When setting long-term goals, striking the right balance is difficult: Not too generic (fluffy), not too specific (micromanagement). Not too few (lack of challenges), not too many (overwhelming). Consistently focusing on core values, while adapting to changes in the environment.
MariaDB Foundation’s internal goal setting process for 2023 seems to be working out well – and some lessons learned may be of interest even to our community.
The most important lesson learned is about our half-year review.
We set our 2023 yearly goals in December, with an emphasis on the first half of the year. We did so because of uncertainties in our ecosystem. The industry downturn made it unclear in general how sponsorships would work out, and lofty goals do require clear financial resources.
In particular, MariaDB Foundation was affected by the troubles at MariaDB plc – not so much their struggle with their SPAC at NYSE, but their seeming lack of direction, focus and strategy. Our relationship was not in shape, and the points of friction between the two entities were not being addressed.
That was the trigger for us focusing our yearly goals on the first half of the year, but what was a bare necessity now turns out to have secondary benefits. Not only did we focus our actions on stuff independent of MariaDB plc, but we learned a lot along the way – which helps us steer the ship, adjusting the course somewhat for the second half of the year.
We spent a lot of time on the core MariaDB Server community, exactly as our three-fold mission prescribes: Adoption, Openness, Continuity.
On the Adoption side, we worked closely with WebPros, creators of cPanel and Plesk, arguably as important trigger points for the choice of database as Linux distros. We went to WordCamps in Thailand and Greece, and worked with the WordPress community at CloudFest in Germany. We are now extending the lessons learned to the next level of “database choice influencers”, but let me return to that once we’ve made some progress on it.
On the Openness side, we worked on oiling the code contribution process. A mere metric of maximising the number of closed Pull Requests on Github is a bit of a crude measurement, so we’re going to the bottom of the contribution process – as we are in the lucky position of receiving more Pull Requests than we can handle short-term, with our existing resources.
On Continuity, our uneasiness around MariaDB plc kept us busy, without much to show for it – other than the core developers of MariaDB Server still being around and focusing on what we at MariaDB Foundation believe to be of utmost value – creating new code. Nearly 80% of MariaDB Server code comes from MariaDB plc.
And in the area of Continuity, our Board was made considerably stronger with the General Manager of Amazon RDS joining as an observer.
Those were of course only glimpses of what we were doing; more can be read in our blog.
Now, we are in the process of updating the yearly goals so that we’ll be working on the right things for the rest of the year. Our goal setting wasn’t super rigid to begin with, so we already put resources into ChatGPT and LLMs, which were quite peripheral on our radar in December. Now we can react with more consideration, when thinking about how to best use AI for the MariaDB Server ecosystem.
We also struck a good balance between finishing or at least properly pursuing goals, and avoiding rabbit holes that never lead to anything. I believe this is not only due to our mid-year review, which we had set out to do from the beginning. It’s also due to our culture and some habits that are spreading across the organisation.
Allow me to come with a drastic and belligerent analogy. It’s about a favourite topic of us proud people of Finland, namely the Winter War of 1939-40 (plus its extension 1941-44) and our success at keeping our country free from a Soviet Russian occupation. Sure, we were defending ourselves as opposed to attacking someone else, so our good cause kept us highly motivated. But also, the Finnish armed forces had a decentralised management system, where individuals on any level of hierarchy knew what was important, and were empowered to act upon goals given – without expecting micro management.
By analogy, I believe Open Source is a good cause, which gives us a different level of motivation beyond merely earning our salaries (which obviously is also important). And also, the team knows what to focus on in order to deliver on the mission of Adoption, Openness, Continuity. Our culture is more or less about executing on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: Behave within the MariaDB Server user and developer community in such a way that the guidelines for your own actions could be made into general guidelines for the Open Source industry.
Meaning: Give attention to bug reports. Fix papercut bugs. Focus limited resources on the areas with the most impact. Create policies around MariaDB Server, with which you would be happy in other communities, where you are a user or developer, not the guardian of the ecosystem.
In short: our culture encourages MariaDB Foundation employees to think about how they would like things to work, if they were in your shoes, not knowing exactly how to use the product, not knowing the feature set, the processes, the pitfalls.
To end on a happy note, our relationship with MariaDB plc is being rebuilt from the top. They have a new management and the inflamed relationships of the past have disappeared together with the former management. This is crucial for us at MariaDB Foundation, given the central role of MariaDB plc for the ecosystem. Did I say nearly 80% of MariaDB Server code comes from MariaDB plc? We’re clearly very grateful for that.
Obviously, it is too early to tell exactly what will happen, as we are in the start of building new relationships, but the early signs are positive. It seems like there is a new-found understanding for Open Source in general and MariaDB Foundation in particular, where former points of friction are reinterpreted as touching points, a majority of which can turn into mutual opportunities.
So, the first half of the year saw progress on most of the goals we set out to do, and we have a clear upside for the rest of the year. By the upside I mean a better alignment within the entire ecosystem. There are good chances that this will happen, but there is still a lot of work to do – hence, I’m labelling myself a cautious optimist.