Interview: Elin Waring, former Open Source Matters, Inc. President
You have spent the last three years contributing to the community and project in many different ways. Many people are unaware of all the areas you have volunteered in. Would you mind sharing those with us?
Well actually, going way back to the beginning of Joomla! in 2005 I was pretty active in the forums. My first Joomla! job was writing FAQs. For several years I was really an “upper forums” person, meaning I was answering questions for relatively newer users and the FAQ job grew out of that. I still love that area of the forums; it’s where Joomla! gets it reputation as a friendly and supportive community.
In 2007 the core team asked me to join the board of OSM, and that meant I got involved in managing the legal and financial aspects of the project. Those things turn out to intersect almost everything that happens in the project in one way or another. And more or less my role became to help people on the core team do things that they asked me to help with. Later, that became help people in the new teams do the same.
Believe it or not, the biggest thing I did the first summer had nothing to do with licensing (which was the raging public issue at the time), it was to write the JUG policy, which took many weeks and lots of conversations with people from around the world who wanted to form user groups and with the core team who had a vision of what they thought the JUGs should be. It was all about consensus building, which is not an easy thing. Maybe because of that I became kind of the person to ask to help write policies about a lot of different hard or complicated issues.
I actually think that people think I did a lot more specific things than I really did. An awful lot of what I did was to talk to and listen to people, try to understand what they are thinking, try to figure out how to make it possible for them to do that they are thinking of, and trying to find ways to solve problems.
At the time I joined the board and became president we were still at 1.0, and I really had almost no clue who the developers were or what 1.5 was really all about. At a certain point in that summer I really started playing with 1.5, which just really seemed like it would never happen. And I was trying to understand why that was, and I really looked at the tracker for the first time. Now, I’d been an active bug reporter on other projects, but in Joomla! for some reason the tracker was just kind of a mess and not used that much. So I remember talking to Wilco (who was the development coordinator at the time) about it and saying, well in the forums everyone knows how to fix a lot of these issues, why isn’t anyone fixing them? And there are a bunch of issues that aren’t really issues at all, just common user mistakes! And there are tons that are really the same issue!
So he said, well go though the tracker and tell me what’s there. And that’s when I started helping to clean up and then manage the tracker. Eventually that led to the Joomla! Bug Squad being formed, which really is one of the most fun and useful parts of the Joomla! Project. So that’s how I got involved in development. To me learning about development is a big part of what has kept things interesting for me over the years just as much as learning about the international community or about licensing.
I think it’s hard for people to fathom how big and complex the Joomla! Project is, and how hard a whole team of people have worked over the years to help manage it. If Joomla! were a company—which thank goodness it isn’t—it would be a very large enterprise. There are over a hundred forum moderators alone, and that’s just the beginning when you look at all the pieces that need to be in place to produce and support excellent software. So with hundreds of people from all over the world working every day there are always problems to solve and different kinds of complexity, and then with thousands of people depending on the project for their livelihood the stakes are very high every day.
That’s an amazing amount of volunteer work! How do you find time to have a normal life? Or I suppose the correct question would be how have you balanced your volunteer time with your personal and professional life?
Well, it isn’t easy, and I haven’t always been successful. When I’m doing my paid work I often have to be online, which makes it tricky. I think it’s really important to have off duty times. I’ve found that if I put a note on Skype that says “grading papers” or “at work” or “emergencies only please” that people in the Joomla! community respect that. And then sometimes you just have to force yourself to have the self discipline not to read your e-mail and check on the million different moving parts of the Joomla! Project all of the time.
I’ve said in private conversation before that you helped me personally “get my sea legs” and understand the landscape of volunteering in the Joomla! community. I admit that it can be very confusing sometimes to understand who does what and where to go to offer help. What advice do you have for community members who wish to volunteer?
I think the first thing is, find something you’re interested in and find out who is doing it, then just ask, “Can I help?” That said, try to make it an area that you’re not necessarily an interested party in. For example, I think extension developers are better off offering to help with things other than the JED just because there is the potential for conflict there.
Also, I think people sometimes really wait for an invitation or a lot of instructions, when actually the open source way is to jump in and start solving problems. You don’t need permission to answer questions on the forums, help write documentation, or submit a bug report. And believe me if you start doing those things you will be noticed by the other people doing them. Even if you just start fixing typos in the wiki that’s helpful. I used to have a basic rule that said if I answered the same question three times in the forum I would make an FAQ, and I really encourage people to do that.
One thing I would be cautious about is starting off by announcing that whoever is doing a job is doing it all wrong. This is especially true if you do it in a forum post or blog or something like that. It really comes across as insulting and as though you are not going to be a good team player. When a group of volunteers is doing something being able to work with others is much more important than any skill or special knowledge you might have.
My advice is to ask questions first, listen, watch and help out with whatever process teams have in place. Then go ahead and propose improvements as a knowledgeable and trusted person who people know as a doer as opposed to a talker. Long term committed volunteers all have experience with people who come in full of ideas and energy, get support and encouragement, absorb a lot of energy and then never follow through on the actual long term, often hard, often boring work. That probably makes them pretty cautious.
Another thing is to remember that everything on the web is public and there forever. If you have a history of nasty or rude posting either in general or about the Joomla! Project or specific individuals or teams, expect to get a lot more scrutiny, especially if you have never really apologized (and I don’t mean saying “sorry if you were offended”).
Do you believe that there will ever be “too many” volunteers?
Never. I think sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that when you have a lot of volunteers that it takes some management to keep everyone happy and contributing. The forums are a great example of this, where there are hundreds of people in all kinds of roles, from answering questions to moderating to site administration to coding. We see that on the People site too. And documentation is another place that is really full of unsung heroes and where more helpers are always needed.
On Friday, 16 July, 2010, you resigned from the board of directors of Open Source Matters. Why did you make this decision?
Well, I’d been thinking about it for a while. I wasn’t sure, but I pretty deliberately in the last few months didn’t take on any new projects. And then I worked to finish up some existing things like getting the demo site relaunched (which happened on the 12th), the charter change was resolved, the Indian Mall trademark issue is pretty much wrapped up, the Joomla! Contributor Agreement is being signed by everyone with a branch and contributors like Microsoft. I gave Ryan and the new team at OSM three solid months to transition and then a month or so of having me as a resource whenever they needed me (which to be honest is not that often). And then I looked around and thought, this is a good stopping point. It was incredibly hard, because this project means so much to me and is so amazing, but it was the right time.
I follow you on Twitter, but I’m not the best social stalker, so what are your plans now?
Well, first I plan to take a few weeks of vacation without having to check in. Then I’m going to get ready for my classes this fall and do a major rewriting of my syllabus. And weed my garden. I’ll do some writing and catch up on work that hasn’t gotten the attention that it should. Maybe build a website for a friend or cause I care about. Then I’ll think about taking on something new. But in my experience, life isn’t all that rational. Opportunity to do interesting things usually finds me.
Looking back at your years of service to the community, what is one thing you would do differently?
I think be braver. I’m fundamentally a shy person and a cautious person. Sometimes I have waited too long to say or do things that needed to be said or done. Most important for that is to be a stronger advocate for the people who make this amazing project possible day in and day out, whether that is the volunteer who contributes a few hours a month helping in the shop or a senior developer putting in 30 or more hours a week. We need to make sure their conditions of work are good, that they are thanked, that they are treated fairly, and that other people are not allowed to make their lives miserable.
I guess one specific example of this, the most fundamentally important one, was that all of us in leadership who wanted to know (and remember that there are many leadership people who are not involved in development) knew for a long time that development was faltering in the year and a half after 1.5 was released. And everyone who follows development closely knew that was because our most important development leaders, Louis as architect of the framework and Andrew as the most experienced and highly skilled senior developer on the CMS, simply could no longer afford the financial and personal costs of doing their work on the project even if that work was limited to production leadership.
Wishing and hoping and magical thinking were not going to change that. It was not going to make experienced senior developers who would be willing to commit 30 or more hours a week miraculously appear, and it was not going to transform junior developers (no matter how much potential they have) into senior developers. No firm in the Joomla! ecosystem was going to suddenly have money to pay them salaries to do nothing but work on the core. Making their businesses successful required them to work intensely on their businesses and not on developing for the core.
At the same time there was a fundamental choice about whether to simply say here’s a great framework and CMS. Let’s make small, marginal improvements on it for the next few years and assume that the user base will stop adding new people and the existing user base will manage it. Then, eventually, after a good long run the application will fade away. Or we could say, here’s a great framework and CMS, let’s keep them great, which means continuing to move forward at the highest possible level.
Hindsight is 20/20 but looking back, I think we wasted close to a year avoiding saying what needed to be said.
How do you see the project evolving over the next year – or five?
I think the future for the Joomla! Project is amazing; it’s on a incredible path. Nothing is guaranteed but I think there is a good infrastructure for insuring not just that the project will be around in a year or two (it takes much longer than that for open source projects to die or even become irrelevant) but will thrive.
I see the Joomla! CMS continuing to grow as the printing press for people around the world. Many of us in the west don’t realize the dominance of Joomla! as a solution in the global south. To me the way that Joomla! empowers people, rich or poor, whatever their language or country, to tell their stories, run their businesses and advocate for their causes is what makes this project so inspiring.
I see the Joomla! Framework becoming ubiquitous on a variety of server stacks both on the public web and inside enterprise in the next few years. I’m looking forward to a world of new framework applications that stand beside the CMS and fill all kinds of needs. I look forward to seeing a whole new wave of low level developers making that possible and higher level developers building applications.
I see the Joomla! Project continuing to evolve its unique organizational approach as it tries to be viable as a self-funding open source project that doesn’t sell software and doesn’t have financial investors in a core for profit company. I’m sure that some larger service firms will continue to develop, and I hope they will be contributors. But I think the entrepreneurial ecosystem of small and medium sized businesses providing plug and play extensions, customization and support will continue to characterize the Joomla! economy.
One thing you hear over and over at Joomla! conversations is the phrase “not a hobby project.” I think that’s actually not quite right. If Joomla! is going to thrive it will need a combination of paid staff, especially development and organizational leadership, professional contributors whether developers from companies using Joomla!, authors, and others, but also people like me, passionate users, people helping other people, volunteering to write FAQs, sharing their modules and plugins that they never plan to sell, helping fix things. Those doors always need to be open.
Being a leader is difficult. Anyone who has been in a leadership position wouldn’t argue with that. What advice do you have for future leaders in the community?
Well, one thing is to think about what leadership is. It isn’t just producing great work, it’s inspiring and facilitating other people to produce great work too. So lead, and that means stand up for contributors, protect the quality of the work even if upsets people, but do it in a way that’s constructive so those who want to do great work will learn and grow. The people you want contributing are the ones who want to do the best possible work. Cherish and grow the community of contributors and protect it.
Any final thoughts or comments?
Well, just thanks to all the people who helped me along the way. I’m sure I’m not going to be a stranger around the Joomla! Project if only because I’m building websites and going to JUG meetings.
Thank you for taking the time to spend a few minutes with us and share your thoughts. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to interview a leader.
Elin is an educator by trade and has given the Joomla! Community many years of dedication and hard work. Her new site, ElinWaring.org, has some great articles and there are exciting plans for the future. Elin served on the Board of Directors and as President of Open Source Matters, Inc., from 2007 to 2010. To keep up-to-date with her recent happening, follow Elin on Twitter!
A special thanks to Elin for her service and for taking the time to allow the Joomla! Community Magazine to interview her.