What if WordPress had an advisory board? - ManageWP

What if WordPress had an advisory board?

Before going into the theoretical exercise of answering my own question about WordPress having an advisory board, I want to reflect on the current state of things. Talking with people involved with WordPress, I’ve heard a lot of interpretations of how they believe it is currently governed and who sets the direction and vision. That’s interesting, as it tells us that the current situation is probably not being communicated in the best way.

Many think WordPress is governed by Automattic, which is wrong. Automattic is a private company that controls WordPress.com, VaultPress, and several other products.

Many also think that there’s some kind of democratic process (i.e., “voting”) in place. Although many questions about the future of WordPress are discussed at events like WordCamps and, especially, WordPress Community Summit, there isn’t any formal “voting” mechanism in place that would allow the community (in the widest sense of the word) to decide, for example, what features get added to or removed from the WordPress core.

Some people who are more familiar with WordPress point to the WordPress foundation. It’s a legal entity that holds the WordPress trademark, and its stated purpose is as follows:

“The point of the foundation is to ensure free access, in perpetuity, to the software projects we support.”

However, although it’s a formal legal entity, the foundation does not govern the direction and vision of WordPress.

What gives? Few have guessed the right answer—that the direction and vision of WordPress is in essence driven by its co-founder, Matt Mullenweg, with no formal body in place (and, as he put it “until he gets old and/or senile” – I’ll add “or perhaps until he has kids,” as that is a game-changer). In practice, the inner circle of leadership is somewhat broader than this and also involves the core development team.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with one person driving the vision of the product. Matt was able to lead the open source project from inception through incredible growth to where it is now and by all standards—hats off for that.

Also, being in the project’s commanding seat while being invested in its future due to running a huge business that depends on it (Automattic), Matt is under a lot of pressure not to screw up. It’s an immense responsibility, which for the moment he carries more or less alone. That’s not an easy thing to do by any standard.

So here am I driving the Oregon Coast highway, thinking about all these things and asking myself: What if WordPress, one of the largest open source projects in the world, founded by Mike and Matt more than 11 years ago and powering about 25% of Internet, built a community-influenced advisory board? How would that change things?

Open sea meets Oregon at Nye Beach, Newport, Oregon
Open sea meets Oregon at Nye Beach, Newport, Oregon

Let’s start by stating the obvious: advisory boards are a way for open source projects to make their governance fully transparent and to obtain guidance on strategic questions like product roadmap or policies. Advisory boards have been embraced by many popular open source projects, including Linux and Node.js, to name only two.

Using Node.js as an example, its advisory board was formed after the project had been running for four years. The seats on the board have been given to a variety of community members, including those who invest time and effort contributing to the project: users and companies that deploy it, and outside experts from other open source projects.

The main trigger for forming an advisory board usually comes not only when a project matures but also when its users and community become so diverse and complex that a board has to be formed to balance the needs of all the different types of users.

I think that this is the case that could be easily made for WordPress today.

If the current WordPress leadership held discussions with members of the WordPress community, including contributors and companies involved in popularizing the project, my gut feeling tells me that there would be a strong consensus to create an advisory board.

The seats on such a board would not be “sold” or “sponsored.” They would be open to the entire community and transparently allocated to individuals and companies that have objectively shown particular interest in contributing and in the well-being of the project.

How could this change WordPress?

Such advisory board would further enhance open governance principles, such as influence through contribution and an open technical meritocracy (effectively separating technology advancement from individual or commercial intent).

Can something go wrong? Well, given the same diversity and complexity as the community, the advisory board could become counterproductive. I can imagine a situation where participating companies would shortsightedly put their interests first, before the best interests of the project. Many people can have many different visions for the future of the product, resulting in it being spread too thin in vital areas such as the core. And perhaps WordPress, in its twelfth year of existence, has outgrown the need for an advisory board and is simply good as-is.

Personally, I think Matt should start thinking about it for practical reasons. It would allow him to settle down a bit when he decides to start a family — a moment he’s probably nearing (he’s 30 now), so better to be prepared and to have a structure in place, made after his own vision.

Please discuss!

Vladimir Prelovac

Vladimir is the Founder of ManageWP, and is a frequent contributor to the WordPress community - in the form of numerous plug-ins, tools, WordCamp talks and a book by the title WordPress Plugin Development.

12 Comments

  1. Santanu

    Great stuff to read. :)

  2. Rick

    I have always felt like the need for a board arose when a single-handed leadership was no longer functional and needed some level of limitation due to problems affecting the entire organization.

    I have heard words of praise from countless programmers working with WP and words stating that “all competition feels like it was made by apes in comparison to WP”.

    I personally fear taking something that did not stop improving from the hands of a man who had put it on top above others, and giving it to different people for the sheer fact that they are a part of something interested in it. I do not object or claim the concept false. Nor I have claims to knowing all of it. The notion itself makes me very apprehensive based on many examples from the past, where companies given to the boards had shifted to a much thinner (as you have described so well) vision.

    I enjoy WP. I truly do and can’t think of an alternative so to me, this change will face skepticism in it’s initial stage.

  3. Chris

    If an advisory board, is what it will take to finally get an “Optimized WordPress Platform”, then I’d say yes for sure.. 11 years I’ve been optimizing WordPress websites, custom building servers, programming custom Linux kernels to add features from high-traffic websites like Alibaba, https://github.com/alibaba/ali_kernel, maintaining a custom version of NGINX, that now does more than Nginx Plus, based off of Tengine https://github.com/alibaba/tengine which powers Asia’s largest E-commerce Site, Ranked #10 on Alexa..

    But 11 years of utilizing 3rd party cache solutions and other mess is a bit outdated.. It’s about time there is a real solution.. And I don’t mean HHVM, which for 90% of us, isn’t any faster than todays php5-fpm.. We shouldn’t need SmartOS..

    I’m not trying to be harsh.. It’s just ashame that we don’t have a sure fire solution.. It saddens me to see all of the newcombers to WordPress, and the huge amount of broken tutorials, articles, poorly written nginx configs.. There is so much hype around WordPress, that it truly is hard to know who to trust when you need any service related to WordPress. Companies making money off of cache plugins, when 90% of the code is from W3 Total Cache.. I mean, this is a day in the life of WordPress.

    1. Vladimir Prelovac

      I am not sure if this task is best suited for the board, but since you seem so passionate and knowledgable about the subject I’d like to suggest that you write a book (or at least an ebook) on low-level and high-level WordPress optimizations. At the very least the community could use a WordPerformance blog. There is huge demand for this.

  4. Matt

    Our current structure has tradeoffs, but does orient the project toward action and taking bolder bets than we might in a committee-driven organization. This is important because the environment we’re in is dynamic and changing quickly, with smart competitors funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. We need to be fast especially with the rise of mobile. WordPress also competes in an imperfect world, where sometimes the philosophically “right” or “pure” answer actually compromises our long-term goals, an affliction most apparent in the organization that inspired much of what we believe in, the FSF.

    That’s why I’ve kept the project away from a board-style of governance so far. That doesn’t mean that many different voices aren’t important to be heard in decision making, in fact quite the opposite, input from a variety of stakeholders is more important than ever which I think was clearly on display at the community summit this year, and why I continue to do regular open town halls with no pre-screening of questions, and comment on blog posts like this. :) But I think we can continue to evolve and listen better to the community without introducing bureaucracy or complicating decision lines. And I’m spending as much time with WP as ever before. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    1. Vladimir Prelovac

      Thank you for taking time to respond Matt. I can definitely understand that if the ‘force’ is still strong with you we ought to not change anything. But also let’s agree that this is probably not going to be indefinite and I outlined a near term event that might influence this ( which you carefully avoided commenting :) ), so I think a wise thing to do would be to start planting the seeds for such structure.

      To go back to my reference, although Jedis have supernormal powers and are ultra-capable on their own, they still have a Jedi Council.

    2. Dave

      I was a member of the HTML Working Group at the W3C for several years and while I agree with committees in principle, they tend not to work in practice. HTML and it’s various iterations was plagued by politics. With the major players in the browser industry making it near impossible to get consensus most of the time. WordPress development is already hobbled by the internal politics of the core dev team. Making it a committee with appointed members (likely to be the same developers already “in charge”) would just make it worse.

      What’s needed is greater transparency and a better process for addressing the needs/concerns of people outside of the core dev team. And there needs to be a “grand road map” so that the WordPress community can at least have hope that long-time concerns are on the radar. The current bug report/suggestion system is outdated and difficult to use for most users. It was created by developers for developers, so “user friendly” doesn’t remotely describe it.

      I will say that I am very pleased at the greater amount of communication this past cycle from the dev team. I think I’ve received more updates about 4.1 then I did about the last 5 updates combined. However, the process of selecting what gets updated is still fundamentally flawed. I think Matt is the only one who can change the process, but I don’t think he actually sees a problem and is not likely to change it.

  5. Don Niam

    I am fairly new to WordPress and was wondering why WP does not have a Market Place for premium themes? It would give them better control over who is representing WordPress. I had a horrible experience with Envato and now buy themes from Mojo who has been excellent. But that bad experience turned me off and I related that bad experience to “WORDPRESS”. But i was dead set on giving WP a try due to SEO abilty. I have stuck it out and really like what i have been able to accomplish. But the process of buying premium themes is pretty limited and one major market dominates and people tend to relate a bad experience to the Brand itself. Hope that’s not really off topic, but i found your post in the Manage WP newsletter and possibly a board may consider this as an expansion.

    1. Vladimir Prelovac

      The main reason that Matt outlined yesterday at WCSF would be to keep the perception of everything on WordPress.org being free. Yet it does promote a selection of hosting companies which are of course commercial in nature. So yes, questions like this could probably be answered more consistently with the help of the board.

      1. Jose Vega

        Hi, I agree with Don.

        WordPress should have a marketplace where they recomend top quality themes, that follow wordpress guidelines. they could use a different domain, the important thing is a marketplace backed up by the wordpress community, not by a company like envato.

  6. Brin Wilson

    Couldn’t help thinking as I was reading: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Sounds like a lot of meetings meetings meetings… I say, Matt’s taken it to 25% already and his life’s goal is to further WordPress, if this was the way to go he’d probably have already done it!

    1. Vladimir Prelovac

      I hear ya. How do you tell if it is broken or not though?

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