Seeing through the eyes of new technical contributors

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Do you remember the first time you contributed to Wikipedia or one of its sister projects?
As we become more involved in the Wikimedia community, and more knowledgeable about its culture, tools and policies, we tend to forget how and why we came to join that community, and what hurdles we had to overcome to get where we are now.
We tend to forget the frustrations we encountered while going through the documentation, or the confusion we experienced when faced with complicated tools and arcane processes. Once we’ve gotten used to them, we have little incentive to improve the system.
It’s incredibly valuable for a community to be reminded of that newcomer experience. Not only does it help identify pain points of newcomers that the community can reduce, but it can also be an eye-opening experience that challenges long-established anti-patterns. This is true whether we’re talking about new editors on a Wikimedia wiki, or new tech contributors who want to improve the software and technical infrastructure.
One goal of the Engineering community team at the Wikimedia Foundation is to facilitate the integration of new tech contributors. We do this through a variety of activities, which include for instance the organization and coordination of mentoring programs, like Google Summer of Code, the Outreach Program for Women and Google Code-in.
Another way to make the first steps of new tech contributors easier is to improve the portals, to make sure the documentation stays up-to-date and to identify where newcomers stumble, get blocked or rage quit.
In order to capture that newcomer experience and use it to improve our pipeline, we’ve asked Google Code-in students to write “discovery reports”, i.e. short candid essays outlining what surprised them during their first steps, whether good or bad.
Their mission, which 13 students chose to accept and completed successfully, was:

  • to explore MediaWiki’s and Wikimedia’s technical world;
  • to write down their feelings, impressions, frustrations, pleasant and unpleasant surprises with the code, community and tools as they explored;
  • to organize their notes into a short candid essay;
  • to create an account on and post their essay on their user page.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a selection of their essays here, slightly edited for publication. We’ve already learned a lot, and I think there’s value in showing them to a wider audience.
If you’re a newcomer to the MediaWiki and Wikimedia technical community, I encourage you to write a discovery report as well. Each contributor’s perspective is different, and each candid essay sheds light on new areas of our community in need of improvement.
Your exploration can focus on a specific area (for instance: setting up a development environment, finding documentation about a specific part of the software, translating the software, etc.) or be more general. Make sure to drop me a note by e-mail or talk page so your essay doesn’t get lost in an obscure corner of the wiki.
If you’re a more experienced member of our community, I hope those discovery reports will be useful to you, and will help us make it easier to welcome and guide new tech contributors.
Guillaume Paumier
Technical communications manager, Wikimedia Foundation

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