Archive for July 12th, 2011

Watching Brendan Delegate Authority — now (June 2011) and then (Jan, 1999)

July 12th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago Brendan wrote a post about delegating authority for the JavaScrpt module to dmandelin. It’s a beautiful post, combining an official change in authority with history and humor. (And of course, being Brendan, some film references.) If you haven’t read Brendan’s post and you want a sense of history and a personality who’s been at the center of Mozilla since its beginning, check it out.

Delegation of authority is a key concept in the Mozilla world. Members of the Mozilla community earn authority and leadership for particular areas of code or activities through our Module Ownership System. The first time I saw Brendan delegate authority was in 1999. Mozilla was not yet remotely successful. Blogs weren’t yet in use, Internet forums not invented. It was a long time ago, in Internet time. This delegation of authority was far less formal, but effective none the less. It was the moment I became committed to Mozilla as my main thing.

Mozilla was created in 1998 within the walls of Netscape, the company that made the first commercial browser and set the World Wide Web on fire. Brendan has been involved with the Mozilla open source project full time since its beginning. By 1999, just a year after its founding, Brendan was not only the technical center of Mozilla, but also its acting general manager.

At the time I was bored. I had been working as a lawyer at Netscape since 1994. By 1999 much of the legal work was no longer new. Netscape was different of course, and soon to be acquired by AOL. But more importantly, the World Wide Web had become mainstream. The number of times we made things up because they had never been done before was much smaller. We even found case law and precedent and law review articles related to our work.

I had experienced cutting edge innovation and I wanted more of it. Mozilla looked interesting to me. I was doing Mozilla work part time and could tell that things were definitely unformed and really new. Netscape’s CEO and my then-boss the General Counsel were both big supporters of the idea of me joining Mozilla full time. I knew however that Netscape management wasn’t the important decision-maker about Mozilla. Netscape could say whatever it wanted but I knew that the Mozilla contributors needed to accept me. That meant Brendan.

So I went looking for Brendan. Then, as now, it’s not that easy to find Brendan physically. He wanders about a bit. He often has a favorite work-spot that isn’t his cube, or his desk, or anyplace official. His timing is his own. These days I can ping him and it’s easier to get together. But then my question wasn’t really one to launch via email. (Remember, IM, IRC, forums, Skype, and social media were all rudimentary or unknown in those days.) It took me days and multiple trips to the part of the world where Brendan worked, but eventually I found him. It felt odd to raise my question — what would he think of me joining Mozilla full time in a general manager type role? I knew he was filling this role at least temporarily, in addition to providing technical leadership. I suspected he didn’t care much for the management part of his role, but had no way to b sure until I asked him. It would also mean that –in the official Netscape worldview — I would become Brendan’s official manager and he would “work for me” in the eyes of Netscape and AOL. (That’s not how things are in the open source project part of the Mozilla world; more on that later.)

Brendan can be decisive. He listened to me and asked a few questions. After about 30 minutes he looked me in the eye and agreed. By doing so he delegated part of his role to me, and gave me room to create my contributions to Mozilla.

We have never revisited this decision in any way. We split final decision-making within the Mozilla open source project into two pieces. If a question is technical Brendan is the ultimate decision-maker. For other project-related things I am. We have also created a range of new roles, from the Foundation and its Board of Directors, Executive Director, CEO and a range of product responsibilities not tied exclusively to code. Along the way Brendan and I have each tried to delegate as much as possible, and to be clear that new roles and owners have real authority of their own. We’ve agreed on most things. We’ve disagreed on a few, and had some awkward and difficult moments. Far fewer than I would have thought.

I never could have imagined where that 30 minute conversation in 1999 would lead. One thing was clear though — the ability to pass on authority, to allow others the room to lead — is critical to making Mozilla a long-term success.

Skip past the sidebar