In my recent call for Matt Mullenweg’s resignation I stated Matt’s involvement with both Automattic and the WordPress Foundation constituted a clear conflict of interest.
Not surprisingly, a few of you disagreed.
One comment that seemed to nicely sum up the opposing opinion stated “I would leave the hypotheticals on the shelf for now and speak to the facts.”
That seemed like a fair request so for those of you still skeptical of Automattic employees’ conflicts of interest in regards to the WordPress.org project, may I present to you, Jane Wells.
As you probably know, Jane is an Automattic employee (her official title on the company website is Master of Suggestion) and works extensively on the UI of WordPress.org.
What may surprise you, is that Jane apparently doesn’t actually work on Automattic projects, at least according to Jeffro’s coverage of her speech at WordCamp Raleigh.
Now, I have to admit I wasn’t at this event and it’s possible Jeffro’s tweets misrepresented what Jane actually said. However, I didn’t see Jane or anyone else take issue with his reporting so I think it’s safe to say they’re at least close to accurate.
If that’s the case, it seems Jane only works on WordPress.org projects, and is actually proud of this fact, using it to illustrate how much of a “wall” there is between WordPress.org and Automattic.
Unfortunately for Jane, that same fact provides a perfect example of the conflict of interest I was talking about when calling for Matt’s resignation.
Employee’s are Accountable to their Company
Jane is an Automattic employee, meaning she was hired to help Automattic make money. While I’m certain that’s not in her official job description, that’s what employees of for-profit companies are hired for.
But apparently, Jane doesn’t actually do ANYTHING for Automattic. She “works purely on the .org side of things” and there’s “more of a wall” between .org and Automattic than people realize.
Now, Automattic may well be a generous company, but they didn’t hire Jane as a charitable act.
If they wanted Jane to work on WordPress.org and didn’t expect any return on her salary, they could simply donate her salary to the WordPress Foundation and write it off as a charitable deduction on their taxes, rather than having to pay social security and all the wonderful fees employers are saddled with.
So it’s safe to say Automattic expects to benefit financially from having Jane work on the WordPress.org side of things. And don’t get me wrong, they absolutely should!
Unfortunately, that makes Jane accountable to Automattic for her work on WordPress.org, NOT the WordPress community.
Financial Incentive = Conflict of Interest
If the judge presiding over a lawsuit happened to own stock in the company being sued, he or she would be expected to recuse themselves because of an inherent conflict of interest. The judge has a financial incentive to influence the trial in favor of the company.
If the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee were discovered to be on Boeing’s payroll, it would be a national scandal. While a Senator’s loyalty is supposed to be to the country and their constituents, the Chairman would simultaneously have financial incentive to award contracts to Boeing, even if it weren’t in the best interests of the nation.
In much the same way, Jane has a clear financial and professional incentive to influence the decisions made about WordPress.org to benefit Automattic. While her intentions may not be sinister, the conflict of interest is just as clear as it is for the judge and Senator.
If Jane only works on WordPress.org projects, she should be a WordPress Foundation employee, not an Automattic employee. Along the same lines, if Matt wants to run the WordPress Foundation that’s perfectly fine. But he shouldn’t do it while still heavily invested in the financial success of Automattic.