Interviews/Mitchell Baker and John Lilly

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Interview with Mitchell Baker (chair of Mozilla Foundation) and John Lilly (CEO of Mozilla Corporation)

Summary of interview

  • Both Mitchell and John stressed the importance of Foundation staff working in tandem with the Mozilla community and leveraging the energy and knowledge of this community. Mitchell and John also noted that transparency and clear communication is critical to engaging with the Mozilla community.
  • Given that Mozilla operates in a space with for-profit competitors, market forces require a large paid staff (~250 worldwide) to keep up with Google, Yahoo!, and so on. Similar forces are not acting upon Wikimedia; because Mozilla began as an organization with paid staff (Netscape), both believe it is possible to have paid staff without necessarily driving away volunteers.
  • Mitchell and John also noted partnerships that Mozilla has entered into (e.g., Google) have been successful and acceptable to the community largely because they have chosen partners closely aligned with Mozilla’s mission.

Interview in full

Could you tell us more about the Mozilla landscape and roles that different players take on? What is the role of the Foundation, Corporation, and community?

John: The Foundation was started in 2003 as a spin-out of AOL, with a monetary grant from AOL and some other places. The chief product was the Mozilla suite, and we’re also come to build things now known as Firefox and Thunderbird. Firefox came out in 2004, with some commercial relationships. There was a sponsorship deal with Google, Yahoo! and an Amazon Associate relationship – important to note that those integrations existed in the product prior to any economic deals.. It quickly took off and became popular, and generated a fair bit of income. The Foundation, being a 501(c)3, decided to separate the consumer product activities and the resulting revenue into a subsidiary corporation ("MoCo") to deal with all these things.

John: The role of the Foundation is evolving. And we don’t have the structure we would draw up if we had complete freedom. This structure should be viewed reflection of the legal landscape—tax and corporate law, etc. We have people who operate in 20-25 different countries who are on our payroll, and that means we need organizations in our countries—several in the EU, China, many places. Having this many branches isn’t very ideal for us, but it’s necessary.

John: Altogether, we try to focus on the fact that we all have the same mission and are pursuing the same goals. The way we divide the work: MoCo does productization of Firefox, MoMo (Mozilla Messaging) does productization of Thunderbird, and MoFo (the Foundation) oversees everything. The Foundation is small, less than ten employees.

Who is in the volunteer community? John: There are many types of volunteers:

  • We have about 250 people on payroll worldwide, and about 1000 people who have code in the most recent version of Firefox .These 750 people are the volunteers; this is one set.
  • A different set of volunteers are localizers. We have 75 language versions, and 74 were done by people who are not on payroll.
  • We also have marketing communities: “Spread Firefox.” This is our community marketing site.
  • We have between 10-20K people who download our builds every night (a snapshot of what the program looks like today). They download, test, and give us feedback/comments every day.
  • There are also people who have been involved in the past, doing different things now. We had a Mozilla Europe camp. Hundreds of people came just to participate, who’ve built an add-on or extension.

Who looks after the community? John: Everyone! It’s a little bit like being citizens. In our government in the US, there are people who are on payroll and those who are not. But we are all citizens. We try not to think differently about employees vs. community members. We try to be inclusive. It’s everyone’s job to empower and collaborate with community members.

Mitchell: A lot of people, their intuition is that the Foundation is where the community is. That’s just not right.

John: Even our VP of Human Resources thinks about our community in addition to our employees. When we hire people, our assumption is that they will be deep in the community. It’s our DNA, but it’s also our oxygen. We want our employees to increase our community leverage, our ability to help people help others. Every job description has some of this in it.

What does the Foundation do to help build community health? Mitchell: There’s a few things. One of the things we learned is awareness. Know when someone new shows up. We’re not always great about this, but we have to be willing to give people some room to maneuver. They must have some ability to open up a new area. Some combination of participation in what’s already there, but also space to create new things.

John: Yes, we try a bunch of things. A lot of it is communication. We realize we’re an imperfect group and imperfect at communicating. But our goal is that anyone who wants to know what’s going on can. We want to be understandable. Mitchell: We also have to be willing to delegate authority. Old-timers have to be willing to delegate authority. Unconsciously, it’s difficult to give up control of what’s there already. How eager is the community that remains to give up authority so that new members are real and legitimate and have influence? It’s about preserving that energy that old-timers enjoyed. If you don’t do this, you’ll have trouble.

John: There are some basics, too. Make sure there are a lot of different roles. Not everyone may even use the same language. Creating good feedback loops helps, too. Helping people connect the work they do to the outcomes that arise is a big deal.

What mechanisms do you use to communicate with the community? John: In general, it’s nobody’s job description to watch communication channels. But everyone blogs and tweets. Some are more aggressive than others in sharing what’s going with meetings and project teams. But everyone does it, by and large. Everyone has an outbound persona.

Mitchell: It gets harder as we get more diverse. A lot of communications is watching the work that’s happening. That requires getting into the flow, but eventually, the people who are really engaged, you can watch them. In building code, we know how to do this really well. In marketing or event planning, we do this really well, too. We do this all in a public space. You have to communicate about what you’re doing. Eventually, the work flow itself should be a communications channel.

What is the governance structure of the Foundation? Mitchell: There is a board. The Foundation has delegated some big parts of Mozilla to the product team. We have an appropriately high level of respect for those teams. By law, they can’t interfere with those teams. Directly, the Foundation has no influence over the products that are shipped.

How do you arrive at a manifesto, shared principles, or statements of values? How does community agreement arise? Who needs to sign off on big decisions that might be made? Mitchell: The answer is that for every one of these things you’ve described comes from a different group. With regard to the manifesto, I wrote this primarily. This was a process of peeling layers of the onion. I started with the Foundation Board, then the people they know, then mailing lists, then public discussion, and so on. As for the decision, that’s part of the nature of my role. I had to know when I could stop and say, “This is close enough. This is where everyone wants to go.” I need to be able to know that I could leave, and the process would go on by itself, and other people would step up to take the lead. This is challenging.

John: We try to line a few things up. There’s the manifesto, which is a set of principles, then a set of 2010 goals. These are the types of things we should get done by 2010 to support the manifesto and principles. As an operating matter, we have yearly roadmaps and also go on a quarter-by-quarter goal basis. It’s important to work through the goals of the manifesto to get agreement, because you don’t want to think about them very much. It helps us as an underlying decision-making mechanism.

John: We’re in a bit of knife-fight. We’re in a competition with Microsoft and Google. If we don’t execute, we could blow away. We need something to ground us.

Who sets the goals, and who owns them? Mitchell: This comes down to leadership in figuring out what’s the right thing to pursue.

How do you think about the 250 people on payroll? How do you know this is the right number? Is there a threat to having too many employees? John: There’s definitely a threat. There’s two things:

  • The mission. How can we size the best to pursue our mission?
  • What do we need to do in order to compete in the market with our product?

Mitchell: We’re as big as we need to be to get things done. Right now, that’s 250 people. A browser needs a lot of people. Picking a number out of the air is really hard. Given that we started out with paid employees, it’s not difficult to defend that employee base. But the community must support the employees, because employees can’t do all of the work themselves.

John: It does create a bit of a problem. Living in Silicon Valley is expensive! We made a decision a long time ago that in order to compete with our products, we had to be able to hire employees as good as our competitors’.

What is the incentive of volunteers to contribute? John: There’s total self-interest; that is, someone says about Firefox or Thundebird: “I hate the way this works, and I want to fix it.” There’s a desire to make the world better. There’s a desire to belong.

Is there anything paid staff is positioned to do best? John: Executives and managers is a big thing. As we scale, we need coordination and management. By and large, that doesn’t happen in the community. That’s what I worry about Wikimedia: not investing enough in the executive team. You need a lot of big brains in the building to manage the enterprise.

Are there other things that concern you about Wikimedia? John: I have a specific thing. A lot of us, I would love to have ads on Wikipedia because I want Wikimedia to being financially vibrant. I care more about the sustainability than optimizing the user experience.

Mitchell: I’m not sure I understand the goal of Wikimedia, to be honest. The challenge and opportunity is explaining why they’ll be relevant 5 years from now. We frame Mozilla as a 50- or 100-year organization. NAACP is this kind of organization. When you think about such a long timeframe, it changes you. The browser itself, for example, isn’t probably the critical piece in the long term, but helping people participate is. I’m not sure what Wikipedia is in 5 years, what the vision is.

Financial sustainability is a big question in this process. What kind of tradeoffs were made with the Google deal, for example? John: At a fundamental level, we are mostly lined up with them. We want the web to be successful and vibrant. There are some things we disagree on, but on the goal of improving the web, we’re very aligned. This, as a starting point, is a really big deal. With alignment, everything is easier.

Mitchell: At a practical product level, the tradeoffs that most people expect don’t exist. We’re not being told how to design our products, outside of Google in the search box. That’s rare in a deal, probably because we are so aligned. It’s also because these deals reflect the strength of the Mozilla community -- any commercial arrangement cannot change our community focus, and that was true both when the community was smaller and today.

John: Our business deals are all performance-based. Mostly, they don’t have obligations on us. When we have too many obligations, or even a few, life gets pretty complicated. It cuts against the community and the energy within. We can’t really carry a lot of obligations.

Mitchell: Even before we had market power, we never made any agreements that would compromise the product.

Are there any lessons from these agreements? John: A lot of our partnerships came out of what the community wanted. A Russian search engine, for example, was asked for by the community, and is now the default instead of Google in our Russian language builds.

Mitchell: The abstract idea is that you can’t destroy the quality of the product in making these agreements.

John: Communication is a big thing. It’s important to be able to communicate to the community why something is important, like financial sustainability. I’m not sure the Wikimedia community takes this as a given.

Do you have any other thoughts that might be helpful for the strategic planning process? John: We’re tried to create a community of “operators,” like us, Kiva, and Wikimedia. We’re hybrids. It’s hard for us to figure out how to help each other. We should be able to find a way to make that work better. There’s a whole class of non-profits that are pushing hard at competing with commercial enterprises, and that will require a little bit of different thinking.