Pro Bono Textus – a new corporate culture for coders?

Can we inspire a pro bono culture in web industries?

I think an awful lot about why people do things.

That is an intentionally broad statement. What draws me to marketing, community building and content development is finding that special ‘thing’ that keeps people motivated and encourages them to forget the rules in hopes of achieving something…bigger.

Working on the Mozilla Webmaker project – and I’m tempted to call it a Mission – I feel as though I’m staring into an ocean of opportunities. There are a million angles to pursue – Webmaker is things, it is actions, it is intellectual exercise, it is political, it is ‘x’. Our audience? Everyone who wants to “make something worth sharing”. The call to action? ‘Meet. Make. Share’. The goal? An Open Web. We have ‘things’ galore and they are scattered across the landscape.

One of the crucial things I took away from the recent Mozilla All Hands – a week-long meetup of people who are at the helm (or is it brink?) of this fascinating experiment – was the consensus that Webmaker needs the professional community to dig in. We need these people to help pour the foundation upon which the engineers of the future can begin to solve for ‘x’. We need genius blueprinters, engineers, folks with giant intellectual assets and grindstone work ethics. To become bigger, and to do it well, we need, as Erin and Michelle and many others have called them – MoPros.

But, um. Most of those people are already employed. And possibly suspicious of the whole idea or confused about its purpose. I picture the panic reaction an accomplished dev might feel at the idea of working one-on-one with newbie coders – nightmares of working the Genius Bar in some mall nagging in the back corners of the mind. The idea of ‘getting involved’ might not appeal on the small scale. What’s more – I think far more highly of Webmaker than to consider it some form of charity endeavor – a thing where the word ‘Volunteer’ smells like a pat on the back, a cup of lukewarm coffee and five precious Saturday hours killed to an already overtaxed developer.

And then I read an article by David Ascher that turned things around for me. In his blog post called “Volunteer Powered Product Development?” he mentions in an aside that lawyers are one of the few corporate cultures with volunteering baked in. Pro Bono Publico is de facto. A self-regulating set of ethical rules to serve the public interest by providing free legal services to those in need.

David’s comment is catchy specifically because it describes a corporate culture that supports its ideological mission statement – working Pro Bono or for the public good – in a way that I feel is very remixable for web industries. It not only goes past the somewhat cynical self-righteousness of corporate social responsibility – it’s a holler at the spark of passion connective system developers might feel when offered support for chasing an off-product idea ‘because it would be good for people’. Web corporations already develop within generous ‘share’ structures, accepting this as a fundamental economic reality, and thus might see the benefit of making a commitment to develop inventive infrastructure and explore novel markets. And, admittedly, there’s no limit to the beneficial PR these actions would be seen as by ‘the public’ who clearly value the ideals their chosen brands stand for. Factors, all.

How exactly could the collective ‘we’ hack this MoPro-Bono idea into web industry and help shape its outcomes? I have no real idea aside from rigorous lobbying. But it strikes me that when you are trying to create global change – you must go big. If I had access to industry leaders and one chance to engage with the thought leading elite within the corporate tech development world, I’d ask them not to volunteer their time to the implementation of small projects with specific outcomes, but instead to geek out with their peers across the corporate divide while working towards serving a public interest that only they could invent.

We already see the beginnings of a structure to support and harness potential MoPro collaboration within the Mozilla Ignite project, and we can envision the benefits pitch to corporations who embrace this concept as a form of professional development for their best assets – their employees.

A Pro Bono Textus – for the good of the ‘web’ or ‘structure’ – among professional developers. Right now, that idea is my kind of ‘bigger’ thing.

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