Wikimedia Developer Summit/2018/Participants/Tim Starling

Position statement submitted by Tim Starling for Wikimedia Developer Summit 2018.

A key question for me is how we can maximise the richness of our feature offering despite having entered a period of slow growth in revenue and staff numbers.

Wikimedia serves a very large number of users, with a diverse set of needs -- nobody can say that the site as it stands is sufficient to satisfy all of them. There are two main threats to our goal of providing a rich feature set.

One is maintenance burden. We are faced with the prospect of sunsetting features because we find the maintenance burden to be too great. But there is no incontrovertible rule in software engineering which says that code, once written, must constantly be rewritten. Maintenance burden most commonly arises from changes in the platform on which the code is implemented. Minimising maintenance burden for a given feature set thus necessitates choosing a stable platform. We need to consider the programming languages we use, and the libraries we require, through this lens.

The second threat is needless complexity. Concepts which are hard to understand, and which thus restrict related development to highly skilled developers, are appropriate only if hidden behind a module boundary. In order to enable contributions from developers less skilled than ourselves, and to minimise the time required for learning and familiarisation, the bulk of our code should be simple. Complexity is alluring because it provides developers the opportunity to take pride in their work. But for the benefit of the organisation as whole, its efficiency, and thus the richness of its product offering, we should introduce complexity only with due caution. Code which is complex but stable can be valuable, presenting no great risks. For example, the diff algorithm we currently use in wikidiff2 has its origin in Perl code written in approximately 1998. Only in the last year have we considered adding substantial features to it. We have a PHP port and a C++ port, and neither requires significant maintenance. This is because the requirements are stable and the two respective platforms (C++ and PHP) are stable. Contrast this to OCG, which is at risk of sunsetting only three years after its original deployment. The reason is that its input and output formats are constantly changing, that is, it has changing requirements; and it was written on a modern and rapidly changing platform. Its main developer wrote "the architecture which was state-of-the-art in 2014 is already looking a little dated in 2016".

My goals for the developer summit are to encourage people to think carefully about writing code on top of a conceptually complex, rapidly changing platform. I want WMF and the MediaWiki community to write code which is stable and long-lasting, and can thus support a richly featured website into the future.

Tim Starling, Dec 2017.