I am once again delighted to be able to attend the Wikimedia Hackathon, an event that rotates around Europe. This year’s is in the picturesque town of Lyon in south-central France — its winding boulevards and riverside façades looking rather beautiful (and very French) in the summer sun. Conveniently, Eurostar have just begun direct trains from London St Pancras, and by booking in advance tickets were competitively priced (£110pp outbound, £65pp inbound). Okay, so the trains took a while (4h45 outbound, 5h45 inbound) but I booked early enough to get a table, and on the return journey at least was pretty productive.
My main work was on TranslateSvg, a project I started several years ago as part of a Google Summer of Code project. Admittedly it is annoying not to have the extension live (although Brian tells me that the feature we did eventually manage to land is actually being used, so that’s something). On the other hand, I can understand why Wikimedia now demands high quality code (see below), and in particular good unit tests. I simply haven’t been able to put in the time required to deliver those (except in very short bursts), and that’s fundamentally my fault.
Anyhow, to focus on the positive, I used Lyon — and in particular the train back — to commit a load of patches. These get test coverage up to about 50% on a line-by-line basis, and, more importantly, led me to uncover a bunch of bugs I hadn’t found before. I also re-ran an analysis I first conducted almost 3 years ago and found that TranslateSvg was performing worse now than then! As ever, uncovering the bug was 90% of the challenge and the project is now back to where it was in August 2012 on that particular metric.
A more professional MediaWiki
I guess my other contribution during the Lyon Hackathon was a question to Lila Tretikov, ED of the Wikimedia Foundation. Someone else had asked by the relative balance between professional and volunteer developers had (it seemed) shifted away from the latter to the former. Other people had quite rightly pointed out that the WMF had hired many of the former volunteers, and, in particular, had hired many of the most “omnipresent” volunteers.
The point I wanted to make, however, is that MediaWiki as a platform has come a long way. It is a lot more professional, and that means standards are higher. By definition, you make it harder for part-timers (many of whose skillsets are understandably incomplete or out-dated) to contribute on a level footing. FOr example, a move from CSS to LESS reduces overhead for “experts” but makes it harder for those who just know CSS (i.e. most developers) and do not have the time to retrain to contribute. It was also pointed out that moving to a system of pre-commit review (as MediaWiki did in March 2012) encourages high standards: you’re not able to join the elite club of MediaWiki contributors without having your commit peer-reviewed first, whereas before you just had to fix it later (and even then you had status quo bias working with you rather than against you).
Lila’s response was to point to the ongoing work moving MediaWiki from being a monolithic pile of code, to something much more modular and service oriented so newcomers. I think this goes both ways: yes, it means newcomers can find a happy corner that they can work in, but it also allows our increasingly professionalised developer base to fulfil their burning desire to ditch PHP in favour of their own preferred language, with unintended consequences for the volunteer community.