On leaving Mozilla

I didn’t want to write one of those “all@” goodbye emails. At best, they generate ambivalence, maybe some sadness. And maybe they generate clutter in the inboxes of people who prefer their inboxes uncluttered. The point is, they don’t seem to improve things. I’m not sending one.

But I have taken the decision to leave Mozilla as a full-time employee. I’m leaving the industry, in fact. For the last 10 years, for everything I’ve learned, for the many opportunities and for the shared achievements, I’ve got nothing but gratitude towards my friends and colleagues. I cannot imagine I’ll work anywhere quite like this again.

Long before I joined Mozilla, it was the organisation that had restored my optimism about the future of tech. From the dark days of the dot-com crash and the failure of platform-independent client-side internet applications to live up to their initial promise (I’m looking at you, Java applets), Firefox showed the world that openness wins. Working here was always more than a job. It has been a privilege.

At their very least, Mozilla’s products are open platforms that make their users sovereign, serving as a reference and inspiration for others. And at their best, our products liberate developers, bringing them new opportunities, and they delight users such that complete strangers want to hug you (and no, I didn’t invent the Awesome Bar, but I know someone who did…).

So I’ve always been very proud of Mozilla, and of proud of the work the team I’m on – Open Innovation – does. Being Mozilla is not easy. Tilting at windmills is the job. We live in times when the scale of Internet companies means that these giants have resources to buy or copy just about any innovation that comes to market. Building for such a market – as well as the inherent challenge of building world-class user experiences in the extremely complex environment of content on the Web – also means identifying the gaps in the market and who our allies are in filling them. It’s a complex and challenging environment and it needs special people. I will miss them.

Mozilla Summit 2010

I’m in there somewhere [Credit: Gen Kanai, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

But thanks to the great work of our Participation Systems, and Community Development teams, contribution to the project on a volunteer basis in both technical and in non-technical areas is increasingly well facilitated. Where I’m able to and where it makes sense, I look forward to making my own contribution. As I’ve said to many colleagues, this is “thank you”, but not “good-bye”. At least, not from my side.

However, this is probably my last time in the Bay Area for a while. So I took the opportunity to see some old friends (I’ve worked in this industry for over 20 years now). A common theme? Many had gone back to using Firefox since the Quantum release in late 2017.

“Haven’t you heard?”, said one, explaining how his development team asked to prioritise Firefox support for their product, as that’s what they want to use themselves, “Firefox is cool again.”

I had to disagree: it has never stopped being cool.

How do you refute Determinism?

I’m currently reading PubMatic’s 2015 Programmatic Outlook Report.  It’s good reading for anyone thinking about Mozilla’s place in the future of digital media and our role with respect to advertising.  This paragraph in Matthew Shevach’s essay, “Should Publishers Fear The New Walled Gardens?”, caught my attention:

Consumers are required to use their real identify on Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon… There is no way to stay anonymous within the deterministic ecosystems that currently exist… Each of the big four providers have integrated their own unique user identification platform into their advertising systems so that they can address ads to each consumer in a deterministic fashion.  No guesswork here.  They know exactly who you are.

Tracing the implications of this, Shevach continues

Publishers would need to set up shop within one of the walled gardens, charge for services, or slowly wither away on the small share of ad dollars they can attract…Do we want a world where only a few big media companies own the entire ecosystem for publishing and advertising?

In other words, on our current trajectory, Shevach is describing a possible world where the Internet allows for no privacy and the Web offers no economic opportunity.  I agree with him on all counts apart from his use of the term “deterministic”.

Thanking all bus drivers on behalf of Mozilla

I’m just back from Mozlandia, our informal all hands coincidental work week in Portland, Oregon.  In terms of what I got out of the event, I think this may be the best of its kind that I have attended.

On Friday evening, a curious thing happened.  I was sitting with Pierros and Dietrich in the salubrious Hilton hotel lobby.   We were accosted by a man who seemed in something of a rush, and who, by his appearance (specifically, the uniform he was wearing), was a bus driver.  He asked if we were from Mozilla.  We confirmed that we were.  He then thanked us for the work we were doing for net neutrality.

I often read people describing themselves as “proud and humbled” in our industry.  I have to confess, I have every bit as hard a time getting my head around how pride can be humble as Yngwie Malmsteen does with the idea that “less is more”.  I can, however, relate to the idea of taking pride in being humble.  And this was such a moment for me.

There are many people who know much, much more about net neutrality and its implications for the future of the internet than I do.  But still, I expect myself to know more about the topic than our friendly, Oregonian bus driver.  And so I find myself asking the question, “What is he expecting from net neutrality?”.  I believe that his expectations will amount to the internet progressing much as it has to date.  He probably expects there to be no overall controller, no balkanisation of access and content, and maybe he is even optimistic enough to hope that the internet will not give rise to the acceptance of widespread surveillance.

But I am guessing.  Guessing because I didn’t have time to ask him, (he pretty much flew through that lobby), and also because I am not entirely sure myself of what we can expect from net neutrality.  What troubles me is that “net neutrality” might be a placeholder for some, meaning not just net neutrality, but also a lot of the other aspects of a more – how do we put it – equitable internet.  At the moment, net neutrality is both disrupting the old order, but also giving rise to new empires, vaster and more powerful than those they are replacing.  Now, all empires fall: the ancient Romans, the British, Bell Telecommunications, even the seemingly invincible Liverpool FC of the 1970s and 1980s.  All empires fall.  The question is, “what will be their legacy?”.   It isn’t an easy question to answer, and the parallels between the carve-up of the unindustrialised world and the formation and destruction of nation states in the preceding centuries is a gloomy place to look for metaphors, some of which (balkanisation) have already entered our everyday language.

What I do know is that the bus driver expects Mozilla to do the right thing.  We have his trust.

I believe all of the paid staff at Mozilla are aware of our good fortune to be able to work with ideas and inventions that can shape the future of the internet in ways that we identify with, in ways that we want to believe in.   And as Ogden Nash put it, “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”  Working full-time in the tech industry has its hardships, but I can think of tougher places.  We have much be grateful for.

And so, when a bus driver thanks us for our service, I feel compelled to offer my gratitude in return.  We trust bus drivers to know where we want to go, and to get us there safely.  What do they trust us to do?

Is the Web dying?

This article may or may not be pay-walled, depending on how you arrive at it.   It is an exploration of the shift to apps.

The history of computing is companies trying to use their market power to shut out rivals, even when it’s bad for innovation and the consumer….That doesn’t mean the Web will disappear. Facebook and Google still rely on it to furnish a stream of content that can be accessed from within their apps. But even the Web of documents and news items could go away. Facebook has announced plans to host publishers’ work within Facebook itself, leaving the Web nothing but a curiosity, a relic haunted by hobbyists.

This is something I was getting at with my post yesterday: that advertising remains one of the Web’s unique selling points.  It is much more effective as an advertising platform than mobile apps are.  At the moment, the Internet giants extract an enormous amount of value from the content on the Web, using it to drive engagement with their services.  The Web has very low barriers to entry, but economic sustainability is difficult and the only proven revenue model appears to be advertising at scale.  The model needs liberating.

(Note: The source of this article, the Wall Street Journal, may appear to refute that, (given it has a paywall), but I believe that their model is essentially freemium and it isn’t clear to me what revenues they derive from subscription customers.)

The most important decisions we make

UPDATE: Many people after reading this wanted to check if Marit is ok.  She is fine – all clear – as I evidently had not made clear enough in the post itself.  It was just a scare.  Thanks to everyone for your concern.

 

NOTE: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of anyone else.  Also, I’m supposed to be in California this week.  Reading this, hopefully you’ll understand why I’m not.

It’s been a scary weekend.  On Saturday afternoon, in an increasingly futile attempt to stave off the effects of incipient middle age, I went for a short run.  When the sweating, panting mess I so rapidly degenerated into wilted through the front door 20 minutes later, something was wrong, but for a change, not with me.  My wife was talking seriously about something on the phone.  I could tell she was concerned.  My first reaction was that a friend had called for help – my wife is the kind of person people turn to – but as the crashing sound of blood pumping through my ears started to dissipate, I realised she was talking to a nurse about an attack of some kind she had just experienced.  Could be anything.   Better get it checked out, to be sure, was the advice.

So I threw some clothes on and we jumped into the car, talking logistics all the way to Accident & Emergency: a babysitter to stand down, a restaurant booking to cancel, friends to disappoint.   We parted at the hospital, and I took the girls home for dinner.  Two hours later, a phone call that made the room spin: my wife was undergoing emergency neurological tests and would be under observation for 72 hours.  My nervousness must have communicated itself to the children who, without me speaking, started envisioning a worst case scenario.

Cue internal chaos.  Packing a bag, cooking food to take, trying to think straight and not let fear take hold.  Dropping things off at the hospital a second time was worse, squalid logistics getting in the way of managing the children’s and our own feelings to any degree of satisfaction.

I love my wife.  Being married to her defines who I am more than any other choice I have made in life.  The goodness inside her sustains me and the thought that anything was so threatening to her well-being is monstrous.  And in those fearful hours, all I had to cling on to was that identity.  Four words, “I am her husband”, would tell anyone everything they needed to know about my right to access, to information, to respect.  When suddenly the life my wife and I have built together seemed under any kind of threat, the monument of our public commitment to each other was the main thing to hold on to.

Very often, critics of the notion of same-sex marriage seem to feel it can be reduced to something empty, as though symbolism carries no weight.  As though legal constructs around civil partnerships, common law marriages, tax codes, inheritance rights and so forth suffice.  All of that misses what’s important.


This week, one man’s political activism against same-sex marriage has been held up as defining his ability to lead Mozilla.  There have been no complaints (none whatsoever) about his behaviour, and the oganisation he founded has one of the most inclusive and open cultures of any I have ever been associated with.  But it seems that Brendan Eich, for reasons he chooses to keep private, opposes equality for same-sex couples.  I think he is wrong to do so.  And it is a wrongness that isn’t theoretical or abstract, it’s a visceral one.  Marriage is not about the easy things, it’s about the hard things.  Denying the support of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples is denying many people the very thing they need to lead a fulfilling life.

You or I may be troubled by Brendan’s personal support of prop 8, but there are many issues of ethical substance that the Mozilla community – any community – is capable of disagreeing on, and remaining a coherent community, including some that in 2014 could be regarded as even more important  than that of same sex marriage (importance in some absolute terms – it is also possible for me to imagine there are many people for whom this is the most important issue of the day).  And I feel I (and many other Mozillians), feel the need to clarify where we stand.

So, why does Brendan’s donation matter so much to so many?  I suspect it’s this: the issue of same-sex marriage has become a litmus test in north America. It defines whether you are red or blue.  I grew up in a radically left-wing but somewhat socially conservative city.  One’s stance on same-sex marriage defines little else about how someone thinks for me, but I realise that in other cultures, it might signal a great deal.  And if you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual, it might seem to define how they think about you.   For constructive thoughts from such a perspective Christie Koehler’s blog on the topic is recommended.

Let’s get this on the table.  I do not wish to engage in Whataboutism.  The notion that you cannot raise an ethical objection in one field without philosophical clarity in all others is, of course, unhelpful.  But we should also recognise that social attitudes change.  That this is normal.  That at any one time, there will be a plurality of views on issues that in hindsight, appear open and shut.   The language of my grandparents’ generation wouldn’t pass muster these days.  As recently as the 1970s, there were open campaigns for paedophile rights in the UK.  In the 1980s casual racism was celebrated in light entertainment on television.  And to this day gender equality is very obviously a mess and not regarded as a mainstream issue worthy of similar activism as same-sex marriage.

One example that will appear trivial to many: I am a vegetarian.  When people learn this, they typically have one of three reactions: to tell me how little meat they eat themselves, to tell me how they couldn’t possibly live without meat, or to ask me how long ago and why I became a vegetarian.   The answer to the latter is since I was 13 or 14, and that for as long as I could remember, it always seemed to me obviously wrong to cause distress to and kill animals needlessly (more or less).  I do not suspect I would win many converts if I became more militant in my vegetarianism, although I am always happy to engage with people that wish to discuss it, both seriously and flippantly.  But I need to be accepting of the wider moral context.  Not many people share my perspective.  Regarding it as defining of someone’s character is futile.

What about issues we can all agree on?  How many Mozillians supported Obama in 2012, even after it became clear that drone strikes were a chosen instrument of foreign policy for his administration?  Many Mozillians had “Obama 2012” stickers on their laptops even as mechanised death rained down from the sky on young children born in the wrong part of the world.  How will we view the Obama era in 20, 30 years’ time?  A great man compromised by circumstance?  The lesser of two evils?  A leader who guaranteed his own nation’s security whatever the price?  Will Americans view it differently to non US-nationals?  There’s debate to be had there.  And however strongly I feel about same-sex marriage, I am capable of feeling even more strongly about the 174 Pakistani children reported killed in drone strikes before Obama’s reelection.  Should we judge Obama through the lens of drone strikes?  Should I decide whether or not I will work with someone through the lens of their support for a president who himself supports drone strikes?  I believe that would be self-righteous, not righteous.  It would be a failure to understand the choices they feel they have in front of them.  It can seem absolutely wrong and yet part of a complex picture.

I feel very proud to be a Mozillian and very fortunate to work full time for the project.  This week, a number of individuals who are as fortunate as I am in this regard called on Brendan to step down as CEO because of his personal political activism against same-sex marriage.  They are to be applauded for their courage: being prepared to take a stand, big or small, on a matter of conscience defines social progress.  The now unacceptable attitudes of previous decades I mentioned above have, in part, been modernised by such activism.  But I am not prepared to allow my association with the project be defined by this issue.

We have what unites us: the work of Mozilla.  I feel on safe ground in declaring the Internet is the greatest change to the world in our lifetimes.  Its effects are widespread, and unpredictable.  And must be directed to the public good.  Do we want an instrument of progress, of participation, or of passive consumerism?  Do you share the belief that connecting economies, societies, and individuals on their own terms has great potential for humanity?  Do you believe that this needs protecting, nurturing?  That is what defines us, what gives us clarity of purpose.  Not drone strikes, not vegetarianism, not same-sex marriage, and even as we frequently find commonality of views within our community on many of these topics, we must also accept there will be divergence.  Like many Mozillians, I have aspirations that the open Web will improve the world and the situation with respect to many of the issues that I hold dear.  But I don’t believe it is reasonable to demand that everyone else who believes in the open Web must have the same aspirations for it.  We can, however, continue to contribute to the great culture of this community: a culture of intellectual curiosity, of respect, of inclusiveness (as Lukas Blakk amongst others is doing), and, in other weeks at least, of fun.


Mrs Finch is home now, recovering, worst-case scenarios (I won’t elaborate here) dismissed. She’s fine.

The night we met, a mutual friend took me to one side and told me, “forget about her Patrick, she’s out of your league”.  I’m just hoping she never realises.  What is inevitable, however, is that we will face a more serious situation one day.  Every couple will.  And when they do, I believe that they should be able to do it together, as their partner’s wife or husband.

“The Internet”

This is (supposedly) self-referential humour about how people waste so much of their attention on the Internet.  But there’s something in it that bothers me still.

“The Internet: A Warning From History”

We can consider two dystopian views of the future: Orwell’s and Huxley’s.  Orwell’s vision of an authoritarian, surveillance state is one that is all too familiar to us, one we guard against.  Huxley, on the other hand, spoke of of the cult of consumption, and of stupefying ourselves with meaningless, mindless entertainment, and is one that we appear to embrace.

If I consider Mozilla: we’re very concerned with the former, with a user’s privacy, with the limits of what statutory power exists over the individual’s data.  But we pay little attention to the effects of the Internet on the individual.  Is this because we believe they are well served by the individual’s own choices and the free market?  That it is not our role?  That we have no competence here?  We might describe this as a philosophical divide between the libertarian and the paternalist.

I’m not advocating that Mozilla should aim to make this central to our mission.  I don’t see how we could.  But I do wish that there was more quantified data and a public discourse on our mental health.  Looking at the Internet, I’d have to conclude that the only health issue that matters is a preoccupation with the swift and effortless acquisition of well-defined abdominal muscles.  At least, that’s what the invisible hand shows me.