Thunderbird Proces of Change, Part 2

October 8th, 2007

As I noted in my last post, in late 2006 we started thinking very hard about creating a new organizational home for Thunderbird. A number of us came to the conclusion this was the best plan, including the Foundation Board and the key Thunderbird developers.

In early to mid 2007 the Foundation board designated two members (in addition to the work I was doing) to meet with the key Thunderbird developers to work on developing a plan together. In a series of meetings it was determined that a new Thunderbird organization would need an organizational leader — the developers couldn’t both develop and lead an organization. And as I have mentioned, there was a very strong interest in seeing Thunderbird vision expand and that clearly required additional people. A set of questions were raised but few answers were developed.

These meetings were not public for a couple of reasons. There are some key personal and personnel issues. I wanted to make sure that everyone already involved had a good opportunity to express their thoughts quietly, in a safe setting first. Second, we didn’t yet know what we were likely to do. I didn’t want people to worry we were adrift. I know people worried about this when we did start the public discussion. So either I was wrong to not start the public discussion much earlier, OR I was right to do a lot of ground work first and have an outline of how we would proceed before opening the discussion. Or I was *both* right and wrong, and there is no perfect solution.

We then spent some time thinking about who might be a good organizational leader for Thunderbird. The Thunderbird developers and I also spent time trying to think through how to create a new organization. By June or so it was clear that it was time to begin a public discussion about our goals for Thunderbird and desire to create a new home for it. I started working on this. Around the same time the Thunderbird developers came up with the suggestion that they create an independent company and we move Thunderbird development to it. The company would be interested in promoting the Mozilla mission, but would be outside of the Mozilla umbrella of organizations; a private company owned and run by the developers. We spent some time thinking through the pros and cons of this possibility, how the developers and a new company like this would interact with the source code and with the Thunderbird product. This became the third option included in my post opening the Thunderbird discussion. This option had the advantage of exciting the developers.

When we considered the idea of Thunderbird moving to a private independent company, a number of significant disadvantages emerged. First, this would mean that Mozilla as an organization was leaving the mail/ communications space and hoping that space would be filled by another organization. We weren’t ready to do that. Second, it felt like this would be moving Thunderbird to a more private space. We’re eager to see Thunderbird become an even more public project, with more contributors with greater authority. This concern is not remotely a reflection on the motivations of Scott and David. They have been devoted Mozilla participants for many years. This is a *structural* concern. It reflects the desire that Thunderbird — the product as well as the code — remain dedicated to the public benefit through the Foundation.

As is the Mozilla way, the public discussion of Thunderbird allowed us to move forward. Through this process we realized that David Ascher, long a part of the Mozilla project, was an excellent candidate for a Thunderbird / mail organization. I talk to David periodically about many Mozilla topics, and I think perhaps I realized he might be interested in leading the new organization even before he did :-) After this, the first step was to have David come to Mountain View (he lives in Vancouver) and meet the Thunderbird developers, followed by a bunch of other folks. I became convinced that David could lead the organization, and had the personality and technical chops to work with the Thunderbird developers. In particular to navigate between their phenomenal commitment to continuing to serve existing Thunderbird users and the Foundation’s goal of broadening the product vision.

I outlined my view of the future to David and Scott, the Thunderbird developers — David Ascher joins Mozilla to lead the new organizaton, David Bienvenu and Scott McGregor join the new organization, they continue to work on Thunderbird as they have been and participate in the efforts to broaden Thunderbird. David and Scott reiterated their interest in forming a private company but agreed that David seemed a good person to run an organization and a reasonable person to work with. We (meaning the Thunderbird developers and I) then spent time talking through how this arrangement could work.

These discusions involve nitty-gritty details like the status of the build system, ensuring that different versions of a product based on the Thunderbird code could be built. They also involve discussions of how modules owners like Scott and David would work within the new structure. Module ownership isn’t related to employment; it’s related to activity and the ability to lead and draw others to one’s work. So we expect the current developers to remain module owners for as long as they are active, interested, and leading a healthy community. We expect someone from Mozilla (eventually at MailCo) to make the final decision about when that code is ready to have the official Thunderbird name and be released as a product. There’s nothing new in this, but it’s always good to reiterate a shared understanding in a time of change.

In September I announced Mozilla’s plans for a new Thunderbird / mail organization. David Ascher is already at work getting to know the community, find out who is interested and able to help, and working through the details of setting up an effective organization. Scott and David are working on their plans as well. One of the fundamental aspects of Mozilla is that participation is not dependent on employment. Mozilla has phenomenal contributors who have never been employed to work on Mozilla. We have people who change jobs and remain equally involved with Mozilla. We have people who change jobs and later change their involvement with Mozilla, based on their preferences and their ability to lead others. Both Scott and David have stated their plans to continue their involvement with Thunderbird. It’s an unusual setting, and extremely powerful.

In the coming months a large set of Mozilla folks with be working on getting the new Thunderbird / mail organization organized and running, as well as serving Thunderbird users. We are also very eager to see Thunderbird become a broader product vision and to see a community with greater distributed authority. More people with the expertise and ability to authority to work deeply in the code will lead to a better product faster, and will spur the development of new experiments to improve mail. If you are driven to see Internet communications improve and can assist, please get in touch with David.


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