Backwards the Foundation

By Os Keyes

The foundation in one image

When I joined the Wikimedia Foundation there was an operations engineer named Ryan Lane. In most respects, Ryan was just an opsen, but every Friday as work wound down he’d crack open a big archive drawer full of drinks and make everyone cocktails.

It was a nice opportunity for mingling: legal, administration, engineering and global development would all come around and have a cocktail (alcoholic or not) and chat. It broke down barries between departments, sequestered as they are on different floors, and let visiting remote employees meet people they might not otherwise have encountered.

Then Ryan left and nobody bothered organising it any more, and the function went away.

When I joined the Wikimedia Foundation there was an Executive Director called Sue Gardner. In most respects, Sue was just an ED, but she instilled values of transparency outside the organisation and transparency inside it. She created an environment where you might disagree with a decision, but you could still respect it, because you were there for it. She created an environment where everyone, even executives, were answerable for the work they did and did not do. She created an environment where dissent was expected and valued rather than classed as unprofessional.

Then Sue left, and guess what happened next?

Culture is a fragile thing, much more fragile than we expect. When we’re in the middle of it, good or bad, it just…fades into background noise. It’s taken as a given. And then people leave and you slowly realise both how valuable their presence was, and the fact that the things they were doing aren’t anywhere in anyone’s job description, or things you were hiring their replacement with an eye to.

When Ryan left, we lost alcohol. And hey, I can deal with an absence of alcohol. Tech and alcohol haven’t exactly been the healthiest of friendships. But when Sue left, we lost a lot of our transparency, internally and externally. When Gayle left we lost a boundless love and fierce determination to make us do better and comfort us when we didn’t. When Anasuya left we lost steady counsel, an awareness of the width of the world and knowledge of the multitudes it contains.

We hired for none of these values. We tasked for none of these values. And so we have, organisationally, none of these values. The things that always distinguished the Wikimedia Foundation as a workplace are gone, and replaced with an environment that prizes unanimity above confidence and lacks accountability for organisational failures.

Because of that, I am leaving. I don’t know what things I did that nobody will organise now, but I do know that I am not looking back. This was a good place to be - I wouldn’t have spent half a decade at it otherwise - but it has tarnished and rusted every day of the last year and a half.

To my friends in the wider movement, I would ask you to keep insisting that the organisation do better. Insist until your keyboard is worn down, insist until your lungs give out, insist until the next Board election and the next opportunity to make the people holding the job at the moment actually do it.

To my friends in the organisation - and there are so very many of them, so many wonderful, glorious, loving people - you owe your people trust and respect and protection, and sometimes that is shielding them at your expense. But sometimes it is getting out while you still can, so as to set an example that leaving is a thing that can be done. If you wait to leave until you have pulled everyone out, you’ll be consumed by it. I would not wish that on any of you.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be at an infosec company whose employees like being there, whose work is interesting, and whose managers are accessible and answerable. Turns out being a security/privacy nerd who likes data is, in fact, renumerative. If you’re reading this: I’m sure you can work out where to find me if you need me.