Reflections on one year as the CEO of Mozilla

If we want the internet to be different we can’t keep following the same roadmap.

I am celebrating a one-year anniversary at Mozilla this week, which is funny in a way, since I have been part of Mozilla since before it had a name. Mozilla is in my DNA–and some of my DNA is in Mozilla. Twenty-two years ago I wrote the open-source software licenses that still enable our vision, and throughout my years here I’ve worn many hats. But one year ago I became CEO for the second time, and I have to say up front that being CEO this time around is the hardest role I’ve held here. And perhaps the most rewarding.

On this anniversary, I want to open up about what it means to be the CEO of a mission-driven organization in 2021, with all the complications and potential that this era of the internet brings with it. Those of you who know me, know I am generally a private person. However, in a time of rapid change and tumult for our industry and the world, it feels right to share some of what this year has taught me.

Six lessons from my first year as CEO:

1 AS CEO I STRADDLE TWO WORLDS: There has always been a tension at Mozilla, between creating products that reflect our values as completely as we can imagine, and products that fit consumers’ needs and what is possible in the current environment. At Mozilla, we feel the push and pull of competing in the market, while always seeking results from a mission perspective. As CEO, I find myself embodying this central tension.

It’s a tension that excites and energizes me. As co-founder and Chair, and Chief Lizard Wrangler of the Mozilla project before that, I have been the flag-bearer for Mozilla’s value system for many years. I see this as a role that extends beyond Mozilla’s employees. The CEO is responsible for all the employees, volunteers, products and launches and success of the company, while also being responsible for living up to the values that are at Mozilla’s core. Now, I once again wear both of these hats.

I have leaned on the open-source playbook to help me fulfill both of these obligations, attempting to wear one hat at a time, sometimes taking one off and donning the other in the middle of the same meeting. But I also find I am becoming more adept at seamlessly switching between the two, and I find that I can be intensely product oriented, while maintaining our mission as my true north.

2 MOZILLA’S MISSION IS UNCHANGED BUT HOW WE GET THERE MUST: This extremely abnormal year, filled with violence, illness ,and struggle, has also confirmed something I already knew: that even amid so much flux, the DNA of Mozilla has not changed since we first formed the foundation out of the Netscape offices so many years ago. Yes, we expanded our mission statement once to be more explicit about the human experience as a more complete statement of our values.

What has changed is the world around us. And — to stick with the DNA metaphor for a second here — that has changed the epigenetics of Mozilla. In other words, it has changed the way our DNA is expressed.

3 CHANGE REQUIRES FOLLOWING A NEW PATH: We want the internet to be different. We feel an urgency to create a new and better infrastructure for the digital world, to help people get the value of data in a privacy-forward way, and to connect entrepreneurs who also want a better internet.

By definition, if you’re trying to end up in a different place, you can’t keep following the same path. This is my working philosophy. Let me tell a quick story to illustrate what I mean.

Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about data, and what it means to be a privacy-focused company that brings the benefits of data to our users. This balancing act between privacy and convenience is, of course, not a new problem, but as I was thinking about the current ways it manifests, I was reminded of the early days of Firefox.

When we first launched Firefox, we took the view that data was bad — even performance metrics about Firefox that could help us understand how Firefox performs outside of our own test environments, we viewed as private data we didn’t want. Well, you see where this is going, don’t you? We quickly learned that without such data (which we call telemetry), we couldn’t make a well functioning browser. We needed information about when or why a site crashed, how long load times were, etc. And so we took one huge step with launching Firefox, and then we had to take a step sideways, to add in the sufficient — but no more than that! — data that would allow the product to be what users wanted.

In this story you can see how we approach the dual goals of Mozilla: to be true to our values, and to create products that enable people to have a healthier experience on the internet. We find ourselves taking a step sideways to reach a new path to meet the needs of our values, our community and our product.

4 THE SUM OF OUR PARTS: Mozilla’s superpower is that our mission and our structure allow us to benefit from the aggregate strength that’s created by all our employees and volunteers and friends and users and supporters and customers.

We are more than the sum of our parts. This is my worldview, and one of the cornerstones of open-source philosophy. As CEO, one of my goals is to find new ways for Mozilla to connect with people who want to build a better internet. I know there are many people out there who share this vision, and a key goal of the coming era is finding ways to join or help communities that are also working toward a better internet.

5 BRING ME AMBITIOUS IDEAS: I am always looking for good ideas, for big ideas, and I have found that as CEO, more people are willing to come to me with their huge ambitions. I relish it. These ideas don’t always come from employees, though many do. They also come from volunteers, from people outside the company entirely, from academics, friends, all sorts of people. They honor me and Mozilla by sharing these visions, and it’s important to me to keep that dialogue open.

I am learning that it can be jarring to have your CEO randomly stop by your desk for a chat — or in remote working land, to Slack someone unexpectedly — so there need to be boundaries in place, but having a group of people who I can trust to be real with me, to think creatively with me, is essential.

The pandemic has made this part of my year harder, since it has removed the serendipity of conversations in the break room or even chance encounters at conferences that sometimes lead to the next great adventure. But Mozilla has been better poised than most businesses to have an entirely remote year, given that our workforce was already between 40 and 50 percent distributed to begin with.

6 WE SEEK TO BE AN EXAMPLE: One organization can’t change everything. At Mozilla, we dream of an internet and software ecosystem that is diverse and distributed, that uplifts and connects and enables visions for all, not just those companies or people with bottomless bank accounts. We can’t bring about this change single handedly, but we can try to change ourselves where we think we need improvement, and we can stand as an example of a different way to do things. That has always been what we wanted to do, and it remains one of our highest goals.

Above all, this year has reinforced for me that sometimes a deeply held mission requires massive wrenching change in order to be realized. I said last year that Mozilla was entering a new era that would require shifts. Our growing ambition for mission impact brings the will to make these changes, which are well underway. From the earliest days of our organization, people have been drawn to us because Mozilla captures an aspiration for something better and the drive to actually make that something happen. I cannot overstate how inspiring it is to see the dedication of the Mozilla community. I see it in our employees, I see it in our builders, I see it in our board members and our volunteers. I see it in all those who think of Mozilla and support our efforts to be more effective and have more impact. I wouldn’t be here without it. It’s the honor of my life to be in the thick of it with the Mozilla community.

– Mitchell

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