Competing Interests: WordCamp SF and the WordPress Foundation

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WordCamp SF

Photo used under Creative Commons and taken by Niall Kennedy.

Six years ago, the first WordCamp ever was held in SF and it became the launching point for many local regions and cities to continue the conversation, learning and educating around WordPress. It was always meant to be a hyper-local thing. Actually, as a correction, it was never meant to be a thing at all. It was meant to be a get-together of SF WordPress people.

But surprise, it caught the attention of WP developers, users and designers worldwide (including myself), and we came in by storm!

The following year, the decision was made that, due to such high demand in SF, and to try to encourage WordPress user groups in other cities, WordCamps should be distributed and locally organized. That kicked off a slew of WordCamps that (seemingly) doubles every year. I organized WordCamp Mid-Atlantic (the roots for WordCamp Baltimore and WordCamp DC today) back in 2009 and 2010.

Personally, I’ve been at or spoken at dozens of WordCamps (Mark your calendars… if you’re in Las Vegas on October 6, I’ll be speaking there too). To name a few, I’ve been to WordCamps in SF, San Diego, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Baltimore, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and New York to name a few. I’ve been to San Francisco every year except one, and that was due to another travel conflict.

I’ve been an organizer, speaker, sponsor and attendee.

In other words, I am no rookie and I am in good standing in the community!

The WordPress Foundation

A few years ago, after some financial mis-management for a large WordCamp, the WordPress Foundation was setup. The Foundation was designed to promote the use of WordPress, protect trademarks of WordPress and related WordPress trademarks, including WordCamp. As part of this responsibility, the Foundation has issued rules around WordCamps via WordCamp Central. Today, I could not run WordCamp Mid-Atlantic the way I did before as the rules are quite rigid. On the other hand, I would also not have taken a nearly $3k personal loss on Mid-Atlantic in 2010, so the rules, in my opinion, aren’t all bad.

A sampling of these rules include that any WordPress-based commercial sponsors who distribute code must distribute 100% GPLv2 compliant software and having organizers approved. Also, all sponsorship money goes through the Foundation at this point.

WordCamp SF

Which leads me to a problem I feel the need to weigh in on. WordCamp San Francisco is no WordCamp. It is a conference in every rightful way of the word, as it should be. And it should be renamed as the WordPress Conference or something other that WordCamp. WordCamp SF is commanding massive sponsorship levels, of which one sponsor is gladly paying a whopping $30,000 for “California Street” level sponsorship.

Other sponsorship levels are at $10k, $7500, $5k and $2k.

This is against an unstated, yet enforced, Foundation policy surrounding limits for sponsorships. These rules were put in effect to encourage big companies, like Dreamhost who is in for $30k at WCSF, to spread the wealth among a variety of WordCamps instead of just one. The idea is that if, say Microsoft, was well-connected to an organizer of one WordCamp, the Foundation has mechanisms in place to move funds around to other less-connected, but still necessary, WordCamps. It also ensures that WordCamps don’t put their eggs in one basket and then have a major sponsor flake and leave them holding the bag. Fine, I can get behind that rule.

WordCamps also have rules about content. It used to be that every WordCamp had some session on using social media. While that is perhaps important to WordPress users, it’s not WordPress! So sessions need to be WordPress related. I totally get that and have no gripe with that provision. For the first WordCamp Mid-Atlantic, I invited Anil Dash to keynote, knowing that at the time, Anil was an SVP and Founder of a WordPress competitor. But it was open source and I felt that the competition only made us as a WordPress community stronger. I expected push-back from inviting Anil, and if the rules were in place then… he may not have been able to Keynote.

We know WordCamp SF is Matt’s baby and he chooses content, not based on whether if it’s WordPress-related, but whether it’s inspired him. At least that was true until last year when Jane Wells organized.

We also know food, photography and Jay Z inspire Matt, but I don’t think Rachael Ray would be a speaker at WordCamp SF… though perhaps I wouldn’t be surprised if she did end up speaking there. I digress.

Matt Mullenweg, who is both the President of Automattic, the commercial arm of WordPress, and the President of the WordPress Foundation responded to my request for comment by admitting that some content in the past has drifted from WordPress but that he still stands by them. “None of those speakers normally speak at WordCamps, but we’re able to attract them and orient them to contributing something interesting to the WordPress community because of WCSF’s location and prominence.”

I suppose, again, Rachael Ray could speak and discuss the merits of using WordPress for a food blog.

Related, ticket prices are kept artificially low, but sponsorship levels are extremely high. It feels wrong.

The Foundation does suggest lower ticket prices (around $20 is typical), but one wonders why WordCamp San Francisco could not charge a reasonably low rate of $200 for an attendee ticket, given that people would still come from all over the world to attend. This would also lower sponsor levels and cause less controversy. DrupalCon is charging $400-$450. RailsConf is approximately $800. Why does the official WordPress conference have to sell at $20 when sponsorship levels feel inappropriate?

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The Foundation Risks Major Implications from Non-Enforcement

When the Foundation was established, it’s stated goals were inspired by the Mozilla Foundation, as much of the philosophy of open-source development and products in the WordPress world are. It’s important to point out that, from a governance standpoint, the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation, though closely tied, are governed by different people with similar but differently stated goals.

If Mozilla Corp goes outside the bounds of protected Mozilla.org auspices, you better believe that Mozilla.org is going to have something to say about it. The reason is simple… if you don’t enforce your own policies with your closest ally, friend and organization made from the same DNA, you leave yourself open to risk later on. Otherwise, you have a conflict of interest which is both legally and publicly difficult to reconcile.

Trey Roberts, a well-decorated Intellectual Property attorney of Roberts & Roberts in Austin, TX, commented to me that, “Though there is no ‘discrimination’ in a legal sense, since an organization has the right to choose what aspects of their licensing contract to enforce, if a pattern of suspended enforcement occurs, there is a risk of legal repercussions.”

Of course, some organizers see a level of subjectiveness in Foundation rules. Tony Perez, one of the organizers of WordCamp San Diego, lamented, “Often case when a request would be made, the response would be,’we would prefer not.’ When the question was asked, ‘well why not?’ the response was not very clear or decisive, so the decision felt as if it was in limbo. At the same time, you almost felt bad going against the recommendation, so it starts to become easier not to ask, than to ask.”

Opportunity exists though. “I can say though that it’s a necessary evil, but perhaps its time to think outside the box on the approach,” says Perez.

I love WordPress

I write this post not to bash WordCamp, the WordPress Foundation or any individual involved. In fact, I love WordPress. My professional career is Proudly Powered by WordPress. I want the Foundation to succeed as an organization charged with the governance of the software and events around it – and it is making strides to become a respected, independent governing organization. But conflicts of interest (or perceived COIs) do not provide a healthy community atmosphere and it causes bad blood among other WordCamp organizers. It, in fact, keeps potential organizers from wanting to jump in the mix. Or former organizers (like myself) from wanting to participate.

One former organizer, Amanda Blum, who has been a frequent critic of the Foundation tells me she won’t organize another WordCamp but she “still actively advises other camps [sic]” and “all I hear is complaints”. She goes on to express a concern about “the vast chasm between what the Foundation thinks Camps [sic] purpose is, and what the attendee interprets.”

Policies of the WordCamp Foundation around WordCamps are heavy-handed, in my opinion. There should be education (and there is some) around how WordCamps should be organized. Perhaps the rules that require WC money to be funnelled through the Foundation are merited (I actually do agree with this for non-profit reasons). However, where possible, it strikes me as necessary (and in fact, opportune) for local organizers to be able to blaze their own path and put their own local stamp on their own local WordCamp in almost every case. When it comes to sponsorship level, a WordCamp in NYC is likely going to cost more on orders of magnitude than a WordCamp in Omaha. One size shouldn’t fit all and the discretion should be left, with guidance from the Foundation, at the local level.

Mullenweg states, “The guidelines on Central encourage lower per-company sponsorship levels to encourage more sponsors per WC, decrease reliance on a single sponsor (we’ve had them flake out before), and have a level where even smaller firms can participate. It also hasn’t appeared to be a hindrance to larger city WordCamps, with NYC and Boston both raising 20k and putting on great events.”

Jane Wells, who helped to draft the original rules, tells me that the Foundation does try to not take a one size fits all approach to WordCamp’s and that they try to assist local WordCamps with financial assistance for venues, etc when needed. It does seem there is a perception among many organizers like Perez that this is not the case. One area where better communication between the Foundation and organizers may occur is at a new community blog that just went up.

With the spirit that this article is written with, I hope the Foundation, Automattic and the community take this as constructively confrontational. I do not wish to throw anyone under the bus, but change needs to happen for the integrity of the community. I cannot and will not be attending WordCamp SF this year or in the future, as long as these grievances continue year after year. I, however, will be at WordCamp Las Vegas and possibly Baltimore in the months to come, and I hope to see you there.

Corrections: Inserted a reference to WordCamp Central that serves as a central organization point for WordCamps. Also, updated the date for WordCamp Las Vegas to Oct 6, 2012. Corrected some content flow (paragraphs inserted in the wrong place) and noted that Matt did not choose content in 2011.

Struggle

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I have a tattoo. I have more than one, but I have one in particular. The tattoo depicts scales that are balanced between an olive tree and a foreboding cityscape. Leading up to the scales, and disappearing into a vanishing point, a road winds its way into the horizon.

People commonly ask me if I’m a Libra. When I tell them no, they inevitably then ask about the tattoo which (clearly) was the reason they asked. I tell them what it really means, what really inspired the tattoo. It’s a principle at the core of my being.

A never-ending struggle for justice.

Justice can be many things to many people. Justice is often considered a validation for what one holds dear. To achieve what a person holds dear is proclaimed, “Justice!” Rarely does anyone consider that justice may result in an outcome that is not comfortable or desired bu that, by definition, is justice.

jus·tice noun \ˈjəs-təs\

the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments

The tattoo to me represents an eternal and ongoing struggle for justice. Justice, to me, is both legal and social. Equality in marriage. Employment and hiring rights. Civil rights.

As I sit here in the cradle of American democracy – Boston – I’ve had time to think about the Founding Fathers. I walked the Freedom Trail, beginning at Paul Revere’s home, and leading to the Old North Church where a pair of lanterns were hoisted into the church steeple to alert rebels in Charlestown across the river of the British arrival by sea. We know the story of that historic ride to Concord.

As I sit here in Boston and ponder the struggle for freedom that the patriots of that day engaged in, I am aware of the potentially fatal nature of that struggle as epitomized in the closing lines of the Declaration of Independence.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

This has already been a long-winded post, but there is a point – and it has nothing to do with the normal topic of this blog. Civil rights has not made any significant advances in decades. While one can argue that the Civil War was a distant memory – a blight on American history (and it was), there are still those in the south who call it the War of Northern Aggression.

Abraham Lincoln, though considerably heroic in his legacy, was only able to accomplish what he did through the Emancipation Proclamation by getting creative. He could say, “All slaves are free” and he would not have a mandate with authority in the Union, much less the Confederacy. The only way he managed to use that as a tool and a rallying cry with any success is that there were many in the Union who could care less about slaves and were only interested in the preservation of the Union while others were abolitionists who cared about freeing slaves.

In order to achieve the goals necessary to both sides, the timing and essence of the Emancipation had to serve to unite both factions. That was, in fact, the genius of Lincoln.

Besides Civil Rights, we still have work to do on the Women in the Workforce side of things. Sure, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which enhances the ability of women to file lawsuits challenging unfair compensation. But that’s only a fraction of what needs to happen. Certainly, in the tech space, we need to eliminate Brogrammers and all their evil spawn. And that’s just in tech. Fortunately, Twitter is spearheading a project to get women into engineering. We need more of that.

And of course, equality in marriage is another topic that needs to be addressed.

But the point is, the struggle will always be there. With every achievement, there’s more to fight for. We need to fight and we need to push the issues. Be the change you want to see.

— Aaron Brazell

My Three Tiered System to Job Searching

Photo used under Creative Commons and taken by photologue_np

Photo used under Creative Commons and taken by photologue_np

Over the past months, since I parted with WP Engine, I have entertained many inquiries about my availability for other full-time roles. And I literally mean many. It’s been a great problem to have, frankly, and I consider myself blessed to have these inquiries while so many others continue to struggle to find work.

I also consider myself blessed to work in a specialty field. WordPress consulting, you would think, is something that is extremely saturated. To a degree you’d be right. As a consultant, I turn away a great number of projects because, frankly, they amount to building sites with WordPress. There is certainly nothing wrong with that kind of work, but I’ve found over years of consulting that it’s important to be a specialist. To not be a specialist means to compete with everyone else on the same level and that reduces the quality and quantity of projects I can work on.

Instead, I focus on high-end WordPress integrations and plugin development. Complex things. I make a reasonable living doing things that there are only a proverbial handful of people who have the ability to do.

At the same time, I continue to entertain full-time job offers. There are some great ones out there, but many just don’t interest me. I have a three-tier (God, as a beer advocate, I hate that term but in this case it fits) filtering process I go through when entertaining job offers. I think this three-tier system should apply to anyone and everyone looking to work in any field, and so I’ve decided to share it.

Is the money right?

We all need to live, and I’m not one who believes the starving artist mantra is necessary a healthy one. If you’re good at what you do, you should be compensated appropriately. Personally, I don’t think anyone would have an argument in this area. A seasoned DBA should not be making $50k, for instance.

As a consultant, I’ve come to have a lifestyle that I’ve worked very hard to achieve. I’m going to be 36 soon and I’ve been married, had a kid, worked on startups, lived in expensive areas of the country and cheaper areas of the country. I’ve built a lifestyle that no job should ever take away.

We all have our “number”. Know for yourself what that number is and stick to your guns when determining if you want to work for someone. Simply not enjoying your current job is not a valid reason to take less than what you’re worth.

Does the job make you want to jump out of your chair and SQUEEEE?

IF it doesn’t, walk away. You should love every minute of what you do and jump out of bed in the morning (after a reasonable period of off-time) eager to see what new innovations, products, ideas and relationships can be achieved.

To do less is selling yourself short. Never settle for anything less than awesome. Some inquiries, for me, have been awesome on the money side but I feel so dull and want to pull each fingernail out of it’s socket just thinking about it. Read my lips! I will never work in a cubicle again! Ever! Don’t ask!

Recently, I spoke with a company who demoed some of their products (WordPress-based) they were working on. They showed me tools that they had built in that allowed their 300some entities they managed to do amazing things (things I tried at b5media years ago [and failed]) in easy, intuitive ways. All I wanted to do was scream “OMGYESPLEASE!” through the phone.

If you don’t have that reaction, think really hard about whether you want to commit.

What’s the social impact?

I’m not a tree-hugger, but one thing I can say is that consulting is both awesome and terrible. I get a lot of benefits by working for myself. But that’s kind of it. I get lots of benefits from working for myself. No one else does. Just me. My world isn’t a better place because of my work. My wallet is happier, but the world around me still sucks.

So when I talk to companies about working for them, I want to know that my work has a positive effect on the world around me. Whether it’s education or environmental; sustainability or fitness; empowering others or enabling positive social change – it’s an important facet in what I look for.

Does the company reward employees for not wasting energy and taking the bus or riding a bike to work? Does the company offer some sort of subsidy or reward for green energy consumption? How many women are employed as engineers?

How does working for Company X positively affect the world around me?

I think these three things are co-equally important for anyone, not just me. I hope so, anyway. We shouldn’t hate what we do, ever. We choose what we do. Choose wisely.