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Toxic Scorekeeping: The case against ‘Five for the Future.’

Press the Issue
Press the Issue
Toxic Scorekeeping: The case against 'Five for the Future.'
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Recently, the WordPress community has been buzzing with discussion around Five for the Future and the balances of contributing. In this episode of Press the Issue, Rob Howard and Allie Nimmons take a deep dive into the topic and discuss the degree to which Five for the Future serves it’s intended purpose.

This podcast was sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do. Now let it make you money teaching what you do. Create a course with LearnDash. Visit LearnDash.com.

Press the Issue is a production of MasterWP. It was produced by Allie Nimmons. It was hosted and edited by Monet Davenport and mixed 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.

Episode Transcript:

Monet Davenport:
Welcome to Press the Issue, a podcast for MasterWP, your source for industry insights for WordPress professionals. Get show notes, transcripts and more information about the show at Masterwp.com/presstheissue. Recently, the WordPress community has been buzzing with discussion around Five for the Future and the balances of contributing. In this episode of Press the Issue, Rob Howard and Allie Nimmons take a deep dive into the topic and discuss the degree to which Five for the Future serves its intended purpose.

Rob Howard:
Hey Allie, how are you today?

Allie Nimmons:
I’m great. How are you, Rob?

Rob Howard:
Excellent. It is great to talk to you as always.

Allie Nimmons:
Same, I’m really excited. I wanted to talk to you today about your conversation, well, your post that I think has started a larger conversation about Five for the Future and the toxicity of keeping score of WordPress contributing, something that I’m passionate about and curious about as well. So yeah, I had a couple of questions for you.

Rob Howard:
That sounds great. Fire away.

Allie Nimmons:
So one of the huge things that launched us into this conversation was the fact that Josepha who is the Executive Director of the WordPress open-source project, seems to say and think one thing about Five for the Future. That it’s this aspirational thing that people should use to help them begin contributing. And Matt Mullenweg stance as the leader of WordPress, the owner of Automattic and all these things, seems to think something different. Given that there’s this disparity right now that exists between the two leaders that we look to, what do you think that, that says overall about the gap between WordPress, the product and WordPress, the Foundation?

Rob Howard:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think where I would start is that I’m not necessarily confident that we 100% know what Matt’s public position is on this. Because what we are seeing is Josepha is taking a public position that it is an aspirational recommendation. I think Matt would publicly agree with that and I’m sure has many times when asked directly. But then we had this issue or Twitter storm or whatever you want to call it around the question of, does GoDaddy contribute enough to the WordPress open-source projects? Now there’s a lot to dig into there, GoDaddy as a competitor of Automattic, which is the for-profit company that Matt Mullenweg owns and Josepha is employed by. So there’s a lot to unpack there, but I think what a lot of community members, including myself took away from that episode was that, yes, Five for the Future is presented as aspirational, but also people are watching and keeping track and that can be used against a company who someone wants to present negative information about.

Rob Howard:
So I don’t know exactly what the motivation was, I know Matt has deleted and apologized for a lot of the statements that he made around GoDaddy but I also think that he still is concerned about people not contributing enough. And he talks about the free rider problem from an economic standpoint and saying, who should be pitching in and how much should they be pitching in to this thing that is a public good? So I think where we end up with a disconnect is, we have two people who are authority figures, it is unclear what their interplay is on this issue, who is ultimately the decision maker or who is the person who is conveying the actual position or the actual rule.

Rob Howard:
I mean, I think it makes sense for us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say, “We all do want it to be an aspirational goal,” which I think would be the healthiest approach. The flip side of that is that sometimes actions speak louder than words and if you say it’s aspirational, but then you go after a company who is contributing half a percent instead of four and a half percent or whatever that is, my personal reaction to that was, “Whoa, I better go check my profile and make sure that I’m good enough.” And obviously that’s a little bit of an unhealthy reaction on my part, but I think that it would not be totally crazy or totally unusual to take that away from somebody who is obviously looking at the scoreboard and counting.

Rob Howard:
So to bring that back to your original question, I think the lack of clarity around the WordPress product, the WordPress Foundation, Automattic as a for-profit company, in some ways I think contributes to the confusion around this. And the fact that we’re hearing multiple different things from multiple different people who are involved in all three of those organizations that I just mentioned and it’s unclear how those three organizations even technically interrelate with each other, in some cases. I’m not surprised that it’s hard for somebody who’s coming into this community to figure this out. It’s very difficult to unpack and navigate even who works for whom in a lot of these situations. So I think that, that is not necessarily an issue that is at all solely related to Five for the Future but I think that, that need for more clarity all around also applies to this question of, well, is this 5% number an appropriate thing for us to be measuring and keeping track of?

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. And I mean, I think about it too, is this Five for the Future thing appropriate for everyone? I think there’s value in an individual looking at it like, “Okay. Yeah, this is something that I can work toward if I decide I’m going to start with 1% and then you know, next month I’ll try for 2%.” And something to build toward as far as making the time to contribute. That’s not the same experience as a giant company like GoDaddy to look at and say, “Well, maybe we should do that too.” Sometimes I wonder if Five for the Future should be something that is aspirational to individuals and there’s maybe a different system of accountability for larger companies and organizations.

Allie Nimmons:
Because I think what we owe to WordPress is different. What I owe to the WordPress project as far as my career and my professional life is different than what the company of GoDaddy owes to the project. So it seems almost unfair sometimes to have the same expectation as far as contributing to these two giant things. Which when you have somebody coming at the problem from a business owner perspective, like I think Matt does, and somebody coming at it from a community based perspective, like Josepha does, it makes sense to me that there’s a disconnect there.

Rob Howard:
And what’s also really interesting is I’ve actually heard people say the exact opposite of what you just said. Which is, “Oh, this is more appropriate for large companies and less appropriate for individuals.” So I think that, that just speaks to how unclear the current parameters are. The 5% thing is not unclear, we understand what 5% is but it is unclear how I should act in order to accomplish this goal or this aspiration. So I think, Matt, within the last few months talked about, “Well, it could be two hours of your 40 hour per week.” And I perceive that as being targeted toward that individual contributor or small freelancer or small agency type of thing. And then I’ve heard other people say what you just said, which is, “Well, maybe this only matters if you’re making above a quarter of a million dollars a year in revenue or something, maybe that’s the point where this should kick in.”

Rob Howard:
And I think either of those things could be correct or true, but it is completely unclear to me what the intention is or if there even is an intention. And I think what’s happening is we have something that is ill-defined, people want to participate and want to do the right thing, but it is extremely difficult to figure out what that right thing is. So I think Josepha has been working on clarifying that and also in doing so she’s getting feedback that is all across the map, like we just talked about, things that are basically the polar opposites of one another. And I think that makes this a really hard problem to solve. But at the same time, when I look back at the 2014 blog post that introduced this idea, all of these problems were raised within a day of that blog post going online.

Rob Howard:
And they’re actually linked in Matt’s blog post at the end, he went through and he said, “Oh, here’s some feedback. Here’s feedback I agree with, here’s feedback I don’t agree with.” And when I look back at that, I’m like, “Okay, I wrote an article two weeks ago and these people wrote articles eight years ago and we’re all struggling to answer the same questions still.” So it’s not to say that this needs to be the top priority of everybody at the company and we need to drop everything and figure this out but I think it is an indication that there’s something big missing here.

Rob Howard:
And we all agree that we want WordPress to be a successful and thriving open-source project. We all agree that there are things about it currently that are confusing or that could be a lot better in terms of onboarding new contributors, in terms of the community vibes in general. But I think Josepha has correctly identified that this is a problem, but what struck me and was kind of a bummer is I was like, “This was a problem eight years ago and it was well documented eight years ago and we’re still trying to figure out some of these basics about how we should be interacting with each other as a community.”

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. So a core part of this problem that was also included in your post is the degree to which it is aspirational versus having this amount of time, “Count,” for something or having it be public-facing as opposed to just being an internal way for you to determine and keep track of your contributions. Do you think that in some cases having it, “Count,” could actually be a good thing in terms of creating a sense of accountability for companies like for GoDaddy? So the idea that maybe Matt has a point that companies should be held accountable, especially companies that build their entire business model off of WordPress, should be held accountable for how much they contribute. Maybe that’s not to say they need to be admonished or punished if it’s not at a certain number, but that information should still be public-facing so that there is that sense of accountability.

Rob Howard:
I think so. I mean, I think the tricky thing about this is that, Matt unquestionably does have a point, it’s just that there are multiple points being made that sometimes conflict with each other or interact with each other in weird ways. So I think point A is, GoDaddy is competing directly with WooCommerce and Automattic. They are in Matt’s view, and I think this is a defensible view, almost poaching business away by using their economies of scale and their general vision of, everything is super cheap, to not just bring more people onto WordPress hosting, but also take some payment processing revenue away from competitors, including Automattic. And those are things that Matt argues, if you scale this up, now we have a company that’s not really significantly contributing back to the project, taking a lot of potential revenue away from Automattic, which is a company that is contributing significantly. So that is-

Allie Nimmons:
And we should also point out that Matt has a very specific definition of contributing. A lot of people came after that and said, “Well, look at all that GoDaddy does for events and sponsorships and all of these other sorts of things that are not what Matt thinks of, I guess, as contributing or has identified in his tweets as contributing.” Because apparently-

Rob Howard:
Yeah, I mean-

Allie Nimmons:
And apparently he was sick with a fever or something so I don’t even know how much I can trust a lot of what he said as how he actually feels. But yeah, sorry, I just wanted to interject that as context as well because GoDaddy got absolutely dragged into this conversation by Matt as an example, due to the reasons that you’ve just stated, I don’t think that’s fair. And I think there are other companies that fit the bill as well, that are not being talked about and it’s just… I don’t know, that whole part is weird to me too.

Rob Howard:
Yeah. And I mean, I think in an ideal world, we don’t have to take our leaders’ phones away from them when they go on tweet storms but that is a thing that happened. And we can be good people who care about each other, who make mistakes but also I would like to move towards a place where there’s no risk of that ever happening again in that way. I don’t think it was a good look for the community, I think it was, as you mentioned, a mix of points that were fair and unfair, but also presented in just a really inappropriate way.

Rob Howard:
So everyone makes mistakes and that’s okay and if that happened to one of our employees, I would support them and try to help them learn from that. So I don’t like to be punitive about what people do on social media whenever I possibly can avoid it. But at the same time, whether you run a million dollar company like ours or a billion dollar company like Automattic, it is better to not have outbursts against competitors in public, if you can avoid it. Unless there’s a really good strategy behind it but I don’t think there was in this case.

Allie Nimmons:
No.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening up to this point. 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. MasterWP is also sponsored by Cloudways. Cloudways is building the most valuable agency focused program in the cloud hosting world. Access a suite of benefits that can boost productivity, fuel your agency’s growth and provide you peace of mind. Visit Cloudways.com and save with the promo code, MasterWP25. Now back to the podcast.

Rob Howard:
So there’s this point about direct competition. And I think you can be upset with your competitors, especially if you feel they’re acting unfairly. And that is a thing that exists between two companies. What I think is not great for the community is then trying to intertwine that and conflate that with, “Well, you’re not contributing enough back to WordPress and I’m going to pull out the scorecard.” What struck me when I read the initial conversation, as well as, there was a follow up article from GoDaddy where they basically said, “Well, here’s all the stats, here’s what we’re doing.” And they mentioned, as you said, the funding of other things like sponsorships, WordCamps, stuff like that. And they basically said, “Okay. Well, if you’re going to trot out the scoreboard, we are going to also trot out the scoreboard.”

Rob Howard:
And to me, that is just a super unhealthy cycle of behavior. And it reminded me of, if you go out and you Google, “Score keeping between spouses.” It’s kind of like, we can identify that this is not a healthy way to have a relationship, whether that is a romantic relationship or a relationship between friends or colleagues who are working together on what’s supposed to be a public, good open-source project. And what everybody says is like, “This is just a really destructive way to communicate.” If you spend your life keeping score, everybody gets stressed out, everybody gets overwhelmed and it often overshadows actual problems. It’s not to say that there’s never a situation where somebody doesn’t do something that they promised and should be called out for that, that happens all the time.

Rob Howard:
But if you have it in your head that there is a scoreboard of goodness or however you want to think about it, I think that pretty much instantly creates a bunch of bad incentives and ultimately a pretty toxic experience for everybody. And it doesn’t just affect the two large companies whose leaders are arguing. Because, as you mentioned, we have thousands of smaller companies and also thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals who are watching this and taking cues from it. And they’re not necessarily showing up in the forums or on Twitter, but they’re saying to themselves, “Okay. Well, what is the expectation here? Is the expectation that I should put in eight hours a month per employee or do I need to hire an employee and dedicate them specifically to WordPress? And what if I made a plugin that competed with WooCommerce? Would I be the next target of ire from various different leaders in the community.”

Rob Howard:
So I think to the extent that it was just almost accidental bad behavior, you want to give people the benefit of the doubt on that. But I think what happened was it illuminated the fact that there’s really no clear guidelines. And that saying, “Give 5%, if you want,” is not enough to give people clarity. And then from there, we now need to decide, do we want to add more clarity and more specifics? That’s one way you could go. Or do we want to just scale this back and say, “Hey, we’re not going to keep a scoreboard. And here’s what we do, here’s what you could do if you wanted to.” And it just ends there and there’s no checking in for approval, no checking in to get the badge or the digital high five or whatever it is.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. It’s so strange. I love that we’re talking so much about this issue because I think that it opens up the magnifying lens almost on the structures, through which we create this community. Because I’m seeing so many parallels in terms of how we give people expectations about contributing. The podcast that I did a couple of episodes ago about how the pandemic affected the contributor shortage. Because people are contributing, that’s a very volunteer-based thing. It’s a choice that people could make and then decide not to make if they want to. And so we tend, as a community, to not want to tell people, “Well, this is what’s expected of you. This is what you have to do for it to counter-matter,” or whatever.

Allie Nimmons:
We’re just like, “If you want to help, that would be great, that would be nice. Thank you so much.” And so people don’t know what to do with that. In so many aspects of our community, there’s not a lot of direction to tell people, “This is what is helpful. Here’s a checklist of things that you should do to help move the needle forward.” Instead, it’s just, “If you want to help, here’s a handbook.” Maybe that nobody probably reads. And I think a lot of that then bleeds into the mindset around Five for the Future where it’s like, “Here’s sort of a guideline for you.” But it’s so nebulous because we don’t want to confine people by telling them exactly what to do. If Five for the Future, as a concept came with, “Here’s five ways in which a company can contribute to Five for the Future.”

Allie Nimmons:
That’s maybe 5% of your employees are paid contributors, maybe 5% of your products are open-source, free WordPress products. Giving a list of things that count, I feel like to a lot of people feels too limiting. I think it would be helpful because people would say, “Okay, I can do that. That’s something that I can actually measurably do.” And then we wouldn’t have this, “Well, what counts? What doesn’t count? Does code count? Does products count? Does helping with events count? Where are we with all of this?” But I think that, that’s almost a systemic problem within the community, that’s not just a Five for the Future problem.

Rob Howard:
And what we discovered as our business grew from, let’s say, four independent contractors to 18 or 20 employees now, is that, that process of scaling, if we wanted to do a good job with it, it required us to start documenting things that were previously unwritten rules. And what we see now is we have a 30 or 40 page employee handbook and the whole point of that project, to create that was exactly what you just described, not only do you have a big picture vision in here, but you actually have specifics. So you can still ask questions, but there’s a lot of stuff in here that is just simply, already figured out and documented for you in a way that is quantifiable and actionable. And I think that is what is largely lacking.

Rob Howard:
One of the things that we have even taken out of our diversity studies and seminars is that unwritten rules are a big problem for people who are new or people who are coming from different or diverse backgrounds into a community that already exists. So that community could be a company with five people, that’s now growing to 15 or it could be WordPress in 2008, that’s now starting to grow and we’re bringing a lot of new people. And there’s a lot of things that are like institutional knowledge or unwritten rules, that everybody, “Knows,” already, but guess what? That new person doesn’t know that or somebody who’s never worked in a downtown, big city office might not know all the rules and unwritten rules and etiquette and different stuff like that automatically.

Rob Howard:
So I think if you make too many assumptions about what people know coming in, you end up with this sort of deeper problem of like, “Well, the rules aren’t really written, I’m uncomfortable asking, I feel like I’m getting judged.” And so on and so forth. So we see that in companies and I think we’re seeing something similar in the various structures that exist around the WordPress open-source project. And this is me speculating a little bit, but what I would say is that the open-source ethos, in some ways, it feels good to be a small community with a team that is working towards a common goal, has a common mindset. That obviously works early on but I think now WordPress is clearly at and well beyond the point where the unwritten rules are actually hurting way more than they’re helping.

Rob Howard:
And when Josepha tries to go write rules, we get feedback from 20 people who are like, “Well, I always interpreted the unwritten rule to be this.” “Oh, no, I interpreted that unwritten rule to be that.” And it’s like, “No one’s right or wrong because you guys all just have this stuff stored in your head from 15 years ago.” And we need to clarify and actually codify some of this stuff. Not to say that there can’t be any leeway, but a system that is as large as WordPress is needs way more written rules than what currently exists. And one of my pet peeves is the, No Jerks Rule because I’m like, “What does that mean?” That’s in every single WordPress code of conduct and I’m like, “Am I being a jerk if I ask about the No Jerks Rule? Is it being a jerk if you call go daddy out on Twitter and you basically start tweet storms?”

Allie Nimmons:
It’s very subjective.

Rob Howard:
What does that mean and how could that ever be enforced? The only way it could ever be enforced is in a way that is completely subjective and arbitrary. So it’s stuff like that where that made sense when WordPress was small and it’s like, “Yeah, we’re chill, we’re a cool community, no jerks allowed.” But now that there’re thousands of people involved, you have to accept that, that needs more clarity or shouldn’t be in there.

Rob Howard:
So yeah, those are the kind of things that I see are just growing pains that I think Josepha is clearly trying to address them, but what she’s also running into is feedback like, “Oh, well, actually I thought this rule meant this.” “Oh, I thought this rule meant that.” “Oh, I’ve been around since 2004.” “I’ve been around since 2005.” It’s like that kind of stuff is a significant limiting factor in actually getting written rules that can help everybody and also help new people come in with more comfort and also help people who’ve been around forever. Because there’s no reason to believe that a company that’s been building plugins for 15 years couldn’t someday be called out for not contributing enough under the current paradigm.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think we can tie this off here, we covered a ton of ground. And yeah, I really love this article, I believe it’s a part two or a sister article to another one that you wrote. And yeah, if you have not read Rob’s article, it will be linked in the podcast show notes for you to go find. And I encourage you to read it and reach out to us online, on Twitter so that we can keep talking about it because it doesn’t really serve the community to write an article and just send it out and nothing ever comes of it. Our goal here, I think, is to start conversations with the things that we’re releasing so that things can actually come of them. Yeah, Rob, thank you so much for hopping on with me, I always love talking to you.

Rob Howard:
Thank you. It is always a pleasure and I will talk to you soon.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening to this episode. Press the Issue is a production of MasterWP. Produced by Allie Nimmons. Hosted, edited and musically supervised by Monet Davenport and mixed 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.