Answer by Brandon Harris, Senior Designer, Wikimedia Foundation:
“OB Disclaimer: I work for the Wikimedia Foundation, so there’s going to be a bit of a “dragonslayer” tone in this answer.
This is a long answer, but I promise you, it pays off.
First, I’ll address your concerns about working with “less talented people”. There are two things I want to bring up here:
1) I’ve been working in this industry for close to 20 years now. I’ve worked with brilliant minds and layabout assholes. Foundation engineers tend to fall closer to the “brilliant” side of that spectrum. Many of them are younger and inexperienced, but that makes them no less smart.
2) If your deciding factor for working with an employer is based around “being around intelligent people” then I think you’ll be disappointed no matter where you work. This is because of two things: a) there will always be people who you think are morons, and b) intelligent people tend to disagree with each other, and that can be a frustration that leads one to think that the other person is a moron.
Second, I’ll discuss compensation and perks.
While the Foundation (as a non-profit) obviously cannot match higher-end salaries, there are a metric boatload of perks that are “invisible.”
For example: Travel! Since I began my stint at the Foundation, I have been sent to the following places (usually for a week at a time): Gdansk, Poland; Berlin, Germany (twice!), Haifa, Israel; Mumbai, India; Washington, DC (twice!); Portland, Oregon. In the next year, I expect another trip to Berlin, another to Portland, and a trip to Hong Kong.
You don’t get that at Google.
(Those people who don’t work in our San Francisco offices will likely get several trips to SF per year, too.)
Another example: People! You’ll never encounter your customers and users at the corporate shops. It’s disturbing how awesome it is to get down and dirty and talk with the people who you are building things for. It’s impossible to describe the feeling that you get doing this.
Another example: Street Cred! A business card with the Foundation logo on it tends to open doors and sway opinions. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how well-regarded Foundation employees are throughout the world. Foundation employment carries a sort of “micro-celebrity” bit with it.
Another example: Seriously Making a Difference! We’re a top-five property. However, unlike other top-fives, when you work at the Foundation you will be actively making a difference on a major scale, every day. Contrast with spending six months working on a minor widget on a minor part of a product that has a couple thousand people working on it. You’ll be able to say, definitively, “I built this super important thing” and not have to dissemble with, “yeah, I worked on this thing with a couple hundred others.”
Another example: Co-workers! Listen: this isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle. The people I work with – all of them – they’re my friends first and co-workers second. We hang out together constantly. We celebrate each other’s joys and commiserate each other’s sorrows. Just this past weekend several of us spent the day tubing down the American river, just enjoying each other’s company.
We’ve gotten tattoos together.
Here’s a true story:
Back in March, my (then) girlfriend (now wife) drove my car down to Los Angeles to take part in a roller-derby workshop (she’s a derby girl). While there, on the first day, she broke her ankle and had to go to the hospital. She didn’t have insurance.
We spent the day waiting for x-rays and such not before trying to make a decision as to our course of action. Around 7:00 pm we got the final word: definitively broken, requiring surgery.
Around 7:30 that evening I called Gayle, our head of human resources. I told her what had happened and wanted to know if there was any way that my girlfriend could be covered by my insurance.
Gayle’s first comment was this: “Do you need to be down in LA? I have a car; you can borrow it. I’ll bring it over right now.”
That’s the kind of people we work with.
But the biggest perk, by far, is this:
You will wake up every morning knowing that you are making the world a better place.
It’s that simple.
Most jobs I’ve had? I wake up and think, “Ugh, I’ve got to go to work.” This job? I wake up and think, “Awesome! I get to go to work!”
There is no way to describe that feeling that will do it justice. Some days, the understanding of the Mission settles in my brain and I find myself possessed of a clarity and peace that is more powerful than any drug.
During the SOPA blackout, I put in 18 hour days. I was never tired. Do you know why? Because I wasn’t working so that someone else got richer. I was working to make the world richer.
Education is the silver bullet to all of the world’s problems. Humanity has seen maybe three or four Einstein-level brains in the past century, and all of them were from first-world countries. How many geniuses have we missed because they had the misfortune to be born poor on the streets of Mumbai?
The cure for cancer may very well be locked inside the brain of an impoverished child in Bangladesh. We can educate her – show her a bigger world. If we show her the way, she will make her mind known to us.
With access to free knowledge, we can cure diseases. We can develop better space programs. Free knowledge infects the brain and roots out intolerance. It ends oppression: the only way to oppress a people is to keep them ignorant.
I am not embellishing anything. This is real. I have it tattooed on my arm.
If you think you can do these things, if you think that this is what you want out of life – to make a real difference instead of making some investors richer – then you should apply.”