Outcomes and lessons learned from piloting the Onboarding New Developers program at Wikimedia

Srishti Sethi
Mar 28 · 4 min read
CC by SA 3.0, Whym

Initial brainstorming

Back in 2017, I contributed to the design and pilot of the Onboarding New Developers — Wikimedia’s Developer Advocacy team’s annual program to bring a new wave of contributors to Wikimedia projects. With this program, the hope was to bring a change in the current trends we have around attracting and retaining developers at Wikimedia.

We used logic modeling as a program evaluation framework to lay our goals, outcomes, and activities. Our long term goal was to have better software for Wikimedia and some of the outcomes we hoped to achieve were: more significant outreach, easy onboarding, and higher retention. We distilled this down to a few activities such as researching new groups and programs, increasing our participation in those programs, providing featured tasks and projects to newcomers, providing support channels and so on.

This program was designed and coordinated by the Wikimedia’s Developer Advocacy team that I belong to and some of the activities were a joint effort with community members.

Actions and outcomes

1. New developers guide

We began first, by creating a new developers guide that now lives on MediaWiki.org. This guide has a list of newcomer friendly projects to choose from, with very clear instructions on how to get started.

2. Quarterly surveys and reports

We conducted quarterly surveys with new developers to understand their experiences and challenges as they contribute code to our projects. We gathered such data and published quarterly reports on MediaWiki.org with survey results, metrics and trends, and activities around new developers happening throughout the Wikimedia Movement.

3. Hackathon mentoring program

Wikimedia Austria chapter developed a hackathon mentoring program that has been utilized in over 4+ events already, and we are going to continue to use the iterated version of this format in future events. One of the key components of this program is a mentor-mentee matching ceremony that takes place in a skillshare format ensuring that everybody finds a project to work on or something to learn about at the hackathon along with a guiding force to help them in their journey. This program was a runaway success, as a result of which Wikimedia Austria also won the Austrian Open Source award for their work.

4. Collaboration with OSSN & POSSE initiatives

Over these years, we have received requests from university professors and students, who are interested in teaching free and open source software through Wikimedia projects, for guidance in this regard. To begin addressing this, as a first step we collaborated with Mozilla’s OSSN and TeachingOpenSource’s POSSE initiatives. We listed Wikimedia in their list of projects.

5. Africa Wikimedia developers project

A few active members from the volunteer community in Africa formed a developers group with a goal to increase participation from the African continent in Wikimedia technical projects. With minimal resource and guidance from our team, the organizers of this group conducted developer workshops in different parts of Africa — Ghana, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire.

6. Gerrit newcomer bot

We developed a newcomer bot for Gerrit which would add a welcome message to a first-time contributor’s patch in Gerrit and developers with five changesets open in total to a `Newcomers` group. This would also help us keep track of patches submitted by new developers in Gerrit. We now send weekly emails to our mailing lists encouraging experienced developers to review these patches.

7. Support channels

We are continuing to research and provide new tools that can help us serve different use cases, and audiences and most importantly keep our newcomers engaged. We now have a few ongoing pilots: discourse for technical support, Zulip for outreach programs and Telegram for events.

Lessons learned

With this engagement work and the process of attracting and retaining contributors, we learned a lot.

What worked well for us

  • We observed increased participation of developers from the African continent likely due to the outreach efforts led by the developers group in Africa.
  • We noticed increased participation of female and non-binary folks through Outreachy, indicating that we should continue to put more resources into coordinating programs like these in the future.
  • We are a bit more organized now to support new developers systematically.

What didn’t work so well

We believe that we’ve hit a chicken and egg problem. With all this engagement work, we were focusing our energy on the surface level but not going deeper into the contributor pipeline to get a sense of what issues our developers face there. We continued to see in our survey results that new developers struggle with our code contribution process and developer documentation. Our stats around attracting and retaining contributors remained unchanged, and the needle didn’t move :-/

Possible future directions

There are many possible directions, but I’m listing the two important ones that are close to my heart:

  • Building capacity in local developer communities who could help scale our efforts.
  • Developer Advocacy to work more closely with project teams in the staff and community to continue to improve our processes, guidelines, and technical documentation. This will make onboarding a smoother experience for developers joining Wikimedia projects.

If you’ve experimented with similar models for your project or in your community that has worked well for you, drop a note in a comment on this post or reach out to me!

Srishti Sethi

Written by

Technical Engagement @Wikimedia. More here: http://srishtisethi.com.

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