Yoast and Whodunit on why they contribute to WordPress core—and the features they’re pursuing

Make WordPress Core landing page
The Make WordPress Core landing page.

Automattic may be the biggest player in WordPress, but it’s not the only one with influence. Two other companies—Whodunit, a relative newcomer to contributing, and Yoast, a WordPress core veteran—are actively developing features they want in core. And they’re encouraging other companies to join them in putting more people and resources into the WordPress project.

When Yoast recently announced it had hired Francesca Marano to lead its team of core contributors, it signaled the SEO company’s growing involvement in the WordPress project.

And as CEO Marieke van de Rakt says, it also came at a point when the company realized it could no longer focus on both its own product and core at the same time.

“We were heavily involved in Gutenberg and were able to adapt our plugin accordingly. But it took so much of our resources that we weren’t able to focus on our own product,” Marieke says.

“After Gutenberg came out, we were, therefore, a bit preoccupied with our own Yoast stuff (we had a lot of stuff we had to take care of that we didn’t work on because of Gutenberg).

“That’s not good either. We weren’t on top of what was going to happen in WordPress core. That made us realize that we needed to have a solid team on WordPress, next to our team that is working on Yoast.”

Yoast is a long-time contributor to WordPress core. Founder and CPO Joost de Valk has contributed since WordPress 2.3 (he has “props” on 24 major releases) and currently spends one day a week on core.

Back in August, Yoast hired Justin Ahinon (a prolific member of the Documentation Team) and Ari Stathopoulos (a member of the Themes Team) to work on core full-time. They joined Yoast’s existing core team: Andrea Fercia (a member of the Accessibility Team) and Sergey Biryukov (a WordPress core committer who “does way too much to fit into a list”, according to Marieke).

Many “Yoasters” contribute some of their time to core, and the company holds contributor days at its Netherlands-based office. All up, the company gives about 275 hours a week to the WordPress project as part of its Five for the Future pledge.

What the WordPress 5.5 core stats reveal about the ecosystem

Yoast is one of the most active companies in the WordPress community. But curiously, of the 215 organizations worldwide that contributed to WordPress 5.5, only one other company—and a much smaller one, at that—was able to match it, employee for employee: Whodunit.

The French agency’s CTO Jb Audras, who is also a WordPress Core Team rep (together with Francesca), has published contributor stats for the past three releases of WordPress, most recently WordPress 5.5 Core Stats: contributions by country & company. In this post, he unpacks the companies that contributed the most number of employees to WordPress 5.5:

  • Automattic: 82 people
  • Yoast and Whodunit: 10 people each
  • Human Made, 10up and WP Engine: 8 people each
  • Google and rtCamp: 6 people each
  • WPMU DEV: 5 people
  • Bluehost, GoDaddy, iThemes and Audrey HC: 4 people each

It’s no surprise that Automattic was the biggest contributor— it has always been the biggest contributor to WordPress. After all, it’s WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg’s company.

What is surprising is the numbers when you break them down by workforce participation. Automattic, with 1,285 people on its books, contributed 6.4% of its employees. In comparison, Yoast (100+ employees) and Whodunit (10 employees) contributed 10% and 100% respectively.

Then there’s 10up with 195 employees and 8 contributors (4.1%), Human Made with 70 employees and 8 contributors (11.4%), WP Engine with 900 employees and 8 contributors (0.88%), and even Google with 100,000 employees and 6 contributors (0.006%).

Jb’s stats also break down the total number of core contributions (i.e. ticket credits) by employer. Yoast had the lion’s share with 718 contributions, while Sergey was the most prolific individual contributor with an incredible 619 contributions. Automattic JavaScript engineer Riad Benguella, who works on the block editor, came in second with 197 contributions—not even close to Sergey’s output.

Does Automattic dictate WordPress’s direction? Yoast and Whodunit say “no”

The WordPress 5.5 core stats add nuance to the pervasive belief amongst some in the WordPress community that Automattic calls all the shots. While Automattic is the largest presence in the ecosystem, the stats show it’s not the only company influencing the direction of the WordPress project.

“I understand why people believe that Automattic dictates WordPress. A lot — most —contributions are done by people working for Automattic. So, I get that people start thinking that Autmattic calls all the shots,” Marieke says.

“However, that does not mean, at all, that other companies or parties aren’t welcome to join to work at WordPress Core as well. I don’t think it is an evil plan. I think Matt Mullenweg is pretty open about how he wants other companies to join forces here. In our experience, our voices are certainly heard and taken into account.”

She says it’s not in the best interests of WordPress that one company be the largest contributor. 

“That’s why we at Yoast contribute, but also why we try to convince other companies to contribute as well,” she says.

Jb points out that Automattic isn’t alone in the community—there are countless agencies, hosting companies, plugin and theme developers, and thousands of freelancers who contribute to WordPress, as well as people from companies that aren’t directly related to WordPress.

He says while Matt Mullenweg leads the overall direction of the CMS, he doesn’t think the project needs to be a democratic ecosystem.

“It would be very hard to coordinate as we just can’t organize a worldwide voting system for 39% of the internet to make sure everyone is ok with any decision,” he says.

“I feel we mostly need great and transparent governance to make sure the project is always evolving at a good and innovative pace. Of course, the project’s governance is not perfect, but it works pretty well, and the project is far from being ruled by one person or one company.

“We are thousands of people contributing to what WordPress is going to be in the future, and I bet we’re far from the end of the positive curve.”

Why contribute to WordPress? Because it’s addictive

Whodunit has been involved in core since WordPress 4.8 when Jb was the company’s lone contributor. He says for WordPress 5.5, his goal was for 100% of the Whodunit team to be credited as contributors. And he had a personal objective: to further the French community’s contributions to WordPress.

“Around half of the team contributed to WordPress 5.5 source code and the other part of the team contributed to WordPress 5.5 French translation,” Jb says. “So at the end, the whole team appeared on the WordPress 5.5 credits page, at least for the French version of the CMS (translation contributors are credited on localized versions).”

He says contributing to WordPress doesn’t require much time—smaller tasks like working on a core ticket or testing a patch might only take one or two hours. But he admits core contributing can become very involved, even addictive.

“I personally spent six months on the plugins and themes auto-updates feature, which includes: releasing a feature plugin, leading the auto-updates team, writing code, testing, and so on,” he says.

“That’s a huge amount of work given I was also leading the accessibility focus and helping on Docs.  I tried to be available for my team and our clients, so I had to organize myself correctly to be able to handle both tasks.

“Well, at the end of the release cycle, I have to admit that I wondered if I was working for WordPress and contributing to my paid job… or the opposite 😅.”

So why contribute to WordPress? Jb makes the case in his post WP 5.5: How Whodunit Became a Key Player in WordPress Development.

To summarise his argument: WordPress agencies rely on open source software that is constantly evolving. This presents an opportunity for companies that want to get involved to influence the technical and strategic direction of the CMS.

“For a company whose business model is based on WordPress, this is an incredible opportunity to become master of its own destiny. By contributing to the development of WordPress, we are no longer a simple follower of what others have developed for us, we become an actor in the evolution of this tool!” Jb writes.

And, of course, there’s Five for the Future. Whodunit has pledged 35 hours a week.

What companies get out of contributing: features they want in core

As far as influencing WordPress goes, Jb has been working on the core major version auto-update system. The Whodunit team is also contributing to the Twenty Twenty-One default theme and working on smaller tickets. For future releases, Jb says Whodunit is “deeply” interested in some of the Accessibility Team’s projects, such as the Accessibility Statement feature plugin, which automatically generates an accessibility statement for a WordPress website.

Similarly, Yoast is pursuing features it wants in core—and has been very patient in doing so. In February 2016 in his post WordPress core contributions, Joost flagged XML sitemaps as something he wanted in core. In 2019, developers at Google and Yoast began collaborating with other contributors on a proposal for XML sitemaps. The resulting feature plugin went into testing in January this year and was included in WordPress 5.5 in August.

Marieke says for future releases, the company is “very” interested in getting multilingual support into core. But for now, Yoast’s core team is busy fixing things.

“In many ways, we like to be ‘the grease’ for some parts of WordPress. We like fixing the things that need to work but that don’t get enough love,” Marieke says.

“For instance, Omar [Reiss], our CTO who was also one of the leads for the 5.0 / Gutenberg release, was heavily involved in optimizing and improving all of the JavaScript includes. Andrea is constantly working on improving accessibility, a job that is unfortunately never done. Ari is currently working on improving how we load CSS for Full Site Editing. Justin is documenting as much as he can of Gutenberg.

“These are not all ‘glamorous’ tasks, but they have to be done. We’re also looking at some underlying APIs, like a font enqueue API.”

Marieke says Yoast invests heavily in WordPress because it is part of the company’s open source philosophy and embedded in its core values. They even recently published a guide to open source using the block editor: Open source: Better solutions and a more inclusive society.

“We believe in open source. That means that you should help the platform you’re growing upon. Without WordPress, Yoast SEO would not have any users,” she says.

“We have an obligation to give back as we reap benefits from WordPress. We have been fanboys and girls from the very start. We want WordPress to flourish and be successful.”

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