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The public trial of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich (interview)

Above: Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich speaking at a conference in 2008, the same year he made his infamous Prop. 8 donation.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Update 4/3/2014: Brendan Eich has resigned as CEO of Mozilla.

I’m a gay San Francisco journalist. I’m sitting across a video chat window from a straight father of five, someone who’s been linked to anti-gay activism.

It would be difficult to find two people more ideologically dissimilar, but no tension hangs in the air. I ask him how he’s doing. It’s a normal, human question — almost a trite way to start a conversation.

“Sleepy,” he replies.

“I’ve been doing two jobs. I’m Mozilla’s full-time CEO, and I’m also dealing with a bunch of things like the OKCupid thing yesterday.”

The OKCupid thing

Until a week or so ago, Brendan Eich was a clean-shaven neckbeard hero. He created JavaScript. He’s a champion of the open web and a cofounder of Firefox maker Mozilla. He believes that with the right people and the right technology just about anything is possible.

When he was named Mozilla’s new CEO, I personally was delighted. Abandoning journalistic detachment, as I frequently do, I was happy that such an unconventional executive choice had been made. Eich is the opposite of the stuffy, intimidating, self-aggrandizing tech CEOs I’ve known. He’s a thoughtful, nerdy, humble guy — the kind of guy you want to corner at a party and talk about web technologies with for an hour.


Read part 2 of the interview: The public trial of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, Part II


And, at one point, he was also the kind of guy who was deeply uncomfortable with same-sex marriage. In 2008, he donated $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay and lesbian marriages in the state. In 2012, he had to defend that donation when the LA Times uncovered the Prop. 8 donor list.

And yet again, when he was appointed CEO late last month, his donation caused an uproar. This time, it was more than another internal furor among disappointed and angry employees — though that did happen again. There’s also been backlash from a few larger entities.

To wit, the OKCupid “thing,” in which OKCupid asked Firefox-using members to switch browsers due to the CEO’s being “opposed to equal rights for same-sex couples.” To my mind, while the sentiment may have been sincere, the OKCupid “thing” was a pretty cheap stunt that took Eich, Mozilla, and Firefox out of context.

“I think they didn’t know that the Mozilla Foundation is on the side of LGBT equality,” Eich tells me.

The Mozilla mission

“How I’ve conducted myself in my 16 years at Mozilla. I’ve always kept my personal beliefs out of it,” Eich says. “We won’t succeed in the mission if people can’t leave irrelevant, exclusionary stuff at the door.”

Mozilla’s mission is one of the broadest, most ambitious, and even idealistic statements you could concoct. It informs the foundation/corporation’s strategies to take over the world not for financial gain but for individual freedom, technological advancement, cultural good, and improved quality of life.

As far as personal differences go, one Mozillan put it this way:

If we start to try to make “Mozilla” mean “those people who share not only the Mozilla mission but also my general political/social/religious/environmental view,” we will fail. If we focus Mozilla on our shared consensus regarding the Mozilla mission and manifesto, then the opportunities before us are enormous.

Mozilla’s diversity is a success condition. Our mission and our goal is truly global. Our mission taps into a shared desire for respect and control and user sovereignty that runs across cultures and across many other worldviews. We may even offend each other in some of our other views. Despite this, we share a commitment to the Mozilla mission. This is a remarkable achievement and important to our continued success.

Those are words Eich says he agrees with wholeheartedly. In our conversation, he tells me that the mission fails if discrimination prevails.

“Everything I’ve done has been about meeting people where they are and treating people equally,” Eich says.

“People find it hard to believe, but I want to do an even better job of being inclusive at Mozilla.”

In fact, Eich is sponsoring Ascend, a project that helps “underemployed, LGBTQ, Latin@, and African American populations” get in-depth technical training and support from the open-source community.

Mitchell Baker is the chair of the Mozilla Foundation and is also an advocate for LGBT equality. In her own words, “My experience is that Brendan is as committed to opportunity and diversity inside Mozilla as anyone, and more so than many. …

“I was surprised in 2012, when his donation in support of Proposition 8 came to light, to learn that Brendan and I aren’t in close alignment here, since I’ve never seen any indication of anything other than inclusiveness in our work together.”

Politics & religion

As far as Prop. 8 goes, Eich’s point of view seems to be in line with old-school etiquette: You don’t talk politics or religion over dinner. Or anywhere else, for that matter. They’re divisive topics, and they’re “irrelevant” to the business.

At work, he seems to have the clear realization that his personal views must be left at the door. Brendan Eich the human may be deeply uncomfortable with same-sex marriage, but Brendan Eich the Mozillan must stand for a free and open web and world for everyone.

To most folks, this might create an unlivable condition of cognitive dissonance. For some of my friends, it would also create a hostile work environment.

Personally, I don’t know or want to know why he made that donation because, like Eich, I don’t think it has any bearing on his performance as CEO. He is, in my own opinion, on the wrong side of history. He might be sparking the HR nightmare of the decade. And as unwilling a participant as he may be, he is nevertheless a real part of institutional homophobia, as are many of his peers in the tech CEO community.

But he’s still a great technologist with a lot of good to do in the world.

I hope he will be challenged and moved, as so many like him have been, to reexamine his views as the world continues to evolve. I hold that hope as an LGBT advocate and as someone who admires his work. That hope would certainly be more urgent were I a Mozilla employee.

But for now, Eich and I move on from these issues. We talk about the (perhaps even more) important stuff: What he’s going to do now that he’s the chief executive of one of the most interesting and important companies in technology.

Read the rest of the interview: The public trial of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, Part II 

More information:

The Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit organization that promotes openness, innovation and participation on the Internet. Mozilla is best known for the Firefox browser, but we advance our mission through other software projects, gra... read more »

Mozilla is a thriving community of intelligent, principled and passionate individuals who build software to preserve choice, openness and innovation on the Internet. As part of this mission, Mozilla develops and distributes the popular... read more »

Eich started his career at Silicon Graphics, working for seven years on operating system and network code.[2] He then worked for three years at MicroUnity Systems Engineering writing microkernel and DSP code, and doing the first MIPS R... read more »

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