Archive for November 30th, 2006

Brief History of Governance Principles

November 30th, 2006

We’re getting started on a series of activities relating to governance principles and policies. I’ve listed the topics I’m planning to start with in the Mozilla newsgroup known as “governance.” You can access this newsgroup by subscripting to it directly from Mozilla ( or through Google groups at

The Mozilla project has a set of policies that were developed in the early days, starting in 1999. These policies have served us well, and I expect most of the basic principles will remain. Nevertheless, many of these policies need updating. They should all be reviewed and either confirmed, updated, expanded, retired or replaced.

As we get started I thought it might be helpful to describe how the first set of policies was created.

When I arrived at full time in 1999 — a year after its founding — I spent a bunch of time learning how the organization was working. This involved a lot of watching and a lot of questions. It involved an amazing amount of trying to pull from people’s heads various descriptions of what they were already doing and why they were doing it. (Brendan can no doubt attest to my endless questions during this period.) Then I “translated” the various bits I had learned into a somewhat consistent picture, wrote it down, checked to see if it matched reality, and iterated when it didn’t. The next step was looking at the points of tension — with Netscape and other commercial participants, with volunteers, among various groups of engineers and between engineers and other participants. I took the various perspectives and wove them into a proposal that I thought would benefit the project as a whole and satisfy at least broad elements of the community. Then we implemented the proposals. In many cases there was general agreement. But not always. As a project, we shouldn’t be afraid of difficult decisions — we’ve made them before. This is how we came up with the various governance policies.

In other words, we did not try to imagine what a good system would look like and then decree it. We looked at what we were doing, described those things that were working well, lived with pain until we could find solutions for things that needed improvement and then codified them. We had some knock-down drag-out fights in the early days. But we ended up with a set of governance principles and policies that have served us very well, even through the last few years when they’ve been neglected. I became known and accepted as the final decision-maker for governance and policy issues, much as Brendan is the final decision-maker for technical topics.

Our governance principles need updating now, there’s no question of that. I’m very hopeful we can do so without the coming-of-age angst we went through the first time. And I’d like to start with the same techniques that worked so well the first time — codify what we’re doing now that’s working well, try some new things where we need improvement, see what works and codify that. We’ll need to be creative since we’re in a new reality. But it’s still critical to identify work patterns that actually produce good results, and not to make up a system because it sounds good.

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