I’ve loved Wasmer, I still love Wasmer

This article could also have been titled How I failed to change Wasmer.

Today is my last day at Wasmer. For those who don’t know this name, it has a twofold meaning: it’s a very popular WebAssembly runtime, as well as a startup. I want to write about what I’ve been able to accomplish during my time at Wasmer (a high overview, not a technical view), and what forces me to leave the company despite being one of its co-founder. I reckon my testimony can help other people to avoid digging into the hell I (and my colleagues) had to endure. I’m available for work, you can contact me at ivan@mnt.io, @mnt_io, ivan-enderlin (LinkedIn).

From nothing to pure awesomeness

I’ve joined the Wasmer company at its early beginning, in March 2019. The company was 3 months old. My initial role was to write and to improve the runtime itself, and to create many embeddings, i.e. ways to integrate the Wasmer runtime inside various technologies, so that WebAssembly can run everywhere.

I can say with confidence that my work is a success. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve worked on so many different projects, technologies, hacked so many things, collaborated with so many people, every action was led by the passion.

At the time of writing, Wasmer has an incredible growth. In 2.5 years only, the runtime has more than 10’500 stars on Github, and is one of the most popular WebAssembly runtime in the world! It’s used by many various companies, such as Confio, Fluence Labs, HOT-G, Brave, Google, Apple, SpaceMesh, Linkerd, SingleStore, CleverCloud or Kong to name a few (for the ones I can name though, however other companies are also using Wasmer in very critical environments).

Most of my engineering job happened on the Wasmer runtime itself. At the time of writing, I’m the #2 contributor on the project. I was working on every parts of the runtime: the API, the C API, the compilers, the ABI (mostly WASI), the engines, the middlewares, and the VM itself which is the most low-level foundamental layer of the runtime.

The runtime provides so many features. It is an impressively powerful runtime for WebAssembly, and I’m saying that with a neutral and respectful mindset. Not everything is perfect obviously but I did my best to set up a truly user-friendly learning environment, with an important documentation and a collection of examples that illustrate many features. I strongly believe it contributed to Wasmer’s popularity to great extent.

I would like to highlight the most notable embedding projects I’ve created:

  • wasmer-c-api is the C embedding for Wasmer. It’s part of the Wasmer runtime itself, and is fully written in Rust. The documentation, the C examples, everything is super polished to offer the best experience possible. Mark McCaskey and I are the authors of this project.
  • wasmer-python is the Python embedding for Wasmer. At the time of writing, it’s been installed more than 5 millions times (I’m counting the compiler packages too, like wasmer-compiler-cranelift and so on), and 1300 stars on Github. There is about 300’000 downloads per months, and it continues to grow! The code is written in Rust, and it relies on the awesome pyo3 project.
  • wasmer-go is the Go embedding for Wasmer. It’s hard to know how much total downloads we have because of how the Go ecosystem is designed, but we have about 60’000 downloads per months from Github (I’m excluding the forks of the project), and 1600 stars on Github. The code is written in Go and uses cgo to bind against the C API. Almost all blockchain projects that use WebAssembly are using wasmer-go, which is a popularity I wasn’t expecting.
  • wasmer-ruby is the Ruby embedding for Wasmer. It’s not as popular as the others, but it’s also very polished and it’s finding its place in the Ruby ecosystem. The code is written in Rust, and it relies on the awesome rutie project.
  • I won’t detail all the projects, but there is also wasmer-php, wasmer-java, wasmer-postgres… Because of the Wasmer runtime API and C API we have designed, many developers around the globe have been able to create a lot more embeddings, such as in C#, D, Elixir, R, Swift, Zig, Dart, Lisp and so on.

Other fun notable projects are:

As you might think, I’ve learned so much. The impostor syndrom was very present because I was constantly trying to do something I didn’t know. It’s part of the routine at Wasmer: Trying something for the first time. But it’s also what kept me motivated, and it was the energy for my passion.

This list above shows released projects, but I’ve also experimented (and sometimes at two hairs of a release) with:

  • Unikernels; this one was really fun, given a WebAssembly module and a filesystem, we were able to generate a unikernel that was executing the given program,
  • Parser; to write the fastest WebAssembly parser possible, it was working, but never released,
  • HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) ABI for WebAssembly, so that we can run WebAssembly on small chips super easily (think of IoT),
  • Networking; an extension to WASI to support networking (TCP and UDP sockets), with an implementation in Rust, libc, and even Zig! We were able to compile C programs to WebAssembly like cURL, or TCP servers written with kqueue or epoll etc, and to execute them on any platforms.

All those things were working.

It’s absolutely crazy what WebAssembly can do today, and I still truly and deeply believe in this technology. I’m not the only one: YCombinator and SpeedInvest are also founders that believe in Wasmer.

So. What a dream, huh?

The toxic working environment

WebAssembly is nothing without its community. I won’t name people to avoid missing important persons, but all the contributors are doing amazing work, to create something new, something special, something right.

Wasmer is a success. The Wasmer runtime is nothing without the incredible, marvelous, exceptional team of engineers behind it. In no particular order: Lachlan Sneff, Mark McCaskey, Julien Bianchi, Nick Lewycky, Heyang Zhou, Mackenzie Clark, Brandon Fish. All of them, with no exception, have put a lot of passion in this project. It is what it is today because of them and also because of the contributors we have been honored to welcome. The open source side of Wasmer was intense but also an important source of joy. It is a respectful place to work.

However, the inside reality was very different. All the employees hereinabove have left the company. Almost all of them due to a burn-out or conflicts or strong disagreements with the company leadership. I am leaving due to a severe burn-out. I would like to briefly share my journey to my first burn-out in few points:

  • I’ve started as an engineer. I love coding. I love hacking. In Wasmer, I’ve found a place to learn a lot and to express my passion. We had a lot of pressure mostly because our friendly “competitors” had more people dedicated to work on their runtimes, more money, more power, better marketing and so on. That’s the inevitable burden of any startup. When you’re competing against giants, that’s what happens. And that’s OK. It’s part of the game.
  • During that time, we were delivering more and more projects, more and more features, at an incredible pace. New hats: Release manager, project manager, more product ownership, more customers to be connected with, more contributors to help, more issues to triage, blog writer etc. The pace was accelerating too fast, something we did notice on multiple occasions.
  • The CEO, Syrus Akbary, had evidently a lot of pressure on its shoulders. It sadly resulted in the worst possible way: micro-management, stress, pressure, bad leadership, lack of vision, lack of trust in the employees, changing the roadmap constantly, lies, secrets etc.
  • As one of the older in the company, with a family of two kids, I probably got more “wisdom”. I’ve decided to create a safe place for employees to express their frustrations, their needs, to find solutions together. De facto, I became the “person of trust” in the company. I got new hats, new pressures.
  • SARS-CoV-2 hit. School at home. Lock-down. More micro-management, more stress. Wasmer was running out of money. I brought a new investor that saved the company. New hat.
  • After too many departures (85% of the engineering team!), I tried to take more space and to take more responsabilities in the company. That was at the beginning of 2021. It was my last attempt to save the company from a disaster before leaving. I couldn’t imagine leaving such brilliant and successful projects without having tried everything I could.
  • Then I became a late co-founder of Wasmer. Too many new hats: Doing hiring interviews, accountabilities, helping to define the roadmap (with another awesome person, friend, and employee), handling legal aspects to hire people in multiple countries with non-precarious contracts etc.
  • Obviously, I was also doing the job of all the engineers that have left. They were not replaced for unknown reasons. It was absolutely madness. The pace was unsustainable.
  • Finally, the crack. The CEO continued to change the roadmap, to take bad decisions, to not recognize all the efforts we were doing to save/grow the company. It was my turn to be declared in a severe burn-out by my physician. The last engineer to fall.

Another point: Syrus Akbary also has made many public errors that have created hostility against the company. Hopefully people were smart and kind enough to make the difference between the employees and the CEO (I won’t name the people but they will recognize themselves: Thank you). I tried to fix that situation. Discussing with dozens of person to restore empathy and forgiveness, to create better collaboration, to cure and move forward. It was exhausting. I know people have appreciated what I did, but my mental health was ruined.

Considering all the time I’ve devoted to the company, the very few consideration I got in return, the countless work hours (4 days per week, but frequently closing the computer at 1am due to very late meetings, I was working like hell), the precarious contract I had (did you ever see a co-founder with a freelancer contract?), the toxic working environment, the constant pressure etc., my passion was intact but my motivation was seriously damaged. Doing overtime was never recorded and was happening more than frequently, but taking half a day to take care of a sick child was immediately counted as holidays; the balance was broken. Criticisms. Micro-management. Disapprovals. Rewriting the facts and the reality to criticize what you’re doing, flipping things against you, avoiding discussion when things get stormy. We even had a meeting titled “Why you’re not productive enough” whilst everyone was working as hell, right after the rewrite of the entire runtime to release Wasmer 1.0, a period we all affectionately called “The Rewrite of Hell”. The team deserved vacations, congratulations, attentions, gratitude, … not such a shitty meeting. Well, you get the idea.

When I’ve been declared in a severe burn-out, I had to take a break. The reaction from the CEO was… unexpected: Zero empathy, asking to never ever being sick again (otherwise I will be fired), dividing my equities, asking me to work more, saying I’ve never been involved in the company etc. That was the final straw to me. That’s the wrong way to treat an employee, a collaborator, a contributor, the co-founder.

What’s next?

I need to recover. As you can imagine, working 2.5 years at this pace leaves sequelae. Hopefully a couple of months should suffice.

I’m still in love with Wasmer, the runtime, the open source projects we have created. It has a bright future. More companies are contributing to it, more individual contributors are bringing their stones to the monument. The project is owned by the public, by the users, by the contributors, they are doing most of the work today. It’s well tested, well documented, it’s easy to contribute to it. It’s a fabulous open source piece of technology.

I strongly hope Wasmer, the company, will change. The products that are going to be released are absolutely fantastic. It’s a technology shift. It will enable the Decentralized Web, how we compile and distribute programs, how we will even consume programs. Wasmer has a solid bright future. I really hope things will change, and I wish the best to and am passing on the torch to the adventurers that will continue to move the company forward. I’m just too skeptical that things can improve or even slightly change. We have built something great. Please take a great care of it.

As I said, I’m available for a new adventure, you can contact me at ivan@mnt.io, @mnt_io, ivan-enderlin (LinkedIn).

Discussions on Twitter and on HackerNews.