Wikimedia Architecture Team/Fellowships


This is a proposal to create new positions at the Wikimedia Foundation for "fellows", somewhat similar to what older, firmly established institutions have. It provides a career ladder alternative to management, allowing highly-skilled employees a non-management senior position in the organization.


Wikimedia Foundation has had a difficult time articulating a clear career path for valuable senior contributors. We've tried title variations, but never defined a role senior enough to truly act as a peer to management roles. Successful managers of senior contributors have frequently been put in the awkward position of trying to simultaneously achieve the following:

  • Afford these contributors the latitude to do important and necessary work (at the expense of managerial deadlines) or important experiments
  • Set and maintain unrealistic expectations in the rest of the organization from people expecting headcount, resources, and expertise to be fungible (and expecting these managers "in control" of the "resources" to stop hoarding them)

Successful managers of long-serving valued, trusted employees try to maintain a relationship of mutual respect with them.  Still, they struggle to come up with realistic commitments that have easily-accessible KPIs or other business-friendly metrics that are helpful management habits for working with employees newer to Wikimedia values and community.

Proposed solution: Senior Fellow[edit]

This proposal suggests the creation of the Senior Fellow position, which has ample precedent in the industry. To quote English Wikipedia's Fellow article:

Large corporations in research and development-intensive industries (IBM, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Google or Apple in information technology, Bell Labs or L3 Communications in telecommunications, and Boston Scientific in Medical Devices for example) appoint a small number of senior engineers and scientists as Technical Fellows. Technical Fellow is the most senior rank or title one can achieve in a technical career, though some fellows also hold business titles such as vice president or chief technology officer.

Wikimedia Foundation should have a similar role for our most senior employees. Since our most senior employees have not worked their way up the management ladder (and often don't want that), this offers them an alternative career path. This codifies a relationship of mutual respect with our most valued, trusted employees: we stop trying to force them to prove their value by making unrealistic commitments that have easily-accessible KPIs or other business-friendly metrics.  At the same time, we expect them to be exemplars of human decency, and provide leadership to WMF engineering toward achieving our mutual objectives.

Integration with other WMF engineering efforts[edit]

One downside of not sharing obligations that other engineers have is the potential for isolation in the organization. There will be times when a Fellow will share the tactical goals of a software development group, and will want to become a member of the team for many months (or even years). They will want to be considered members of the team (e.g. be on the mailing lists, join the team IRC channels, attend the meetings, attend the offsites).

In order for this temporary membership to be successful, the team leadership may need a commitment from the Fellow to assume team responsibilities. This program assumes the ability for Fellows to make temporary mutual commitments with other teams to ensure mutual benefit from the arrangement. During the temporary membership, the Fellow would effectively be part of the staff of that team. This would not obviate the existing Fellowship obligations that the Fellow has (e.g. ArchCom committee obligations).

Fellowship job obligations[edit]

  • Provide technical leadership for the organization (note: not management, just influential leadership through demonstration of knowledge, credibility, and trust)
  • Active participation in technical leadership activities (e.g. ArchCom, hiring panels, crisis response)
  • Act as exemplar of Wikimedia software development participation (e.g. helping establish, demonstrate, and enforce Code of Conduct)

Ongoing job duties should only generally take roughly 20% of a full-time position.  The other 80% of the time is spent furthering the Wikimedia mission.

Management’s responsibilities to Wikimedia fellows[edit]

  • Ambassador between fellows and the rest of the organization
    • Inform fellow of important organizational updates
    • Filter for incoming requests to fellow
      • Fellow may delegate meeting attendance to manager
    • Involve fellow in strategy conversations as appropriate
    • Provide reasonably accurate answer to the question “what would <$fellow> think?”, which will often be “I don’t know, I’ll need to ask”
  • Manager basic duties
    • Sign approvals
    • Ensure appropriate budget (e.g. benefits, travel)
    • Availability when fellow needs to talk to his/her manager
  • Provide coaching for effectiveness in achieving shared goals

Wikimedia fellow responsibility to management[edit]

  • Act as exemplar of Wikimedia Foundation staff values
  • Active participation in appropriate strategy discussions
  • Provide continuity by effective and appropriate transmission of institutional memory, allowing the WMF to learn from its past and helping the organization to change in effective ways (prodding us as necessary/appropriate)
  • Availability and demonstration of effective communication
    • Timely response in online communication (email, IRC, etc)
    • Weekly 1:1 meetings with manager
    • Notification of sick/vacation/etc (standard staff obligations)

Telling the story[edit]

Open-ended fellowships seem to be rare in the non-profit world. People who donate money often want to ensure that the money they give is being used effectively. It can be challenging to explain how donations to pay WMF staff furthers the mission and vision of the Wikimedia Foundation. The expectation is often to attempt to outline exactly what we're going to do and who we are going to pay to do it ("with your support!").

Fellowships give us another story to tell (if we tell it right). Fellows can be responsible for exploring leading-edge technology or trying the "impossible"; when their bets pay off, we should be prepared to say "look! we did a thing! see? isn't the thing cool?". The "thing" can be any number of R&D options frequently explored in "20% time" in some organizations. When the gamble pays off, we should be prepared to tell the story about it.

Job requirements[edit]

The job requirements are likely very similar to the Principal Engineer step in the Wikimedia engineering career ladder:

  • 8+ years of combined professional+volunteer engineering experience (not limited to WMF)
  • proven technical leadership capability in multiple domains
  • notable technical accomplishments in an open source/free software context
  • track record of inspiring and mentoring engineers across the organization and in the community
  • track record of modelling and shaping best community, open source and development practices
  • track record of preparing and guiding RFCs and other/comparable architectural briefings and discussions for major technical changes, providing broad architectural leadership


For the 2016-17 fiscal year (July 2016-June 2017), this proposal suggests having Brion Vibber and Tim Starling as our first two fellows. Both have distinguished records of contribution, and are already effectively serving in this role. Rob Lanphier would like the opportunity to provide the management support as part of the Architecture group, further establishing a robust fellowship program that we hope can scale beyond just the two of them.