I recently got back from my first Mozilla Festival and I’ve been thinking about what I experienced there. There is too much to fit in one post, so I want to focus on the question that came up in Mitchell’s keynote: What does radical participation look like?
What was radical when Mozilla started is standard practice today (for example, Microsoft now runs open source communities). We can’t win by doing the same thing others are doing, so how can Mozilla invite people to participate in ways that no one else is able or willing to do?
I have some thoughts about this and I’m interested in hearing what other people think. To get the conversation going, I’ll share one idea about what it would look like for Mozilla to have radical participation today.
Staff as scaffolding
In most areas of Mozilla, staff are directly doing the work and volunteers are involved with those teams to differing degrees. We have good metrics for coding and we can see that volunteers are committing around 40-50% of the patches.
For a comparison with another volunteer-based organization, at the American Red Cross volunteers constitute about 90% of the workforce. The Red Cross staff are mostly supporting those volunteers rather than doing the work of responding to disasters themselves.
We should measure the percentage of tasks done by volunteers across the whole project and set goals to get it closer to the example set by the Red Cross. Some areas, like SUMO and Location Services, are close to this today. Let’s take the knowledge they’re gaining and bring it to other teams to help them scale contributions.
There will certainly be challenges doing this and it might not make sense for all teams. For instance, with the coding example above it might not be productive to have more volunteers submitting patches. This is an assumption that should be tested though.
For example, Dietrich Ayala has had great results bringing in many students to help work on long-term features on the Firefox OS roadmap. Their work is removed from the day-to-day of staff developers shipping the next release, so he avoids the Mythical Man Month problem.
We could use Dietrich’s model to support large groups focused on innovating in areas that will be relevant to us 2 or 3 years out, such as looking into how we can shape an open Internet of Things. We couldn’t hire 1,000 staff to focus on an Internet of Things research effort, but we could build a community of 1,000 volunteers to do that.
Wikipedia says that there are about 1,000 employees of Microsoft Research. I’m assuming Microsoft wouldn’t be willing to close that department and replace their R&D efforts with volunteers.
So having volunteers do more of the tasks with staff focused on supporting them feels to me like one part of radical participation. What do you think? What else could we be doing to get to a point of radical participation?