As executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation — publisher of Wikipedia, the world’s fifth largest website — Lila Tretikov leads a nonprofit organization that boldly asks its users to “imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

Tretikov, the daughter of a mathematician and a filmmaker, grew up in Moscow at the dawn of glasnost. Yet it was also while living in the Soviet Union that Tretikov saw firsthand how difficult it could be to access reliable public information in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

From a New York Winter to Wikipedia

Tretikov arrived in New York at the age of 16, without knowing English and without a winter coat, where she held a series of odd jobs before making her way to Silicon Valley where she made a name for herself as an expert in open source enterprise software.

Tretikov is not without her critics: she has come under fire for her management style. Nonetheless, CMSWire thought it was worthwhile to sit down with her recently to talk about the daily challenges and long-term vision for an organization whose metrics include 80 thousand volunteer contributors — 90 percent of whom are male — posts in 285 languages and 480 million hits a month.

Sobel: It’s a long way from Moscow to the University of California, Berkeley, where you studied computer science and art and did research in machine learning. Can you share a bit of your journey?

Tretikov: I’ve always been guided by my curiosity. Back in Moscow, I started university very early — as a young teenager. 

The media and knowledge liberation I experienced there left me hungry to explore new worlds and cultures. There was no doubt in my mind that I needed to experience, understand and learn about the country and people I was taught to fear as a child.

Coming to New York at the age of 16 was a deeply humbling experience: I had no language skills and no money but what I did have was curiosity and determination. The experience of adapting to a radically different culture has shaped many of the choices I’ve made since.

Sobel: You worked for Sun Microsystems right out of college, then founded your own marketing technology firm, GrokDigital, and served as CIO at SugarCRM which sells enterprise sales and marketing software before joining Wikimedia. Can you give us a bit of insight into what led to the move?

Tretikov: When I first came to the US, I worked to support myself doing everything from waitressing to giving piano lessons to programming. I founded GrokDigital while I was still at Berkeley because I wanted to combine art, science and technology to visually surface insights from large volumes of data — something scientists could not easily do before.

Connecting with Bill Sobel

We worked on a wide range of projects, from visualizing the human genome to enable researchers to compare DNA, to building intelligent tools for tracking stock market events to detect the sorts of anomalies that cause crashes.

After Grok, I held a series of executive roles where I learned to take products to market, harmonize with an open source community and build the kinds of strong brands and innovative products that improve people’s lives. Fundamentally, I have always been interested in helping people gain valuable knowledge with the help of technology, which is what brought me to Wikimedia.

Sobel: In a recent Q & A entitled “Wikipedia Turns 15” you identify mobile access and greater sensitivity to differences among your site users as top priorities. Can you tell us more?

Tretikov: The next billion people to come online will increasingly use mobile devices to share in knowledge and they will likely do so in another language and with different needs for new and diverse forms of information. Even in our country, t he next generation is learning very differently today than we did even ten years ago.

We’ve started to address these changing needs with a strong focus on mobile, improving the editor experience and using machine learning to support our editors. We’ve developed mobile apps for both Android and iOS to make knowledge more freely available and localized and we’ve introduced interactive maps as a new way to explore information, history and culture on Wikipedia.

Because the next billion users will be coming online in parts of the world where existing content is more scarce, we have built tools that point out articles needing translation and now provide machine translation to assist those efforts. We have also deployed easy new visual ways to edit Wikipedia.

Sobel: The Wikimedia Foundation is also launching a Knight Foundation-funded project to explore ways to make the search and discovery of high quality, trustworthy information on Wikipedia more accessible. Can you fill us in?

Tretikov: This grant will help us upgrade our user experience on Wikipedia by researching and testing ways to bring more free knowledge to more people. It is a key part of our mission at the Foundation to eliminate barriers that could preclude people from accessing or contributing to our projects.

For example, our Wikipedia Zero program provides free access to Wikipedia on mobile devices. The Foundation partners with mobile operators in regions around the world where affordability is a barrier to online access to waive data fees. We’re very proud that so far, 82 mobile operators across 64 countries now provide free access to Wikipedia to more than 600 million people.