Women in Technology

Hear us Roar


Living with Technology

by Mitchell Baker, CEO of Mozilla Corporation

09/19/2007

Mitchell Baker is Chair of Mozilla Foundation and Chief Lizard Wrangler for the Mozilla project. She has been the general manager of the Mozilla project since 1999 and CEO of Mozilla Corporation since 2005.

My view of technology is that of an end user. I care about technology mostly for how it improves my life. Left on my own, I am unlikely to spend time in front of a computer monitor, cell phone, or other device. I want my technology to be intuitive, easy to use, and for it to do exactly what I want it to do. I don't like learning how to use technology. I will learn when I need to, but that is not the fun part for me. The fun parts are when things work, when tasks are completed, and when I'm more efficient.

This makes me much more like a typical end user than most of the people with whom I work. At first, I thought this was a drawback. More recently, I've come to see the benefits of this viewpoint. I am a far more effective voice for the typical citizen or consumer precisely because I care about the effects of a given technology on the end user rather than caring about the technology for its own sake.

But I am naturally, intrinsically, and deeply drawn to the Internet. I believe that the Internet needs a public-benefit aspect to it that can complement commercial aspects. I've worked for many years to build the Mozilla project into an effective organism for filling this need. So while I live, eat, and breathe this technology, to me it is still a tool to use for other purposes.

People sometimes ask me what it feels like to be one of the few women with a leadership role in the Internet technology world. The answer is "I don't know." I don't think about this much. I notice it when key decisions need to be made—I have always been the only woman in the room when the ultimate decision-makers get together. I can't say what difference this makes. I've been the only woman in groups of men for so long I don't even notice anymore.

I'm drawn to the Internet on both the architectural level and the social level. By "architectural level," I mean the basic concepts that guided the design of the Internet. It was designed to be a loose set of connections through which information could pass without requiring centralized control. Machines (computers) can connect to the Internet easily. Information can flow from one type of computer to another type easily. Basic techniques for working together (interoperability) are specified. Once these are met, there is enormous room for participation and innovation. This is what makes the Internet so adaptable; it moves easily from original data formats to the graphical interface we call the World Wide Web to transmitting voice over the Internet, and, I'm sure, to future activities that we haven't even dreamed of yet. I've heard the architecture of the Internet described as an "Architecture of Participation." (I first heard this term from Tim O'Reilly, although I don't know if he coined it.) It's an architecture for empowering loosely-coupled, self-organizing activities based on frameworks for working together.

On the social level, this model of participation applies to human activities as well. When I think of people in this model, I use the term "distributed participation." Open Source software development is a quintessential example of this distributed participation. In Open Source software projects, the frameworks are techniques for collaboratively manipulating source code, sharing results, and distributing leadership among participants. The general principles are leadership based on reputation and actions: peer review is the means for determining work quality; thus reputation, individual merit, and authority are based on the ability to lead in such a way that people choose to follow.

These principles of Open Source and Free Software development are backed up with a participant's ability to take the shared work product and leave to start one's own effort. In other words, a participant can choose not to follow an existing leader if she thinks she can do better. This is known as "the right to fork" or to create a parallel effort. Because people can choose whether to participate, whom to follow, and what to do with the resulting shared work product, Open Source projects are highly dependent on a healthy community of people.

In the Mozilla world, we view community as the fundamental organizational principle. It's a bit amorphous. It's not nearly as easy to understand as "Here's a company. It owns the technology and all the decisions about that technology. The decision-making structure is a pyramid with the CEO at the top. The way you judge the effectiveness of this company is by its financial results." Mozilla is different. The Mozilla initiative is an Open Source software project born from the Web and the power of distributed participation. We've already seen the model move into areas where people thought it was unlikely or impossible to succeed, and the Mozilla community is pushing this model further all the time.

Mozilla is a global community of people who want to see the Internet built on choice, innovation, civic, social, and public benefit, as well as economic benefit. Participants in this community are willing and eager to devote their time and effort to working together to make this a reality. We operate by applying the tools of Open Source software to our development process and to a wide range of other Mozilla activities. These activities currently include quality assurance, support, making our product available in approximately 100 different languages, outreach, evangelism, marketing, and communications in general. We work by making distributed participation based on Open Source principles possible for more people, including for those who are not programmers.

The technology in the Mozilla world is deep, complex, and technically challenging. It's powerful in its own right. But the technology alone would not have been enough to entice me. It is the effect of this technology that I find irresistible. The Internet makes life better. If we build an Internet that combines public benefit with commercial benefit then the Internet will be even better. I feel it, sense it, and I can almost touch it. In fact, I can't shake it. It is this view of technology in service of people that has engaged me for almost a decade now, and I predict it will continue to do so long into the future.


Return to Women in Technology.