[Wikimedia-l] [Wikitech-l] Fwd: [Tech/Product] Engineering/Product org structure

Erik Moeller erik at wikimedia.org
Thu Nov 22 04:49:51 UTC 2012

On Wed, Nov 21, 2012 at 6:02 PM, Quim Gil <qgil at wikimedia.org> wrote:
> There is a blog post & video circulating these days, about how GitHub Inc is
> organized as a company. They also manage a version control system promoting
> decentralized collaboration, plus other tools supporting this core goal and
> the big community around it. They are also hundred-something. They have also
> offices in San Francisco. They are also a young organization growing fast.
> Etc.

Yeah, I'm familiar with it. There's also a similarly interesting
description of the organizational culture at Valve (makers of
Half-Life, Portal, etc.) in the form of their employee handbook:


I like a lot about the picture these presentations and documents
paint, and I think there's a ton we can learn from them. There are of
course also crucial differences between Wikimedia and a Git hosting
company or a game developer, and less obvious ways that power is
exercised in both organizations (e.g. the role of the founders).

> Well, at least your proposal doesn't go against this scenario. Perhaps is one step in that direction.

[Fair warning, below is really starting to drift away from being
on-topic for wikitech-l and going into general OD stuff.]

I believe so. I do think we should have bigger conversations about
what kind of organization we want to be, and what tradeoffs we'd need
to accept if we wanted to move away from what's stilll in many ways a
fairly hierarchical model. Like I said, I don't think you can make
major structural changes in isolation, or you'll just end up with
mismatched expectations and broken hearts. ;-)

I do think flat structures are pretty enticing, though. I encourage
you (and anyone) to look a bit more into the way things currently work
if you want to help be part of continued evolutionary change. I've had
conversations with Sue about this and she's pretty open to supporting
well-justified structural changes (hence this discussion). The Board,
too, is generally open-minded and responsive.

An example where I think change is badly needed is the Annual Planning
process. There are few aspects of WMF that follow as conventional a
hierarchical model as this one. You see the output: a 71 page document
[1] describing the organization's planned financials, key activities
and targets, etc. To get to that point, we went through a multi-month
process driven primarily by managers, sending drafts and submissions
up and down and up the organizational ladder, with final review by Sue
and ultimate approval by the Board. This was followed by the Narrowing
Focus resolution, the Narrowing Focus process (with again lots of
leadership involvement), the Narrowing Focus document and its
approval, the Wikimedia Foundation FDC submission and its approval,

That's a lot of time spent on meta-level work. I'm not arguing it's
time and effort wasted, but I do think there's a lot of room for
streamlining and consolidating processes. I also think it's predicated
on the assumption that creating a more comprehensive plan will lead to
a better outcome, and I would challenge that belief -- there's a
threshold at which point the opposite is true, and I think in a lot of
our work that threshold is very low because the unknowns are pretty
large and new ideas and opportunities may emerge all the time.

Moreover, to get back to the point you were making, I think this is
the kind of thing that creates a lot of dependency on conventional
management approaches -- time that could be spent, by those same
people, on doing the actual work the plan talks about, while creating
a less rigid harness for the organization as a whole, in turn allowing
for structures to be simplified and enabling greater autonomy across
the board.

So, I'm not arguing against deeper structural changes -- just for
change that's harmoniously managed in concert with the various other
factors at play.


[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/foundation/4/4f/2012-13_Wikimedia_Foundation_Plan_FINAL_FOR_WEBSITE.pdf

Erik Möller
VP of Engineering and Product Development, Wikimedia Foundation

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