Sometimes in life, you find an opportunity to make a difference in something you care about, and it feels like, even though you didn’t know it at the time, that the last few years have really just been practice, giving you the background, skills and ability to really help. And in a very few circumstances — once or twice in a lifetime if you’re lucky — the opportunity you get to make a difference is one that has a very large, even global impact. My new role as CEO of Mozilla Corporation feels like one of those times. [Here’s Mitchell’s announcement.]
For me, joining Mozilla in 2005 was one of those special opportunities. I’d been working on my own startup, Reactivity, for the previous 7 years, learning how to build and operate an entrepreneurial venture that was focused on creativity and innovation. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I had gotten interested in the dynamics of open source projects through knowing Mitch Kapor (previously an investor in Reactivity) and Mitchell Baker, and the incredible, shocking, amazing story of Firefox during the previous year just blew me away. So I wondered out loud to Mitchell whether or not I could help, and whether Mozilla needed any help.
At which point she laughed of course, because after this small group of open source, non-corporate, non-profiteers had officially launched Firefox 1.0 a few months earlier, they found themselves in a situation where they had gone from a few hundred thousand users to over 10 million. They were going through a period of intense growth and pressure, not to mention increasing expectations from the whole world. Expectations that they’d continue to improve Firefox and Thunderbird, that they’d foster an increasingly robust community of contributors, and that they’d continue to look out for the health of the Web.
So I joined up, started to help. While I care a lot about products and user experiences (and that’s where my academic and early career background is), that stuff was in excellent condition because of the amazing team of contributors and developers and designers and testers — so I focused on a couple of bits that needed more help: (1) helping other organizations understand and work better with Mozilla, and (2) getting the Mozilla organization itself to be ready to meet increased expectations from the world, which would demand people growth. Since that summer, we’ve grown a lot. We released Firefox 1.5 and 2, as well as Thunderbird 2, grew the number of community extensions to more than 4,000, increased our employee base to something close to 150 worldwide (including beefing up our teams in Japan and Europe, and starting one in China), and we’ve got more than 125 million users around the world now.
Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about Mozilla, open source, and the Web itself. I believe that the Web is the single most important innovation of our lifetimes, for reasons both mundane and profound. It affects everything. Today’s Web is healthy due to the efforts of millions of people, for sure — people and companies and governments, volunteers and employees and contributors — and every time I interact with people in the Mozilla community, I’m blown away by the level of dedication to keeping the Web healthy, and, just as important, participatory, for as many people around the globe as possible.
Even so, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most successful case for MoCo will be when the corporation itself is sort of invisible. That is, when MoCo can support Mozilla’s mission, providing economic sustainability, project coordination, and a connection to real users around the world, while getting out of the way of what our community all around the world is doing. Understand that I’m not saying that Mozilla should be invisible — to the contrary, a strong, vibrant and visible Mozilla is having a major positive impact on the evolution of the Web today, and should continue to. What I’m saying is that in a success case, the mechanics of the Corporation — some of the specifics about the way we organize to get things done — will not be as apparent (or as in the way as they can sometimes be) as the project.
That’s a deceptively simple goal, certainly. With thousands of contributors, more than 125 million users, and countless organizations that depend on the extended community and our technology, we’re in uncharted territory. There aren’t any good models for what we’re doing right now, for hybrid organizations who’re using market-based economics to drive mission-oriented goals, or for open source projects that so many end users depend on. So just like experiments in the code or the user interface, we’ll be doing more experiments in how the MoCo organization can best use our products and our people to support the mission. Experiments like Mozilla China, where we’ve quadrupled our user base this year, and like Mozilla Labs, where we’re trying to create a new form of laboratory in which we’ve never even met most of the experimenters.
A number of these experiments and initiatives Mitchell’s already involved in, and there are a number of new initiatives that she can start now. Mitchell has made enormous contributions so far — from the original Mozilla Public License to being at the helm through the years at AOL, to starting the Foundation, and lately to charting new territory and scale with end-user open source software. Lately she’s been thinking more about core issues of participation and openness for end users, how to make hybrid organizations work, and how to unstick the often frustrating standards process. I expect her to pull Mozilla into new areas and to continue to be the chief advocate for the participatory Web. From a very personal standpoint, I’ve learned an awful lot from Mitchell over the past couple of years, and am looking forward to being challenged by and working with her more going forward.
There’s a lot to do, by a lot of people. For myself, I’ve got a few major priorities for the coming months:
1. Do whatever I can to help get Firefox 3 out the door — beta 2 just released, and folks who have used it feel like it’s an exceptionally good product that an awful lot of people will like (and do already).
2. Help David Ascher get the new Mozilla mail company off the ground, and get Thunderbird on a safe footing for the future.
3. Improve Mozilla’s understandability and knowability across the board. While we’ve grown over the past couple of years, it’s been hard to make sure that we’re always communicating as well as we’re able to, and as well as our community and users need us to. We try hard on this, and we’re improving, but we can and will do more.
4. Increase our communications about how we’re thinking about economic sustainability — we’ve got some things figured out and some we haven’t — but I’d like us to start talking more in public about how the future looks for Mozilla, and I’d especially like to share our thinking with, and benefit from others’ thinking on how to make hybrid organizations work. (Organizations that come to mind include the Participatory Culture Foundation and kiva.org.)
5. Support Mitchell’s new projects to broaden Mozilla’s impact — she’s been thinking about a number of new initiatives over the past few months that could have a great effect on the world.
That’s a start, anyway. As is the norm for Mozilla, the number and variety of projects that we can be involved in and make a difference for is astounding — and I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to continue to improve the participatory Web in 2008 and beyond.
I feel both very excited and very fortunate to find myself in this spot, and am looking forward to doing what I can to help Mozilla continue to make the Web a better place.