Umbraco Corporate V Community - can they live side-by-side?


At Codegarden this year I had some really interesting conversations with a number of the team at Umbraco HQ, which got me thinking about quite an important and fundamental challenge for the whole Umbraco project.

As the Umbraco HQ grows in size and becomes more ‘corporate’, will the community still care and be as involved as they always have been?

So why is this an important question?

The lifeblood of Umbraco has always been the community. I’ve written a few posts on this subject including a recent Codegarden 18 post. It’s what has made Umbraco so enjoyable to work with, helped it develop over the past 15 or so years and has kept it alive!

First, a little history (for those who don’t know!)

Umbraco was originally started by Niels Hartivg through his desire to keep things simple and to offer an alternative to the the bloated, ‘enterprise’ CMS’s out there.

He made the decision to open source it very early on (circa 2005) which attracted a number of eager followers. They were passionate and dedicated and Niels over time made the decision to ask some of them to join the project full time as ‘employees’, some others he asked to be core contributors whilst keeping their own jobs and slowly and organically Umbraco grew.

From very early on Umbraco has been funded through a mix of training fee revenue, subscriptions, HQ support contracts and then more recently Gold Partner fees (of which we were one of the first to sign up for!!) and now Umbraco Cloud.

As anyone who has run a business knows, with growth comes significant challenges - bigger offices, bigger salaries, HR considerations, different personalities to ‘handle’, strategy, operations, financial accounts, more toilet rolls etc etc...the list is endless.

So to ensure the financial viability of the whole project and to ensure it survives into the future, Niels made the brave and difficult decision to seek help. He sought out advice and appointed an experienced CFO and employed Kim Sneum Madsen as Chief Friend Maker.

So for the past 2.5 years or so we’ve seen the Umbraco HQ grow significantly in size, both in terms of number of developers, but more importantly sales and support. Whilst previously nearly 90% of revenue was spent on developer wages, we are now seeing a much better spread of revenue across all areas of the business.

Kim has done a fantastic job since he was brought into the team, helping ensure that Umbraco is a well structured company that is built upon a sustainable business model, and right now it's flying, doubling in both revenue and size in 12 months!

So whats up then?

So if Umbraco is now so well run and sustainable, why am I posing the question above?

Well there are a few areas that I think are important to consider.

We don’t like enterprise!
As the HQ grows there is a danger that they turn into what Niels has always fought against so strongly. The term Enterprise refers to the very companies we all know exist, who create the monolithic CMS beasts that as a community we are fighting against. Those systems that are bloated, difficult to use from an editors perspective and tricky to implement from a development point of view. As well as being phenomenally expensive!

As the HQ grows they are in danger of being perceived to be one of these companies even if they aren't, as the need to generate revenue to pay for the size of the team and the growing overheads that growth brings. Targets are introduced and KPI’s are set.

Structure and processes sometimes squash creativity
The slightly anarchic and unstructured way that Umbraco came into existence and the world before the recent growth gave everyone in Umbraco and the community free reign to do and try pretty much whatever they liked. If there was an idea that sprang into someones head they'd run with it and usually good things happened. Consider Archetype, the grid, uComponents etc...

Structure and process sometimes get in the way of creativity as the perception is that they are blockers. Following strict procedures formalises everything and kills the spontaneous nature that creativity needs to flourish.

A larger HQ may breed community complacency
As the number of developers grows at the HQ, there is a danger that the community will stop doing what the community does best. Building packages fixing bugs and coming up with cool ideas of how to make Umbraco better.

There may be the perception that as they have so many developers now that the community don’t need to bother doing anything or helping out as the HQ have it all covered!

Umbraco becomes closed source
This is something I've heard a few times. As the HQ try and maintain tighter control over the source and implement processes and procedures to ensure they release better software, it would be much easier for them to have full control over everything without the community interfering all the time.

Also the amount of development effort that has gone into products such as Umbraco Cloud and the controlled way Umbraco can now manage upgrades, making it closed source allows much tighter control over the whole ecosystem - think Apple and their total control over their devices, iOS and the App store.

New HQ developers who don’t have Umbraco experience don’t love the project and don’t understand the community
The original developers that Niels asked to join the project (Stephane, Warren, Sebastiaan, Morten, Shannon etc etc) were all involved in the community before they joined the HQ. They joined because they love the project and they cared enough to do a huge amount of work in their spare time, they also understand the community.

The new developer hires may or may not have experience of the community and don’t understand it, the way it works and the value it has brought to the project. The same can be said for the rest of the HQ (Kim, Anders, Jacob). They need to be introduced to the community and shown the value. As mentioned in my last blog, Codegarden is a perfect opportunity for them to experience first hand the community at it's very best!

This can of course work both ways - they maybe can bring fresh new ideas from outside the Umbraco community or from different open source projects that may benefit the whole ecosystem, but ignoring the Umbraco community or taking it for granted is in my opinion a dangerous thing to do for some of the reasons already mentioned.

So what’s the answer?

So, at Codegarden I was humbled when Kim took me aside on Friday afternoon and we had a really good chat. He wanted to ask my opinion around some of the decisions the HQ have and need to make around the community. I posed all of the above thoughts that I’d discussed over the past 3 days amongst a range of others.

The crux of the conversation was that as far as I'm concerned the community is essential to the growth and stability of Umbraco. And I'm pleased to hear that Kim and the rest of the HQ wholeheartedly agree!! The challenge is how do we make them live side-by-side in sweet harmony!

Currently things are looking really positive. The implementation of the CPR team is a great move, and Sebastiaan is a great community leader. This will give the community the confidence that all their hard work isn’t going to waste. If pull requests are being actioned within a few days then this will improve relations significantly.

There needs to be a constant flow of useful information, news and feedback about the current status of all the projects that they are undertaking and also where possible roadmaps, discussions on our.umbraco, workshops, collaboration and visibility.

If there is radio silence then the community as you’d expect get nervous. They think that the HQ are hiding things, even though they aren’t. Openness, collaboration, transparency, communication are key and will make or break the success of the relationship moving forward.

It’s a very difficult challenge!!
In all honesty, it’s a delicate balance and one that I think if they continue get right, then the Umbraco corporate world and the community can sit side-by-side and benefit each other massively.

How can the community help?

Well, we can all do our bit to help make sure the relationship works - mainly by constantly proving that the community has an amazing amount of value! The more the community does, the more the new hires at the HQ will understand the value. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do more, talk more, prove the value.

I've always tried my hardest to make sure The Cogworks has done as much as possible to empower the community starting initiatives like the Umbraco UK festival, The Umbraco London Meetup and events like the V7 Belle workshop.

We've just recently launched an initiative to try and get V8 out the door quicker by running some community hackathons over the coming months hopefully with direction from the HQ on what to do when, and what is going to help most. They will be 100% focussed on helping the HQ make V8 a reality quicker. Which is a benefit to everyone.  So why not help us make this happen and sign up

Lets make us all live in Sweet Harmony and if we can make it happen, I'll make this the final song at CG19 :)