We continue with our series of interviews with WordPress people. This month, we interviewed the Executive Director of the WordPress Project, a woman with a big smile, full of positive energy and great leadership experience. I had the pleasure of working with her in the same team during the Contributor Day of WordCamp London 2019 and listening to her speech on Leadership at the WordCamp Europe 2019. So, without further ado, let’s welcome Josepha Haden.
Hi, Josepha. Surely being the Executive Director of the WordPress project should keep you very busy, so thank you very much for giving us some time for this interview. Josepha, I know you studied a Bachelor in Vocal Performance. I wouldn’t say this is the usual way to end up where you are right now. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started being involved with WordPress?
This is one of my favourite questions to answer, haha! There are a surprising number of people in WordPress that are musicians, either trained or otherwise. I think it’s because music and science and math and language are all in the same area of the brain. 🙂 But, I first got involved with WordPress through my mother. I was busy trying to be a paid musician and she was busy helping a brick and mortar store transition to being an online store. She (and her future business collaborator) built me my first site and helped me plan my marketing strategy. After that, we learned WordPress together – she focused on SEO and copywriting, while I focused on data analysis and strategy. It turns out it was the start of an excellent adventure for me!
One thing is to start participating in the WordPress Community and another thing to work for Automattic. How and when did you make this transition? And from there, how did you get your current position?
I started volunteering as a local organizer in 2009/10 and learned a lot about WordPress the CMS that way. In 2012 I decided to go to WordCamp San Francisco which was the Main WordPress Event at the time! I returned in 2014 and participated in my first ever contributor day where Jen Mylo (who is responsible for so much of the way the project works now) took notice of my work and asked me to apply for Automattic. I was hired there in 2015 and then early in 2016, Matt Mullenweg took a chance on me (this youngish, newish woman) to lead Automattic’s community team and the rest is history!
Being the Executive Director of WordPress project sounds great. But, what does this really mean? What are the most difficult challenges you have to face?
It is great, but also a huge responsibility. The day-to-day of my work is pretty varied, but everything is rooted in one goal: help people make their best contributions in the way that’s best for them. The hardest part about all of it is balancing moving fast enough to stay relevant, but slow enough to always make a well-researched decision.
Also, within this role, you meet regularly with Matt Mullenweg. What are the main goals of such meetings? What do you discuss? Could you also share with us some funny anecdote about a meeting with him?
To me, the role I’ve taken on is as a steward of the WordPress community, so our meetings are part direction-setting and part information sharing. WordPress stopped being something one person could understand a long time ago, so we share that burden now. This is more an embarrassing anecdote than a funny one, but when I first met Matt (waaay back in 2012) I walked up to him and said “I sometimes say very dumb things when I’m nervous so I’m going to just talk to you until I feel like I might sound stupid and then I will end our conversation.” And that’s exactly what I did.
When you took office you listed our strengths and challenges as contributors. One of the challenges you mention is improving the way we recognise and celebrate success. I’m really curious about this particular point. Can you please further elaborate and share with us what steps or advances have been made in this regard?
This is a little bit about literal recognition for non-code contributions (which has Core written all over it). But it’s also about how sometimes we, as open source participants, forget that perfection is the enemy of progress. We imagine that perfection is table stakes which can make it harder for us to feel any sense of accomplishment, and makes it harder for new contributors to join us with whatever skill level they already have. One of the biggest steps that have been taken this year is the inclusion of non-code roles in releases. Next steps will involve seeing a WordPress release as a long-tail process that isn’t done when the packages are complete – there’s a Building/Creation phase, a Distribution/Marketing phase, and finally a Training/Refining phase.
Also related to the previous post, one of the points discussed in the comments is related to the time we all dedicate to the community, which in turn is one of the main sources of conflict. On the one hand, your availability is not the same if you’re a full-time sponsored or part-time sponsored or a completely volunteer contributor. On the other hand, the definition (time and responsibility expected from you) of the various collaborating roles is frequently vague. What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it possible to make everyone feel comfortable with each other’s work in a project where expectations are so diverse?
That’s something I struggle with all the time. I always try to be respectful of volunteer time, but there is no way to quickly see when someone is giving more than they can sustain because they are comparing themselves to someone who is sponsored. One of the immediate solutions is to offer some sort of clear indicator when people are using sponsored time for their contributions. And the other immediate solution is to have more clarity around what is expected of our volunteers. Earlier this year (before some unexpected community bumps) I was in the process of writing up some “what to expect as a volunteer” descriptions for the community to weigh in on. I hope to get back to it, so that people don’t overextend themselves like that anymore. Or at least they go in with their eyes open to the expectations!
You’re probably one of the most informed people about the future we can expect from WordPress. Any news you’d like to share with our readers?
There is at least one new flagship event in the works – WordCamp Asia. If you haven’t seen the background work on it, you may not be aware of how close it is, but it’s coming up in February of 2020!
You are an experienced leader and made a great speech on Leadership at the WordCamp Europe. Personally I like very much that you have no problem talking about us all being human, making mistakes and being vulnerable. Related to this, in our interviews we always ask the guest to “prove” their humanity by sharing some epic failures of the past. When did you make a mistake and what happened?
Just one? haha! One of my early failings as a leader was the first time I had a direct report whose training was my responsibility. I hadn’t yet had to teach someone in an environment where their success (and continued employment) rested on my ability to explain information and tasks that came naturally to me. I was not excellent at explaining all the parts of the process, and therefore not great at identifying why their work wasn’t up to the company standards. We had great rapport, but the lack of clarity bred some resentments on both sides. That experience taught me everything about setting expectations, the importance of meeting people where they are, and the now-obvious truth that the best employer/employee relationships are active on both sides and a constant conversation.
And to end this interview, who would you like us to interview in the future and why? Tell us 3 WProfessionals that you want to be on the blog.
Kori Ashton, Tonya Mork and Mary Job.
Thank you Josepha for your contributions in this interview. It’s always a pleasure talking to you and I’m sure we’ll meet again in a future WordCamp. And to you, dear reader, see you next week with another post in the blog and next month with another interview. Stay tuned for news!