Thunderbird: The Right Process?

This is the second of my blog posts on Thunderbird; the first explained how I thought that, in the end, the right decision had been reached. This one is about whether we got there the right way.

First, let’s be clear on what is actually happening. This is a reduction of the resources the Mozilla Corporation is putting towards Thunderbird development, based on the assessment by the Mozilla project leadership of the value of Thunderbird to effectively furthering the Mozilla mission.

When analyzing this, the first thing which we need to be clear on is the nature of the relationship between MoCo and the Mozilla project. I have argued before that the right way to think about this is that MoCo is a company which was formed to support a community in achieving the goals of that community. Therefore, the actions of the company should be driven by those agreed goals.

How, then, are these goals decided? They can’t be finally decided by everyone – Mozilla is not a democracy. We do have final decision-makers. Where it gets complex, of course, is that many of the people in the company are key members of the community, and most of the leadership works there. Therefore, the people responsible for making the final decisions about community goals and direction are also some of the people who direct the activities of MoCo. So one can see how easy it might be for the process, from goal setting all the way through to resource allocation, to take place entirely inside the company.

However, even though there are people responsible for making the final decisions on goals and direction, they are community goals. So if there are significant members of a particular community outside the company, it would be wrong for discussions about the future of that community to take place entirely inside it. (It’s arguably wrong even if there aren’t; we should be transparent by default.)

At this point, we run into the problem of the difficulty with having a totally public discussion about sensitive subjects. I’ve covered this recently, twice. There’s nowhere for the Mozilla project to have this kind of conversation in peace. Were a Mozilla leader to start a public discussion with “so, what do we do about the fact that Thunderbird isn’t driving innovation?”, it would be very difficult for that discussion to proceed in a way where the loudness of a voice was approximately proportional to the person’s contribution, and there were no unhelpful “Mozilla considers axing Thunderbird” headlines – the echoes of which can create FUD about a project’s future even if it’s perfectly healthy.

So, then, given that limitation, I would say that the right process would include, at some stage, a private email conversation among core Thunderbird community members, both inside and outside MoCo. If a possible outcome is MoCo investment reduction, it impacts non-employees particularly significantly because they will need to take on extra responsibilities. So all the more reason for them to be in the loop.

So, is that what happened? It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t count myself among the people who should be consulted about MoCo’s resource investment in Thunderbird. If we were considering closing the project entirely, then that would need to be a much wider discussion across the project. But we aren’t. If this private email conversation happened, I wouldn’t expect to know about it.

At this stage, I should say that I want to be trusting by default. I have enormous respect for the top leadership at Mozilla, and I want to assume that they are doing the right thing even if I can’t see it.

However, I am aware of at least one long-time non-employed significant contributor to Thunderbird who heard about this decision when he got the email that was sent to all Mozillians. That seems wrong to me. There are lots of people complaining about not being included in the discussion who I don’t think necessarily should have been; but there are some people out there who should have been and weren’t. And that’s regrettable.

So what happens now?

We need a forum for trusted Mozillians (have I said this before?) where people can propose the controversial and we can have a sensible discussion about it. We need to continue to be vigilant to make sure that MoCo serves the needs of the whole community, not the other way around, no matter how large it gets. We need to try and make sure that future major decisions of this type do include non-employed stakeholders, even if the decision is in one sense only about employee task allocation. We need to make sure that the Mozilla project discusses and sets its goals as a community, together. And we need to do what we can to make sure that Thunderbird has a bright future as a community-driven project.

2 thoughts on “Thunderbird: The Right Process?

  1. It isn’t just that some significant contributors were not involved in the process, it’s that there is no way of discerning even after the fact what form the internal discussion took, which arguments were considered and which were not, and finally on which grounds the decision was taken. Such insight would make it much easier to trust and accept the final result of the process, even if it was only available afterwards to outsiders.

    Statements like “so, what do we do about the fact that Thunderbird isn’t driving innovation?” do not inspire confidence, because they suggest that only certain things “count” as driving innovation within mozilla these days. And it’s not entirely clear (beyond “the web is the platform” platitudes) why recent innovations like FileLink, personalized hosting, or IM do not count. The suspicion certainly has to be that not just messaging, but the desktop has become ‘boring’ to many.

    Stopping employee-driven TB development today is justified by pointing at vapourware which may appear tomorrow, but with nobody explicitly working on ensuring the transition is seamless for the user.

    If the pros and cons that went into the decision were more transparent, such suspicions could be laid to rest.

  2. When Thunderbird went through this before (circa 2007, I believe), there were discussions with the paid staff as well as the community (all together) and the Mozilla Project and Corporation leadership. A general plan was devised and Mitchell blogged about it, essentially discussing everything that the Thunderbird group (with Mozilla leadership) had determined as the set of facts as well as some possible outcomes (one of which was spinning out MoMess).

    Personally, that felt like the right process. Whether it be Mitchell blogging or some other leader (perhaps the Thunderbird module owner), or whether it be a bunch of possible outcomes or just a “what should we do?” question to allow others to weigh in, the previous process was much more transparent and much better handled.

    What I’m saying is, Mozilla – the community, the project, the company – did this more or less “right” in the past. What happened this time around?

    (Certainly not everyone was excited about the ultimate decision, but that will always be the case, regardless of decision.)