Thoughts on Brendan Eich’s departure

(Disclaimer: None of the views here are those of the Wikimedia Foundation.)

Brendan Eich, creator of Javascript, resigned as CEO of Mozilla mostly over his unrepenting anti-gay views.

I must admit a brief bit of schadenfreude because I predicted that this change would happen on Prop 8 specifically. The only thing that surprises me from those six-year-old articles is the quickness of the sea change around this issue.

It seems the “I-like-Eich” views center around the following arguments:

  1. This violates Freedumb of Speech/libtards are hypocrites
  2. Why are liberals such sticklers on this view?
  3. “the mob got their man”

To the first: As a private citizen, Eich is fully entitled to having bigoted views, but as a business person he must suffer the consequences of any of those views. The instant he made actual donations was the instant his private views became susceptible to public scrutiny. We are, after all, talking about being the CEO of a corporation that is the wholly-owned subsidiary of the richest open-culture, open-source nonprofit organization in the world. A natural consequence is expect customer backlash when those views are offensive to the majority of your customer base in a business that makes clear distinctions between “free as in beer” and “free as in speech.” They voted with their feet and his hiring and resigning was just the free market at work. The first amendment covers government and government didn’t interfere. No rights were harmed in the process of this fiasco.

To the second: I propose the same thought experiment as I have before. If you change Brendan’s view from anti-gay-marriage to anti-miscegenation, you see why people are in hackles. You are free to have this belief right now, and your grandchildren will be free to be shocked at what a bigot you were. The difference between you now and the segregationists then is your beliefs are part of the public record via Twitter and recorded by Google, so you can’t deny you had this view like your grandparents do. Let me bookmark these, and lets visit them in a few decades. Enjoy being on the wrong side of history. 😀

To the third: The defense is that these statements are taken out of context. I call bullshit. Brendan Eich was not up for a lifetime achievement award in software design, in fact he had already been co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at the Mozilla Corporation. He was promoted to be the Chief Executive Officer which is a different position entirely. To cast a mirror on myself: I’m an asshole. As such, that makes me okay as a Director of Engineering at the Wikimedia Foundation, but you’d be smoking something if you thought that would make a good Executive Director here. Political sense and understand consequences to actions is a pre-requisite at that level, and perhaps even at mine. (I don’t know because being an asshole is orthogonal to financially supporting a law to hate on gays.)

Understanding Mozilla

Overall, the interesting question is trying to understand how the Mozilla Foundation’s board ended up walking into this fiasco given that Brendan’s views were known before he was appointed as CEO of Mozilla Corporation. I find this incident very revealing.

It tells us that the Mozilla Foundation is in a very bad situation and they are very desperate.

The “bad situation” makes sense because the math is simple. Over 90% of Mozilla’s Foundation’s revenue comes from Mozilla Corporation and the bulk of the latter’s money comes from ad revenue from Google, their #1 competitor (with Chrome) on their #1 product (Firefox browser). Basically, your competitor is paying you to die, and dying you are. Every day, more and more browsing is done on mobile devices where Firefox has zero footprint; every day, as the mobile web grows, Mozilla becomes more and more irrelevant.

(Side note: In 1997, Apple found themselves in a similar situation. They accepted a sour deal from one their long-standing competitor because the gun to their head with the Office monopoly. Microsoft used the deal to force Apple to allow them to parlay a budding new monopoly in the browser space with Explorer. What did Apple do? They introduced Safari to pre-empt an Explorer dependency (which gave us WebKit and Google Chrome). They introduced Keynote and Pages and Numbers to mitigate Office. And, they introduced iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and the iPod (and later the iPhone and the iPad) to eliminate the dependency of their core computer business on office products. And now the situation is reversed.)

The re-appointing of a former co-founder is a clear sign of desperation no matter where this has occurred: Apple, Starbucks, Enron, etc.

If you need a major change in direction, why not hire aggressively outside for leadership that is not entrenched in existing views? This is the corollary to appointing former cofounders: it shows the desperation, but it also shows the triumphalism of institutional inertia. This makes them desperate enough to bring back a bigoted cofounder who might make a change, but not so much that they’d have the institutional willpower to take an actual risk on someone who might really change them. They probably rationalize it as, “only ‘one of us’ understands us to fix the problem (or knows where the skeletons are buried).”

The reason Mozilla is desperate now is, not in spite of, but because of their great financial position. This has kept them from aggressively parlaying it into something more. Take their demands on Apple to be more open. Why is this laughable? The peering story explains why. This sort of hubris requires you be very disconnected from reality—and, $300 million/year buys a lot of disconnection from reality. Remember when this happened on Chrome? Yeah, me neither. Meanwhile Firefox carried their #1 competitor’s water for them on that issue and lost more market share to them. Good job!

My point is that Mozilla made these mistakes not out of greed, but rather because the removal of a key economic decision point (threat of financial death) that can cause an organization to pivot. Instead institutional inertia and liferism replaced good decision making at all levels of the organization, not just the top, and the problem grows to the point where desperation becomes obvious in actions such as these.

That’s a lesson worth learning, especially if you work at the only non-profit Internet organization in the top 10.

To see that and not feel your organization is not susceptible to the same? Now that would show you are disconnected from reality… or insane.


There is a nuance missing in my original article.

It is important to understand that Mozilla’s mission is not to be the #1 browser, but rather to remain relevant. This, they achieved on the desktop with Firefox, but their footprint in mobile is dooming them to irrelevance.

That is what is at stake here.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Brendan Eich’s departure

  1. Re: Addendum:
    While they’re getting killed in Mobile, their new offerings for actual privacy are pretty awesome. Collaborative, yet private from Google? That’s a winner in my books. Employing a CEO who has a similar viewpoint to that of 70% of Americans, yet only perhaps 15% of the vocal internet users isn’t a silly move, but striking him down as a bigot on account of his choosing to support his belief is very wrong. The fact that people were encouraged to walk with their feet, rather than to picket is businesslike and respectable, but the premise is pretty appalling, because he’s not the first CEO to have had vocally contemptuous worldviews, just one which is contrary to a popular motif of the day.

    1. Re: Mobile/privacy: It is my belief, though you may disagree, that privacy is never a selling point that influences masses. Furthermore, I fail to see how poor business decisions like what codec you support has anything to do with privacy. In the end, I think the decisions should center around future relevance first, since that is where the threat to Mozilla lies. There is no point in being a “privacy-centric” browser if nobody but the tin-foil crowd is using you. That is a terrible position to be in, and not in keeping with Mozilla’s mission (which isn’t to be the vanguard of privacy, but to be a vanguard for the open Internet).

      (My thinking is that privacy is an externality not captured by our economic system. The solution to prevent an overproduction of this good (abuse of privacy), as with all externality-based market defects, would be to capture it or institute laws to regulate it. Until either happens, it is not good business to worry about privacy beyond the extent that it gets you customers or keeps you on the right side of the law.)

      To your misuse of statistics:

      1) 70% of Americans do not have a view that homosexuals should not be able to marry, right now that number is only 34 percent.

      2) Historically, the rate of change on this issue has been about 3%/year, so while Brendan’s view was a majority in 2008, it was not so two years later. Fewer still put money supporting Prop 8, which was the class Brendan was in. (For the record, I put some money opposing Prop 8, but it wasn’t a direct contribution.)

      3) Americans on the Internet (“vocal” or otherwise) is most of the population of America at this point. So saying that only 15% are against gay marriage is wrong in the other direction, my guess is the number will be closer to 1/3 (or 33%) which is more than double your estimate.

      If you are going to throw numbers like 70% and 15%, use data to back them up, when posting on the Internet where this data is a Google search away. Stop misusing numbers to create the illusion of intelligence when there obviously is none.

      To the political point you tried to sneak in: it makes no sense. Go back and read my Elane Photography posting, the same people on this side there were saying that voting with your feet is the best option, and when people do, you call it “appalling”? Seems like a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose construct you are creating here.

      Brendan Eich had a view that is bad for the business Mozilla is in (as a CEO, but not as a CTO). He compounded the error, when, as CEO he clearly didn’t renounce his view and this made it even worse for the business Mozilla was in. He took the best business recourse, which was to resign. IMO, this shows that while I don’t agree with Brendan’s views of gay marriage, he seems to me to have the courage of his convictions (that, or he didn’t need the job… or, perhaps, it’s some combination of both).

      I am not sure how politics enters into it, or how this is “appalling,” unless that politics doesn’t align with your own and you hate capitalism.

  2. It really seems like this poor guy was bullied for what he believes in even though it had zero influence over his actions in the workplace. It’s really shameful.

    What ever happened to tolerance?

    1. Really?

      1) He didn’t just believe in it, he acted on it by donating money to a political cause. It’s worth remembering just how toxic that cause was. While I admire him for having the courage of being unapologetic, that same hard-headedness is why he’s not qualified to be CEO of the Mozilla Foundation (while this is fine and prerequisite for the the ED at the National Organization of Marriage).

      2) If instead of believing that gays shouldn’t marry, he believed that blacks and whites shouldn’t marry, the toxicity of those beliefs deserves “bullying” at the minimum in our culture today. From the perspective of homosexuals (and future history), that is the level of his beliefs.

      3) It has a lot of influence on his actions, but more importantly, it had a lot of influence on the bottom line of his business. He was the CEO of the largest open-source, open-culture company in the world, their clients, developers and users were leaving and he refused to recant. That’s incompetent-level executive leadership, and the right thing to do was step down (which he did).

      4) I didn’t see any pro-LGBT activists speak out for his firing, so the only bullying came from the business world, in the end his departure was a business decision.

      It seems that the only “bullying” that went on was on the appointment of him as a CEO he clearly wasn’t qualified for (either he bullied the board, or, more likely, the board bullied him into taking up the role).

      It seems that the only “shameful” thing going on is people like you trying to take a simple and obvious business decision (of resigning) and trying to make political hay by sanctimoniously shaming your political enemies with hypocritical calls for “tolerance.”

  3. This was the Invisible Hand of the Market at work.

    The complaints appear to have come from a variety of rather powerless internet sites. It wasn’t like Google was out there saying they were going to pull their funding from Mozilla Foundation. It was just users claiming they weren’t going to use Firefox any more.

    Boycotts are an American tradition. The only power as consumers we have is to stop using their products.

    Frankly what I’ve seen, the boycotters were just hoping for an apology. They were surprised that he resigned. I suspect internal politics, like the directors who wanted an outsider as CEO had ammunition to oust him.

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