Five for the Future of WooCommerce

I’m excited to announce that Prospress is formalising its contribution to WooCommerce. We are dedicating a new member of our team to contribute full-time to WooCommerce core development.

In this post, I share the backstory on this decision, and how we plan to make the new role work. I hope it can be instructive for other companies considering such a position.

Benchmark for Contributions

Four years ago, Matt Mullenweg introduced a benchmark for WordPress companies to help assure the future of the platform:

I think a good rule of thumb that will scale with the community as it continues to grow is that organizations that want to grow the WordPress pie (and not just their piece of it) should dedicate 5% of their people to working on something to do with core

This idea stuck with me after reading the post. As anyone who’s worked with me knows, I’ve always taken the approach of growing the WooCommerce pie and not just our piece of it. Contributing 5% seemed like a neat, achievable goal to do that.

As you may have seen, Prospress recently passed a significant milestone – growing to a team of 20. 5% of 20 happens to be 1. This idea has been on my mind a lot lately. For the first time, 1 of our team would also represent 5% of our team.

Stars Align

As Prospress was approaching its 20th team member, one of our team, Sarah Rennick, successfully convinced her father, Ron Rennick, to apply for a position with us.

You may know Ron.

He was the first WordPress contributor given guest commit access. He helped bring WordPress multi-site into WordPress core almost a decade ago. Now he was applying with Prospress, right when I was thinking we needed to find someone suited to working full-time on WooCommerce core!

After completing his 8-week trial on Subscriptions development, Ron has accepted a full-time position with us in the new role of WooCommerce Core Contributor.

Why Contribute?

At the core of what makes WooCommerce so amazing is that it is accessible to almost anyone, anywhere. This is possible in part because of the communities’ contributions to it.

At the time of writing, over 750 people have contributed to the WooCommerce GitHub repository. That’s 5x the WooCommerce team employed by Automattic. Many others have contributed by reporting bugs, issues with documentation, or evangelising it online and to their local community.

Without these contributions, WooCommerce wouldn’t be what it is today.

Why Have a Dedicated Contributor Role?

With that said, the large number of contributors can be a deceptive metric. There is a power law to contributions – the top 10% of contributors have contributed more than the other 90% combined.

A small group of people drives WooCommerce, and a large group of others improves it. For community members like Prospress to really contribute, we need to dedicate people that come in that top 10%.

Why Contribute Now?

It’s not just the Prospress team size that has led to this decision.

After watching the WooSesh keynote recently, I left with three takeaways:

  1. there are a lot of important, exciting things being worked on with WooCommerce core, like the redesigned administration experience, on top of the projects we already knew about, like Custom Product Tables.
  2. there is a lot of work to do to bring these changes into existence and make them happen as soon as store owners need them.
  3. the WooCommerce team at Automattic is tiny when compared to teams working on competing platforms. To put it in perspective, a 3rd party developer in a competing ecosystem that build a subscription app for that platform has a team twice the size of the entire WooCommerce team at Automattic. And that’s just one of the companies in that ecosystem – there is another that builds a different subscription app for the same platform that has a team almost the same size as the WooCommerce team.

If we want WooCommerce to succeed, we need to do more, now.

Why is Prospress Contributing?

It’s a hard decision to create this role when we have many customers to serve with our core products.

The reason we are doing it is because Prospress is a mission-driven not profit-driven company. We exist to help people prosper with WordPress.

The reason we can do it is because in the early days of pursuing that mission, we found ourselves in a privileged position – we were one of few companies able to sell via WooCommerce.com between when the marketplace stopped accepting new applications in 2013 or so, until last year when it reopened.

As part of that privileged group, we were able to grow healthily. This allowed us to invest in projects we think are important for the future of WooCommerce, like:

  • Robot Ninja to provide the assurance of a closed platform on an open platform,
  • AutomateWoo to natively provide the type of code-free extensibility previously only available via closed source SaaS options, and
  • Small Woorld to show aspiring store owners you can build all sorts of wonderful businesses on WooCommerce, and to show existing store owners that there is a global community to help with the hard parts of building a business.

But we can do more.

As Dries Buytaert, found of Drupal, explained in his essay on Scaling Open Source Communities:

I believe the most promising solution for Open Source is known as “privileged groups”. Privileged groups are those who receive “selective benefits”. Selective benefits are benefits that can motivate participation because they are available only to those who participate. …

Prominent “privileged groups” examples exist in the Open Source community; Automattic is a privileged group in the WordPress community as it is in a unique position to make many millions of dollars from WordPress.com. Mozilla Corporation, the for-profit subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, is a privileged group as it is in a unique position to get paid millions of dollars by Google. As a result, both Automattic and Mozilla Corporation are willing to make significant engineering investments in WordPress and Mozilla, respectively.

As Prospress has grown from 4 people to where it is today, I’ve encouraged members of our team to contribute to WooCommerce core and community. That contribution has taken the form of meetups, WordCamp talks, WooCommerce Community Slack replies and code.

I’ve also attempted to lead by example, by consistently maintaining a position in the top contributors, and for almost half a decade, co-organising the WooCommerce San Francisco meet-up.

This privilege now affords us to give back on a larger scale, at a time that is needed.

What makes a good WooCommerce core developer?

As far as I know, this is the first full-time core contributor position sponsored by someone outside of Automattic, so we can’t just learn from how others the best way to do it.

To create the role, we first had to find the right person, which meant asking: what skills, experience and attributes are required to be a successful contributor?

Some of the items we came up with:

  • experience contributing to WordPress or other projects to demonstrate confidence contributing publicly to large-scale projects.
  • initiative to jump on various issues, regardless of whether they are small fixes or more significant features.
  • ideally, experience as a WooCommerce store owner, and work on WooCommerce for clients and extensions, to bring more than just a developer’s perspective to the role.
  • demonstrated ability to ship large amounts of high-quality code.

I am confident Ron is a great fit for a WooCommerce Core Contributor role. He has worked on WooCommerce for clients, built his WooCommerce plugins, and worked on ours as well as managing his own WooCommerce store. He’s contributed to WordPress and has over 30 years of experience in tech.

How will the WooCommerce core developer role work?

Because this role is new to us, we’ve had to think a lot about how to make it work. We want Ron to feel connected to our team, have all the benefits of Prospress, while being focused on WooCommerce core work.

To achieve this, I first wanted to create a clear goal to work toward. The one I chose was position in the Contributors list.

Trying to stay in the top 10 for commits has been a personal goal of mine for many years now. It seemed like a good one for this role too.

When measuring Contributions by Commits or Additions, the positions goals are:

  1. Within 3 months: enter the top 20 contributors
  2. Within 6 months: enter the top 10 contributors

These are easy metrics to game – change a bunch of whitespace, commit each change in a separate commit, and tada, you’re in the top 10!

That’s why there won’t be any actual reward or punishment linked to those goals. They are a target to shoot for on a personal level, and a readily available metric we can both check-in on from time-to-time to see how things are going with this new role.

Day-to-Day Process

Regarding day-to-day work, I hope to chat soon with the WooCommerce core team to discuss how to work best with them in this new role.

Depending on what the core team says, for the next couple of months, I imagine Ron will be going through the process of claiming Issues from the repo and submitting PRs for those.

After that period, Ron’s role might expand into contributing to some of the feature plugins being worked on, like Custom Product Tables or the new WC Admin, because I think these are likely the most important areas of the future. However, like everyone at Prospress, what Ron works on will depend in part on what he is interested in working on, and what both we at Prospress and those on the WooCommerce core team think are the most important areas for the future of WooCommerce.

Team hangouts, one-on-ones, etc. will keep him connected intermittently, but he won’t be regularly submitting or reviewing code handled by other Prospress team members. I haven’t got a great answer yet on how to keep Ron connected to Prospress via day-to-day work yet, although we’ve begun discussing ideas for this.

WooCommerce is Community

When discussing this decision with a colleague, he raised the question with me of how WooCommerce’s ownership and governance differ to that of WordPress, and whether that should influence community contributions.

Automattic, a commercial entity, owns the WooCommerce trademarks. WooCommerce’s direction is set and implemented almost entirely by employees of that commercial entity.

The WordPress Foundation, a charitable entity, owns the WordPress trademarks (though that wasn’t always the case). WordPress’s direction is influenced by people employed by various organisations, even if that community is led and primarily directed by the founder of Automattic.

This changes various dynamics in WooCommerce. For example, some code in WooCommerce core provides direct commercial benefit to Automattic. Core features like PayPal Standard include Automattic’s partner code (or more accurately, WooTheme’s partner code). This goes beyond the inclusion of commercial plugins owned by a related entity, like Akismet, that we see in WordPress core.

To me, this doesn’t change that WooCommerce is an open source project. It stems from the different journey WooCommerce has had, which started with its inception at WooThemes. It continues as a consequence of Automattic being the most prominent “privileged group” in WooCommerce, after the acquisition.

WooCommerce is still free, by all definitions of the word. It will also still benefit, if not live or die by what the global community contributes to it. This state of affairs is no different because of a commercial entity governing it.

To me, WooCommerce is also the best chance we’ve got at a free, accessible, small business friendly eCommerce platform. It requires contributions from a global community, not just one company, to sustain that. That’s why we are creating this position.

I’m proud that we can offer it. I’m thankful Ron came to us and is onboard with the role. I’m hopeful that this role, and others like it, can help WooCommerce reach its potential.

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