A Wikimedia team won the Open Minds Award in the category “Diversity” for their work with a mentoring program during the 2017 Wikimedia Hackathon in Vienna. Photo by Jean-Frédéric, CC0/public domain.

The Technical Collaboration team at the Wikimedia Foundation are focusing our efforts on a single goal: recruiting and retaining new volunteer developers to work on Wikimedia software projects.

Onboarding new developers, and ensuring they are set up to succeed, is key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Wikimedia developer community, which works on projects seen by billions of people around the world.

The current active developer community, which currently numbers in the hundreds, helps maintain more than 300 code repositories and makes more than 15,000 code contributions on a monthly basis. That puts the Wikimedia projects on par with some of the largest and most active free software development projects in the world, like the Linux kernel, Mozilla, Debian, GNOME, and KDE, among others.

But the developer community is not growing at the pace required to ensure the long-term health of our projects. Conscious of this, the Technical Collaboration team is focusing on bringing in new volunteer developers, connecting them with existing communities, and ensuring the success of both new and experienced technical members of the Wikimedia movement.

What we’re doing

Thinking closely about the ways we conduct outreach through formal programs.

We have participated in the developer training programs Google Summer of Code for 12 years and Outreachy, run by the Software Freedom Conservancy, for 10 rounds over 5 years. Part of our goal in working with those programs is to find and train new developers who continue to contribute to our projects once they complete the internship program. To improve the retention figures, we pair developers in the program with an experienced technical mentor who shares their interest. We are also thinking carefully about the social component of the program, and in helping developers find new challenges and roles after their internships end.

Thinking about the ways in which Wikimedia hackathons and technical events can bring in new developers.

We have changed our approach at Wikimedia hackathons and in technical spaces in order to focus on new developers’ outreach and retention. In the last editions of the Wikimedia Hackathon and the Hackathon at Wikimania, we put more attention towards supporting new developers specifically, by pairing them with mentors and creating spaces specifically for them on-wiki and in-person. We have also promoted smaller regional hackathons to reach out to more developers, and we have modified our scholarship processes so that top newcomers from a local event have a better chance to end up joining our global events.

Where we plan to go next.

Outreach programs and developer events were obvious places to start our work because they already are touch points with outside developers.  However, it is also clear that in order to improve our retention of new developers, we have to pursue a variety of approaches. Here are some of the avenues we plan to focus on from our annual plan:

  • An explicit focus on diversity. We believe that diversity is an intrinsic strength in our developer community. We want to improve our outreach and support to identify developers from around the globe, invite them to join our community, and support them.
  • Quantitative and qualitative research. Most of our current knowledge and assumptions are not based on systematic research. We plan to focus on some key progress indicators to ensure that we are meeting our goals. Metrics include the number of current volunteer developers, number of new volunteer developers who joined our project over the last quarter, and the number of new developers who remain active after one year. We are also starting to survey all newcomers who contribute a first code patch, and we planto survey new developers who seem to have left the projects. We want to learn more about their initial motivations and the first obstacles they faced, and also about the factors that influenced their decision to leave. We are going to compile the data, findings and lessons learned in a quarterly report.
  • Featured projects for newcomers. We have been trying to connect potential new developers with any of the hundreds of Wikimedia projects, when in reality, the vast majority of them are not a good destination for volunteers. Many projects are inactive, and others are so active that the learning curve is rather complex. Still others don’t have mentors available or appropriate documentation. To help new developers succeed, we have decided to select a reasonable amount of projects that are ready to welcome newcomers, and we work closely with their mentors to lead newcomers to those areas—to see if this helps improve retention.
  • Multilingual documentation and support. Picking a limited set of featured projects also helps us support documentation in multiple languages for those projects.  We have also thought about the pathways that we want new users to take. While we have traditionally sent new developers to read How to become a MediaWiki hacker, this may not be the right approach if developers want to contribute to tools, bots, gadgets, mobile apps.  We are now refreshing our developer documentation for newcomers, and plan to refresh the org homepage accordingly. We also plan to offer one support channel for new developers easy to find and maintain.

By connecting all these pieces, we aim to attract more developers from diverse backgrounds, and to offer pathways into our movement—professionally and personally—that motivate them to stick around.

For many of us, joining the Wikimedia movement was a life-changing experience. We want to help new developers (and their mentors!) walk their own paths in Wikimedia, to gain experience and contacts in our unique community of communities. We want to offer them opportunities to become local heroes fixing technical problems and creating missing features for the Wikimedia communities living in their regions or speaking their languages. We want to offer them opportunities to meet peers across borders and boundaries, working on volunteer or funded projects and traveling to developer events.

We plan to bring the Wikimedia technical community to the levels that one would expect from one of the biggest and most active free software projects, from probably the most popular free content creation project. The chances to succeed depend heavily on current Wikimedia developers (volunteers or professionals) willing to share some of their experience and motivation mentoring newcomers. It also depends heavily on Wikimedia chapters and other affiliates willing to scratch their own technical itches working with us, co-organizing local or thematic developer activities with our help. The first experiments have been very positive (and fun) so far. Join us for more!

Quim Gil, Senior Manager, Technical Collaboration
Wikimedia Foundation