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In Memoriam: Gervase Markham

August 7th, 2018

Gerv was Mozilla’s first intern.  He arrived in the summer of 2001, when Mozilla staff was still AOL employees.  It was a shock that AOL had allocated an intern to the then-tiny Mozilla team, and we knew instantly that our amazingly effective volunteer in the UK would be our choice.

When Gerv arrived a few things about him jumped out immediately.  The first was a swollen, shiny, bright pink scar on the side of his neck.  He quickly volunteered that the scar was from a set of surgeries for his recently discovered cancer.  At the time Gerv was 20 or so, and had less than a 50% chance of reaching 35.  He was remarkably upbeat.

The second thing that immediately became clear was Gerv’s faith, which was the bedrock of his response to his cancer.  As a result the scar was a visual marker that led straight to a discussion of faith. This was the organizing principle of Gerv’s life, and nearly everything he did followed from his interpretation of how he should express his faith.

Eventually Gerv felt called to live his faith by publicly judging others in politely stated but damning terms.  His contributions to expanding the Mozilla community would eventually become shadowed by behaviors that made it more difficult for people to participate.  But in 2001 all of this was far in the future.

Gerv was a wildly active and effective contributor almost from the moment he chose Mozilla as his university-era open source project.  He started as a volunteer in January 2000, doing QA for early Gecko builds in return for plushies, including an early program called the Gecko BugAThon.  (With gratitude to the Internet Archive for its work archiving digital history and making it publicly available.)

Gerv had many roles over the years, from volunteer to mostly-volunteer to part-time, to full-time, and back again.  When he went back to student life to attend Bible College, he worked a few hours a week, and many more during breaks.  In 2009 or so, he became a full time employee and remained one until early 2018 when it became clear his cancer was entering a new and final stage.

Gerv’s work varied over the years.  After his start in QA, Gerv did trademark work, a ton of FLOSS licensing work, supported Thunderbird, supported Bugzilla, Certificate Authority work, policy work and set up the MOSS grant program, to name a few areas. Gerv had a remarkable ability to get things done.  In the early years, Gerv was also an active ambassador for Mozilla, and many Mozillians found their way into the project during this period because of Gerv.

Gerv’s work life was interspersed with a series of surgeries and radiation as new tumors appeared. Gerv would methodically inform everyone he would be away for a few weeks, and we would know he had some sort of major treatment coming up.

Gerv’s default approach was to see things in binary terms — yes or no, black or white, on or off, one or zero.  Over the years I worked with him to moderate this trait so that he could better appreciate nuance and the many “gray” areas on complex topics.  Gerv challenged me, infuriated me, impressed me, enraged me, surprised me.  He developed a greater ability to work with ambiguity, which impressed me.

Gerv’s faith did not have ambiguity at least none that I ever saw.  Gerv was crisp.  He had very precise views about marriage, sex, gender and related topics.  He was adamant that his interpretation was correct, and that his interpretation should be encoded into law.  These views made their way into the Mozilla environment.  They have been traumatic and damaging, both to individuals and to Mozilla overall.

The last time I saw Gerv was at FOSDEM, Feb 3 and 4.   I had seen Gerv only a few months before in December and I was shocked at the change in those few months.  Gerv must have been feeling quite poorly, since his announcement about preparing for the end was made on Feb 16.  In many ways, FOSDEM is a fitting final event for Gerv — free software, in the heart of Europe, where impassioned volunteer communities build FLOSS projects together.

To memorialize Gerv’s passing, it is fitting that we remember all of Gerv —  the full person, good and bad, the damage and trauma he caused, as well as his many positive contributions.   Any other view is sentimental.  We should be clear-eyed, acknowledge the problems, and appreciate the positive contributions.  Gerv came to Mozilla long before we were successful or had much to offer besides our goals and our open source foundations.  As Gerv put it, he’s gone home now, leaving untold memories around the FLOSS world.

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