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I don’t have to find tasks. Tasks are coming to me. Being a Volunteer Developer for Wikimedia projects: An Interview with Tpt

WMDE allgemein

8. September 2016

German summary:

“Ich suche mir keine Aufgaben. Normalerweise kommen die Aufgaben einfach zu mir,” sagt Thomas, freiwilliger Entwickler für MediaWiki. Wie sieht eigentlich die ehrenamtliche Tätigkeit eines freiwilligen Entwicklers aus? Wer steckt hinter dem Code und den Features, die tagtäglich von vielen Editoren benutzt werden? Julia Schuetze setzte sich mit Thomas aka tpt zusammen, um einen Einblick in die Programmiertätigkeit eines Freiwilligen zu bekommen.

An interview by Julia Schuetze with Thomas Pellissier-Tanon aka Tpt

“I work on the software behind Wikipedia!” That’s what Thomas aka (Tpt), a Volunteer Developer from France, tells his friends if they ask him about what he does in his free time. Up to ten hours per week he dedicates to free knowledge that way.

In the past two months, I got the chance to talk to some of our volunteer developers about their experience with the Wikimedia movement. I’d like to share Thomas’ story, his views, concerns, ideas and accomplishments with you.  

Thomas started in 2009 when he was still in high school. A passion for egyptian history and pharaohs inspired him to contribute to the French Wikipedia. Back then, programming was new to him. He started by writing templates and by learning how to use the functions around Wikipedia.

Starting is not easy. Wikipedia is a project created, maintained and developed by millions of people. Thousands contribute at least once a month. People commit, some stay for longer, some only for a short time. I wondered what made Thomas stick around and become a very innovative volunteer developer in our community for over seven years now.

MediaWiki: “huge, complex and often ugly”

The first few months can be rocky, he says. It was an exploration for him because MediaWiki, the free and open source wiki application, which stores the content into databases, “is huge, complex and often ugly.” “It was a lot of reading code to see how it works and how all the pieces are fitting together,” Thomas remembers. “Some of that can act as barriers. Especially for developers who are not familiar with Wikis,” he explains. It was quite difficult to write code matching MediaWiki standards and conventions and with a good enough level of quality at first.”

By Deror_avi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] Thomas (Tpt) at the Wikimedia Hackathon in Jerusalem

Improvements have been made in the past years to make the start for volunteers developers as smooth as possible. The WMDE engineering page for volunteer developers aims to provide relevant links and explains the processes and tools the developers work with on Wikimedia projects. For MediaWiki, the developer hub aims to give new developers an overview and the article “how to become a MediaWiki hacker” tries to give advice for beginners. “The documentation of MediaWiki is good enough to get into it,” Thomas says “because it has nice little schemas.” On this level it is good, but Thomas raises an important point. Good documentation is not always the case for the extensions. That can be problematic if an extension is not maintained and someone wants to pick it up again.

What made him stick around for so long?

An overarching theme during our chat was “need” the need for this tool or that extension to be developed which made him stick around. When he started “it was very painful because the Wiki source code was breaking because the extension wasn’t maintained. And the system at this time for deployment was kind of bad. So I have written unit tests in 2013. Unit tests are a kind of automated tests that are written in order to ensure that the software still behaves correctly before the deployments”. This shows how the projects have potential but it’s the people who make the Wikimedia projects to what they are today by developing useful tools, features and thinking of ways of how the project can look like in the future.

When Wikidata started in 2012, it was another milestone for Thomas. He was keen to follow the development work and proposed some changes. Questions about how it would be structured and discussions with Denny Vrandecic about if links to external sources should be in the cycling question really got him involved in the project early on. AskPlatypus, a Wikidata-based search engine, which can translate natural language to questions Wikidata can answer, should soon become his biggest Wikidata project. That is a good example of how volunteers should and can shape the direction of a Wikimedia project.  

Another way Thomas got involved was via the technical wishlist. During the last Wikimedia Hackathon in Jerusalem, he worked on the VisualEditor support for Wikisource. It’s one of the items on the wish list. So that can be a good way to get started as well and find the first tasks.

About the impact beyond Wikimedia projects

Thomas also notes how impactful his work can be to other open source projects. Wikimedia/MediaWiki projects can expand into other projects which are connected or not. One of the ones Thomas mentioned is WSexport. It is a tool that exports Wikisource content into epub, pdf and those formats.

This initiative emerged because the community and him found that it was very painful to read Wikisource content out of Wikisource. “I think Wikisource was losing a lot of contributors because it was quite complicated compared to Project Gutenberg that has quite a lot of tools to read books in a lot of different formats. And for us it was completely different. It’s not very useful, but it’s quite nice and fancy and very interesting to develop.”

Other reasons for why he is motivated to develop something is because others and him would like this tool, because it would be so useful. So he says: “Hey, I should do it”. Or “Hey, it could be amazing to have such a thing.” For that the community appreciates him. He receives a lot of direct requests. “I don’t have to find tasks. Usually, it is tasks which are coming to me. I just receive an email for each request.” For developer tasks, volunteers use Phabricator and Github. Some tasks are extra marked with ‘volunteers needed’. Talk pages, too,  play an important role. Thomas is known in the community, so there are a lot of people who ask him “You should fix it” or “You should implement this”. “Usually, there are a lot of requests, that is a very good side effect of the talk page,” he says.

Thomas’ hope is to find other Volunteer Developers to work with in the future.

By looking at the many ways Thomas has contributed, it becomes clear how diverse the impact of Volunteer Developers on Wikimedia projects can be. Thomas’ hope is to find other Volunteer Developers to work with in the future. “If there were more, some of the extensions could be maintained better.”

Some final advice for us? If the contribution process is easy enough to make people realise that contributing to MediaWikis is not so difficult and that with a small contribution you can get huge improvement in the Wikis, let’s say contribution of workflows (…) then usually people come up with smart things.”  

And wishes for the future?

In general, for the Wikimedia Movement to have more interest in Wikisource and keeping up the good work for Wikidata.”

At the beginning I asked him which three words he associates with Wikimedia. They were knowledge, sharing and community. And his role in the community, I wondered?

“Maintenance,” he says would be the best word to describe his volunteering position.

I believe caretaker is a good one for Thomas aka tpt, too.

Thank you, Thomas for taking the time to share your experience.


  1. Nemo
    8. September 2016 at 15:31

    Thanks for interviewing one of the cornerstones of Wikimedia. :)

  2. Assilem
    8. September 2016 at 13:45

    Thanks to all the people who make Wikipedia and wikimedia possible. Great job!

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