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.