When he started out in his career, Toby Negrin, like many others, was of the belief that technology was neutral, that the tools we build as engineers aren’t objectively good or bad, and that development is independent of application. But after spending several years in the industry, he goes on to explain how wrong those beliefs were and just how important it is for technologists to realise the impact of what they create.

The seventh edition of Newton Speaks saw Toby Negrin, Chief Product Officer for the Wikimedia Foundation, share his decades of experience in integrating data, research, and design to produce popular products that we all love and admire. His cheerfulness and passion for his work, well conveyed through his talk about what goes behind the curtains at the Wikimedia Foundation, gave the audience an insightful evening.

“We must constantly interrogate our own biases and examine how they are being embedded into what we build. We must think about the impact of the technology we create and expand our perceptions of user behaviour.”

These are the key principles behind Wikimedia’s strategies. As the Chief Product Officer at the company, Toby leads one of the largest departments in the Wikimedia foundation, the non-profit that supports several sites that we use on a daily basis, including Wikipedia.

On January 15, 2021, Wikipedia celebrated its 20th anniversary. Toby describes the foundation as not only a technological institution, but a social one as well. He leads a team that supports a sprawling collection of volunteer-led projects dedicated to providing free knowledge. The sites are viewed by more than a billion people each month. Over two decades, Wikipedia has grown from more than just a free encyclopedia on the Internet to an all-encompassing tool that covers everything from breaking news to centuries-old history.

With team members in several parts of the world, including India and Bangladesh, Toby also addressed the importance of the work done at Wikimedia - providing people information in times of crisis, when they need it the most. “We especially know how important this is during the current pandemic situation. Our team thinks of technology in a way that aligns with our social values.” Essentially, it’s product development with a mission - trying to build tools that align with the foundation’s core values, making sure that everyone is involved, and taking transparent decisions. Ethical product development helps the developers think about biases that may creep into the tools they build and make sure that any product created aligns with our fundamental social and human values.

A snapshot of Wikimedia education activities in Asia

So what does a day in the life of the Chief Product Officer at Wikimedia look like? It’s pretty simple - starting the day out with some kind of a plan and sticking to it. “As a Chief Product Officer, I have to be responsible for thinking about the strategy, the future, our operations and how we actually do the work, and finally, our culture - how we treat each other,” he says.

Focus is an important word for Toby. It revolves around all the work he does and is at the core of his vision - never to lose sight of what you’re doing. This is one of the critical steps in his product development blueprint as well. How an idea develops into a product depends on how much the idea aligns with your strategy, focusing on your ultimate plan and then hypothesising how it’s going to work. Of course, once the hypothesis has been formulated, it all comes down to experimenting - trying to understand if the ideas you have will work, and learning from your mistakes, iterating until you know it works, and then scaling it up. Sounds simple on paper, but the work involved behind creating products and tools that millions of people will use is no mean feat, no doubt. “No one thought Wikipedia would work when it started,” he says. Fast forward to today, it’s almost impossible to imagine life without Wikipedia.

For Toby, everything comes down to people. He explains this even in the technical aspects of translating Wiki articles into more than 300 different languages. Since local languages are so nuanced, it is important that humans remain in the loop, and not just by using bots or AI tools. Volunteer editors check on each other, hold discussions and combine their skills with machine translation tools supported by the Product department to make the job quicker.

Toby Negrin and Jaime Anstee at the GLAM Metrics session at Wikimania

Incidentally, his favourite project to work on was on a prototype that is not in use anymore. Toby’s team includes several engineering leaders based all over India and Africa in order to be closer to their target users and understand them better. The prototype was built during a design sprint that these local teams did alongside a local agency in Bangalore - a five-day process for validating ideas and solving challenges through rapid prototyping and testing ideas with customers. They built a multilingual site called Cricket Info, which provided users with information and updates about the Cricket World Cup. Although the site is not in use anymore, it was one of his favourite projects to work on because of the lessons his team learned throughout the development of the prototype.

‘Bootcamp’ teaches India’s Wikimedia editors the intricacies of vector graphics

When he joined the company eight years ago, Toby would never have thought he’d continue working there for so long. But it was Wikimedia’s invigorating mission that made him stay. It helped him understand the impact of the work. To quote his words, “it’s the most interesting job on the planet.”

As for his hopes and aspirations for Wikipedia, he says, “I want Wikipedia to be truly global. One of my aspirations is that I really want all of the world’s knowledge to be in Wikipedia. I don’t want Wikipedia to become a museum, but I want it to stay vibrant, dynamic and up-to-date, and in order to do that, we need to get more voices.”

For many technologists, not blurring the boundaries between what’s objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is the true challenge when it comes to creating a tool, product, or service. At Wikipedia, the objective has always been to realise the impact of the technology created, and ensure that it is a good one.

And true to its name, Wikipedia has remained everything that it stands for.

To watch a full video of the talk, check out: https://youtu.be/ml9CmDHlyvs

Upasana Sasikumar & Sreelaksmi Ranjith