Press the Issue a MasterWP Podcast

How Did the Pandemic Affect WordPress Contributors?

Contributors are the life blood of open source projects, and WordPress is no different. When the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for people to contribute, how was the project affected? How and where did our structures and processes change and evolve to match this challenge?

Press the Issue
Press the Issue
How Did the Pandemic Affect WordPress Contributors?
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Top Takeaways

Special thanks to:

  • Allyson Souza
  • Andrea Middleton
  • Brian Coords
  • Cami Kaos
  • David Bisset
  • David Spinks
  • David Wolfpaw
  • Ian Svboda
  • Marieke van de Rakt

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Monet Davenport:
Welcome to Press The Issue, a podcast from MasterWP, your source for industry insights for WordPress professionals. Get show notes, transcripts, and more information about the show at masterwp.com/presstheissue.

Allie Nimmons:
By 2020, Allyson Souza had been wo...

Monet Davenport:
Welcome to Press The Issue, a podcast from MasterWP, your source for industry insights for WordPress professionals. Get show notes, transcripts, and more information about the show at masterwp.com/presstheissue.

Allie Nimmons:
By 2020, Allyson Souza had been working with WordPress community events, word camps, and meetups, for about 5 years. In early 2020, they were excitedly planning the third WordCamp São Paulo. They had high hopes. The last two WordCamps in Sao Palo were pretty successful. They had around 700 attendees in 2019, they had begun a kids’ workshop, and they were focused on boosting diversity and getting more speakers.

Allyson Souza:
I enjoy being around people that share my visions about free software, publishing, democratization, and part of me really like to see people at our events, being able to get knowledge and make connections, and even sometimes find a job or freelance. It’s very satisfying.

Allie Nimmons:
Then, 2020 happened.

News Clips:
… High alert, screening passengers for symptoms of a deadly new virus. But first, though we know now it’s possible the virus could have been spreading as early as December 2019, by the time the White House partially banned travel from China, infection levels start to explode all over the world.

Allie Nimmons:
So, a lot changed for Allyson, and they could feel their WordPress community change around them too.

Allyson Souza:
Everybody was tense. I felt that everyone was tired, afraid to be sick, and afraid for their families. I was feeling that too. After the pandemic started, our agency moved to home offices a week before the government recommendations, because we saw the news and how things were evolving in other countries. My mental and physical health started to drop. With everything that was happening, the community involvement started to feel more like a duty than something I was happy doing.

Allie Nimmons:
Allyson is definitely not the only person to experience this kind of a shift, and he’s definitely not the only person to stop volunteering as a WordPress open-source contributor during the pandemic.

Allie Nimmons:
My name is Allie Nimmons. I’m a WordPress builder, instructor, community member, and the digital producer of this podcast. As I press into issues relating to the WordPress open-source project and beyond, I want to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest most impactful event of the century thus far has affected our open-source system.

Monet Davenport:
Press The Issue by MasterWP is sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do. Now, let it make you money teaching what you do. To create a course with LearnDash, visit learndash.com.

Allie Nimmons:
The most recent WordPress release, 6.0, was developed in tons of different ways by over 500 people. And what’s so crazy about this is that these contributors are all volunteers. The definition of “volunteer” here gets a bit loose, but we’ll address that later. So, knowing that, let’s take a minute to look at volunteering overall.

Allie Nimmons:
So, in the first few months of the pandemic, volunteermatch.org released a report that stated nearly a quarter of nonprofit had to temporarily halt their operations, and 1% had to stop permanently. When asked, volunteers cited health concerns as being the main reason why they stopped volunteering. No big surprise there.

Allie Nimmons:
The Corporation for National and Community Service found that before the pandemic, nearly a third of all Americans volunteered at least once a year, and during the pandemic, that number plummeted by about 66%. Fidelity Charity shared that two in three people who continued to volunteer ended up relying on virtual opportunities.

Allie Nimmons:
So, that means that about a third of the people who volunteered before either didn’t want to, or couldn’t figure out how to continue volunteering online. That’s a lot of people stepping back and a lot of problems not being solved. There seems to be somewhat of an uptick in volunteering now, over two years since the beginning of the pandemic.

Allie Nimmons:
According to a research engagement study done by Pointsoflight.org, 73% of people in America say that volunteering is more important now than it ever was before. There isn’t a lot of data about how volunteering was affected in the long-term. A lot of the data is from the start when things were really fresh and people were still in that hoarding-toilet-paper phase.

Allie Nimmons:
But what I think we can learn from this is that the pandemic changed and challenged people’s ability to volunteer, at least in the beginning. As we felt more fear, we felt a greater need to step back from volunteering our time. And as the fear subsided, the desire to go back to normal, to get back to those volunteering opportunities that brought us joy, returned. And perhaps the pandemic made us see just how valuable our time is, and feel more generous with it.

Allie Nimmons:
Psychologists have identified five main motivations for volunteering: values, community concern, esteem enhancement, understanding, and personal development. It’s easy to volunteer when you feel the work you’re doing aligns with the things that you value: your love for your community, the way you view yourself, the understanding you may gain of a new group, and how the work benefits you overall.

Allie Nimmons:
People volunteer or contribute to WordPress for the same kinds of reasons. At the end of 2021, I actually asked on Twitter why people think contributing to WordPress is important. And answers included stuff like the desire to give back, giving a voice to the voiceless, leaving stuff better than when we found it, creating the change we want to see, all that good stuff.

Allie Nimmons:
And this all aligns with why people volunteer generally. WordPress as a project displays values people agree with, they feel community concern and want to contribute to make the community better, there’s a degree of esteem enhancement that comes with being a contributor, understanding comes into play as we meet and work with other people around the world, and we achieve personal development as we gain new skills as contributors. So, surely despite a global pandemic, those emotional triggers don’t change. So, what did?

Allie Nimmons:
It’s harder to volunteer when people don’t feel those five things, but it’s virtually impossible when those motivations are deprioritized in the face of health concerns, burnout, fear, and grief. My hypothesis, from being a contributor myself and speaking with others over the past two years, really comes down to the prioritization and the burnout.

Allie Nimmons:
It feels really good to get out of the house, to go to a local shelter and take care of puppies. That’s probably the volunteering that we’d all like to do. But volunteering online when you’ve spent all day working online, performing tasks that don’t have immediate payoff, not the kind of serotonin boost you get for playing with a puppy, and working on software that feels much bigger than you, it just doesn’t provide that same level of satisfaction for most people. But those are all just my thoughts. So, I wanted to speak with someone who experienced all of this firsthand.

Cami Kaos:
Hi, my name is Cami Kaos. My primary role was to maintain community relationships, wrangle our volunteers, mentor at WordCamps, and keep things going with the WordCamp program, the mentor program and the meetups program.

Allie Nimmons:
In 2020 Cami was one of the people who led the charge to move WordPress contributing online. And she watched as people went through that same up and down that we talked about before. As the fear kept them indoors, they were eager to move things online.

Cami Kaos:
My job was to work with those volunteers, to wrangle the volunteers, to have consistency. Suddenly we moved from really having a big push on in-person events, meetup groups, do action events, to how do we do all this online? And at first I was seeing a lot of people excited to organize online events, fans who didn’t live in an area where they could get in… and they couldn’t make everything balance when they had to go be somewhere, but they could find a way to make it balanced when it was just online.

Allie Nimmons:
But as the fear subsided and the burnout, stress, and confusion set in, people wanted to do more.

Cami Kaos:
About a month in there is just this utter and complete fatigue where we realize this is no longer a fun novelty thing that we’re doing. This is our world now. We can’t go and see our friends, we can’t do in-person events. Now, rather than being excited that we can do these fun new event types, we’re upset because we can’t do the at-there event types, “Why won’t you let us?” Then, I saw people start to just ghost.

Allie Nimmons:
Within that period of time, how many people, roughly, do you feel ended up ghosting or stepping back or disappearing?

Cami Kaos:
More than half. It was pretty significant.

Allie Nimmons:
The attempted solution was Learn.wordpress.org. It’s a series of workshops and lessons that help people to not only get started with WordPress, but get started with contributing. It’s a great resource. Highly recommend. But even this proved difficult. In terms of getting volunteers on board, it’s kind of a catch 22. We need volunteers to build the thing to help support the volunteers.

Cami Kaos:
And I have never, in my decade with WordPress, had a hard time getting people to volunteer to do something until it came time to work on the Learn program, because A, it was a whole new thing people had to learn how to do, but B, everyone’s life was just bogged down with heaviness. We have to look at the mental health crisis that the pandemic created, we have to look in families where you have children in the home, those children were no longer going to school, they were no longer going to preschool or daycare.

Cami Kaos:
The time that they were going to use to spend to engage with other humans needed to be more meaningful to them than just working on a project that they weren’t sure what they were going to do with it. There were people that just didn’t answer things, and then there were people that were, “Yes, I will get to that.”

Cami Kaos:
So, if I asked 20 people, I would say 10 of them would say, “No,” five of them would say nothing, and five of them would say, “Yes, I can start working on that on this day or this day.” And those dates just kept getting pushed further and further and further out.

Allie Nimmons:
And it got so bad and so stressful that eventually Cami decided to step back herself.

Cami Kaos:
And I needed to prioritize taking care of myself and my family and maintaining my equilibrium. It had become such a frustration that I think it’s part of the reason that I started looking for different employment opportunity.

Monet Davenport:
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Allie Nimmons:

So, on the whole, most people stopped volunteering locally, traveling to volunteer due to travel restrictions and CDC guidelines, things we can’t really help. And you’d think that a virtual environment, a contributing environment that takes place largely in Slack, would have thrived. And in some ways it really did.

Allie Nimmons:

The good thing we can look at here is that open-source as a whole, not just WordPress, has thrived under the remote-only model. And in a lot of cases, it really looks like open-source had a lot more of an effect on COVID-19 than the other way around. GitHub has this really great article about how all of these COVID-19 dashboards and research groups and open-source projects burst into effect as a reaction to the pandemic.

Allie Nimmons:

Users created over 5,000 new repositories that were specifically related to COVID-19. But when you take a look at these projects, they’re not WordPress projects. Why was WordPress not affected in the same way? Simply put, WordPress as an open-source project has nothing to do with COVID. It’s a much broader, older project, meant for a more wide variety of purposes.

Allie Nimmons:

Contributing might have felt so indirectly helpful as to not matter to some people, as opposed to a brand new novel open-source project that was directly in reaction to the pandemic. Kind of makes you feel you’re doing something in a time where everyone felt they couldn’t do anything.

Allie Nimmons:

The other factor is that our community is so dependent on events. Without those events, without that person-to-person interaction, people’s enthusiasm for the project and the work waned. It’s an “out of sight out of mind” thing.

Allie Nimmons:

I want to appreciate for a second how big the WordPress open-source project really is. These numbers genuinely surprised me. Here’s Andrea Middleton on the Masters of Community Podcast with David Spinks in June 2020, and she’s talking here about the size of the community team alone in 2019.

Andrea Middleton:

Round about two or 3000 people strong. We have made up meetup groups, I believe our last count was about 850 local meetup groups in over a 100 countries in the world, and then last year I think we had about a little over 140 annual conferences, all centered on WordPress and all organized by and staffed by and everything all done by true volunteer labor.

Allie Nimmons:

Andrea talks optimistically about how the shift to virtual might end up being a great thing. It may allow more diverse voices. Maybe people who couldn’t participate before will join in.

Andrea Middleton:

We’re really doubling down on our speaker training as well in our program. So, we had this long campaign to train people from groups traditionally marginalized in tech to become conference speakers. And we had been trying to train organizers to give this great workshop that we call our Diversity Speaker Training Workshop.

Allie Nimmons:

I can tell you off the bat that these workshops are great and they work well. Are they enough? Can a project like WordPress ever do enough? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. Despite amazing new virtual opportunities that presented themselves, is the current volunteer system enough to pandemic-proof a project like WordPress?

Allie Nimmons:

We heard about how Cami’s volunteers slipped away. Did they come back stronger than ever before, or are there still gaps? To get a view for the state of things I spoke with Angela Jin. Angela is Head of Programs and Contributor Experience for Automatics Division, sponsored to work on the WordPress project full time.

Allie Nimmons:

She shared that at the beginning of 2020 she was focused on increasing the number of WordCamps from the 140 WordCamps that were successfully held in 2019. But very quickly that focus changed to helping organizers pivot or cancel their events entirely.

Angela Jin:

It was really painful because while we were doing the responsible thing, it did mean the loss of a beloved part of our community. So, we certainly lost in-person organizers during that time because the role wasn’t available.

Allie Nimmons:

But it did seem, from the ashes rose new opportunities, new events, and stronger ways to connect.

Angela Jin:

Realizing that people couldn’t meet in-person led to teams organizing some really amazing online events for a period that showcased community strengths, like WordCamp Spain’s late night show and WordCamp Austin with an innovative platform and the musical community talent show. And when people got tired of online events, because that was what we were doing all the time, people came together to explore other options like more education and training opportunities through Learn WordPress. All of that happened in 2020.

Allie Nimmons:

Angela speaks to a lot of people who make the WordPress community team events and contributions happen. I wanted to know how people really felt and how they reacted across the pandemic. A lot of the solution was leaving the door open for those of us who wanted to step away, and creating opportunity for people who wanted to amp up their volunteering.

Angela Jin:

People were hurting, and understandably so. And that meant that people needed to step away from contribution for various reasons. And in those moments, the best thing we can do is to be supportive of each other and remind them that when and if they want to come back, they are more than welcome to. And at the same time, there were some volunteers who found connection and agency in volunteering. And for those people, I was super happy to match them to a WordPress Make team.

Allie Nimmons:

Unfortunately, but probably predictably, the number of events, and therefore number of attendees, over the last three and a half years has been waning. Like I said before, there were 140 camps in 2019, there were 33 camps in 2020. A third of those were in-person and the other ones online. There were 19 purely online events in 2021. And so far, in the first half of 2022, there’s been one online and six in-person events.

Allie Nimmons:

The numbers around core contributors over the last few years has fluctuated. This was encouraging to hear, especially after hearing Cami talk about the way people disappeared so early on.

Angela Jin:

Our last major release in 2019 was 5.3, which had 645 contributors, which at the time was the largest contributor group, the lowest being 481 contributors to 5.7 in March 2021, and the highest being 805 for the 5.5 release in August 2020. The most recent release was 5.9 in January, which had 624 contributors.

Angela Jin:

Of course, we can’t just look at major core releases. There is so much more to the project. So, another number that I like to revisit is the results of the WordPress translation day, or month, really, because it ran throughout September 2021. That event included 22 local events, six global events, and many sprints, discussions, and projects.

Angela Jin:

The numbers there are incredible. They have a whole page where they’ve listed what was achieved during that month. We had over 500,000 strings approved, and almost 2,000 active translation contributors participating, including 697 new contributors.

Allie Nimmons:

So, sounds like, from a lot of what Angela told me, we were experienced with working online already, and so that pivot to online events and online collaboration wasn’t as much of a pain point as it could have been. And the removal of in-person events, the dissolving of geographical boundaries, led to an increase in collaboration cross-nationally, and we’ll see other examples of that later on.

Allie Nimmons:

But before we go too much further into events, I want to deviate for just a second. Remember when I said the definition of “volunteer” here is a bit loose? When it comes to open-source, contributing and volunteering are often thought of as the same thing, but it’s not always the case. A lot of contributors, like Angela herself for example, are paid or sponsored.

Allie Nimmons:

Through the company they work for they are given the time and support to contribute. Given that so much of this focus has been on giving up that free time to contribute, I want to compare that to the experience of paid contributing. And there is really no one better to speak to about this than Marika Van de Racht.

Marieke van de Rakt:

I’m not the founder because, Yoast, my husband is really the founder, but I’m the founder of parts of the company, so the founder of Yoast Academy, for example, and I’ve been with the company for ages. During the pandemic we sold Yoast to Neufville Digital, and afterwards, I already indicated that I didn’t want to be the CEO anymore. So, I’m now the Head of Strategy at Yoast.

Allie Nimmons:

For those of you who don’t know, Yoast created Yoast SEO, which is an SEO plugin for WordPress, with 5 million active installations and 350 million downloads. To give you an idea of Yoast’s relationship to the WordPress open-source system, in 2021, WordPress co-founder, Matt Mullenweg shared his annual State of the Word, and in that he shared that Yoast was the second largest supplier of paid contributors to the WordPress project.

Allie Nimmons:

Even though they had a fraction of the employees as a lot of other companies on that same list, they still blew them out of the water when it came to contributing. And 2021 wasn’t the first year. They have been consistently at the top of this list when it comes to WordPress companies with a strong base of contributors. It’s been something that the company has valued from the beginning.

Marieke van de Rakt:

Yoast, the person, founded Yoast, and he was contributing long before he ever made money out of plugins. So, I think he started his first WordPress site in 2006, and has been contributing ever since.

Allie Nimmons:

So, the pandemic. How did this affect the number of contributors on the Yoast team during lockdown?

Marieke van de Rakt:

I think the number went up during the pandemic, and I think the main reason why it went up is because we are a very in-house-oriented company. We were. And we noticed that during the pandemic everybody was working, well, from home. So, we noticed that worked really well, and that opened up a new market for us because then we could hire people that were not living in the Netherlands. So, we hired a lot of people during the pandemic.

Allie Nimmons:

More employees means more people contributing to WordPress for Yoast, plain and simple. One of WordPress’s strongest assets is its global contribution team. So, the more global, the better. The pandemic helped the Yoast leadership team realize just how much they could expand and open up. Now, that remote work was so ubiquitous.

Allie Nimmons:

Paid WordPress contributors definitely have a leg up. They have the privilege of being able to contribute with direct compensation, they have a community of coworkers around them to help them get started, and they have a support system financially, emotionally, intellectually, especially at a company like Yoast.

Marieke van de Rakt:

So, just like you have contributed days at WordCamp Europe, we have those in our offices, and we also invite people that live in the Netherlands that can join us, but you can also join us online. So, some people like to contribute in a team from their own home but still with other people, and then that day is dedicated contributor day.

Allie Nimmons:

So, this is amazing. This is one of the reasons wifi for the future exists, to encourage companies to do exactly what Yoast is doing. But the fact of the matter is there are still people who are not lucky enough to work someplace where contributing is baked in. With that in mind, I did want the full picture. I was curious about whether or not the emotional toll of the pandemic was enough to supersede the benefits of contributing in such a supportive way. The short answer is, yes. And where does this take us back to? Events.

Marieke van de Rakt:

And I think, internally, for the people that are not in our core team, there has been a decrease in wanting to participate because you hire new people and you have to onboard those people into WordPress. But the only way to properly onboard them, in my opinion, is to bring them to a WordCamp and to let them really meet people and to let them understand why WordPress is so awesome.

Marieke van de Rakt:

And we try to do that internally, but that was hard. So, I do see that those contributor days we do at Yoast get a bit less attention because it’s less fun. It’s less fun, because if we do it in the office you’ll get a nice lunch and everybody’s excited, and that’s just hard to get that atmosphere via Zoom and via Slack.

Allie Nimmons:

When I spoke with her, Marika had just come back from WordCamp Europe, which was the first big WordPress event in a very long time, well, two years, but it felt like an eternity. I wanted to see where her head was, what she was looking toward and what she was hoping for as far as the future of contributing. And I must say, personally, I quite agree with a lot of what she had to say.

Marieke van de Rakt:

More companies are going to really contribute to the Fight the Future Initiative, because up until now it really felt that there were only a few that participated, and that makes it just hard. And I think it would be a good thing if it’s not just automatic and a bit of Yoast, and then some other small ones, but that we get the big host that make the most money out of WordPress to get involved as well. I hope that’s the future.

Allie Nimmons:

I love that Marika said this. WordPress contributors don’t just appear out of thin air. If they aren’t being onboarded and coached by companies who have pledged time to Five for the Future, they may not find their way in at all. Before the pandemic, so many people found the community through WordPress events. That’s how I did. But if we’re thinking of future-proofing our open-source project, leaning on companies who depend on WordPress to bring in more contributors is the next best thing.

Allie Nimmons:

So, speaking of events, let’s circle back. There have been numerous challenges to those events in the past two years as volunteers struggle to adapt to the experience online. Just like Marika said, the events are where its lifeblood of our community is. And this lack of physical events and lack of enthusiasm for virtual events seems to be a big reason for the dip in contributing.

David Bisset:

So, me and a few other meetup organizers, came up with the concept of what we call a “mega meetup”.

Allie Nimmons:

That’s David Bisset. He’s been organizing WordPress meetups and WordCamps in Miami since 2008. David found a unique way to make the local virtual events space more engaging when folks were finding it difficult to engage.

David Bisset:

The goal was that we could all meet together virtually since we’re not meeting together in-person, virtually would be easier, and we could share the load collectively in terms of finding speakers and topics to talk about. So, assuming that we had a topic, we had a speaker and we promoted it, we have had close to 200 people, maybe even a bit more on a mega meetup. The feedback we’ve gotten so far for the mega meetups for the most part has been very positive.

Allie Nimmons:

These virtual events had some pretty cool surprise benefits. Of course, a virtual event means the elimination of travel and those kinds of boundaries. You can invite whoever you wanted from wherever they happen to be. While so many people felt the stress of virtual calls, others found them more stimulating simply because they were able to meet people that they couldn’t before.

David Bisset:

The results from this action means that we got people from the WordPress community from all over the world. So, we would have this thing in the beginning of the mega meetup that would allow people to see where they’re from, they would announce it in the Zoom chat. And we would get responses a lot from the local area, but also areas of the meetups that we knew that we invited, but also get responses from other states in the US and other countries, sometimes literally on the other side of the planet. So, we’re in South Florida, so we would get people from India, from South America, from Europe, Africa, a whole bunch of things.

Allie Nimmons:

There is somewhat of a pipeline that brings people from casual users to event attendees to, hopefully, contributors. The more contributors, the more things get done. So, how did the move to virtual affect people’s relationship with creating and using WordPress software?

David Bisset:

I had someone tell me that thanks to seeing people from Taiwan on the meetup and the people from Taiwan giving comments, that these people, it helped them appreciate that the plugin they were developing or writing, they maybe should add some additional translations or features to make it easier to use just because they heard other WordPress people on the meetup from another country.

Allie Nimmons:

What kinds of effects in terms of challenges came to organizing within the pandemic experience?

David Bisset:

So, while there is a drop-off on our meetups, there’s always the same core people that you see every time. Some of them only have one or two hours to spare a month just to be there sitting and listening. And as a volunteer and an organizer, I don’t think we should ever take that for granted. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any challenges, however. I would probably say that virtual meetups, there is a struggle sometimes to some of the instructional experience, some tutorials and walkthroughs from speakers could be better in-person.

David Bisset:

But on a positive note, thanks to the virtual meetups, organizers are able to secure speakers that specialize in skills. So, the person that wrote this plugin or the person that’s worked on WordPress Core, they can virtually speak to the meetup.

Allie Nimmons:

And moving forward, of all the challenges and all the things we’ve learned, having to take our contributing system and adapting it, how are things going to change? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a crystal ball or anything. But David has some thoughts, based on his active involvement and observations, regarding how our community has worked and how it’s working now.

David Bisset:

I’ve heard a lot from numerous people who share their opinion that contributions are in a bit of decline today, or at least of a need, because of the lack of in-person events. WordCamps probably were away, or at least a recruiting station for contributors, especially the large ones. We haven’t had the same education that we now have today, two plus years afterwards, so in the beginning it was hard for people to go up that on-ramp when suddenly WordCamps ceased two exist for a while, meetups too.

David Bisset:

The growing complexity of certain aspects of WordPress also makes contributions sometimes a little difficult, especially in code, but ultimately, in-person events, I think, directly or indirectly drove more of the contributor wave than most people probably thought. Fortunately, some new WordPress developers and contributors have been seen in every release, but one has to wonder of projects like WP Notify, or up until recently, the Performance Enhancements team, that those things could be along much faster now or bigger if in-person events continued. So, it’s something one has to think about at times.

David Bisset:

Hybrid events are probably the best experience in terms of accessibility, if one is able to do that. So, we did learn some lessons on that. And I know that we’ll probably, even after events are starting up as they are now, I’m hearing from people both inside the tech space and in other adjacent markets, that conference attendance is still definitely not where it was pre-pandemic, at least for certain types of groups.

David Bisset:

So, I think we still have to wait a bit longer to start noticing positive events for in-person events anyway. And let’s not lose what we’ve learned in the past couple of years too about diversity, growth, accessibility, and let’s see moving forward if we can just be even a better version of ourselves than we were a couple of years ago.

Allie Nimmons:

The issue is definitely complex. We’re talking about thousands of people here who come and go and return and leave all as they need to. I don’t think any number of podcasts can fully unravel what COVID has done to our community. But like David told us, it definitely wasn’t all bad. We’ve been seeking out ways to connect and find meaning, and they’ve been working.

Allie Nimmons:

In many ways, the pandemic has actually encouraged people to volunteer. It forced them to make changes, and sometimes even put themselves in situations where contributing was easier. My friend, Ian Svoboda is a great example of this. We met at a WordCamp in Florida in 2019. In 2017, Ian had tried to start contributing and found it very challenging. He even attended a contributor day at a WordCamp and didn’t find much success getting started that way either.

Ian Svoboda:

It was very difficult. I found it to be very confusing to work with SBN and the Core track ticketing system and all that. Maybe it’s just me, but I did not find that stuff easy to understand at all. Maybe I’d just been spoiled by slightly more modern tech or something, but it just felt really, “Man, I’d love to, but I’m not really sure how,” because every time I’ve ever tried, I’ve always felt roadblocks for literally making a contribution, let alone what, and so on.

Ian Svoboda:

And it’s difficult too trying to put a lot of energy and effort into a ticket that you don’t actually care about and it’s a first time contributor ticket, so you know it doesn’t really matter very much either. So, there’s a whole pile of reasons why it didn’t really go down, but it had been difficult even in the best of circumstances.

Allie Nimmons:

I could do a whole episode just about how difficult it currently is to start contributing. It’s not the focus of today. Ian’s job at the start of the pandemic wasn’t necessarily his dream job. And with the added stress and anxiety that came with surviving a global pandemic, Ian started to realize there were so many other opportunities he could pursue that paid better and added less stress to his life.

Allie Nimmons:

So, when his job started talking about going back to the office, he started checking out job listings elsewhere. That search led him to a managerial role at TenUp, and I’ll let him tell you the rest.

Ian Svoboda:

Doing open-source work wasn’t necessarily part of the stated job responsibilities, because we actually do employee people. Up until recently, Helen [LuSandai 00:36:20], who’s one of the WordPress lead developers, or what have you, she’s been employed. She was the first employee tenant, been there for a while. That was her job was mostly do stuff like that, or some of these other people.

Ian Svoboda:

So, for the rest of us, it’s more just as time permits, and if you have the capacity to do that sort of thing, then that’s always on the table since we as a company maintain a lot of open-source projects. Through necessity and having to stay where I was in that job and then having to work remotely, it led me down the path to learn certain things that I think ultimately made it easier on my personal journey as a developer to arrive at the right spot.

Ian Svoboda:

Because the Core Contribution I ended up ultimately making was of course for Gutenberg, which is itself a separate project that is included in the Core of WordPress. But the only reason why I found out about the issue at all was because I was working there and I was going through training that the company provided. And I think that if it hadn’t been for that, I don’t think that I would have proactively looked for another opportunity to try to figure it out again just because it had been such a disaster the first few times and it felt so out of reach.

Ian Svoboda:

And there’s just so much stuff going on in the world of development, there’s always a new thing to learn and whatever. Realizing during the pandemic just how valuable programming labor is, is the thing that ultimately inspired me to actually get a new job which would allow me to have the time on the clock, so to speak, as well as the lower stress requisite to find the energy to do that.

Allie Nimmons:

So, we have companies like TenUp and Yoast that are clearing the way for contributors to make the impacts they want to make. What about those who are not fortunate enough to work at one of these companies? I asked Ian to provide us with a few words of wisdom for folks who would like to contribute but who are struggling right now.

Ian Svoboda:

The thing that is going to help it all feel understandable and a bit less like a mountain, and I want to be very clear that I had this as well, is networking and having the support of other people. I’m fortunate enough to work at a place where there are other people that do Core Contribution, and there are folks who have experience who can like look at it and say, “Yeah, you might wanna make sure when you write this up you cover these points,” and so on.

Ian Svoboda:

And it’s not like they had to completely write a book for me or anything, but they gave me a couple little tips for success there. And even though a lot of it was the type of stuff that I would flag under it’s pretty intuitive, like most people would, “Well, that makes sense.”

Ian Svoboda:

But just hearing a person who had done it successfully before tell me that was really big for me, because it established my own personal confidence that what my instincts were actually not too far off. I’m actually doing what these people were suggesting, “Just maybe in this little area, change this up,” or whatever. So, that was big. So, maybe look for somebody that you know that has done any kind of Core Contribution or any other even similar stuff, and maybe just ask them.

Allie Nimmons:

We’ve chatted to a lot of people within this episode. And I wanted to save one of the most eagle-eyed perspectives for last. This is Josepha. She’s the Executive Director of the WordPress open-source project. I asked her some questions about how contributions were affected, and she really cemented some of the ideas that we’ve already touched on. I’m going to let her do a lot of the talking in this area. So, first, here’s her speaking on the extent to which we were able to react to the events of the pandemic.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

And this really put all of our philosophies and tools and the systems through their paces, I think. So, yeah, we saw a bit of a decrease in 2021, we’re starting to see people come back to it in 2022, and it fluctuates as we go, and hopefully it continues to rise as we get back to in-person events.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

But I mentioned at WordCamp Europe that there was something of a disaster-recovery plan already in existence for, in the event we lose our event series, what can we do to replace all of the things that happened there and all of the connections that happened there?

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

And there were a couple of things that we hadn’t figured out by the time that we suddenly were confronted with this. And I think that we still haven’t quite figured them out. I said it boldly on the stage there, the recruitment part is hard, especially of underrepresented folks in the space.

Allie Nimmons:

She also talked to me a little more about the limitations of contributor onboarding and the challenge of bringing on people with the right prerequisite knowledge.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

I think it’s clear to all of us that onboarding contributors fully offline is one of the hardest things that we have encountered. And we felt we were pretty good at it in pre-COVID times. And we were, but it was because most of the time, the moment where you decide to onboard to your team in the community space on make.wordpress.org is three or four steps into your overall research process of wanting to get involved with WordPress.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

And all of the information is out there, it all exists, but the work to get people from, “I’ve never heard of this WordPress thing before,” to, “And now I’m ready to show up and work in Core,” the ability for someone who is new to find those things, not as easy. We don’t have a good sorting hat mechanism available to everyone.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

I think that particular part of it, we never did solve. And it’s not to say that we don’t have new contributors showing up for us here. We have some new contributors. And they are showing up boldly and working with care in open-source, which is always an excellent thing.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

But I have found that some of the 21st century skills that you can learn in WordPress, by merit of it being a distributed open-source ecosystem, don’t, right now, match the things that we expected people to have already learned by being in a classroom together or by being in an office together. Some of the 21st Century skills required to do this have started to not be as readily available, by no fault of WordPress.

Allie Nimmons:

I asked her to speak a bit about the topic of paid versus unpaid contributors. It’s a super complicated and nuanced topic that Josepha dove into beautifully. And a lot of it comes down to what kind of work each type of contributor is asked to do.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

You don’t ever want to get to a point where you have so many sponsored contributors that you lose the ability to hear your self-sponsored contributors or your users or whatever it is. And it’s complicated, because also, I believe that open-source maintainers should be paid.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

We have so much of what we rely on, especially right now in the middle of people still semi locked down, so much of what people rely on to connect with each other or just run their daily lives or have any income whatsoever relies on this 1% of 1% of people who are able to give back to the open-source projects and languages that create the web that we have and that we all benefit from.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

Pre-COVID times, pre-pandemic, I always tried to make sure that what we had was a balance of one third of corporately sponsored contributors compared to about two thirds who were not, which I felt gave a pretty workable balance of the right type and right flow of information that sponsored contributors needed in order to do what I consider janitorial work of working in open-source.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

Things that I would never ask volunteers to do or things that enable volunteers to show up with the 100% of time that they’re able to give, which is four hours a week, four hours a month, however it is that they are doing that, and they don’t have to load all of the things into their mind and then figure out what the best first step is, and then also have to figure out how to accomplish the first step, because that takes up the full four hours of that.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

If what you’re looking at is just a two-year look-back window of who is contributing now, of course we’re going to see fewer self-sponsored folks, and I think that’s appropriate.

Allie Nimmons:

And finally, I’ve mentioned Five for the Future a couple of times in this episode. So, Josepha broke down a little more of the aspirational mindset behind this initiative, how it serves us, and how it can refactor how we look at contributing when contributing is hardest.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

I understand that giving back 100% of the 5% you have available of your resources is a much bigger burden than looking at your available resources, identifying what the 5% would be, and just giving us 1% of that 5%. I understand that someone, any contributor giving a 100% of the possible time to the project is always more valuable because it’s more painful than people who are giving back a small fraction of their available time.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

So, that 5% is aspirational. We will not hold anyone to. “Please show me your receipts for what you made last year and what you gave to WordPress.” It’s not that cut and dry. And on the same token that we were talking about before, when you look at the pros and cons of that, when you do know that someone is sponsored by a company and 40 hours a week can go to WordPress, then you know that that’s not the right person to compare yourself to, but when we label those people, then it puts them aside as this other group that can’t be touched, which is not good either.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy:

There’s no good way, as far as I can tell, for us to identify how to help people see their contributions are on the maintenance and janitorial work of WordPress, and we’re labeling it as such so you don’t think that you have to give 40 hours a week without also making it look like those are the people that maintain WordPress and your stuff is nice too. I haven’t found a way to make that clear and tidy.

Allie Nimmons:

So, I’m going to turn all this around from the macro to the micro view. Let’s check in with Allyson one last time. While the pandemic hit Brazil hard, and while Allyson’s mental and physical health took a toll, the way he thinks about contributing to WordPress is not only still optimistic and insightful, but now a little more critical. He’s thinking big picture now.

Allyson Souza:

The pandemic helped me to evolve my vision about free software and the WordPress project especially. I would definitely like to dedicate some time to community, but probably in a more critical way. Being involved for years helps us understand our position in the community. Most of our efforts is to events and translations, but what about the other parts, code, design documentation? How many South Americans are working in those areas?

Allyson Souza:

I would love to dedicate more time to the community, but we are still in the pandemic, and the current economic scenario is not good. And I think to improve our involvement in the community is not a matter of personal or individual efforts, we need companies to help us with this process.

Allie Nimmons:

So, we don’t have all the answers, obviously. But what we can come away with is the importance of two huge things: events, and Five for the Future. I think those are two of our strongest pipelines right now to get people active and to keep WordPress maintained for the millions of people who use it.

Allie Nimmons:

Currently less than 1% of the people who use WordPress work to maintain it. It definitely needs to change. And given how we’ve weathered and begun to recover from the pandemic, it is possible. Before I leave you, I want to go back to those five reasons that people contribute or volunteer. Values, community concern, esteem enhancement, understanding, and personal development.

Allie Nimmons:

If you’re listening and you feel that WordPress supports your values, if you like the idea of giving back into the community that you use, if you don’t mind a boost to your self-esteem, if you’re someone who enjoys learning, and if you think that you could benefit from joining something bigger than you, you should probably contribute. You can do so by going to make.wordpress.org, pick a team that sounds fun, and hop into a weekly meeting. It might be challenging, but it will be worth it.

Allie Nimmons:

This episode has been written and hosted by me, Allie Nimmons. A huge special thank you to David Spinks, Andrea Middleton, David Wolfpaw, and all the guests who volunteered their time on this episode.

Monet Davenport:

Thank you for listening to this episode. Press The Issue is a production of MasterWP. It was produced by Allie Nimmons, hosted and mixed by Monet Davenport, and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at masterwp.com.

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