Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the small-but-growing team that’s building the software offerings that are part of the Webmaker effort. If you don’t know about Webmaker, you should — go check out the website, and Mark Surman’s blog for more details and an inside view about why Mozilla’s doing it. The really short version is that one of the major initiatives Mozilla is engaging on in 2012, apart from some of the already incredibly ambitious projects that you may know about (Firefox, Firefox for Android, Firefox Mobile OS, Identity, Apps, etc.!), is to teach the world that the web is not just something to consume, but something that everyone can help create. In Mitchell Baker’s words:
“Mozillians are people who make things. Moving people from consumption to creation is Mozilla’s goal.”
Now, Mitchell’s words often inspire me (she’s probably the biggest reason I joined Mozilla full time), but this phrase in particular has been bouncing around in my head for weeks. It’s also one that resonates deeply with many people I talk to, regardless of their degree of familiarity with the web, technology, Mozilla, open source, etc.
Now, the premise of the Webmaking software offering is both incredibly exciting and so ambitious as to be scary. We want to reach large but diverse populations and find ways to make creating on the web both compelling for them, and fun/productive. That means that we need both specialized tools, specialized content, and deep connections with whole new populations of Mozillians who can join Mozilla to build these offerings, bringing their passion, skills, knowledge, connections, etc. We’ve already got great start in a few beacheads: kids/tweens, filmmakers, newsrooms to name a few. There are many more on the roadmap.
Each of these slices of webmakers will require specific content, and likely tooling, which we think of as a “product.” As an example, Thimble is a combination of a code editor (a tool) and learning projects (content) developed in partnership with a bunch of great organizations, aimed at giving people who don’t know anything about the web the first bit of a clue, and the first bit of a sense of agency over the web. It’s an early effort, that we built really quickly, but it’s showing a lot of promise.
We built Thimble v1 “the easy way” — a dedicated designer, a dedicated product manager, and a dedicated engineering team, working full-time over a few weeks, coordinating with professionals who themselves had well-defined roles and responsibilities. It wasn’t really easy, but it was familiar territory for most of us. We knew what to expect of each other, we could rely on the traditions of both open source projects for the “code”, and product development for the integration of the code into an overall “consumer experience” (although the word consumer is particularly ironic in this context).
I don’t think we can expect to keep this approach and scale the way the Webmaking project deserves to. (Michelle Levesque thinks so too!).
Now, one might think that that’s what Open Source projects do, but I think in fact very few open source projects are run as products. In particular, in my experience, a good product team has learned that code is only part of the equation — design, project management, writing, engagement, etc. are equally important, for which there is no equivalent to the code open source culture. As an example, good designers, as a result of decades of abuse by clients, typically refuse volunteer work. There is no global culture around any of the non-coding skills (with a few notable exceptions, such as QA and localization, and most interestingly, the legal profession, who has incorporated pro bono work into its professional culture). Now, Mozilla as a whole has been tackling all of these issues for years to support the main products (Firefox in particular), but even then we have not yet figured out how to gather volunteer contributions in many parts of the workflow.
I’m hoping that within the Webmaking effort, which I think is so compelling to so many non-engineers, we have another opportunity to refine our approach. I used the title “volunteer-powered” rather than “open source” in the title because I think that while open source has a lot of lessons to bring in, it also has a bunch of antipatterns. Forcing non-developers to think or act like developers isn’t the answer.
Here’s my question for the day: are there collaborative models of work in non-engineering disciplines where people have developed ways of working that I should be reading about or talking to people about?
To make it more precise and hopefully a bit controversial: I fear that a lot of the tradition of “collective action” has its roots in cultural norms around equality, fairness, and making people feel good about their contributions ahead of all other values. And as a result, in my experience at least, a lot of volunteer groups for example end up very pleasant and “nice” but lacking the urgency, the drive, the decisiveness, the ambition to kick ass in the market that turns ideas into shipping code that users love.
How can we combine the rapid pace, deliberate action, role assignments of a product team, and the openness to volunteer and part-time contributions of open source?