[Another response to David Boswell's post.]
I got involved with Mozilla in January 2000. The previous October, I had switched courses at university from Chemistry to Computation (now called Computer Science), straight into the second year of a 3-year course. (This is practically unheard-of; it was a real work of God that it was possible.) After taking a term to get up to speed, I decided I wanted to get involved in a real software project. As I was thinking this, I read this comment from Mozilla UX contributor ‘mpt’ on Slashdot, which said in part:
Join the Mozilla effort. Do it now. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know C++. It doesn’t matter if you’re stuck on Windows. It doesn’t matter if you only have two hours a week to spare. Just join in. Download binaries. Report bugs. Suggest enhancements.
I’d like to think that the Slashdot readership were actually interested in the future of both Linux and the Internet. I don’t want Linux to be a second-class end-user operating system, simply because it doesn’t have the world standard Web browser on it. And I don’t want Microsoft, or any company for that matter, to control the Internet.
I decided I didn’t want Microsoft, or any other company, to control the Internet – so I followed the links and signed up to help. (And at the time, I was still ‘stuck on Windows’ – Windows 95 OSR 2, because I thought Windows 98 was too unstable. Not long after, I switched to Linux.)
My first point of contact was the BugAThon – which still lives on today, I believe. Why was it appealing? It was a simple idea – make reduced testcases for layout bugs – with clear instructions on what to do, and a reward at the end :-) I still have one of the two stuffed green Mozilla lizards (some lizards were green, way back then) that I earned. At a later point, I ended up running the BugAThon for a while.
After a month or two’s involvement, I felt part of a community – with Asa and Eli and others – and before long, I was recruiting people and running the daily smoketesting of the previous night’s build. This was way before automated testing – we ran through a list of 60 tests to check things like “pages load correctly”, “email downloads correctly” and so on. I felt part of something bigger than myself, something important, and I was hooked.
Asa got hired, and then arranged a post-university internship for me in the mozilla.org group at Netscape in the autumn of 2001. That’s when I became part of the mozilla.org ‘staff’, and the rest is history. Although apart from that internship, I didn’t start getting paid to be involved in Mozilla until 2004/2005 or so. As the Corporation and Foundation split, Mitchell asked me to be part of the Foundation side and be the watch-over-the-whole-community guy, while most other people focussed on Firefox.
Why wouldn’t this work today? Well, it might – but it seems unlikely in today’s setup that a new community member, after only a few weeks, could acquire such significant responsibility. And it’s trusting people and giving them responsibility which gives them a stake and binds them into a community. Also, I don’t think we are as good at loudly articulating publicly the threats to the Internet which might inspire people to participate. Mozilla itself as an organization has never been awesome at that, although various Mozillians have been.
On the other hand, until recently, we were short on ways to get involved as simple and as well-defined as the BugAThon – but the great work of Contributor Engagement seems to be changing that, which is awesome. I look forward to seeing what the Mozilla Stewards program achieves in this area.