Since joining the Wikimedia Foundation, I’ve hired about 25 people. That means I’ve read thousands of CVs, done hundreds of pre-interview e-mail exchanges and phone calls, and participated in about 150 formal interviews.
With each hire I’ve –and the Wikimedia Foundation as a whole has– gotten smarter about what kinds of people flourish at Wikimedia, and why. The purpose of this post is to share some of what we’ve learned, particularly for people who may be thinking about applying for open positions with us, or participating in our open hiring call.
Let me start with this: The Wikimedia Foundation’s not a typical workplace.
Every CEO believes his or her organization is a special snowflake: it’s essential that we believe it, whether or not it’s true. And when I first joined Wikimedia, my board of trustees would tell me how unusual we were, and I would nod and smile. But really. Once I worked through some initial skepticism, it became obvious that yeah, Wikimedia is utterly unique.
Viewed through one lens, the Wikimedia Foundation is a scrappy start-up with all the experimentation and chaos that implies. But, it’s also a non-profit, which means we have an obligation to donors to behave responsibly and frugally, and to be accountable and transparent about what we’re doing. We’re a top five, super-famous website, which brings additional scrutiny and responsibility. We work closely with Wikimedia volunteers around the world, many of whom are hyper-intelligent, opinionated, and fiercely protective of what they have created. And, our role is to make information freely available to everyone around the world — which means we are more radical than, at first glance, we might appear.
None of those characteristics is, by itself, all that unusual. (Except the super-smart volunteers. They are pretty rare.) But our particular combination is unique, which means that the combination of traits that makes someone a perfect employee for us is unique as well. Here’s what I look for.
Passion for the Wikimedia mission. This is obvious. We’re facilitating the work of millions of ordinary people from around the world —helping them come together to freely, easily, share what they know. We’re responsible for the largest repository of information in human history: more than 16 million articles in 270 languages, accessible to people all over the world. If people aren’t super-excited about that, they have no business working with us.
Self-sufficiency and independence. The Wikimedia Foundation is not a smoothly-sailing ship: we’re building our ship. That means roles-and-responsibilities aren’t always clear, systems and procedures haven’t been tested and refined over time, and there isn’t going to be somebody standing over people’s shoulders telling them what to do. People who work for the Wikimedia Foundation need to be able to get stuff done without a fixed rulebook or a lot of prodding.
That’s normal for all young organizations.
But we’re looking for more than just self-sufficiency. We have found that a streak of iconoclasm is a really strong predictor of success at Wikimedia.
Wikipedia is edited by everyone: contributors represent a dizzying array of socio-political values and beliefs and experiences, as well as different ages, religions, sexualities, geographies, and so forth. In our hiring, we tell people that it isn’t a question of whether working at Wikimedia will push their buttons; it’s just a question of how they will respond once it happens. People who’ve never examined their own assumptions, who embrace received wisdom, who place their trust in credentials and authority: they will not thrive at Wikimedia. And people who are motivated by conventional status indicators: a big office, a big salary, a lot of deference — they won’t either.
An inventive spirit. People who fit in well at Wikimedia tend to like new ideas, to be curious, and driven towards continual improvement. This manifests in simple, obvious ways – they read widely; they like gadgets and puzzles; they make stuff for fun. They are optimists and tinkerers.
Openness. At Wikimedia, we look for evidence that applicants have deliberately stretched themselves and sought out new experiences – maybe they’ve lived outside their home country, they read outside their comfort zone, they’ve explored other belief systems.
Openness means people like to be challenged. They like kicking around ideas, they naturally share and communicate, they’re not defensive or unhealthily competitive. They’re comfortable interacting with a wide range of people, and people are comfortable with them.
Lastly, we look for orientation towards scalability. The Wikimedia Foundation is a very small group of people. It achieves impact by working through and with large numbers of volunteers – the millions of people around the world who create 99.9% of the value in the Wikimedia projects. So in our hiring, we look for people who are oriented towards scale: who reflexively document and share information, who write easily and fluently, who take advantage of channels for mass communication and who instinctively organize and support the work of others.
If I ran Der Spiegel or Yelp or the ACLU, the traits I’d be looking for would be different. (When I worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the people I hired were quite different from the ones I hire today.) And this list will change over time, as the organization changes. This is the list that works for the Wikimedia Foundation, today.