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April 16, 2024

WordPress Founder Matt Mullenweg discusses innovation at Hopkins lecture series

By SHREYA TIWARI | February 18, 2024



The Leading Change in Medicine series discussed the power of open-source software technology.

Matt Mullenweg participated in a discussion discussion led by Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science Elliot Fishman on Tuesday, Feb. 13 as part of the Leading Change: Perspective from Outside of Medicine Conversation series. Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress, and he shared insights from his journey with open-source technology, his leadership style and his vision for a more inclusive and innovative future.

Mullenweg began by discussing the inception of WordPress, explaining how he was able to draw the best and the brightest talent from across the world. Mullenweg’s team didn’t focus on the level of education their employees had, because they knew that while access to opportunity was limited, intelligence was available regardless of educational level. 

“All we cared about was ‘Could they code?’ and ‘[How] was their work’... Intelligence is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,” Mullenweg asserted.

Reflecting on the inception of WordPress, Mullenweg emphasized how hundreds of individuals from diverse backgrounds collaborated on a single piece of software, transcending geographical barriers. He highlighted the meritocratic nature of open-source software, where one's ability to code and contribute mattered more than pedigree or location, democratizing access to talent and opportunity.

The open-source movement centers on the progress that emerges when companies give their technology to the public and allow anyone to use, learn from, modify and distribute it. Open-source philosophies have driven the work of companies including Linux, Microsoft, Python and Wikipedia.

“There are four freedoms built into open-source [software]: freedom to run it for any purpose, freedom to change it to make it do what you wish, freedom to redistribute [the original program and] freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others,” Mullenweg explained. 

Drawing parallels between open source and societal progress, Mullenweg underscored the importance of challenging conventional beliefs and fostering inclusivity. He emphasized the need to question preexisting beliefs and embrace diversity of thought. In response to a question from Fishman, Mullenweg provided a framework for learning how to learn in the face of nascent industries and new technologies. 

“I like to read things that are very new or very very old, things that have survived a long time... in between those, you find the truth — where the real is — and that’s where you should focus,” Mullenweg said. 

Shifting the focus of the discussion from the benefits of open source, Fishman began delving into questions about Mullenweg’s leadership style. The founder pointed to visionaries whom he viewed as good leaders, especially Tim Cook, Satya Nadella and Sam Altman, pointing to specific characteristics that he found to be essential in a leader. He specifically delineated how these luminaries had marshaled great talents, great resources and systems to create true magic.

According to him, being a good leader means being able to take leaps into the unknown while simultaneously knowing the day-to-day operations of an organization. He noted that a great leader needs to understand the intricacies of their domain.

“Being a leader means being able to jump between 40,000 feet and the one inch. You have to have that attention to detail at every level,” he said. 

Mullenweg left the audience with a poignant call to action for the current undergraduates at Hopkins: to be good ancestors and leave the world better than we found it. He challenged the next generation to embrace open source, cultivate curiosity and strive for excellence in all endeavors. Mullenweg's insights underscored the transformative potential of open source, the key characteristics of being a good leader and the imperative of long-term thinking in shaping a brighter future. 

“I hope that you take this opportunity to think about how you can take your most creative and generative years and put them towards not just something that is part of the academic papers. Think about how you can make [your work] open, so that people can build off it?” he concluded. 

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