Mendicant University roadmap

sandal edited this page May 15, 2012 · 79 revisions

NOTE: If you weren't present for the town hall planning meeting on this topic, please read why Mendicant University needs to change. The historical background provided in that page is important for understanding why we plan to make the changes described here.

This roadmap describes the major changes we plan to make to Mendicant University, both as a school and a community, and we will begin working on it immediately as of 2012-05-02. We have reached the point where the organization has become too complicated to incrementally refactor, so we have decided a ground-up rewrite of our working practices is in order. In that sense, you can think of this as a way of killing "the Mendicant University organization" in the name of advancing "the Mendicant University community".

The fancy info-graphic below will give you a birds eye view, but be sure to read the outline that follows it for details.

As you can see from the picture, the new Mendicant University will be very different. The following six-point plan describes how this will all play out.

1. We are placing an immediate hold on all of our active projects and courses.

Because we're trying to pull off a revolution rather than a reform, we don't want our old plans to get in the way of our new vision. This means that in order to make this transition go faster, we are officially putting all of our projects and courses on hold indefinitely. The basic idea is that the really good ideas and projects will find a way to bring themselves back to life, and those that weren't as important to us will go into hibernation.

In particular, this means that we are suspending our work on the June mentoring month, and all existing MU infrastructure, including PuzzleNode and the community web application, and that we are cancelling the September core skills course. While that might sound painful, the rest of the plans we have in mind should more than make up for this loss.

2. We will become a school without courses.

We are proud of what an excellent course our core skills course has become, but given that each one of them costs over 1000 person-hours to run, they are no longer practical or sustainable for us. Even our alumni courses cost somewhere on the order of 400-600 person-hours, which simply means that we're putting a lot of energy behind a single kind of activity that could be distributed in a much more flexible way.

Rather than focusing on our courses, we will instead focus on well-defined, low commitment activities that can be counted in hours and days rather than weeks and months. In particular, we will focus on running and improving our social gatherings, town hall meetings, and hack days, and will also introduce two new kinds of activities as well: study sessions and open-ended office hours.

Study sessions will be ad-hoc learning activities focused on various topics of interest to the community. An example of this is Gregory's meeting with Eric Hodel to discuss test-driven development practices while encouraging the group to listen in and share their thoughts. However, other study sessions could be on any number of different things, including book club meetings, guided explorations of various open source projects (not necessarily Ruby), or even non-technical topics such as studying a board game like Chess or Go as a group. These study sessions would try to maintain the MU spirit of using realistic examples and deep conversations as our primary way of learning things, but would otherwise be very diverse from session to session. MU community members can and should run their own study sessions in addition to participating in ones run by others, as long as there are enough folks interested in a given topic.

Open-ended office hours would be run by and for the MU community, and would be similar to the office hours we have run in our courses. In the early stages of the transition, Gregory and Shane will probably set aside large chunks of time for conducting office hours, but we'd like to see other community members also volunteer their time on occasion so that help would be available more-or-less around the clock. Folks do NOT need to be experts to run office hours, pretty much anyone who is already a member of MU's community would be able to run this kind of activity.

To promote a sense of continuity and cohesiveness, we will have various kinds of recurring activities and some sequential activities as well. However, the level of organization would always be some small block of time on the calendar, so it should make it much easier for both those running activities and those participating in them to try out new things without making a huge commitment.

If it's possible to do so, we'd like to make it so that all our activities are non-overlapping, making it so that there is always something going on, but that you never need to choose between doing one thing or another. We may also end up with a range of asynchronous activities for those who have a hard time attending particular meetings at particular times, but time will tell.

3. We will open ourselves up to the world.

We plan to move our activities entirely out into the public, making it possible for anyone to participate in our activities as long as they respect Mendicant University's cultural values. This means that the many folks who have wanted to get involved in Mendicant but weren't lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time will now be able to become full-fledged members of our community.

Because Mendicant University is a very special kind of community, we can expect that our online community will run different than many other online communities, even after we open ourselves up to the public. For example, our first order of business during this transition will be to work together as a community to come up with a set of guidelines establishing our cultural values, and we will continuously revisit that topic over time. All of our resources will be moderated to ensure that individual participants abide by these guidelines, but there will be a major shift in the way that we go about exercising our administrative privileges.

We plan to take a "wait and see" approach to many of the possible problems that might arise from opening Mendicant University up to the public, but our rough plan is to appoint our existing staff as moderators for our resources. As moderators, we would be responsible for upholding the values of the community, but in a much more limited fashion than we have in the past. We would plan to be responsive to abuse, but not reactive. Our hope would be that a combination of increased transparency, increased emphasis on developing a set of shared values in our community, and a merit-based form of governance would make it so that we would not have to wear our moderator hats often.

The best analogy we can come up with for the way we hope to run our community after this transition is that we want to style it after some of the more liberal open source projects out there. At first when new folks come into our community, we will think of them essentially as guests who are free to participate in our activities but not necessarily run events of their own or otherwise act in a way that could have a major impact on the rest of the community. However, as folks begin to show their own willingness to be helpful, civil, and supportive, we will readily hand out "commit bit" to the organization, encouraging them to run their own activities and office hours, and to actively participate in our decision making process.

The new Mendicant University is going to be a much more transparent, democratic organization. We have quite a bit of confidence that the change in the way we manage things, combined with the culture that we have already developed at this school will help us be able to safely thrive in public without too many problems. However, we will not be afraid to make some changes down the line if we find that we've over-estimated how liberal we can be about public participation in our activities. Right now we are simply trying to err on the side of being too liberal rather than too restrictive, as a counterbalance to how things currently are being run.

4. We will radically simplify our infrastructure.

We plan to put all of our current infrastructure into hibernation mode, including all of the following resources:

  • (University-Web, already in hibernation)
  • Liskov/ClubHouse/Zipline
  • All IRC channels except #mendicant
  • All mailing lists except the to-be-created community mailing list
  • (replaced by
  • The existing public website (to be replaced by a simple Jekyll site)
  • Pretty much everything else we built that is currently still being maintained

This does not mean these projects are destined to die, in fact we expect many of them will spring back to life and be better than ever soon enough. However, it does mean that we plan on starting with almost nothing so that we can try to keep our dependencies to a minimum. At first, the new Mendicant University tech stack will consist of nothing more than a single IRC channel, a single mailing list, a single wiki, and a single jekyll-based website hosted via Github pages. We expect that we will quickly outgrow this humble setup, but we want to wait until something becomes very painful again before layering in more stuff.

The benefits of taking this approach are numerous, but the ones below are probably the most important:

  • If you are on our mailing list and in our IRC channel, you will be able to participate in EVERY Mendicant University core activity. Our plan to eliminate overlap between activities will hopefully make this manageable, but we will use things like subject tags and IRC topics if necessary to help make filtering of information easier, and we will document how you can go about doing that!

  • Our wiki will become a repository both for documenting MU processes as well as for sharing our various learning resources. This will make it possible for a newcomer to dig into all things MU in a single convenient location. The main thing we'll need to make sure of is to keep this resource well organized, but it is appealing to think that rather than being spread out across a ton of different places, there will be somewhere to go to find all things MU, which is open to all to edit and improve.

  • The static website will give us a way to decentralize announcements and activity listings, because committers will be able to update it directly, and new-comers will be able to fork the project and give us a pull request. This will help make the barrier to entry low while giving us a small amount of control over what activities get scheduled when, and by who.

  • Anyone who knows how to use Github, IRC, and Mailman will know how to use all of our resources. But for those that don't, we will try to collect existing documentation or write our own to make it easier for folks to participate. We may also embed an IRC widget into the website to allow folks to get involved with us right away.

This change in infrastructure will almost certainly result in things getting too noisy over time, but as we repeatedly ask ourselves "what is the smallest change we can make to solve this problem?", we will be able to organically grow towards a solution that is still a lot more lightweight than how we are currently doing things. Before that happens though, the consolidation of infrastructure and resources will make it easier for newcomers to get involved and get to know our existing community members, which will help us educate others about our cultural values and goals.

5. We will advance Mendicant University's culture through independent projects.

Now that Mendicant University has developed some clear goals and cultural values, it is possible for our community members to bring those ideas into the world through their own projects. For that reason, we plan to create a shared identity that can be used by our community members to indicate their affiliation with Mendicant University, even if the project itself is not maintained by our community as a whole.

The new name we will use for those independent projects is MUx, in the same spirit that TED has TEDx and MIT has MITx. We still need to work out the details, but the rough criteria for identifying a given project as "An MUx project" would be something like the following:

  • The project is consistent with Mendicant University cultural values, and embodies them in some way.
  • The project is run by or is significantly influenced by at least one active Mendicant University community member
  • The project is in good standing with the Mendicant University community (i.e. the general consensus of the community is that the project ought to be an MUx project, or at least there aren't any blocking concerns from active community members about the use of the label)
  • The MU community members involved with the project expect it to be able to uphold these standards indefinitely.

Those projects who meet these criteria will be advertised on the Mendicant University website, and will be able to make use of Mendicant University resources and the efforts of our community members (where appropriate) to advance their work. However, they will be fully independently run, and would not directly depend on MU nor would MU have any direct control over these projects. It might be helpful to think of this label as being more like a trade certification and less like a labor union in nature, but we won't know how exactly to manage the MUx identity until we have a few projects actively running under its name.

Some examples of projects that may become MUx projects in the near future include:

  • The mendicant 1-1 mentoring program
  • PuzzleNode
  • Mendicant's community website
  • The Mission of Mercy Rails application
  • The Swan4Kids website
  • The Ruby Documentation Project

We'd love to hear other ideas for MUx projects as soon as we've established how this shared identity program will work.

6. We will become the most transparent organization we can possibly be.

The last two years have not been a good example of what true transparency looks like. Instead, we should use this wiki page as an example of what we'll strive towards moving forward. No longer will Mendicant University be a school which exists mostly in the head of a single individual: we will take great care to document our processes and plans so that all of our community members can contribute to them.

As we work through this transition, we will continue to update this wiki, and we will also start posting announcements and frequent updates about our progress via our new website as soon as it is set up. The biggest challenge with becoming an open and much more decentralized community will be to educate people on what exactly it is we are trying to do, so we are going to focus a lot of our efforts there. This is something all existing community members can help with, so please do let us know if you think of a way to lend a helping hand.

So there you have it. From soup to nuts, this is our plan for the new Mendicant University. Please let us know what you think of it, and share any questions and concerns you might have. We plan to move very rapidly in implementing this plan, but we definitely want to keep feedback from the community in mind while we do so.