July 7, 2010

1195 words 6 mins read

Wikimedia Foundation – Growing too fast? Or people just scared of numbers?

Recently the Wikimedia Foundation finalized their “5 year strategy” and posted the 2010-2011 Annual Plan.  I read the entire plan and found it an interesting read.  Previous to this, I had heard rumblings that the Foundation was going to double in size over the next year.  They are 40 some fulltimers now, and that means by July 2011, they’re expecting to be at 80-90?  That’s a big jump, on top of that if you read their 5 year plan for staff they are looking at hitting about 190 staff by 2015.  Wow.  So… that scares a lot of peopleMy question is: Why does more staff scare the community?

I’ll agree, when I first heard the number, I was shocked.  But that is a number with no context.  Any time you hear about a group doubling in size, especially in a soft economy, you question the logic.  Since this is the Wikimedia Foundation, we have insight into the logic, specifically

when and exactly who they are going to hire.  If you actually look over the annual plan (page 23), you’ll find the breakdown of hires by general department.  Let’s take a look at each group and what those potential hires might do:

  • Technology — 16 new staff
  • The technology staff is the group responsible for developing the MediaWiki and more importantly, keeping all the sites (including Wikipedia) on the air.  Not to be critical of the current team (they run a top 5 website with something like 1% the number of machines the next biggest site does, freaking impressive), but Wikipedia doesn’t have the world’s greatest track record for up time.  Just recently there were two major outages involving a cooling failure at one center and a power failure at another.  You can’t fault the WMF staff in either of these cases, but maybe with more personnel they could have resolved them faster.  Also, with a limited ops staff, how do you have people on duty 24/7? You don’t.  More staff also means the capability to handle more facilities (more locations would have helped these problems). Don’t forget you also need internal tech staff to make sure everyone can get their work done.
  • Fundraising — 2 new staff
  • The Foundation is trying to go from raising $10mil a year, to $20mil next year.  They have growth desires beyond that too.  Cool, no one has any problem with that.  So if you’re going to try making more money, you probably need more people to help with the process of raising it.
  • Mgmt, Finance & Admin — 9 new staff
  • There comes a point when you need a secretary.  If you want to bicker about it, I suppose you could argue that you don’t ever need a secretary, but then you’ve got developers who are busy answering phones and buying printer paper, instead of actually WRITING CODE.  Also, you’ve got more staff members, you need someone to make sure they get paid.  So on and so forth.  The more staff you have, the more support you need.
  • Other Programs — 17 new staff
  • In my opinion, this is where a lot of people are getting caught up, even if they don’t realize it.  What is “other programs”?  Who are these staff members? What are they actually going to be doing?  Will there be cake? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but based on the annual plan (page 45) and the strategic plan they are Global Development and Community.

First lets look at Global Development: English Wikipedia is #1 at 3million articles.  Russian is #10 at slightly more than 500k articles.  That means English Wikipedia is 6 times larger than #10 — that’s a very sizable jump.  Heck, ENWP is 3 times larger than #2 (German at 1million articles).  There are 250 or so different language Wikipedias, they get really small, really fast.  It would seem obvious to anyone that getting more people involved from countries that don’t speak English is going to be very important in the long run.  Stop and think about it for a second.  India and China both have over a BILLION people, those two countries combined make up roughly one third of the world’s population, yet neither Hindi nor Mandarin are in the top 10 Wikipedias.  In fact Mandarin only has 300k articles and Hindi has even less at 55k.  Both shamefully small when you compare how much of the worlds population lives in those countries and speaks those languages.  So, Global Development? Important

Second on the list is “Community”.  This probably scares people because they think Staff “Community” means “paid to edit”.  No, the Community Department is the staff members that directly interact with the editing community.  There are more than 12.5 million registered accounts on the English Wikipedia alone.  There is one Volunteer Coordinator.  There are maybe 2 other people in the Community Department that are actually there to handle day to day editors (I don’t know exactly, I’m just guessing from job titles).  Perhaps if you want to get some of the HUNDREDS of proposals done, the Foundation could use some more staff members to work with editors on actually getting those proposals off the ground.  Hence… more community.

If you want more details, you can look over the annual report (pages 46 & 47) for each and every job title (more or less, some of them are “TBD”).  A number of people complain saying that the Chapters should be doing more and the Foundation less.  Well hell, one of the job titles (#74) is “Head of Chapter Development”.  The Foundation wants one person who’s sole focus is to get more Chapters and help them be better organized, so obviously The Foundation agrees that chapters are important.

What people should be worried about, instead of the number of paid staff, is the financing. The Foundation could have 50 paid staff or 500, if they don’t have the money, it doesn’t matter.  On the flip side, if they have the money to support 100 staff and have a plan to use them effectively, where’s the problem?  As previously noted, the projections go from $10mil in revenue to $20mil. I’m not sure how that will work, but I’m not a money personfinancier.  Now we can try some basic math and see where that gets us.  Somewhere I read that the average donation was $30, dividing $20mil with that roughs out to just slightly less than 700k people donating a year.  As the English Wikipedia receives about 8 million views an hour or roughly 69.4 billion views a year, that works out to 1 in every 100,000 views needs to result in a donation, and that seems like fairly good odds to me.

So why not be a little patient and see how The Foundation does over the next year?  Maybe they know what they are doing.  I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that Sue didn’t get hired just to be a pretty face (Besides, that’s Jimbo’s job).  Next time Wikipedia pops up an error message reading “I’m sorry, we’re having technical difficulties”, think about your complaints against hiring more staff, and possibly consider sending them a donation.