except for gross inequality, or in the case when it’s the government’s doing) I have an issue with ideology. And I especially have an issue when people who promote an ideology they have long since grown distant from in their own behavior. Why?

    Because it gives those people power to affect others in ways that can block the benefits others might receive.

    I would not be able to live the lifestyle I do, which I very much enjoy, if it were not for WordPress. …

    You make an assumption that if WordPress did not exist you would not have found some other livelihood. Who knows, maybe you’d be doing Joomla and feeling the same way about it. We don’t know, that was the road not taken.

    Your reply chose to focus on the benefits you have received from WordPress instead of my specific criticism. I recently have done very well financially because of WordPress (although for several years it was slim pickings.) So I value WordPress and it’s ecosystem.

    But that doesn’t mean I can’t separate out things that concern me about the WordPress world and criticize it.

    And there’s no reason to conflate any criticism in the WordPress world to be criticism of the entirety of the WordPress world.

    So please stop responding as if I called your baby ugly. I didn’t.

    -Mike

    P.S. There is a “reply” link above this comment. If you need to reply it would be helpful for all reading our thread if you could use it. 🙂

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