Mar 23

How I got started at Mozilla

Category: Uncategorized

Over in the newsgroups, there’s a raging discussion taking place about how difficult it is for new contributors to contribute to Mozilla. As part of this sort of discussion, people tend to post “my first patch” stories. Rather than reply there, I figured I’d take this chance to update my blog 🙂

When I was in high school, I remember hearing about the launch of Netscape 6 and how it was “open source.” Being a budding computer programmer, this was an extremely exciting development. For the first time, I was going to get to see how the “real programmers” did things. So, I downloaded the source code and started looking through it. I’ve always been a “look first, jump later” type person, so even once I’d downloaded the source code and found bugzilla, I lurked. I think I lurked for close to half a year, following bugs that I was interested in by keeping them open and reloading once every few days. Occasionally, if I came across a bug I thought I could fix, I’d write a patch locally, and wait for the assignee to fix it himself and compare our approaches.

The summer after I’d graduated from high school, I was looking through the source code and came across the “htmlparser” top level directory. Now, this was something I could get my brain around. Somehow, I linked that directory to the HTML: Parser component in bugzilla (probably due to a code comment) and started looking through bugs, commenting in a couple of them when I had something useful to say. After a little bit, I found bug 154120, a small bug in “view source.” After having read through the HTML tokenizer code for a while, I’d seen a few things related to “view source”, so I figured out where the bug was and fixed it! I’d been watching other Mozilla developers working in bugzilla and had observed some of the magic incantations (“diff -u” and attaching the result to the bug), but as I was entirely unfamiliar with the process as a whole, I didn’t realize the importance of requesting “review” (as I recall, my hope was that the current assignee of the bug would see the patch and do something useful).

And, nothing happened. I had CC’d myself to the bug and attached the patch, but had no idea of how to advance my patch further. So, I drifted away and went to college for a year and waited until the next summer, entirely forgetting about the patch I had attached. You can imagine my surprise, then, when out of nowhere, I got several e-mails from bugzilla telling me that some guy named Boris Zbarsky had not only seen my patch, but updated it to the current trunk and found it “exactly right.” I still remember the surge of adrenaline kicking in on receiving the e-mail for comment 19 in that bug: “My code is in Mozilla!”

What else could I do? I was instantly hooked on that feeling. Having had success with one view-source bug, I found another one and commented in it. Fortunately, Boris was already CC’d on that one so he could respond and away I went: another (small) bug quickly dispatched, another rush of adrenaline. With Boris to pester on IRC when I had questions and to review my patches (I can only imagine how much I tried his patience, especially in those early days) I was off and running to becoming a developer on Mozilla.


4 Comments so far

  1. Wladimir Palant March 23rd, 2011 12:50 pm

    Yes, there were times where you had the impression that Boris was the only Mozilla developer wandering around in Bugzilla 🙂

  2. ispiked March 23rd, 2011 7:22 pm

    Ah, I always love reading “my first bug/patch” stories. Incidentally, bz was also involved in the first bug I filed that got me started on Mozilla!

  3. Axel Hecht March 23rd, 2011 7:52 pm

    I love how that bug ends with a TON of bugs marked as duplicates, too. Winning move.

  4. Jeff Walden March 26th, 2011 8:13 pm

    bz saves the day, film at 11. 😀

    Your “raging discussion” link is broken, although not so much that someone with HTML clue can’t figure out what you meant to link.