Some notes on Ali Spivak’s talk from Write The Docs Portland
As a nonprofit, the The Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) relies on community of volunteers to create and maintain developer documentation for all Mozilla products. MDN documents are used by approximately 2 million developers per month, translated in 35 languages, and must respond to continually evolving development standards.
How it all gets done
MDN maintains 5 full time paid writers and 2-3 part time paid contractors. Full time writers also work with the MDN community to fill in the documentation gap. This community involvement permits MDN to provide a quantity of work that would normally require a much larger staff. The community consists of: 220-225 core volunteers, 600 active contributers (making one edit per month), 1500 semi-active contributors (making an edit within the past 3 months), 5000 registered contributors (making 1 edit within the past 3-4 years), in addition to passive readers who will hopefully add future content.
Contributions from the community
What the community does:
- writes articles
- edits (typos, grammar)
- provides tech reviews
- adds tags for search
- builds IA
- represents at events
- participates in localization sprints
Just as important as the actual work provided, the community also contributes valuable perspective. Because the community is distributed and global, it contains multitudes. A broad array of perspectives is available to identify issues and concerns relevant to a varied group of users. For example, users in rural areas of India might identify low bandwidth as a limiting concern, which is not usually thought an issue in the Bay Area.
The awesome herd of cats
Community developers and members continue to volunteer–give away their free time–in exchange for the benefits that are experienced by being part of something greater. The strength of the community is built on this sense of belonging and on the assumption of trust and respect that community members are given. The access granted to the MDN to equates to this assumption of trust and makes the act of contribution more accessible. Together, access and the act of contributing create a sense belonging.
With this respect given, members feel a sense of responsibility, as evidenced by low incidence of spam. But given these benefits to the individual, how does a community manager direct the work of the minions? The answer is, you don’t, because they aren’t minions to be directed, but really more like a herd of awesome cats. As a manager, your job is to help and motivate them, provide status, and create opportunities for them to provide their expertise. Volunteers don’t need people telling them what to do.
Why do people become part of an awesome herd?
Science can provide some insight into the reasons that people sign up for this level of volunteer commitment. Research of human motivations compares extrinsic and intrinsic sources of motivation. Extrinsic (outside rewards) have been shown to demotivate individuals as those rewards replace the intrinsic (internal) motivation experienced from completing the task itself. Intrinsic motivation generates meaning. MDN volunteers are motivated by being part of something larger, making contributions, learning with and from others. These motivations give their efforts meaning.
MDN and Burning Man
How are they similar? Both motivated by:
- autonomy (desire to direct one’s own life)
- mastery (an urge to get better)
- purpose (work for something larger than self)
In both communities, 90% of the work is achieved by volunteers. Additionally, the principles of Burning Man are similar to principles Mozilla emphasizes, such as: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self reliance, radical self expression, communal effort, and 3 others I didn’t catch.
Interchangeabilty of community and culture
Zappos core values underpin their community and their culture to the extent that deviation from them can mean employee termination. What principles are don’t matter in this example, what matters is are they adhered to? The key to building culture lies in the principles that keep people together.
In MDN, the principles that attract and reward are the reasons behind formation of its volunteer community.
It’s not built to get easier
It’s not easy to remain an open community committed to bringing people in from outside. MDN roadmap and goals are developed by Mozilla with the community, instead of for the community. This requires much more work and communication than imposing a structure from “above”. If a manager of the community can’t convince the volunteers that something is the right thing to do or direction to take, maybe it’s not right.
A community that contains a diversity of perspectives and needs is one that is already providing feedback about what is most important. It’s essential to break out of the managerial bubble to make decisions based on what’s right for the community.
Consensus occurs slowly when working with a large volunteer community, but doing the wrong thing is slower overall. Once consensus is achieved, progress occurs incredibly fast. It’s more beneficial to experience lots of upfront churn. You want your churn early.
Ali’s talk summary is here: Communities are awesome
Presentation materials will also be posted shortly.