Chat Responses and Addenda, Second Board Candidate Chat 2011

As Naomi Novik did not attend the second Board candidate chat, held at 2000 UTC 26 October 2011, she was asked to respond to the questions that the other candidates answered within 24 hours of the chat period (deadline: 2000 UTC 27 October 2011); in order to maintain equity with the attending candidates, they were allowed the same period to refine or expand on the answers they had already given. Those responses and addenda are collected here.

Part 1: Off the top of your head: How many staffers does the Org have? How many non-staff volunteers?
Part 2: Considering the many comments I’m reading about understaffing and volunteer burnout, how many additional staffing positions on existing committees would you anticipate adding in your term? Additionally, what concrete steps will you work to implement to prevent burnout, to increase staff/volunteer satisfaction, and to increase internal transparency?

Naomi Novik
No response as of deadline. Response received 29 October 2011 03:44 UTC. Added to document 29 October 2011 04:08 UTC.

Unless I’m misremembering from last year’s annual report, I’m pretty sure we had about 100 staffers and a few hundred volunteers at the time, and I expect things haven’t radically changed.

I don’t actually agree that we are suffering an unusual wave of burnout beyond the endemic, and we really have a pretty big staff and volunteer base.

That said, some committees really do need more help: my impression from the sidelines this year is that volcom is still in a bind, and I know AO3 support and the systems committee have been hurting at times this year for lack of help. But adding people is a lot harder than it sounds if you have a committee like this that requires a lot of technical knowledge or absorbing a lot of procedures. First of all it’s harder to find a volunteer who is interested, and then when you bring a new volunteer aboard you have to invest significantly more time to train them (which is then time that can’t be spent on a different volunteer), which means the cost in the not unusual case when the volunteer then drifts away is a lot higher for those committees.

For Support, the upcoming Support Board which will open up archive support will I hope solve their staffing issues and also make the job more fun and engaging. This is a project that is underway and I hope we’ll see it come to fruition in the next year.

For Volcom, honestly, what I think has been really needed from the beginning is a giant heaping dose of automation for the rote work of getting volunteers set up, so the staff can plug in a name and email and push a button and the person gets set up automatically. Unfortunately, building this automation is a tough problem because it basically requires code that can talk to all of our other tools, several of which don’t have good APIs, and if you think it’s hard to get coders for a shiny public-facing archive they themselves often use, imagine how much harder to get coders for an in-house automation tool involving a lot of grinding trudging through incomplete third-party documentation for a dozen tools. 😛 But as ADT grows bigger and we have fewer things on fire in terms of the archive software , I would really love to see the team try and take this on for Volcom: if a few coders can be spared to work on it together, that could make up for some of the toughness of the problem.

I do think that in a smaller and more immediate step, we could make Volcom’s lives easier by doing a broad org-wide assessment of all our tools and pruning the ones we don’t really need or consolidating ones that could be done that way.

Systems is tough. Experienced sysadmins willing and able to give us significant amounts of time are hard to recruit, no two ways about it, and we are really lucky to have the few awesome sysadmins we do have. We’ve tried to train people in-house, but in Systems (unlike in Ruby on Rails coding for the archive) it’s just too big a jump between being a newbie to where you can actually do productive work for the team, and as a result the time cost to the current sysadmins of training a sysadmin from scratch becomes too high to be practical. Sadly I don’t see an easy solution beyond keep on banging the steady recruiting drumbeat, although we could make a push to bang it louder and more prominently, and also to just keep in mind in-house that the Systems team are under a tough load that can’t easily be relieved, and bend over backwards to accommodate their needs.

Anyway, those are three specific examples, but I hope that gives some insight into how I generally approach staffing problems.

As for improvements in satisfaction and internal transparency, I had some comments beforehand that I think are actually relevant to this question which didn’t make it into the chat and are now posted on my journal: my current best ideas include adding 1:1 meetings where possible, a monthly report down from the board emailed to all members including liberal giving of kudos, and reducing gatekeeping within the organization to decrease frustration and empower individual volunteers.

How do you see the OTW as being accountable to its assorted constituents–fandom at large; users of the OTW’s projects (AO3 and fanlore users; readers and writers of the journal; recipients of legal aid; volunteers; staff; etc.) What would you do on the board to make sure that all those groups have the information they need when they need it?

Jenny Scott-Thompson
Addenda to in-chat response.

As I see it, the Board are responsible to the members who elected them, the staffers and volunteers who work with them, and the wider fandom community who fund the OTW. (We also have specific legal responsibilities as a non-profit registered in the USA.) I would expect any or all of these groups to call us out when we make mistakes.

Staffers and volunteers report to their committee chairs, and committee chairs are accountable to the Board. In contrast to some non-profits, people can and have been removed from staff positions for certain repeated issues. Chairs tell the Board what is going on in their committees, and get the bigger picture and approval for resource-spending (in both money and time) from their board liaison.

I think members have an important role to play in making as informed a choice as they reasonably can when voting, and to let us know their views throughout the year, in much the same way as I see a citizen of a democratic country getting involved in politics – using their right to vote, possibly getting into local politics or joining a party or standing for election depending on time and inclination.

As for what I would do about it on the Board, the first big step is the survey I mentioned, which is related to a wider discussion about goals and planning, and understanding our “stakeholders” as an organisation. There will be more details about that emerging over the next six months – at the moment it’s still in the internal stages. That will allow us to get a better view of what people think, particularly when considered alongside all the other channels of feedback, from AO3 support requests to blog comments, tweets and emails.

The next big step, which can done at the same time, is to improve communications – to give people the information they need and want. This means having the important stuff being obvious and first to view for those who don’t have much time, and having the details also being available for those who are curious. It also means showing not just the end decisions, but the process or reasoning that got us there.

I mentioned Dreamwidth being a model for me in this – I worked for them as a volunteer during closed and open beta, and was very impressed by the difference between their style and LiveJournal’s. I like the way things get discussed in dw_suggestions, I like the way the support board works, I like the tone of the news posts and the way we get advance warning of new features. I like the promptness of dw_maintenance and the twitter status, and the honesty and openness in all of those and in dw_biz. The OTW already has equivalents of many of those things, and some of them need to be different for the OTW, but I’d like to consider what else we can learn from Dreamwidth.

So the things I would do on the board, to get back to the question, would be to push forward with the strategic planning process and survey, work with Communications and with other committees to improve transparency, and ensure that we are listening to the feedback we already get.

Naomi Novik
No response as of deadline. Response received 29 October 2011 03:44 UTC. Added to document 29 October 2011 04:08 UTC.

It’s a tough balancing act among all those interested parties, for sure. I think in a practical aspect on the new project level where the Board often operates with the biggest impact (whether that new project is something being done internally or something being added to our slate of projects intended for the public), we need to make sure it fits into our overall mission in a coherent way, we have to decide how it weighs against other projects we could also do, we have to articulate the goals clearly and in the right forums to enable the affected people to read and make informed opinions about it, we have to listen with an open mind to critical response without letting ourselves be wrongly daunted, and we have to make sure the work involved won’t exceed what our people are up for and what our other resources can bear.