Matt Mullenweg Discusses Core Focuses, Downsides of a Consensus-Driven Model, and More on Apply Filters Podcast

Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of the WordPress open source project and CEO of Automattic, joined Pippin Williamson and Brad Touesnard on episode 81 of the Apply Filters podcast. Apply Filters is a podcast dedicated to WordPress development.

During the interview, Mullenweg touched on a number of topics including, a progress report on the three core focus areas, why he stepped back into the project lead role, and what’s not being talked about enough in the WordPress world.

There are quite a few things in this episode that piqued my interest. Near the beginning of the interview, Mullenweg is asked if there was a tipping point that made him decide to take on the role of project lead again.

“I’ve been personally frustrated by how long it has taken to do some things that I think should be relatively simple,” Mullenweg said. “Hearing that from other release leads over the past few years, and seeing some of the frustration because we have this rotating release lead philosophy.

“So hearing them voice some of the same frustrations, I was like, okay, maybe this is something more with how the project is organized versus something that I personally am having trouble with.

“We had a couple of years of releases that were a little uninspiring from the point of view of moving the needle forward for its adoption, even though they did a lot of great things and people worked really hard on them, and we closed 700 tickets, and had 130 or 150 contributors.

“We were beating or we were doing a good job on a lot of metrics that we were tracking, but, on the whole, I think it really started to feel like WordPress was falling behind the state of the art in the world.”

It was interesting to hear Mullenweg admit that WordPress releases in the last couple of years have been a bit uninspiring. This is a sentiment I and others in the community have shared in recent years. Development of Gutenberg, WordPress’ new editor, has created a buzz around the project that I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s not surprising considering it is going to be the largest fundamental change to WordPress since its creation.

Disagree and Commit

During the discussions on whether or not to merge the REST API into core, Mullenweg argued that it shouldn’t be integrated until it was 100% complete. The core development team ultimately decided to merge it into core and iterate improvements. In the show, Mullenweg describes the disagree and commit principle.

“This idea that even though I disagreed with some of the things going in, the moment it was committed, I was advocating for it as strongly as anything else,” Mullenweg said.

“The historical thoughts or ideas or whatever I had don’t really matter at this point. It’s in, so I want to work to make it as widely adopted and successful as possible. That’s the commit part of it, which is funny because, in an open source world, commit obviously has a double meaning.

“But if you think about it, you can apply this to all parts of your life. Debate vigorously and have lots of arguments. Bring up all your worries or thoughts or concerns and hash it out. But once a decision has been made and the decision was made to bring the content endpoints in, don’t re-litigate it. That’s not really helpful to anyone.

“Most of all, don’t sabotage it. It’s in, so let’s make it successful.”

Downsides of a Consensus-Driven Model

Near the end of the interview, Mullenweg is asked what philosophy, feature, or topic in the WordPress world is not talked about enough. “The downsides of a consensus-driven model creating products,” he responded.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I think that almost everyone at some point in their career has had a bad manager. And sometimes our reaction to that is to say that no one should be making decisions. There should be no managers, sort of like a more reactionary approach to it because that is true that it does solve the problem of the bad manager.

“I think what we miss is the only thing worse than a bad manager is 100 bad managers, which is sometimes what we get when we just try to make decisions or drive development of something like WordPress–which is, at the end of the day, a user product based on who shows up to a dev meeting that day, or what the loudest voices in the room might advocate for.

“Even policies that we’ve adopted in the past with WordPress, let’s say the 80/20 rule, which is on our principles page, can be misused and, I think, probably have been misused more the past few years than it has been used in the way it was intended.

“Just that kind of getting back to the question of how does this change a user’s life or not, and that reflects itself in an open marketplace through adoption. That is, I think, good to just remind ourselves of regularly because everyone, myself included, can get kind of down in the weeds of a particular ticket or idea we have or idea someone else has that might not be productive.”

To hear Mullenweg discuss these topics and more, I highly encourage you to listen to the full interview which includes a transcript of the show.


7 responses to “Matt Mullenweg Discusses Core Focuses, Downsides of a Consensus-Driven Model, and More on Apply Filters Podcast”

  1. This talk smells of React choice…

    However the Gutenberg and RestAPI choices have been more a must than anything else, compared to any existing CMS UI.
    I wonder how much hackable is going to be the first one, so maybe there can be new possibilities rather than just exclude plugins.

  2. A quote not mentioned in this article that really worries me:

    The second thing is we need to throw out our rule book and just talk about when doing that is appropriate. We, for often very good reasons, do things like say WordPress is WCAG compliant and no new code should come in that is not. That’s a tradeoff, and that’s a tradeoff that we’ve enshrined. We should readdress it if we think that that tradeoff, whether for a particular feature, a particular user experience, or a particular benefit, is worth it.

    (The transcript is misspelled “WCAT”.) The suggestion that this should be ignored is really scary. I’d really like to hear Matt provide some examples of WCAG standards he things could be ignored without locking real people out from new features.

    A lot of people fought really hard to get WCAG 2.0 Level AA adopted as a standard, and I think following those guidelines is quite reasonable.

    • Good point, Mark.

      Interestingly, Winn-Dixie lost a case just two weeks ago because of the lack of accessibility of its website. While Matt was (in principle, at least) talking about, I doubt his shareholders would like him jeopardizing the bottom line of because of his “readdress[ing] … that tradeoff”.

  3. No Steve Jobs and Apple would have died just like Commodore.
    No Jeff Bezos and we’d all have to go to the mall to shop.
    No Elon Musk and our rockets would all be disposable.

    No visionary and you have no vision. Mid-level micro-managers are a bad thing. Having a visionary and a micro-manager at the top of the enterprise is critical, if you want to be a special company.

    Even with the small team I run, nothing leaves the shop until I personally inspect it. Sorry but that’s the way it is.

    • Well, sounds like that you take the quality control very seriously. And that is good. On the long road, that generates a lot of trust.

      It takes someone with the vision, and the spirit to actually make sure that the vision is delivered as expected. Managers are just that, people that helps the vision reach “safe port” more quickly.

      I wonder for how long this consensus (democracy?) model will work.

      It is not bad, but if you need dramatic changes, t is not going to happen with that.

  4. I’d like to hear specifics on which parts of WCAG Matt believes can or should be thrown out, with principle, guideline and success criteria citations. If we’re throwing out all of WCAG, I’d like to hear how you ensure that you’re not excluding an entire segment of the world’s population that is five times the population of PHP 5.2 users, who are still being included. Finally, I’d like to learn how someone who was claiming that assistive technology fixes websites so accessibility isn’t a big deal a mere year ago comes to the conclusion that you can just throw out WCAG, like it’s backwards compatibility or something.

    I really want to believe that Matt does not intend to exclude people with disabilities, and that he believes that we should be able to participate in and benefit from the democratization of publishing just like anybody else because we’re people. But all I have to go on are non-commital statements at best, and I have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to turn those non-commital statements into anything other than “I’m not necessarily opposed to your having a seat at the table, but you’ll need to build your own chare and then negotiate with the other people at the table for a spot.” I want to believe that the statements Mat has made regarding accessibility are based on a complete lack of information, and that the only reason he’s suggesting that WCAG can be thrown out is because he has no knowledge of WCAG and just doesn’t realize what that statement implies. But that requires me to go out on an incredibly shaky limb.


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