Contributing Back to WordPress

Photo by Vladimir Kaladan Petkov
Photo by Vladimir Kaladan Petkov

During a session at WordCamp Europe, Matt Mullenweg was asked how companies contribute back to WordPress, how they’re doing it, and what companies should do more of. He responded to the question in-depth in a blog post entitled Five for the Future. In the post, he outlines 5% as being a good rule of thumb to avoid the tragedy of the commons. The post ignited a healthy discussion throughout the WordPress community.

While his post is more about WordPress organizations, companies, and agencies and how they can grow their part of the pie and WordPress as a whole, I’m going to focus on individual contributions.

What is a WordPress Contribution?

Contribution Box
photo credit: Chrstophercc

The definition of what classifies as a contribution to WordPress is subjective. In the broadest sense of the term, I define contribution as anything that furthers the WordPress project. I seperate contributions to WordPress into two groups, direct and indirect. Direct contributions are those that deal with the core of WordPress such as patches, leading a release, and commits. These have a direct impact on WordPress and the millions of people who use it.

Indirect contributions are those that further the project without using code. Examples include meetups, WordCamps, and tech support. These are what I think make up the vast majority of contributions to WordPress.

Contributing to WordPress Without Realizing it

As I thought about the 5% goal and whether or not I meet the criteria, I had an epiphany. Thousands of people likely contribute to WordPress everyday without realizing it.

  • A friend emails you and needs WordPress support. You help fix their problem.
  • Someone needs a particular plugin to fulfill a need and you offer a suggestion that works.
  • You’re at a local meetup and help someone figure out how to use a particular feature in WordPress.

All of the examples above are indirect ways of contributing to WordPress but are things millions of people do everyday. In these moments, users are helping each other while in the background, they’re contributing to WordPress. This is important because it means a lot of individuals are probably closer to the 5% goal than they might realize.

The Impact of Contributions

One of the first comments to Mullenweg’s article is a question asked by bftrick, “I like the idea of having a full-time employee that works on WordPress core but I think I’d rather have everyone on board and contributing 5% of their time. What do you think about that?” Mullenweg’s response is as follows:

Any percent that people can pitch in is fantastic! Some tasks divide into smaller pieces better than others, I’m sure over time you’ll find the balance that maximizes your impact. That actually brings up a good point, it’s good to look at what impact you’re having — I’ve seen companies dedicate a person full-time that hasn’t really had a big impact, and people working just a few hours a week that have had a big one. Look at the outcomes and results of what you contribute objectively, and if it’s not working try something different.

I find it fascinating that some companies devoting time and effort to work on WordPress can end up having little impact. Mullenweg’s comment is a good reminder to look at the impact your contributions are having.

The Value of Contributions

Value Of Contributions

After years of being involved in the community, it’s my understanding that every contribution counts no matter how small it is. In December of 2013, I explained with the help of a few mentors, how I contributed to the core of WordPress for the first time. I corrected a typo inside the default theme. I’d almost classify this as an indirect contribution but since it deals with the core of WordPress, I consider it a direct contribution. Due to the typo I fixed, my name was added to the credits page of WordPress 3.8.

There are hundreds of ways for people to contribute to WordPress but few that receive public acknowledgement. This is one of the reasons why badges have been added to user profiles.

wordpress-profileIf you’ve organized or have spoken at a WordCamp, which I classify as an indirect contribution, you’ll be publicly acknowledged with a badge.

On the surface, all contributions to WordPress no matter how small appear to be valued equally. However, WordPress is code that is written and maintained by humans. If direct contributions from volunteers decline to nothing, all of the indirect contributions become a moot point. While I think writing about WordPress is definitely a worthy contribution to the project, the reality is, code is what gets the job done.

Contributing Back to WordPress Just Makes Sense

While Automattic makes a significant contribution to the WordPress project, I’d hate to see it become the only large contributor. Development of WordPress 4.1 is being lead by John Blackbourn, who is employed by the agency, Code For The People. It’s the second release in a row to be lead by an individual not employed by Audrey Capital or Automattic. This is a welcome trend and something I’d like to see continue into the future.

For companies, agencies, and anyone else who rely on WordPress to put food on the table, contributing back to the project seems like common sense. WordPress is 11 years old but if those with a vested interest don’t contribute back at least 5% as suggested by Mullenweg, there’s a chance we might not be able to celebrate WordPress’ 21st birthday.

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5 responses to “Contributing Back to WordPress”

  1. I didn’t really understand how this one idea proposed by Matt sparked so much controversy. Matt proposed a rule of thumb, which is a principle that is not necessarily intended to be accurate for everyone. Many people focused on the how they could give or not give their 5%. It seems to me that the point of his post wasn’t that everyone go out and give 5% of their dollars, manpower, and/or time back to the project.

    The point is to contribute what you can. If you can only contribute 0.01%, then contribute your 0.01%. If you can contribute 10%, great.

    Contributing source code to core is awesome, but that’s only a small part of what makes WordPress what it is. There are countless avenues for contribution. Even my cousin, who can’t even manage to learn basic HTML, has brought in new users for WordPress. His only involvement with the project is running a 200-visitor/month blog. He loves it so much though that he’s contributed back by bringing new people in.

    • I think everyone accepts that what Matt proposed makes sense. What sparked controversy for most people was summed up by Ben

      “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.”

      For me it was a rather harsh notion of what contribution was that is not taking into account the diversity in the community about which I wrote more here :

  2. The idea put across is that if you’re doing OK, 5% is a target to aim for. It suggests though that less is struggling along. Yet of all the open source projects I work with, WP comes across as the most needy. Apache, Linux, Debian, MySQL, WPSEO, W3TC, Varnish, and many others are all projects on which our and many other businesses are built upon.

    And none of those make me feel bad for not using them, or for not submitting the inevitably ignored patches. I could, I suppose, hire a German to sit there creating German translations of everything and they’d definitely go in (unless somebody else beat us to it), or a support assistant to run through the support forums, but that’s largely a thankless task for a business which is morally obligated to its shareholders to make a return.

    In many ways I’d prefer it if there was something in the middle, between free and the super expensive VIP services or partnerships offered by Automattic. Our business relies on MS Office, and for that we pay an annual license fee. It’s a small payment, really, and less than 0.1% of our turnover, let alone 5%, and it feels like a nice straightforward relationship. MS don’t make us feel guilty for using their software, and they appear to be doing quite nicely on the back of it.

    It’s fine to give things away. Really, it is, but if that’s not on the back of a sustainable business model then we have a problem. I’m not proposing a solution here, just a feeling. A sense of unease at the way the statement was formed and what it hints for the future. If not enough money and time is being invested into WP then the clients and users won’t, by and large, dig deep, but will move onto a platform that *does* invest more, even if it’s paid for.

    It’s an interesting business problem, and one that takes a smarter brain than mine, but I feel that WP needs either a true and openly accountable foundation behind it, or it needs a business behind it which has a model that funds its ongoing development.


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