On Leaving W3C

Today is my last day at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It’s been an amazing experience working there for the past almost-a-decade (9 years and 6 months). In the time-honored tradition of reflecting on your last job as you leave it, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts. It’s hard to know what to say… building Web standards has been so much of my identity, so central to how I approached the world, for so long, that it’s hard to unpack it all.

It’s pretty common for people leaving the W3C Team (as we call W3C staff) to take a negative attitude toward W3C. That’s fair; it’s a political atmosphere, and most of us pour ourselves into the importance of the mission, so we accumulate a strong emotional charge, and leaving releases that potential energy. There’s also the frustration of living in the bureaucracy (and sometimes inertia) that comes from painstaking stewardship, and wishing it could work better. But I’m making a conscious effort to focus also on the positive aspects of W3C… not just what it’s doing wrong, but how well it’s doing many things. And there’s a lot of good there, more good than bad.

For me, there’s also the regret of things left undone.

But it’s always left undone. It’s time to turn the page.

I’ve wanted to leave W3C for a little while now; I’ve felt burned out on the abstract and meager influence of standards, and the slow pace of change, and I’ve wanted to work on a concrete project, where I see the direct influence on people’s lives… either in software development or in politics. But there were so many things at W3C that I wanted not to leave undone, and it was a familiar environment where I felt I had a good deal of autonomy and influence, so I couldn’t bring myself to take that next step. Fortunately or unfortunately, the choice was made for me. W3C is going through a fundamental reorganization, with the concomitant housecleaning, and I’d spent so much time hopping around within W3C, there wasn’t a place for me to land in the new org tree.

Before the “Domain” structure of W3C was given a long-deserved retirement, I’d worked in the erstwhile Interaction Domain, Information and Knowledge Domain, and Technology and Society Domain, as well as doing accessibility work parallel to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Domain, and I founded and ran the Developer Relations activity; the only technical domain I never worked for was the Ubiquitous Web Domain, largely because that’s a division that’s mostly funded by EU project grants. I stretched myself thin, and it was starting to show. I was burned out, depressed, and felt isolated after a decade of working from home. And to be frank, I also felt unappreciated by management, and that led to a slump in my morale. In my last year at W3C, I was split across 3 domains (and managers) and 7 working groups, and I found it hard to focus on any one of them. One of my managers told me that some of the things I feel most strongly about, SVG and graphics accessibility, wasn’t a priority for W3C (though they later softened that stance a bit).

So, when I started deciphering the writing on the wall, and realized that I might not have a future place in W3C, I had to confront myself on what I was going to do next. I didn’t want a “job”–I wanted a mission. If I don’t feel passion for something, it’s hard for me to stick with it. And I didn’t want to just do some commercial enterprise… I’ve always felt that working for W3C was a kind of public service, and I wanted to continue that. One of the side projects I’ve kept coming back to over the years was accessibility of graphics, and specifically of data visualization, and though I didn’t see much progress there in standards, I knew that all the pieces were in place to make a major positive leap there. It’s something that I’m passionate about, it helps people, it’s an interesting technical challenge, it needs concrete software development and active partnerships, and it’s an achievable goal. And I was lucky enough to stumble on a great set of people with similar goals. So, that’s what I’m doing next. There’s still a standards aspect that I’ll continue, likely in W3C, so it also leverages my experience with standards. I’ll talk more about this in the future. I’m very excited about it, and delighted to find something I feel as good about working on as I did working at W3C.  I also confess to some relief at leaving W3C and doing something new, especially right now.

W3C is facing some challenges. The domain structure was a poor fit for the work that needed to be done, and the reorganization into functional areas (incubation for new work, project management for chartered working groups, and liaisons) seems like a logical structure. But I’m a little concerned about how well the overworked staff is going to pull it off, and I don’t envy them the task. There’s so much to do already, and they are stretched thin to get this tricky transition right. They’ve needed to change, and the reorganization only fixes some of the underlying problems.

All of this comes down to what I think are the Four Original Sins of W3C:

  1. Ineffective Funding Model: W3C is funded primarily through member dues (around ~$70K for big organizations, and ~$8K for small ones or non-profits), and this limits the people who can actively contribute, as well as limiting the growth and scalability of of the organization. To grow to deal with the needs of the organization, they are forced to broaden the scope of the mission to include new industries (i.e. new sources of income), which in turn leads to new work that needs more resources that W3C doesn’t have. This doesn’t scale, and needs to change. This reliance on member funds also makes W3C too dependent on its larger organizations.
  2. Unbalancing Stakeholder Control: Others have noted that W3C is too tightly controlled by large stakeholders, mostly the browser makers. From the inside, I can say this is definitely true, though some on the Team try to resist it. The insidious thing is, I don’t think the browser makers realize quite how much power they have, and how they use it. They essentially set the agenda and have veto control over activities, either through opposition or just ignoring it. If the W3C is the United Nations of Web standards, the browser makers are the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Some might say this is a feature, rather than a bug; shouldn’t the biggest stakeholders have the most say? To me, this is a problem of checks and balances; the browser makers already have enormous market control, so I think W3C should be a forum where smaller organizations should have more influence than they currently do.
  3. Host Structure: W3C doesn’t exist. There is no legal entity; it’s just an agreement between the four host organizations: MIT in the US; ERCIM in the EU; Keio University in Japan; and Beihang University in China (the newest host). And these hosts take a disproportionate amount of W3C’s member funds, for little benefit (in my opinion), with almost no technical collaboration between W3C and the hosts. I strongly suspect that MIT won’t keep W3C around for long (for a variety of reasons), so W3C really needs to form a non-profit that can operate independently, for less overhead, that can explore more funding options.
  4. Default Secrecy: When W3C started, working groups were almost all member-only. The public could see the results, but couldn’t contribute to the conversations. Over time, we’ve changed this for the technical conversations. But too much is still held behind closed doors, both between W3C and the members, and especially within the W3C Team; too many good ideas die before they even see any public discussion, and inertia kills off positive movement. I would like to see the W3C take the opportunity of reorganization to change how they talk about and with the larger community. There will always be some private discussions, by necessity, but that should be minimized.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into more detail now on these now, though I might in a future post.

Nothing but problems, right? Not so fast. People outside the Team, and often outside the larger W3C that includes the Members, critique W3C. Too slow, too out-of-touch, too bureaucratic… but most of them have no idea what they’re talking about. W3C represents the Rule of Law in Web technology, and is one of the few checks (imperfect as it is) on raw influence that pure market forces have on the Web. There is still room there for smart, passionate people to have their voices heard, though it needs patience, honesty, integrity, and technical expertise to make the case. There is a public review process, and the crown jewel of W3C’s Royalty-Free Patent Policy. W3C has a delicious recipe for stone soup, and runs a clean kitchen to cook it in. Organizationally and individually, W3C cares about human rights, and human ability and needs. We need W3C.

The W3C staff is amazingly passionate, knowledgeable, and experienced… with a rare few exceptions that have outlived their usefulness. When I joined the Team, I told myself that I wouldn’t work there more than 10 years, because I didn’t want to outlive my own usefulness. I turned out to be right, and I think I’m leaving at the right time.

I had a great decade at W3C, and I continue to wish the people, the members, and the organization well. As I said to the Team in my parting email:

It’s been a privilege to work with this organization, whose mission I still value and identify with so strongly, and to work with this Team, who embody that mission with such dedication, imagination, and technical expertise.

This job has opened up so many doors for me, taken me to so many places around the globe, taught me so much, and introduced me to so many fascinating people, many of whom I’m privileged to now call friends. I can’t imagine a more fruitful environment to grow, to share, and to impact the world for the better.

What have I learned? I learned to be more humble and patient, and to shut up a little more; those were hard lessons to learn. I learned more about the value of teamwork. I learned that I need to focus, that if I want to see something completed, I need to stick with it. I learned to take nothing for granted. I learned that I need to be careful not to overextend myself. I learned how to write more effectively. I learned a lot of technical and business and social skills, maybe more than I would have learned in a commercial business. And I learned a lot about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and about other people.

That’s what I learned the most about: people. How it’s people –individuals, not businesses– that make a difference in the world, by showing up, by working, by persuading, by listening, by leading, by following, by collaborating, by fighting. By building consensus, a world we can all live with, a future we can all live in.

Okay, let’s go! Let’s keep building the future! What’s next?

10 thoughts on “On Leaving W3C

  1. Thanks for your post and contributions to the w3c curious to see where it will be going. Good luck with your new challenge with graphics and data visualization.
    I’ll continue on forming and implementing ideas for a more verbose alternative for svg’s path element and it’s d attribute but not sure there will be anybody left to bother within the w3c svg committee?

  2. I saw the writing on the wall a decade ago. The choice for me was continue to invest in studying SVG, when I knew it would be crippled, or take a 9 to 5 punch the clock job where I wouldn’t be happy. I chose to stick with SVG regardless of the personal cost and have no regrets.

    Basically, saying it’s about time you saw the light and are abandoning trying to work in a corrupt environment, but don’t abandon SVG or the beauty of creating new experiences. Even if these experiences will never see the light of day due to corporate/state obstruction.

    I personally believe that whether you die poor, or rich, if you follow your heart and seek knowledge and the betterment of society you will happy with your choice. Good luck in your future path and keep the SVG community up to date on your progress, even if that community seems to consist of only myself.

    James C. Deering

    1. Hi, James, thanks for the kind words. I don’t think W3C is corrupt, I just think it’s a complex ecosystem with a lot of constraints, and I don’t always agree with some of the decisions that are made on how to deal with them. If W3C is the right place to get some of my future work done, I won’t hesitate to bring it there… I’m just also pursuing my goals through other channels and other means.

  3. Hey Doug, thanks for your perspectives. It provides a good roadmap for things that we need to improve.

    Hoping to see lots of great results from your new mission of accessibility for data visualization.

  4. Doug,

    Best of luck with your new work and from what you mentioned in Lisbon (if it is the same stuff), I think it will add great value to the web.

    I think many people share your views and it seems to me that some of the member representatives could do with being rotated out in order to bring aboard fresh opinions and views. There is a lot of baggage being carried around (along with a lot of expertise of course) and the net result is that innovation is being blocked or lost due to conservatism. I truly hope this can be addressed.

  5. Hey Doug!

    Wow, big change for you!
    Thanks for championing standards.
    Best of luck with any future endeavors (said sincerely and earnestly) as we move into this brave new world (mumbled sarcastically and allusively).


  6. Congrats on 10 years ( good luck with post-traumatic disorders)
    All the best in your next adventure, Doug!

    Two things jumped at me as I read your post:
    1) unlike you, I have not found that “it’s pretty common for people leaving the W3C Team to take a negative attitude toward W3C.”
    2) I don’t think you quite hit the mark when you wrote that W3C is “forced to broaden the scope of the mission to new industries, to include new sources of income”. Rather, the reason is that their use cases and requirements are quite important to the Web. However, I agree that this leads to new work that needs more resources that W3C doesn’t have :/

    1. Thanks, Coralie! Obviously, we have different opinions about those points. 🙂 That’s okay, some of these things are subjective; many people have agreed with me, and I’m sure many will agree with you. I think we agree that W3C is an important institution that serves a vital need, and we want it to succeed.

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