Rob Lanphier knew early on that computers were his future. He grew up in a blue collar family and his dad held a number of jobs, from operating salvage yards in Colorado, to farming in Washington and driving a truck in Idaho. Lanphier, a self-proclaimed nerd with little interest in those trades, was drawn to programming, a proclivity that was recognized by his family and others. A sage family friend, covered in grease from a long day in his shop, offered Lanphier advice he still remembers vividly: “When you grow up, get a job where you wash your hands after you go the bathroom.”
After graduating from high school in 1988, Lanphier attended the University of Idaho to pursue a degree in computer science. Although in today’s world, Silicon Valley is synonymous with the Internet, in the late 80s the University of Idaho was one of the early nodes on the NSFNet and it proved to be an important opportunity for Lanphier’s development.
Early on he could see the potential for what the Internet would become. “I was evangelizing the Internet all the time,” he said. His post-college experience turned him on to the Usenet FAQ lists and its potential for the distribution of knowledge on the Internet. “The distributed governance of Usenet was one of the early precursors to Wikipedia,” he said, pointing to the decentralized decision making system that the two share.
The concept of a wiki (and Wikipedia) was first brought to Lanphier’s attention in 2001. At that time, Wikipedia was just getting started, but working with open source software was something that had interested him for some time. He quickly took to editing and adding content as the 96th user on English Wikipedia—that’s user number 96 out of the millions of Wikipedians who have created accounts!
According to Lanphier, Wikipedia “exceeded our wildest expectations.” He added, “If you go back to the early days of radio and television, they thought that that was going to lead to this dissemination of knowledge in the purest sense, and there would be this organic upwelling of people sharing information, but nobody had figured out how to actually make it happen. And I think that’s what’s so cool about Wikipedia is that it is actually a manifestation of that vision that so many people had and just couldn’t figure out how to complete.”
Lanphier began his career at the Wikimedia Foundation as a contractor in 2010 and soon moved to his current position as the Director of Platform Engineering. He wanted to work in “an organization where it’s given that you would publish your source code, that you work with open licenses, and be surrounded by other people that share that same belief.” In prior positions, he often found himself as the lone open source advocate battling against a proprietary ideal. “It was a job where I wasn’t going to be ‘that’ guy,” he said with a smile.
Lanphier currently manages a team of 16 contributors organized into four major areas: the MediaWiki Core group, responsible for the stability, security, performance, and architectural cleanliness of the system; the Engineering Community group which manages the relationship between the Wikimedia Foundation and the volunteer development community; the Data Analytics group responsible for building out Wikimedia’s logging and data mining infrastructure; and a new Quality Assurance group responsible for test infrastructure, test automation, and some manual testing. According to Lanphier, his Platform Engineering team’s number one priority is to “build the technological and operating platform that enables Wikimedia to function sustainably as a top global Internet organization.”
When asked what he appreciates about Wikipedia being supported by a non-profit organization, he said it is essential to the success of the movement. It frees the Wikimedia Foundation from the urge to turn users and user data into a commodities for sale. “I think Wikipedia in some ways has an unbeatable economic model now, because we’re not greedy, because we’re not trying to take money off the table and trying to really monetize things in the way that other entities would practically have to do,” he said.
Sites that allow advertising, Lanphier argued, operate under a wholly different mindset. “It’s about monetizing eyeballs,” he said. “Having worked at companies that profit from capturing users for advertisers or whoever, it’s just this unhealthy influence on your thinking, because you eventually have to succumb to it.”
Profile by Alice Roberts, Communications Intern
Interview by Matthew Roth, Global Communications Manager