Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming.
— George Orwell, Down The Mine
It’s never a good thing when Wikipedia shows up in the news. On good days it’s quietly present in the background of every Google search, classroom project and bar bet, part of the mostly-invisible information infrastructure that we all take for granted.
We haven’t had a lot of those days lately. Wildly inaccurate news reports abound; there are dozens of animated (often acrimonious) discussions underway in a half-dozen different online channels; my colleagues are quitting in droves.
Recent public events are really just the tip of the iceberg. I’m used to a Midwestern work climate where people change jobs a few times in their lives, not a few times in a decade. I’ve been working here for about three years, and I can count on one hand the number of direct coworkers who persist from my first day. Every single box above me on the org chart has been replaced, many of them multiple times. I have stopped learning the names of WMF executives because there’s no point in getting attached.
The current Internet bubble is in full inflation mode and I get enthusiastic recruitment emails every few days for exciting high-tech and high-paying jobs. Most of them I never read. Here’s why, despite current trends, I never daydream about quitting:
– I still feel lucky to be here. It’s a privilege to work on a project that I believe is having an unambiguously positive effect on the world. I don’t love that my workplace has become a sticky, uncomfortable mess, but ‘difficult’ is not the same thing as ‘not worthwhile.’
– My work is just as useful as it has always been. Labs is bigger and bigger, doing more and more, and breaking as much as it ever does. I serve the users, my coworkers, and the projects. As long as the Foundation doesn’t stand between me and the users, its screwups don’t stop my work from being useful.
– My team is still great. Operations hasn’t had as much recent churn as the rest of the organization. I have lost some dear colleagues, but the current bunch is as smart, dedicated, and steadfast as I could ever hope for.
– Where would I go? Those recruitment emails are full of buzzwords that are meant to be inspiring but mostly translate as either ‘maximize ad views’ or ‘minimize contractor wages’. I could, I suppose, go to work for a cloud provider and provide general computing infrastructure… but I’m already providing general computing infrastructure, and it’s for free, and it’s for people who are doing things that I want them to do more of.
Finally, most importantly: going to work doesn’t hurt. I work from home, I talk to pleasant people online during my work day, my work problems are still interesting, it’s all fine. My reasons for staying are largely useless to those who are not: I believe that my coworkers are quitting not because they’ve lost faith in the mission, but because they CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. They’re choosing between Wikimedia and ulcers, between Wikimedia and insomnia, between Wikimedia and yelling at their kids when they get home. And they’re making the right choice.
Me, I’m not facing that choice — lucky me. For anyone on the fence, who’s thinking about leaving not because they’re breaking but because of dreams of greener pastures, don’t forget: this stuff matters. We’re working on projects that took a decade to really get going, and will take decades more to reach their full potential — there will be months, years even, when everything feels stupid and pointless, but the long term importance (and, I might argue, the promise of long-term success) is hard to question. And: the chance to do work that matters doesn’t come along every day.