The other side of the coin: what people get out of contributing to WordPress

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The first iteration of this article, The 4 “Gets” in WordPress Community Organizing, was written in 2019. In this update, I apply these ideas to all parts of the WordPress open source project.                     

People all over the world contribute to WordPress, in many, many ways

WordPress contributor handbooks have lots of public information about what each team does, and how or what they ask people to give when they contribute. However, there isn’t always a clear explanation of what contributors might expect to get, from or through their contribution. While many people know that WordPress is made possible through volunteer time, it’s sometimes less clear what kind of reciprocity exists in the project. But for everything that a contributor gives, there is almost always something that they receive.

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Here’s an incomplete-but-good-starter list of some benefits that WordPress contributors might get, through contributing to WordPress:

Impact

As of early 2021, WordPress powers 40% of the web. That’s an enormous footprint for an open source project. The decisions made by Core designers and developers affect millions upon millions of users. Translators extend the power of WordPress to 75% of the world’s population that doesn’t speak English. WordPress community organizers bring together nearly half a million enthusiasts per year to talk about the software. Our documentation and support forum threads are viewed by millions of people every month. 

It’s hard to find another volunteer-based, open source organization that compares to WordPress, for reach and impact. 

Growth 

In WordPress, most volunteer opportunities are based on your interests, not your experience. WordPress community organizers aren’t required to have organized an event, or have managed a team, before taking on a leadership role in their local communities. No one reviews a developer’s resume, or a designer’s portfolio when considering whether to merge a patch to the WordPress core software. You don’t need to be a professional speaker or educator to create a workshop for learn.wordpress.org.

And yet, working in WordPress gives contributors a chance to develop a broad array of skills: leadership, communications, design, logistics, marketing, fundraising, management… the list goes on.  Every one of these skills can create opportunities in someone’s professional career or personal life — and generally can offer a safe place to experiment, where you’re not risking your career if your idea doesn’t work out. 

Training/Support

Most of what contributors need to know to get started, and become proficient, is publicly available. You don’t need anyone’s permission to submit a patch, share a solution in the support forums, or test a theme for accessibility.  Onboarding to many roles is unusually short, compared to many other global volunteer programs — even for roles with specialized skills/knowledge, like writing lesson plans or translating WordPress

Our training, documentation, best practices, and tools are produced by experienced contributors — many of whom do that kind of work professionally. And when contributors run into problems they don’t know how to handle, nearly every team has a group of experienced helpers available to give feedback. Through sharing feedback, contributors grow together as they work to meet the high standards that come with high-impact work.

Safety

Though this limited autonomy sometimes shows up as a “bug” for contributors (sometimes it sounds like “why are people getting in the way of my excellent & important idea?!”), I firmly believe this is a desirable feature. 

Nearly every contributor opportunity has checks and balances in place, which reduce risk when volunteers try out their bright ideas (either in theory or in practice), without endangering the success of any major WordPress components or initiatives. Code contributions are reviewed by world-class developers before being added to the core software. New event formats are discussed and refined before we try them out, are documented, and then iterated upon. Translations are reviewed and edited before they go “live.”

So! 

Those are some pretty great things you can expect when contributing to WordPress! AND… there are things that no one gets, or that only come with time or experience — and it’s important to call those out too.

What WordPress contributors don’t get (right away, and sometimes ever)

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  1. Complete autonomy. As mentioned above, contributors can make a lot of powerful choices when helping to build, maintain, extend, and promote WordPress — but that doesn’t mean they can make just any choice. If you accept a position of responsibility as a WordPress contributor despite disagreeing with some parts of the role, you’re still expected to do the things that everyone in that role is asked to do — they’re part of the job.
  2. Commit-level access. WordPress contributors are full of bright ideas, which is a lot of what makes this project so great. Not every bright idea meshes well with WordPress project values or works on a broad scale, though. The WordPress open source project is open source, but it’s not open commit*. Even if you are certain that your idea is a good one, it still might not work as part of WordPress core software, or in the WordPress community. Commit-level access (and similar levels of responsibility on other WordPress contributor teams) can be earned over time, of course. 
  3. And other things.  There are other things, too, which are detailed in contributor handbooks or other kinds of contributor training or resources. (For the Community team, they’re outlined in the 5 Good Faith Rules for meetups, plus Should You Be An Organizer? and Representing WordPress docs in the WordCamp organizer handbook.) To summarize, it’s best not to try to establish a leadership position in WordPress for self-serving purposes. Likewise, if your leadership approach includes hateful or very controlling behavior, WordPress probably won’t be a good fit for you.

Share your thoughts

What do you think about this list of “get”s and “don’t get”s — does it accurately describe the kinds of personal return that contributors can reasonably expect for the time they invest in contributing to WordPress? Follow-up question: what did you expect you’d get out of contributing to WordPress, and what did you actually get?

*An ”open commit” project allows anyone, no matter their level of familiarity or expertise, to commit their code to the core code base. 

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