A growing platform cannot scale unless the community that supports it also scales. Can this be one without mentorship?
WordPress is growing. It’s a tool used to build enterprise-level websites, not just cat blogs, and it is increasing its market share daily. I believe that a growing platform cannot scale unless the community that supports it also scales. How can a community scale unless there are mentorships both formal and informal?

The Organic WordPress Community

The WordPress community is amazing. The people in the community are generous, friendly, and accepting. Just go to any tech conference and I’m sure you’ll notice the difference between those events and WordCamps.

Most local WordPress communities support meetups, too. These are great places to share knowledge, learn, and meet friends. There are Facebook Groups, Slack Channels, and many ways to collaborate on a global scale. Rapidly growing over the last thirteen years, WordPress as a tool, code base, and, yes, platform, has a firm foot in the early majority. But at what point will self-learning and organic friendships, need to scale? Or will they on their own?

Key Questions:

  • Has the premise that building websites is easy changed our idea of apprenticeship?
  • Is mentorship on the decline?
  • Can a community grow and sustain itself — and scale — without mentorship?

What is an apprenticeship?

For thousands of years, apprenticeship has been a bridge between education and employment. And today, we really call this internship when it’s outside of the traditionally-unionized trades.

“An apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study (classroom work and reading).” Wikipedia

What is the difference between an apprentice and an intern? The only real difference is the view of white collar vs. blue collar work.

“Internships for professional careers are similar in some ways to apprenticeships for trade and vocational jobs, but the lack of standardisation and oversight leaves the term open to broad interpretation. Interns may be college or university students, high school students, or post-graduate adults. These positions may be paid or unpaid and are usually temporary.”
Wikipedia

Though rooted in past centuries, apprenticeships and internships are still used to gain valuable on-the-job or outside of the textbook training.

Early Adopters and Scalability

In “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek discusses the law of Diffusion of Innovations with both social movements and technology — both of which apply to WordPress.

WordPress now has a firm foothold in 25% of the market share. 2.5% of our population are innovators. So, that could be plugin and theme developers. The next group after innovators is the 13.5% or early adopters. This would include new devs, website builders, and end users who are excited to use a new product.

“Rogers proposes that four main elements influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation itself, communication channels, time, and a social system. This process relies heavily on human capital. The innovation must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain. Within the rate of adoption, there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass.” Wikipedia 

The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers. With successive groups of consumers adopting the new technology (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level.
The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers. With successive groups of consumers adopting the new technology (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level.

At thirteen years old, WordPress has a long way to go to get 50% market share. For certain, WordPress.org has reached the tipping point (innovators + early adopters) and have a good foothold in the Early Majority. However, my question is this:

Can WordPress continue to grow without individuals spending their time investing not only in the code (Core) but in people?

The WordPress Foundation does a lot as the community-focused nonprofit behind the WordPress Project. They have guidelines on meetups and WordCamps. They are even available on the WordPress app for support! How enthusiastically encouraging. But they are a relatively small team. What’s my point? It’s up to us.

Case in Point:

A few friends and I started a meetup called Women Who WP because we thought it would be fun to have dinner and talk WordPress. An unexpected surprise is that the ladies who attend our event also started attending the other meetups in our area and two even went to their first WordCamp this month.

Recently at Wonder Women Tech, Jen Miller and I ran into Josepha Haden, Community Wrangler for Automattic, at the WordPress.com Booth.

During the course of our conversation, and my fan-girling, we told her about our meetup. She was more than supportive and made sure we knew about the Foundation’s Meetup.com Chapter Program. It was reaffirming and we left totally encouraged to continue on mentoring our own group through friendship.

Praising the Self-Taught

In the “Stack Overflow Developer Survey,” Paul Krill notes their 2015 survey found “that 41.8 percent of respondents described themselves as ‘self-taught.’” In a survey where “92.1 percent of respondents were male,” you have to wonder if learning styles aren’t a disqualifier.

This causes one to wonder: do we favor self-learning because we, ourselves, were self-taught? And how much of a percentage of our population can we reasonably expect to learn without human interaction?

“Even if you set out to learn a new skill on your own, you don’t actually need to be on your own the whole time.” Madalin Milea

What is the power of questions?

Questions have power. Questions fuel curiosity. Curiosity fuels the mind. An active mind seeks solutions, creates ides, communicates with passions.

No new ideas or innovations occur without questions. So, as innovators and lovers of knowledge, we question. We seek. We explore. Exploration is a great thing. I’ve been exploring the topic of mentorship for the better part of a month.

I wouldn’t worry about people who question too much; rather, I’d worry about the person who never questions. These people may be intellectually lazy, afraid of you, or have poor communication styles. That said, some of us have slower and deeper thinking styles. I may not question you immediately, but I’ll be back — on Slack, email, Twitter, in a meetup — I’m learning to not be afraid of how I look if I don’t already know the answer.

Google, Self-Discovery, and Training

I get, “just Google it” as a response. You need some give and take in any relationship. So, you can’t just show up at a WordPress meetup, say, with a list of ten questions on how to fix your website and expect people to answer all of those questions for free. That’s more appropriately answered in a paid consultation.

In the WordPress community, where self-discovery is revered, it’s good to try to find answers yourself. And this is not a linear journey by any stretch of the imagination. And this non-linear journey can be a problem.

Is Googling hurting our ability to think critically?

It’s true that Google can answer a lot of questions right away. “What is a taxonomy?” “What is WordPress?” “When is Ghostbusters being shown in the theatre?” Spitting out answers is a good thing — when short answers solve our problem.

In self-learning, we often have to do more than one search. We have to read more than one post, listen to more than one podcast, and watch more than one video on YouTube.

“I can search for the term in Google, but I’m not going to get a single result that answers my question. Rather, I’m going to get a lot of results, and all of those results will have bits and pieces of information that are relevant to me. …In other words, we do not usually search for something that leads to a single result that answers our question, rather we search for terms and then explore the internet, connecting bits and pieces of the answer as we read through the web of tabs that our search starts for us.” Patryk Adaś 

How do we keep track of our learning and epic browser journeys?

Are you ready?

Take notes.

Start a Google Doc. Write down your question. Run your question in the search engine. Find results. Take quotes from the article and link and put those in your document.

Now, when you go to the meetup and you’ve learned what a Custom Post Type is, you can ask a more detailed question such as, “What is the strategic advantage of a Custom Post Type?” You will get your answer, be respected, and help others in the room. This is a win-win.

Mentorship, Self-Awareness, and Business

Mentorship isn’t about answers; it’s about the journey to the answer.

So, if you want to learn PHP, take a class. If you want to learn CSS, take a class. There are many programming classes online (lynda.com, treehouse), personal consultants and trainers like Bob Dunn, as well as in-person training (Girl Develop It). Training should not be confused with mentorship.

Mentorship is about helping you discover your goals, your path, your way. Mentorship is about helping you look in the mirror — honestly. As Jeff Turner pointed out in the Business Track at WordCamp Orange County recently, it’s about someone who will help you cut through your own B.S.

If you’re not self-aware, you don’t know what you don’t know. Meta. Right? But it’s true. Also, Gary Vaynerchuk talks about self-awareness and the win — often.

“You have to audit who you actually are.” Gary Vaynerchuk

Mentorship and Community

The strength of any community lies in its relationships. We end up going to our friends for answers. We trust the reviews from our peers. So these can be informal and formal mentorships.

I’ve found several formal or more formal mentorship programs in the WordPress community. WPMentor, created by Matt Medeiros, is a site that will help pair up people who would like to mentor and be mentored. In this video, Matt follows up with one such pair.

An Apprenticeship Mentorship:

I recently chatted with Tonya Mork about mentorship as well. Her mentorship took on the form of an apprenticeship, which is also needed. I asked a few questions and she was gracious enough to answer.

Q: Why did you decide to mentor?

“I was mentored at each stage in my engineering career. I started in this business back in the mid 1980s by a team of elite engineers taking me under their wings. They gave freely of themselves and gave me my start in the high-tech world. And throughout my career, I made sure to surround myself with those who are (1) better than me, (2) advocate and practice the core principles I believe in (software principles, quality, clean coding, problem solving, etc.), and (3) were willing to invest in me by giving of themselves.”

Q. How did you pair up?

“When we were looking formalize training through WPDC with a DevSchool, we ran a marketing survey. The apprentice program did not fare well as the market interest was not strong enough to warrant continuing it. So I only took on one class of apprentices.”

Q: How long was the relationship?

“Some folks have been with me since last summer. Others were in the fall. All of my apprentices get access to me forever. I believe that the mentor relationship is a forever thing. We all need a coach and guide throughout our careers.”

Q: What is your advice for mentors?

“Break it down in the smallest concepts and make it relatable and adaptable. Whatever you are teaching, help the person know the why of it and help them to think about the why. So share how you think, your processes, and even the boo boos. Give of yourself. It will help the person to take what you are sharing, disseminate it, adapt for themselves, and make it their own.”

You can read more about Tonya in her HeroPress essay.

Friendship and Informal Mentorship

Are formal mentorships the only kind? Of course not. We forget that people can have infrequent yet impactful interactions in our own lives. If we’re open to learning we can learn from anyone at anytime.

It’s easy to take Meetups for granted or to believe that their only value is in the exchange of information. However, the value of in-person meetups cannot be understated. My theory is that most of WordPress mentorships are, in fact, informal and take the form of friendship.

In Orange County, for example, we have several meetups to choose from which have become mini communities in and of themselves. By building relationships, a cohesive bond is formed. We generally call this friendship.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” CS Lewis

Knowing that you’re not alone is the first step in friendship. The exchange of ideas — theme suggestions, the best form plugins, and CSS tricks — all help the meetup attendee with her work, but even more, the discussion is a platform upon which friendships are built. Friendships are the undergirding, supportive structure of any thriving community — like a coral reef.

Am I the right person to mentor?

You may feel, as an advanced user, that teaching beginners or encountering beginner topics are tedious. With the wrong perspective and, quite possibly, in the wrong context, it can be tedious.

“A really big person helps everybody else be big, and doesn’t use their bigness to keep everybody else small.” Dean Kamen

However, If you focus on the delivery of information, you’ll tire of the repetition. If you focus on the development of people, you’ll be energized. Can you imagine a math teacher complaining that teaching 6×6=36 gets old? If they do, they shouldn’t be a teacher.

And, perhaps not everyone is in a position — mentally or physically — to teach others. Not everyone is gifted in the same way. Instead of dismissing people’s questions by referring them to Google, how about referring them to another resource — or better yet — person?

Building up people makes you bigger. Building up people builds a community. Referring questions is not a bad thing, just like referring business. You still provided value.

“The development of people is a legacy we keep long after our estate has been divided and spent.” John Locke 

How Does Empathy Relate to Mentorship?

Empathy is the key ingredient in any relationship and vital to an effective mentorship. We’ve agreed that a community consists of people with relationships — one to another.

Not everyone who wants to learn is able to learn alone. Sometimes asking a question only to be handed off to Google is daunting. It’s discouraging. Do we empathize with the person learning a new thing for the first time?

“WordPress is easy. This is how we sell it. …WordPress used to be easy, but because I’ve worked with WordPress for ten years, I don’t know if it’s still easy to learn. I can’t know if it’s still easy to learn because I already know it. This is empathy.” Morten Rand-Hendriksen

As a new-to-WordPress user, I was told more than once to go to Google as a resource. Finally, I asked,

“So, if I Google about WordPress Themes, can I trust the search results?”

My friend’s answer, “no.”

Google is a computer. It doesn’t teach you discernment. A new user doesn’t have the experience or wisdom to be able to decide which answer is correct. This is where mentorship comes in. A mentor can help you with your thinking process and correct errors in presumptions. But this can’t happen unless a conversation takes place.

“The web is this amazing thing that builds bridges where there were none before, but at the same time it creates these massive chasms that keep expanding and expanding and pushes people further and further apart. It’s because empathy assumes a shared context.” Morten Rand-Hendriksen

The people coming into WordPress these days are more than just programmers, designers, and developers. WordPress users now include writers, real estate brokers, small business owners, and social media marketers. The diversity of the background is amazing. But this is why empathy matters.

During a conversation, context will give the mentor cues into how to relate this new concept. And when learning something new, context is everything.

WordPress is Growing. Mentorships Matter.

A growing platform and a growing community means that mentorship needs to be a priority. Does this mean it needs to come from the Foundation? Not necessarily. The Foundation does a great job mentoring WordCamp organizers already. They have an active Slack Channel and are actively helping people create meetups. This is an amazing effort. But I don’t think it’s the WordPress Foundation’s sole responsibility.

How can companies, freelancers, and WordPress enthusiasts give back to continue the growth and scalability of WordPress? Should Five for the Future include mentorship as well as code commits? How are you giving back?

Bridget is co-host of WPblab, co-organizer of Women Who WP Meetup, and Team Rep for the Marketing Team for WordPress.org.

Follow Bridget:

9 Responses to “Can WordPress Scale its Community Without Mentorship?”

  1. Fully Experiencing WordCamp Orange County 2016 - You Too Can Be A Guru

    […] business track especially resounded with me this year because I was studying and considering mentorship in the WordPress space. That topic along with empathy kept rising to the […]

    Reply
  2. #WordPressWednesday 2016 Volume 7

    […] Bridget Willard talks about how WordPress and it’s community, and that in order to scale, mentorship is needed. – Can WordPress Scale its Community Without Mentorship? […]

    Reply
  3. Adam Fout

    I love this. I’m totally with you on the “Just Google it” thing — it really bothers me. When people come to me with questions about something, I’m always happy to explain it to them in great detail (maybe that’s just ’cause I’m always hungry for a captive audience :P)

    It’s always just struck me as kinda rude, and I’m like, “Oh, sorry, didn’t realize your time was SO SUPER VALUABLE.” And honestly, it’s made me just not want to ask questions of anyone. Ever.

    Maybe that’s just me being a baby, I dunno.

    I think the hardest part is being the mentee (I don’t even know how one becomes a mentor, do you fill out a form?) I’m afraid to ask for help and admit weakness (or bother someone). I’d much rather just figure it out myself if I can. I’m blessed that I can be a mentor to others in other areas of my life, but in the world of content/copy, I’m sorely lacking a mentor, and it often seems like the only way to get one is to pay for them.

    Maybe I need to read your article again and check out WPmentor.

    I think you’re absolutely right though — without strong mentorship (and frankly, a doing away with the bullshit “Did you Google it?” which to me is just lazy) WordPress is going to erode in favor of The Next Big Thing.

    We’re all fooling ourselves if we think this can last forever (maybe).

    Reply
    • Bridget Willard

      Adam, I feel the same way.

      And I would also dare to say that it can be the exception rather than the rule.

      I have found many people around me in the WordPress space who are more than willing to say, “you’re not asking the right question.” To me, that’s more of what a mentor does, too. Meaning, there is a difference between training and mentorship.

      On your point about being a mentor, I think that you have been a mentor to me in many ways about being more persuasive, transparent, and honest in my writing. And that’s what an informal mentorship is.

      Really, if you have friends that you trust with your soul — your ambitions and goals — and they will be honest with you and you them, then you have a mentor.

      In WordPress specifically, so many people are isolated because of the ease of remote work and, in many cases, a 100% distributed workforce. There are companies who encourage their employees to seek answers outside of their organization (presumably to save man hours) but when that happens, the employee can be more influenced by outside forces / factors / relationships than his co-workers and that, in my opinion, is a risk to a stable company culture.

      You’re a teacher, Adam. And you care about people. If you asked, I bet you have more people being influenced and taught by you than you know.

      Seriously.

      To your point of signing up, many people hire life and business coaches. Basically, they’re hiring a mentor.

      But I could go on and on and on. And I did.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It means the world to me.

      Reply
      • Adam Fout

        Yeah, I guess the idea of hiring a mentor seems so strange to me. Like the point of a mentor is someone else helping someone, donating their time. I feel like it takes away from it to charge for it. Cheapens it.

        I just can’t imagine hiring someone like that.

        Anyway.

        I think you’re right on point about the distributed workforce thing. At some point, we stop being a part of a team and just become an autonomous contributor. Hard to have teamwork if you’re never allowed to ask questions.

        Hard to learn.

        You’re welcome Bridget — sometimes, I feel like we just trade comments back and forth, ha!

        Reply
        • Bridget Willard

          Trading comments is a good thing. 😉

          I know that mentorship is important and I know that people hire life coaches, but I’m with you on mentorship being more of a reciprocal, organic relationship. I think a lot of these relationships in the WordPress space are born in meetups.

          Reply
          • Adam Fout

            For sure. That’s the natural thing to me — though I can see the value of hiring someone to do that I guess. I’ve read about a few respectable people doing this, so it’s a thing and it works, but eh, maybe not for me.

          • Bridget Willard

            I’ll table this debate for now. I think you’re prime mentorship material.

Leave a Reply