Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

23 Apr 2014, 16:54 p.m.

A Change Of Roles

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I did open source community management for MediaWiki for about three years. At first, in 2011, I was an individual contributor (see my February 2012 post "What Does A Volunteer Development Coordinator Do?"). After several months I became the team lead, and then about two years ago Wikimedia Foundation promoted me and I started managing my team. Dozens of people hit reply-all to congratulate me in messages I still treasure. (You have a "yay" folder too, right?)

I hired our new bug wrangler and our new volunteer coordinator. I got Wikimedia Foundation participating in the Outreach Program for Women paid internships, and we got way better at new developer intake in general. I introduced the Friendly Space Policy for WMF technical events (and we sure ran a lot of them). I introduced some innovations that took, and a few that didn't. When you fix one bottleneck you notice the next one -- that's the nature of bottlenecks -- and so we worked on harder and harder problems.

By external measures I was doing really well. But my management style does a lot better face-to-face, and I found it tiring to try to manage logistics and emotional nuance almost entirely via text - managing up, down, and sideways. And community management is often a customer service job with big gobs of emotional labor (example). By late 2013, I'd sort of plateaued; I wasn't learning as much and as fast as I wanted.

Hacker School gave me an opportunity to reset and to look at Wikimedia with new perspective, and to reawaken my interest in hands-on technical contribution and learning. I came back to a WMF that had just renewed its search for a FLOSS-savvy technical writer with programming skills. And, fortunately, my colleague Quim Gil was willing to make his interim position permanent, and keep on leading the team. So, as of about a month ago, I'm Senior Technical Writer at the Wikimedia Foundation.

And it's great. I've taken our Requests for Comment process in hand, started drafting improved architecture guidelines (not there yet) and our first unified set of performance guidelines, and started planning improved API documentation. And I've been learning bunches. I've learned enough to summarize REST and SOA and HTML templating systems as they relate to MediaWiki. I've learned how our caching layers work and how the new parser works. And I get to translate what I learn into prose and visuals to teach others, and I get to mentor intern Frances Hocutt as we both learn about the MediaWiki web API. For the last several weeks I've concentrated on understanding big things like how SOA will change our architecture, but post-PyCon I'm raring to code more; I'm looking forward to pair programming with Frances.

I feel so fortunate to have such a strong team. (This is one reason you hire people who could replace you - it gives you more room to change.) And I'm grateful to be at Wikimedia Foundation, an organization that nurtured and promoted me, gave me a three-month sabbatical to go to Hacker School, and helped me find different valuable work to do when I came back changed.

The two big problems I worked on as MediaWiki's community manager: inculcating empathy in others, and designing processes that scale. I made a dent in both, and I'll come back to them, and to management in general, in some future when I'm yet another Sumana, changed again.


Camille Acey
01 May 2014, 10:50 a.m.

Yay! Cheers for the Sumanas of the past, present, and future. The world is a better place because of the unique perspective they brought/are bringing/will bring!

04 May 2014, 17:24 p.m.

This is exciting! I've been thinking a lot about potential career paths for community managers, especially working with open/free tech - trying to picture what I'll be doing in 10-20 years and how I can get there, despite there being few existing people who have been doing this kind of job for longer than a few years. Thanks for being a role model for this and writing about it.