On Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla

Today Mozilla announced a number of leadership changes, including the appointment of Brendan Eich as CEO. Amid the analysis of the change, there is a lengthy post on Hacker News specifically discussing Brendan’s support of anti-LGBT Prop. 8 in 2008 and whether or not it affects his suitability as CEO.

As a single employee of Mozilla, I am not sure I can definitively determine Brendan’s suitability. I can, however, give insight as to what I experience at Mozilla as a queer woman and how I feel about the appointment.

Mozilla is a very unique organization in that it operates in a strange hybrid space between tech company and non-profit. There simply aren’t a lot of models for what we do. Wikimedia Foundation is always the one that comes closest to mind for me, but remains a very different thing. As such, people with experience relevant Mozilla, relevant enough to lead Mozilla well, are in very short supply. An organization can always choose to make an external hire and hope the person comes to understand the culture, but that is a risky bet. Internal candidates who have demonstrated they get the culture, the big picture of where we need to go and have demonstrated they can effectively lead large business units, on the other hand, present as very strong options.

And, from my limited vantage point, that’s what I see in Brendan.

Like a lot of people, I was disappointed when I found out that Brendan had donated to the anti-marriage equality Prop. 8 campaign in California. It’s hard for me to think of a scenario where someone could donate to that campaign without feeling that queer folks are less deserving of basic rights. It frustrates me when people use their economic power to further enshrine and institutionalize discrimination. (If you haven’t seen it, here’s Brendan’s response to the issue.)

However, during the intervening years, I’ve spent a lot of time navigating communities like Mozilla and figuring out how to get things done. I’ve learned that it’s hard working with people but that you have to do it anyway. I’ve learned that it can be even harder to work with someone when you think you don’t share your fundamental beliefs, or when you think they hold opposing or contradictory beliefs, but you have to do that sometimes, too.

The key is to figure out when it’s important to walk away from interacting with a person or community because of a mis-alignment in beliefs and when you need to set aside the disagreement and commit to working together in service of the shared goal. Context is really important here. What is the purpose or mission of the community? Who is its audience? What are its guiding principles?

Mozilla’s mission is “to promote openness, innovation & opportunity on the Web.” Our audience is the global community of people connecting to the internet. Our guiding principles are numerous, but include protecting the internet as a public resource and upholding user privacy, security and choice.

At the same time, many Mozillians are themselves advocates for human rights, animal rights, prison abolition, marriage equality, racial equality, etc. As much as some of those causes might overlap with the cause of a free and open internet, they are separate causes and none of them are the focus of Mozilla the organization. Focus is important because we live in a world of limited resources. Mozilla needs to stay focused on the mission we have all come together to support and move forward.

Another factor to consider: What is their behavior within the community, where we have agreed to come together and work towards a specific mission? How much does a person’s behavior outside the scope of community affect the community itself? Does the external behavior conflict directly with the core mission of the organization?

To be clear, I’m personally disappointed about Brendan’s donation. However, aside from how it affected me emotionally, I have nothing to indicate that it’s materially hurt my work within the Mozilla community or as a Mozilla employee. Mozilla offers the best benefits I have ever had and goes out of its way to offer benefits to its employees in same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships on par with those in heterosexual marriages. Last year we finally got trans-inclusive healthcare. We didn’t have an explicit code of conduct when I started, but adopted the guidelines for participation within my first year. Progress might be slow, but it’s being made. And I don’t see Brendan standing in the way of that.

Certainly it would be problematic if Brendan’s behavior within Mozilla was explicitly discriminatory, or implicitly so in the form of repeated microagressions. I haven’t personally seen this (although to be clear, I was not part of Brendan’s reporting structure until today). To the contrary, over the years I have watched Brendan be an ally in many areas and bring clarity and leadership when needed. Furthermore, I trust the oversight Mozilla has in place in the form of our chairperson, Mitchell Baker, and our board of directors.

It’s true there might be a kind of collateral damage from Brendan’s actions in the form of some people withdrawing from participation in Mozilla or never joining in the first place. There’s a lot I could say about people’s responses to things that happen at Mozilla, but I’ll save those for another time.

For now, I’ll just say that if you’re queer and don’t feel comfortable at Mozilla, that saddens me and I’m sorry. I understand where you’re coming from, at least in part, because I had a rocky start at Mozilla and often questioned my fit in the community. That’s why I’m putting considerable effort into changing how we interact with and support contributors from marginal groups. If you want to join me, look at what we’re doing with the Education Working Group and then get in touch.

To conclude, what I offer to my fellow Mozillians, including Brendan, is this:

  • I respect that you have a private life, including interactions in other communities, that may not match my beliefs or may even conflict with them.
  • I recognize that despite possible differences in our personal beliefs, you are just as committed as I am to Mozilla’s mission and have a lot to offer the community.
  • I agree, and ask you to do the same, to set aside those differences to create a shared space in which we can work together on the Mozilla mission.
  • In that space, we’ll treat each other as human beings, following the participation guidelines, even if doing so will stretch our skills and make us slightly uncomfortable.
  • We agree to communicate with honesty and empathy and to find ways to support each other’s work in the project.

Update 28 March 2014 8:30 PDT:

Since Monday, Brendan and Mitchell have both published responses, which I’ve included below. I’ve also included posts from some colleagues.

Update 30 March 2014 15:45 PT:

Some additional posts from colleagues:

29 comments

  1. Ian Bicking

    (Apologies for replying in a nitpicky way, but something about comments makes me reply to the one thing where I perhaps disagree instead of the many things I appreciate in your post…)

    I don’t agree with Brendan’s support of Prop 8, but: “It’s hard for me to think of a scenario where someone could donate to that campaign without feeling that queer folks are less deserving of basic rights” – maybe it’s hard, but I think putting effort into that empathy is worth it. You are after all making an assertion about his core beliefs towards other people, and those feelings are his, I think it’s unfair to believe we (where we==apparently everyone on the internet) can so easily infer those feelings based on his support for a particular political position. The lens through which he views this issue is probably quite different from yours or mine, and what we can logically infer about whatever he truly believes in his soul based on that political position depends on his perspective, not our own.

    • Christie Koehler

      Absolutely, empathy is a worthwhile practice and it’s something I apply to the best of my ability to every situation, including this one.

      And to clarify: I haven’t made an assertion about Brendan’s core beliefs regarding marriage equality (or anything else for that matter). The sentence you quoted, as well as the following one, are there to explain what such an action — donating to referendum restricting marriage rights — signifies to me and how it makes me feel.

    • Catherine Devlin

      His internal beliefs are both unknowable and irrelevant; all we can talk about are the effects. We know that, politically, he acted to the detriment of LGBT people. Now that he has (some) power over LGBT employees of Mozilla, will he also act to their detriment? I hope not, and I’m relieved that Christie doesn’t seem worried. But right now I’m glad that I don’t work for Mozilla.

  2. Lukas Blakk

    I’m so glad you wrote this, and so soon after the decision was announced. It wasn’t that long ago we were trying to wrap our heads around what it means when someone donates their personal funds to a group that is actively trying to keep certain people from getting certain rights (and I still don’t think we have an answer there but I know the onus is on *me* to go and ask about it). Since that time though, there have been significant improvements to life as a queer person at Mozilla. This year, we got trans-specific health benefits added to our already quite impressive slate of offerings. As someone who’s been in the project for a long time now, I have yet to feel like my personal choices put my opportunities to help grow the Mozilla mission into diverse communities at risk. In the coming year we’ll be doing even more outreach and trying to expand the open web as there are other companies still trying their best to silo everyone while also owning (and selling) their data. Regardless of the prop 8 donation, I do believe that Brendan has this situation well-thought out and will be a strong, trusted industry leader – keeping Mozilla at the tables we need to be at for some big battles. I personally feel like we should be able to work alongside each other for those goals and you captured well how that can happen: with honesty, empathy, and support for difference.

  3. Gervase Markham

    Amen.

    “It’s hard for me to think of a scenario where someone could donate to that campaign without feeling that queer folks are less deserving of basic rights.”

    I hope one day we will be good enough friends that I can help you understand that position, even if you don’t agree with it.

  4. Eric Shepherd

    Glad you wrote this, Christie — your perspective is welcome! I’m glad to see I’m not alone in my feelings. Although I disagree with Brendan’s stance on this divisive issue, I agree that he won’t let it get in the way of the job, and that his value as an ally in the open source and open Web movement is too important to discard him over this other disappointing opinion.

  5. Carla Casilli

    Such a thoughtful and sensitive post: thanks for writing it. Agreed with Kathryn, this is helpful to process a confusing intersection of work and personal life.

  6. Nick Alexander

    I agree with most parts of your post, Christie, but would urge that there are lots of ways to interpret Brendan’s donation, and most of them won’t be his interpretation. Thanks for writing many of the things that I have been thinking.

  7. Pingback: On the appointment of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla | Facilitating Change
  8. Sam Foster

    This is a really thoughtful response to an issue when so many others are letting loose with knee-jerk reactions. I hope some of those will take it to heart. It is a really difficult grey area – when we build a working relationship with people who hold opinions or take actions we disagree with are we condoning them in any way? And do we require different standards of our leaders than we do of our peers? I find myself torn between being understanding of my differences with those who have supported prop 8, and being resolute in opposing them. Is that even a dichotomy?

  9. Jeff Beatty

    Great post, Christie. I agree 100%. Thank you for your prespective and thoughtful response.

  10. Larissa Shapiro

    I have said this to you elsewhere but I’ll say it here, too. You spoke so eloquently and for so many of us. As another Mozillian queer, I have to say, I’m proud to work in a place where we can build respect and empathy together, and I hope we can do a lot more of it. All of us.

  11. Eric

    Thanks for this post. It helps me to stay supportive of Mozilla. I have family and friends hurt by prop 8 and other anti-marriage equality efforts. Anything that hurts them, hurts me. I hope we hear something from Brandon directly, but this helps me feel better about Mozilla culture.

  12. Jennie Rose Halperin

    Christie– this is a beautifully written and thoughtful response. The section about focusing on our shared mission really resonated with me, and I also want to underscore how important it is to support marginalized contributors throughout the organization in a conscientious manner, particularly at this moment. I look forward to increased codes of conduct and more cross-organizational support and mediation to truly make Mozilla a welcoming place for everyone.
    Thank you, Christie. I am looking forward to doing more good work with you!

  13. Joshua Smith

    Thank you for this post! You have made it very clear that while some may not agree with Brendon’s personal beliefs, they are just “personal,” and are not going to change Mozilla. People need to read this post!

  14. AlexL

    I’m giving Brendan a pass on this issue, mostly because the marriage-equality majority is so new, it’s next to impossible to avoid people who don’t yet fully appreciate equality, even in the Bay Area. In another decade I wouldn’t find this acceptable, much as I wouldn’t find it acceptable today if the issue was about women or race. For now, we can move on somewhat imperfectly because the future looks very good for marriage equality and people can change. I’m glad to hear things are good within Mozilla. I never worked there, but I used to a bug reporter a decade ago and convinced friends to try Firefox.

  15. Kerry

    Just wanted to say that this was an incredibly well written post regarding this issue – versus a lot of the anger and frustration that have been expressed elsewhere. I have a great deal of friends who hold differing opinions to mine, and I am proud to say that I can hold them true to their positive qualities while not approving of their not-so-positive (IMHO) qualities. We all have sides/opinions that are not particularly supported by all.

    At my undergrad, I had four study mates that were incredibly small-minded about black/African-Americans and often had to call them on their use of inappropriate language. I would spend various hours of my day and night discussing the topic with the most strident of them, and found that we would achieve an impasse where he would not budge from his opinion, and I not from mine.

    Fifteen years later, this man contacted me via Facebook and I learned that not only had he changed his tune, but had married a black woman and had realized that he had been very myopic and racist.

    It was a small victory – but one I think was surprising all the while.

    If Brendan put his money where his opinion is, I can not fault him for it. I can disagree with it, I can deride it, but when I take the overall measure of a man – I can see a good person within. And I would want to understand what his motivations truly are/were in his act, because the discourse can be met and he and we could understand each other, as best we can.

    I support a woman’s right to choose – and I fund various groups in support of that. My more religious friends would deride me in terms of causing murder on unborn children. Am I a monster or have I created a value system in my world that supports my beliefs that I act upon and hold true?

    Now picture what Branden thinks. Why would he have supported this proposition?

  16. Stephany Wilkes

    Thank you for this post, Christie. It’s the most thoughtful, pragmatic and empathetic view I’ve come across in all of this. I have found a lot of the more mainstream, knee jerk discourse quite troubling and absolutist.

    I write this as someone who donated much, *much* more against Prop 8 than Eich did in favor of it, and whose own rehearsal dinner doubled as a fundraiser for marriage equality. I am disappointed at the inability (or unwillingness) of some to distinguish between a person and a company supporting political causes (see Hobby Lobby). I fundamentally believe a person can have any view, and donate accordingly, as they wish. I am far more concerned with corporations controlling our government via corporate funds paid to lobbyists, for instance, than I am with a person making a donation with personal funds. Dark money and corporate personhood are the real evils IMHO, but that’s not what this is.

    I am also skeptical of what demands to step down imply and how they are supposed to play out in practice, if a personal donation considered “out of step” with a particular corporate culture is worthy of firing or forced resignation. I donate a LOT of money to a variety of causes (queer art, drag performances, efforts that some might consider eco-terrorism or information theft vs. freedom, etc.) that, at a slightly more conservative company, could absolutely be posited as my being out of step with corporate culture. Should I be fired, asked to step down? Do my personal donations have a bearing on how I do my job? Should I not be promoted because of donations in support of my personal beliefs? I am deeply uncomfortable with this in practice, when it cuts both ways.

    I am also deeply uncomfortable with the ease with which we ascribe “hatred” as a motivator, from any side, such as “he made this donation because he hates gay people” or “Stephany donated to Planned Parenthood because she hates all of the unborn.” It’s too easy and glib and ends, rather than continues a more productive, conversation.

  17. Sakina

    Christie, thank you for reminding us why we’re at Mozilla and what’s really important. It’s crucial – though admittedly challenging – for us to be able to separate emotional reactions from reasoned ones at a time like this, and you’ve done a remarkable job of it. I love your list of commitments at the end, and pledge by them as well.

  18. Joe Stagner

    Great post Christie, You are a great role model for empathetic diversity. You and I started work on the same day at Mozilla and I remember feeling you had some trepidation at my attempts to converse with you.

    For other readers, I’m a middle aged former Marine from the woods of NH – not someone the average west coaster would guess to be open minded.

    But still, we worked together for a year and a half and had many great conversations. You became one of my very favorite Mozillans. I learned from you and value conversations we had.

    As such, I too felt anxiety when I discovered that Brendan donated to Prop8 – it prompted me to donate to an effort in support of gay marriage in my home state of NH (Now legal here and “civil unions” automatically became marriages in 2011.)

    If an old fart like me can overcome the prejudice of his upbringing, so can others.

    Thanks Christie :)