With Mozilla In Disarray, The Open Web Needs A Hero

Mozilla is in trouble. There is no way around that basic fact.

The nonprofit maker of the Firefox Web browser needs a new CEO. Brendan Eich has resigned amid a scandal over his financial support of Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that outlawed gay marriage in California. While his donation was revealed in 2012 through a public-records search, he was only Mozilla’s CTO at the time. His ascension to CEO brought the issue freshly into light, sparking discord among his own employees as well as the public, and his awkward defense and refusal to offer an explanation of his views on the issue appeared to play a role in his ouster.

Eich held the job of CEO for less than two weeks. Yet he was the cofounder of Mozilla and a key technical leader since its earliest beginnings. As the inventor of the JavaScript programming language, he was also at the heart of the Open Web movement that Mozilla has championed for almost a decade. 

Now Mozilla, in the worst possible outcome, needs both a new CEO and a new CTO. It hasn’t had a full-time CEO for more than a year; Gary Kovacs left in the spring of 2013. Eich replaced interim CEO Jay Sullivan, who was supposed to leave Mozilla after a transition period. (Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker has said to expect more information next week.)

Mozilla is also down to three board members, after three of its existing members resigned when Eich was appointed CEO. (Mozilla, the corporation, is wholly owned by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, which has its own separate board. Eich also stepped down from his seat on the Mozilla Foundation’s board.) Two of those board members were reportedly expected to depart anyway, but whatever the reasons for their departures, they leave Mozilla short of leadership at a time when a board’s service is most critical.

So Mozilla—a vitally important player in Web standards and a bulwark against the commercial interests of large Internet companies—is in a state of disarray. It needs a white knight.

The Godfather Of The Open Web

The perfect person for the job, the rescue CEO who could stabilize Mozilla while upholding its philosophical ethos of openness, would be the man who welcomed Mozilla into the world: Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen.

Under attack by Microsoft, which had annihilated the market for Web browsers by giving away Internet Explorer for free, Netscape decided to release the software behind its browser as open source. At a launch party in San Francisco just over 16 years ago, Andreessen presided over the birth of the project that would become Mozilla. Two million lines of code—the entire source—scrolled down the walls of the Sound Factory, and a movement was born.

But that was a long time ago, and Andreessen has moved on, setting the stages for the cloud industry with his startup Opsware, joining the boards of Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, and eBay, and becoming a very powerful technology investor through his venture-capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz.

The problem is that—aside from his very successful current career—Andreessen has long disclaimed any interest in serving as CEO of a company.

We might hope, though, that out of a sense of moral responsibility for his creation, Andreessen might join the board of Mozilla. His presence there would immediately stabilize the company, attract other board members to fill its depleted ranks, and help recruit a new CEO.

Who Can Run Mozilla?

A white-knight move by Andreessen would certainly help Mozilla in the interim. But it does not solve Mozilla’s long-term problem of finding a leader who will find respect inside and outside the organization and steer the organization in the right direction.

According to an interview with Eich by Jolie O’Dell at VentureBeat, Mozilla had looked at 100 candidates for the CEO position and interviewed 25 of them. “That didn’t lead to anyone being hired,” he told VentureBeat.

According to Eich, Sullivan was in the running but Mozilla’s board decided not to give him the job. Eich, as he put it, was “it”—against his initial wishes, he told O’Dell.

“I was asked to put my hat in, and at first I didn’t want to,” he said. “But now I’m it.”

The position of Mozilla CEO isn’t the sexiest job in tech. Mozilla—the foundation and corporation put together—pulled in $311 million in revenues in 2012. Individuals who would have the technical chops and expertise to be CEO of Mozilla could easily find high-paying jobs with the likes of Apple or Google. They could also start their own company and raise venture capital with the eye towards a billion-dollar sale or IPO.

As a nonprofit, Mozilla isn’t going to get acquired or go public. Finding a candidate with technical and business prowess, relatively low expectations for compensation compared to the paydays Silicon Valley generates, and who also shares wholeheartedly in the philosophical ethos of Mozilla—an open Web that benefits humanity—is going to be supremely challenging.

That’s not to say there aren’t some intriguing candidates to consider.

Linus Torvalds—the founder of the open-source operating system Linux—might be a great choice. But he doesn’t really need the job and doesn’t have the experience running a large organization.

Tom Preston-Werner, the cofounder and president of GitHub, would be an interesting choice if he were so inclined. One problem: He is currently on leave from his job after facing allegations of sexism following the resignation of a high-profile engineer, Julie Ann Horvath.

Michael Mullany, the CEO of Sencha, is a Netscape veteran and Stanford alum. His company is one of the leaders in HTML5 development.

In that general realm, Sam Abadir, the CTO of AppMobi and current venture capitalist, has HTML5 chops and experience leading a company, albeit a small one. His mobile-Web experience could help push Firefox OS to phone makers and carriers.

Former Apple executive Scott Forstall and former Microsoft executive Steve Sinofsky would be interesting candidates. Mozilla would give either of them a way to dig at their old employers—and poke an eye at Google, a rival to them both.

Mozilla has an uneasy relationship with Google, which provides much of its revenues through a search partnership while it makes a competing Web browser and mobile operating system. But that makes Googlers an interesting pool to recruit from. Brian Rakowski, a VP at Google in charge of its Chrome Web browser, knows the space intimately—and would be well-poised to negotiate with the search lords of Mountain View.

Time Is Of The Essence

Eich’s final service to Mozilla was resigning swiftly when it was clear he could not continue as CEO. 

Mozilla needs a leader sooner, not later. It is making a mobile push with Firefox OS. It has a growing list of hardware makers, partners who will want to talk to the company’s top leader. And Mozilla’s contract with Google will soon need to be renegotiated as well.

These are pressing matters. But even more important than these business dealings is the moral leadership Mozilla’s CEO must offer. Mozilla needs a CEO, yes, but the open Web needs a hero. It cannot hold out for one very long.

Photo of Andreessen via Wikimedia Commons; photo of Eich via Mozilla

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