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How Brendan Eich Failed as CEO in Under Two Weeks

Brendan Eich resigned as CEO of Mozilla earlier this week, and as I already argued, the reason wasn't OKCupid. The reason was employees and contributors. His attempts to calm the situation were ham-handed at best and at worst, dismissive towards the people he was supposed to convince. Within a week he went from being celebrated as a fine choice by some LGBTQ employees of Mozilla to being called a failure by the same people. Here's why.

The Importance of Employees and Contributors

As I mentioned in the previous article, Eich acknowledged that there had been internal complaints in his initial response to the outrage. He released the statement in hopes that it would placate the people complaining internally, the complaining contributors, and the people pulling their products from Mozilla. What hasn't been reported on widely is how his behavior since then changed the minds even of his internal supporters.


Mozilla's Mission

Illustration for article titled How Brendan Eich Failed as CEO in Under Two Weeks

Mozilla is a business and a non-profit with a mission: promote open source software development through radical inclusion. This idea of inclusion is not just to support minority employees and do outreach to minorities to encourage their inclusion in open source, but also to "include the uninclusive." Eich was one of the founders of Mozilla and help craft its mission. Its mission is to include everyone, even if those people discriminate, because it is more helpful to include the uninclusive to teach them the value of inclusion. (This is not an ideal that I fully support and dips its toes in the tone-policing pool.)

But There Were No Complaints About Him as CTO!

Actually, there were, internally and externally. It's reasonable to be unaware of this fact, but being unaware of it isn't the same as it not existing. When the donation came to light in 2012, there was an internal damage control campaign, in which Eich promised that he would continue to uphold Mozilla's environment of inclusion. And by all reports, he kept that promise. This is why there were a number of LGBT employees who came forward in support of him; their experience with him on a personal level did not show any bias against them and Mozilla includes the uninclusive.


There are several job duties of the CEO of a company that are different than the job duties of the CTO and in this case, they were extremely relevant. The CTO makes management decisions and technical decisions that follow corporate policy; the CEO sets and enacts corporate policy. The CEO is also the spokesperson for the company. These two issues are where the problems lie.

Setting Corporate Policy

Illustration for article titled How Brendan Eich Failed as CEO in Under Two Weeks

In this case, corporate policy in terms of LGBTQ inclusion and support affects employees, contributors, and potential contributors, because of Mozilla's mission statement and outreach programs. This is not a common situation. It is reasonable for employees and contributors to be concerned with the direction that Mozilla would take in terms of inclusivity when its corporate policy is set by someone who has actively discriminated against them. When we're talking about "potential contributors," we talking about the set of all current and future potential tech workers and hobbyists: everyone.

In response to the selection, Mozilla faced a boycott of contributors, a reputation that harmed their outreach programs, and vendors pulling their Mozilla-related products. Eich did mention Lukas Blakk's Ascend Project, which aims to increase the presence of LGBTQ, Latino, and black people in the open source community; however, is an LGBTQ person going to feel comfortable attending a program for LGBTQ people by a company led by a Prop 8 donor, even if the program is run by an LGBTQ person? Those potential contributors have no experience with Eich and thus no reason to take him at his word.


Being a Spokesperson

So our starting point with Eich as CEO is that Mozilla has a spokesperson who is distrusted by part of his intended audience. That's going to be a problem and this was completely foreseeable.


One of the things that I pointed out in the previous article is that Eich's statement wasn't an apology; it was a promise to prove himself if people would just give him a chance. Well, he got his chance and it went like this:

  • People important to the company started to pull their products and boycott
  • He issued a statement that they should give him a chance, said he "feels sorrow" for causing pain but not for donating to take away the rights of the people complaining. He doesn't even say he's sorry for causing pain, which would at least push him into non-apologyville. He feels bad that he made people feel bad.
  • Outrage continued, in part because he didn't apologize.
  • He got interviewed by CNet. They asked him several questions about his donation, his feelings on same-sex marriage, and whether he would change that decision knowing where that decision put Mozilla in this issue. He refused to answer any of these questions, saying that his personal feelings were irrelevant.

And Mozilla sank. People who only days before had supported his promotion changed their minds. Why? Because the job of the CEO is to address community concerns, be a decision maker, and execute. In his CNet interview he dismissed community concerns, decided to neither apologize nor take responsibility, and expected that people simply accept that and move on. He was a leader who failed to lead.

That was his chance. It's clear not only that he would donate again, but that he won't even take ownership of his own actions. From a post by a Mozilla employee who changed his mind, Matthew Riley MacPherson:

Instead of addressing the issues at hand, he very clearly dodged them.... Every one of my friends said that while they didn't agree with his position, if he just apologized it could have been the end of it.

Eich was given the clear chance to publicly apologize on behalf of himself and Mozilla–something called for by many, including myself....

It was at that exact point in time that he failed as CEO....

In his first test as CEO of Mozilla, he failed to execute.

Emphasis his. This was the point where employees started calling for his resignation: the point at which he had failed as a CEO.


Where Do You Go from the Bottom?

When you've alienated your audience and your employees, what do you do? Let's go back to the CNet article to find out:

"If Mozilla cannot continue to operate according to its principles of inclusiveness, where you can work on the mission no matter what your background or other beliefs, I think we'll probably fail," he told CNET.


Here, Eich states that if Mozilla holds him accountable for his actions in the Prop 8 campaign, that Mozilla itself will fail because it fails to be inclusive of intolerance. But people aren't complaining that he believes that same sex marriage is wrong. That is a belief and beliefs are tolerated. There is a difference between belief and action. In this case, he acted to revoke an existing right under the state constitution and void the marriages of people who had already been married, forcing his religious beliefs on them under color of law.

Though Eich refuses to discuss his own beliefs explicitly or say whether they've changed, he disagreed with the assertion that being opposed to gay-marriage rights is equivalent to being sexist or racist, and he said political and religious speech is still protected.


Yes, political speech and religious speech are protected. You can't go to jail for them. You aren't prohibited by the government from engaging in them. However, other people have the same right to political speech, to stand up and say "I am not going to do business with him because he said something that I dislike." This is what happened.

I don't think it's good for my integrity or Mozilla's integrity to be pressured into changing a position. If Mozilla became more exclusive and required more litmus tests, I think that would be a mistake that would lead to a much smaller Mozilla, a much more fragmented Mozilla.


The point at which Mozilla employees stopped backing him, he would, according to the CNet interview, decide that Mozilla is a failure because it fails to radically include his right to act in a discriminatory way outside the workplace, which he considers equivalent to a right to religious speech. When Eich resigned, he resigned both as CEO of Mozilla and from the board of the Mozilla Foundation. He certainly would have been taken back as CTO had he desired the position. He resigned from the Mozilla Foundation because he believes that Mozilla has failed. He wasn't forced to resign; he probably feels abandoned and betrayed by the organization that he helped create.

He's right to feel that way because to some degree, he has been. However, the standards for a CEO are different than the standards for every other position and by failing to either apologize or to state that he would do the same again, he failed to take action where action was required. He was put in a very difficult situation and Mozilla will suffer permanent harm because of his promotion to CEO. This was completely foreseeable and thus completely avoidable.


Mozilla and the Mozilla Foundation do a lot of good work in the world, especially in terms of helping people from all walks of life to become programmers, in part because of Brendan Eich. Because of Eich's promotion, Mozilla would face boycotts whether he stayed in the position or not. Mozilla would be better off if Eich had opted to return to his CTO position and remain on the board. Hopefully, in the end, this will blow over instead of taking Mozilla down.

Next up: Libertarians Outraged at Free Market!

Photo of Brendan Eich courtesy of Joi Ito. Photo of Mozilla's San Francisco office, courtesy of Tantek, Mozilla Wiki.

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