Oh SMF – What Happened To You?Posted by Jeff
Jan 22 2010
EDIT: As of January 30th, I have removed a fair chunk of the content of this story due to a lot of it being hearsay, some of it being opinion. While everyone has been caught up in all of this, I am wondering if it’s worth it. It not only affects the community in a negative manner but also those involved on a personal level. So I apologize to the SMF community and to Cathy. I will also have more to post later tonight or tomorrow on some positive news from SMF.
EDIT: As of 10:30pm EST tonight, there is already a lot of discussion taking place on some of these issues. Needless to say this is fantastic to hear and hopefully things can be worked out and back on track. Will update later as more comes in…
Over seven years ago my friend Joseph Fung and I decided the web needed an alternative to the leading PHP forum package out there. We created a PHP fork of perl based YaBB and after working with what we called YaBB SE for a bit, we re-branded as SMF, or Simple Machines Forums, along with a new core of code written by a developer who called himself [Unknown]. After seven years…it’s crumbling…but why?
The project was off to an exceptionally strong start when it launched. [Unknown] was an exceptional little coder and even though Joseph and I had coded almost all of YaBB SE, we got very little time into SMF aside from some small parts. SMF was proving to be fast, secure, and very stable and adoption was looking good.
As time went on, Joseph and I became busy trying to build Lewis Media and our other business interests into something steady and our SMF time dwindled to the point where I wasn’t going there at all anymore. Joseph found his time very limited as well and as a result we figured it was best to finally unload it from Lewis Media and finally turn it back into the community.
Our dream was always to create SMF, keep it free forever, and make it a true community project where everyone had voices and it wasn’t controlled by a small group. For the most part we managed to keep it that way for a good 3-4 years but with our time being cut short, we figured it was time to take it to that next level.
We were working with a member there who was very excited about the project and at the time seemed very level headed. She was new to any kind of project management experience and was very nervous about this. We were pretty confident that she was capable of doing the job so started grooming her for the Project Manager role.
As time progressed, I left Lewis Media and SMF to pursue other options at the time including dealing with some personal issues (yay divorce). With even less Lewis Media time, it was decided that SMF should finally become it’s own true entity. While a non profit organization was the true desire, an LLC was selected for speed of the transition.
Heading this LLC would be Cathy who we had in a PM role. She was to select partners so that there wasn’t just her running the show and having control. The intention from the start was never to have one person with full signing authority and control over what was supposed to be a community project. There were no questions or confusion – everyone involved knew what it was supposed to be.
The LLC became the active owner of SMF back in late 2006. After pouring in thousands of dollars of our own money for various things such as servers, legal costs, and more our baby was finally able to stand on it’s own.
Fast forward two years to around 2008 and there were rumblings that a lot of issues had cropped up. Development had slowed to a crawl, there were a lot of odd politics that had popped up, and there was no movement yet on the structure as it was still an LLC with only one person with any sort of power. I was asked on several occasions to come back and straighten things out including a couple of times by Cathy who was the LLC owner.
I reluctantly agreed but it didn’t take long to see what the issues were. Morale was low, the project was shedding people, and almost all of the root causes indicated it was due to the control structure with one person barking all the orders. It had gone from an open community project to one that was being run by a one person LLC.
Naturally, my conclusions were not well received. It was nearly impossible to get anywhere to even look around. Everything was shrouded in great secrecy and it took days to get any kinds of polls to allow people into groups and the like. It was very disheartening to say the least. When I made my findings clear, I was then shut out. I hadn’t given the answers she wanted to hear.
I went back to what I was doing shaking my head at what a mess things were there. From talking to various people it had already been going on for about a year. People were tired of not being listened to, not having their concerns heard and just being told to “get back to work”. It hurt to do it, but I turned my back and went back to my real job and let things go.
If we fast forward to today, it’s become a massive mess. A mess so large that the project is in jeopardy. Nevermind the fact that the project has pretty much stagnated. SMF 2 has been in development since December 2005 – OVER FOUR YEARS! Development in open source projects like this should not be taking four years to come up with a new version. YaBB SE has forked in a few months and SMFs first version didn’t take over two years.
There hasn’t been any major release since version 1.1, and changes come slowly, it’s just sad. Other forum packages have evolved and innovated but SMF has barely managed to stay afloat only managing to only remain relevant due to the excellence the past programmers (who had now left from the crap as well) who made current versions very solid.
A few months ago, there was a very large push on from SMF Friends (old team members) to put the project back on track. Move it to an NPO which is what it was always meant to be. Make things open, get development moving again. It was rough dealing with that period but things finally started to appear to be moving until last weekend.
Last weekend. I am still in shock over who would make such a poorly thought of decision. Why would someone make a decision that would turn into a public relations mess for the entire project whether the current team or old team members were the focus? Who would alienate all of these old coders, support helpers, documentation writers, customization folks, project managers, founders, language translators, and more just to hold on to the power you feel you’re losing.
The decision was so poorly thought out that I literally took a couple days to finally have the full impact hit me where I realized that it wasn’t a joke.
In the middle of polls to vote for a new Project Manager as well as heavy discussions on a new license to one that is more open and even in depth discussion on finally moving to an NPO, someone decided to gather up a handful of supporters and shut down all of that progress. The post that came along with this sudden decision can be seen to the right.
Without discussing it with all team members (only some were selected, others were left out), and not even all LLC members, the door was slammed on all of the progress in an environment that, while unstable, was progressively improving. Something like this should have been brought tot he entire team for discussion as a community. However, only one person has power in the current LLC setup and she used it.
The SMF team had already voted out the current PMs and were in the process of selecting one to carry the project through a new transition into a community oriented project again. Naturally, people were angry and hurt. What about all of their hard work? Are they worth nothing? What was going on? So many questions but there were no answers. There are never any answers.
As a result of this, a huge chunk of the SMF team and friends (friends in the SMF world are ex team members, ones that have stepped down for the time being or left because they are unhappy with the structure in place, etc) quickly formed a set of forums for them to vent and air some frustration as well as brainstorm what to do next over at SMF Friends.
Seeing the collection of people that are gathered there is fantastic. We have people that have collected that were involved from the very beginning. people that understand the damage being done to the project they all contributed to and love. There are lots of ideas floating about, ways to save SMF to new projects, it’s all there and it’s extremely exciting.
So what, you may ask, the hell is going on? What is the issue here? Let me try to explain…SMF has two main issues and loads of little ones.
The LLC is a very large problem for SMF at the moment. In what was meant as a way for SMF to stand on it’s own, it was also meant to have more people in control. Instead of having proper partners added as managers, they were added as members who have no legal standing in the LLC and this is partly screwing the project. An LLC doesn’t solve the problem of maintaining a community project either, it puts it back into a state where SMF is once again owned by a company and a small (only one in this case) number of decision makers.
An LLC also doesn’t offer the transparency originally outlined and planned for the SMF project where we originally wanted everything available for supporters to see. As it stands now, nobody knows what’s going on and even though they ask, they are ignored with a “You don’t need to know”.
After the latest fiasco and ill advised move, a large group has come together to decide what to do. A letter was composed to her and signed by current team members and ex-team members. The letter is below:
“Dear Cathy, Derek, and Jeremy,
We’re writing to you because we feel that the time has come for us to speak up, take responsibility, and do what’s right for the future of Simple Machines.
While we’ve had our differences in the past, most of us still consider you our friends and can say without a doubt that you’ve made an impact on our lives.
First, we would like to thank you for the time and effort you’ve put into the Simple Machines project. You’ve together put in countless hours supporting and improving not just the community at large, but those inside and close to the team as well. Many of us can honestly say that without you we would never have been on the team and had such great experiences in the first place.
Simple Machines Forum is coming up on its seventh birthday, is greatly recognized throughout the internet, and has shown that it can survive mostly anything and keep running. We ask that you see this not as an attempt at righting the wrongs of the past, but recognizing that mistakes were made and that a brighter future can be found if some sacrifices are made.
Unfortunately, we think it is time for Simple Machines to stand on its own merits and must request that you resign from your positions on both the SMF team and the LLC and let fresh minds make decisions and take responsibility for the project.
We wish you well in your future endeavours and would even like to see you continue to help with the Simple Machines project(s) at some point down the road, even starting immediately at regular team positions.
Our plans for the immediate future are few, but will go a long way towards improving and fortifying Simple Machines for the forseeable future:
* We plan to create a Non-Profit Organization with a Board of Directors to oversee the current forum project and any future projects.
* We would like to investigate and put in place a new license for the product(s).
* We will work together to create a new team agreement that everyone can agree on in principle.
* We will treat each other, the team, former team members, and the community with the respect and dignity that they deserve, and recognize contributions from all.
* We will communicate with each other to create a team structure that fosters a fun and responsible place to work on projects that we all enjoy.
We intend to work with Kindred, the team, and former team members in an orderly fashion to make these plans into reality, and assure you that the Simple Machines project you know and love will continue to exist for many years to come.
In closing, we would like to once again thank you for your contributions making Simple Machines Forum what it is today, and sincerely hope that you will consider what we’ve said. This hasn’t been easy for any of us, but we feel that this is a necessary step in making sure that Simple Machines thrives once more. We would prefer not to draw this process out, and ask that whatever changes are made be made peacefully and with good will. Since none of us have recently been in management positions within Simple Machines, we would appreciate if you would stay on board for a short period while the handover takes place, and understand if you would prefer not to.
Huw “H” Ayling-Miller
Steven “Fustrate” Hoffman
Jack “akabugeyes” Thorsen
Jason “JBlaze” Clemons
Joshua “groundup” Dickerson
Aleksi “LexArma” Kilpinen
Alex “Akyhne” Kühne
Peter “Antechinus” Sharpe
Eren “forsakenlad” Yaşarkurt
Colin “Shadow82x” Blaber
Nico “aliencowfarm” Boer
Geoff “bigguy” Brunkard
Rick “RickC” Caudill
Bryan “Runic” Deakin
Jan-Olof “Owdy” Eriksson
Gary M. Gadsdon
Brad “IchBin” Grow
Douglas “The Bear” Hazard
Juan Jose “JayBachatero” Hernandez
Bjoern “Bloc” Kristiansen
Justin “metallica48423″ O’Leary
Jordan “Eliana Tamerin” Schnaidt
Ben “Ben_S” Scott
Jeremy “jerm” Strike
Peter “Arantor” Spicer
Jade Elizabeth “Alundra” Trainor
Sinan “[SiNaN]” Çevik”
As if that wasn’t enough, a letter from [Unknown] probably one of the biggest contributors behind SMF, if not the biggest composed a letter on his feelings as well:
I recall on the phone when we talked about the changes being proposed. As I said, the idea in general was probably for the best, but I tried to point out a lot of problems with it and the need for massaging things. I also understood that everyone with server access (physical or root) and all developers were going to walk all together on a certain date unless it was done, leaving Simple Machines abandoned.
However, I think the change itself and its aftermath has been handled very badly. To be frank, it hurt to watch the public announcement, which was obviously filled with hurt feelings over the people who left’s outrage, and not even a message written for the public at all. Other situations, like blaming dschwab9, Motoko-chan resigning, and the like really look bad too.
And as I said on the call, I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, I just didn’t think there was anything better given the stipulations. As such, as much as I could stand, I supported it and tried to help make it more bearable. I tried to think positive and compartmentalize, to hope for the best. In the end, I would’ve been one of the people insulted had this happened while I was on the team. It’s just too much.
It’s funny, because explaining the situation to friends and family – I’ve never been able to make it sound like a good thing happened, not even like it was for the best. Everyone just says, wow, that’s horrible. Everyone comes to the same conclusion: no one can effectively volunteer in such an environment long-term.
As I’ve already expressed, I don’t see this situation fixing itself. I think there’s a chance SMF may see 2.0 final, but as I put it to someone else – it’s almost like my baby has cancer. She’s gonna die and I know it, so all I want to do is make the death comfortable for her. I believe a slow death is better for the users than a quick death.
Some people want me to demand you sign the LLC over to me or Kindred, and I’m considering it. I’d make my name public, and then turn around and make sure there were more people listed as in complete control of the corporation, while movement to an NPO took place. But like I said, I don’t think it can really be saved anymore. Cancer is incurable. If I thought it would cure SMF, I’d reveal my name without another thought. The situation is really sad to me, though, and has my thoughts in turmoil about a solution – ever since that phone call, really. What if it has a chance if I demand that? I can’t figure it out yet.
In the end, it’s hard for me to understand what was running through your mind when you didn’t tell all the leads. When you didn’t tell akabugeyes. I can only imagine you thought they would disagree with you, so you didn’t tell them, even though they are the very leadership Compuart so strongly talked about on the phone. When I realized these people were excluded, which came to me after the announcement, I have to admit it. Compuart’s words rang in my ears like lies. How can you give Simple Machines back to the leadership (which I agree with) when you’re not even able to even tell the leadership what you’re doing? That bothers me a lot. I’m sure you’ve rationalized it. I’m sure Compuart has too. I can’t.
Those are my feelings. I always try to think positive and put my best foot forward. Events in the past few years have chipped at my soul, and made this harder for me, but nevertheless I try. Because I firmly believe things are better when you try to make everyone happy.
So why am I sending this? No reason, I guess. I just needed to express my feelings. My feelings of sorrow for my dying child. Too much has been said, too many letters are being written and signed, too many people have been hurt and wronged, too much has been handled badly. I just have to say these things even though they won’t do one bit of good, or I’ll blame myself even worse.
In closing, I don’t blame any of you. Many people do. I believe that everyone involved in this situation did what they felt was best for Simple Machines. For the users, for the project, for the team. I don’t blame you, Amacythe. I don’t blame Compuart or Motoko-chan, I don’t blame SleePy, I don’t blame dschwab9 and feel he had little party to this. I don’t even really blame myself, either, although I feel if I had done better, maybe my child could’ve been cured in time.
As I said, I hate politics. They make me hurt and sad. They make others hurt and sad. Sorry, but I just had to get it off my chest.
Compuart, at least some good came of this. A lot of the people involved in the past want to be involved in something (since they can’t be involved in SMF.) We’re talking about a core, and building things we always wanted to. My company may sponsor it, allowing me to work on it during work hours. The community feels like Zeal and Palinola again.
In the end, I also thought of this while we were on the phone… that at least if the move was done horribly, it would “set free” the people who still had their hearts on rejoining SMF. I didn’t tell you, because I was hoping it wouldn’t happen that way, and thought it would only make it worse if I suggested it. But, for whatever reason, I feel bad I didn’t tell you. So I just wanted to apologize.
Unknown W. Brackets”
So there is where we stand. A very large group of people who have given their time and code to the project being turned away as if they didn’t matter, being labeled as troublemakers for caring about the project they all helped build and create. It’s a very sad situation and who knows how it will really end but it’s hard to imagine any kind of good outcome out of this. At what point does someone realize that dozens of people aren’t just after them but care about the project and want to see you stop damaging it, because that’s all you’re doing.
SMF was always intended to be a community project where input from team members, and friends, and community alike are all valued and heard. A welcoming place where people can come and grow and enjoy themselves. It’s time to return SMF to the community truthfully and completely. Remove it from the hands of one person and let it thrive once more.