Archive for February 28th, 2008

Steering Committee

February 28th, 2008

Every now and then someone asks a question about the “Steering Committee” so I thought I’d give some background on what it is and how it came to be.

The Steering Committee began early in the days of the Mozilla Foundation, sometime in 2004, I’m guessing. In these early days we were already trying to do a number of things- develop Firefox, develop Thunderbird, ship our then-current product known as “Mozilla Application Suite” or “Mozilla 1.x”, figure out a funding mechanism to sustain ourselves, establish relationships with other organizations, develop new communities (in particular, the visual identity team and the marketing communities), work with other industry organizations, to name a few. (In those days we had between 10 and 15 employees, plus a set of volunteers that was smaller than today but no less active or committed. The project was much smaller than now, but still trying to do many things.)

We needed a way to make sure that these different activities were working towards the same general goals, that “the right hand knew what the left hand was doing” and that we had some sense of priorities for our resources. We also needed a way to think about “are we doing the right thing?” Is one set of activities getting too few resources? Too many? Causing difficulties in other areas of effort? Are we missing big opportunities? And we needed to do all this while still getting enormous- sometimes almost crushing- amounts of work done.

It quickly became clear that most people could not keep track of all of these topics, effectively deliver their particular individual contributions and remain sane.

We created the Steering Committee to deal with this. The Steering Committee is a set of people who both represent and provide leadership in the various types of activities we are working on. Over the years the individuals and number of people have changed, but it has always included Brendan Eich for overall technical leadership, a representative from the engineering and outreach / marketing parts of our efforts, and me, for overall organizational leadership. Today the term “Steering Committee” is used inside the Mozilla Corporation (“MoCo”). Mozilla Messaging may or may not use this term or mechanism, and the Mozilla Foundation doesn’t currently use this term.

The goals of the Steering Committee are:

  • to track the overall progress of MoCo efforts;
  • to identify organization-wide activities and goals that move the Mozilla mission forward; and
  • to lead MoCo and the Mozilla project effectively towards meeting these goals.

Thus the Steering Committee is responsible for a mixture of (1) empowering others to contribute most effectively; and (2) providing leadership in weaving the various strands of Mozilla together to bring the most possible benefit from our individual activities.

I once had quite a heated discussion with someone who disliked the name “Steering Committee” intensely and felt that it should be called a “Management Committee” or “Executive Committee” as is common in many other organizations. In particular, the objection was that “Steering Committee” was too vague and seemed to ignore the leadership role. But the word “Steering” reflects a basic truth about Mozilla: we work differently than other organizations do. Yes, we need people to focus on the overall picture and to tie different functions together. Yes, we need people to think about the strategic goals and how to reach them. We need people who are world- class in competence and rare in creativity to do this. We need leaders in our mission, our goals for the Internet, our organization. We need them just as much we need leaders in code, in technical vision, in adoption, in local sensitivities, in analysis.

But all leaders operate in the Mozilla context, including organizational and strategic leaders. These people must lead. They must motivate other people to join in the vision, to help create the means and the tools and the activities that allow us to succeed. Just like our module owners with code, these people must lead others who are not employees, and for whom the traditional management tools (salaries, promotion, etc) are irrelevant. This is not traditional management, it is something quite different. From the outside, from other companies, it may look a lot like traditional management. But within the Mozilla project the qualities that lead to success — respect, accomplishments, peer review, helping others to succeed, getting out of the way when someone with a good idea comes along, supporting new things based on mission and goals rather than personal style — must be reflected at all levels.

In this sense “steering” is leadership. But it is leadership in the sense of helping people accomplish things themselves, of identifying which path is most likely to get us where we want to go and steering in that direction. It’s leadership though, and it’s hard. And there are some things about Mozilla which are unusual and make it hard in unusual ways. I’ll say more about this in a subsequent post.

As I noted above, the Steering Committee is a set of people who both represent and provide leadership in the various types of activities we are working on, and who can work with others on topics that cross different types of activities. That’s a bit amorphous and doesn’t answer questions like “why type of activities” or “what level of leadership.” We try to have one person we can look to and hold responsible for each giant set of activities that we need to accomplish. In terms of titles, these people usually have a “chief” or a “vice-president” in their titles. Titles and management at Mozilla are a bit different than at other organizations, and so this isn’t a perfect way to map the Steering Committee to other organizations. But it’s generally close and probably the best “quick and dirty” way of thinking about the Steering Committee.

Today the Steering Committee is:

John Lilly, CEO
Chris Beard, VP Mozilla Labs
Mike Schroepfer, VP Engineering
Paul Kim, VP Marketing
Brendan Eich, CTO
Harvey Anderson, General Counsel
Mitchell Baker, Chairperson

You can see that these are truly giant chunks of activities- engineering, marketing, overall technical direction, labs, legal. None of this is set in stone, we need flexibility everywhere at Mozilla.

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