Self Iteration

How the ultimate insider/outsider found his home at Mozilla.

Change can be either scary or inspiring. It’s scary when it’s all happening to “you”; when you’re on the inside. Every new inundation of the unexpected can feel like an outright, personal attack. But when you’re an outsider, it’s much easier to see the stage, the actors, and your part in the overall story.

The difference is perspective.

1.0

I joined Mozilla in the summer of this year mostly as an outsider. Professionally, my career was birthed, built and cultivated within the “agency” world. In other words, I worked for clients who paid me sell their stuff to other people. Sometimes business were trying to sell services to other businesses. Other times, they were trying to sell things to consumers. Either way, I was the designer responsible for creating the tools that would help them do so. With few exceptions, all this worked happened within a team of other agency people, all held accountable to the same bottom line. And while we may have fought and argued over “user value” or the integrity of the “experience”, each of us were paid to further our client’s goals – not our personal ones. This is the very definition of an insider.

Yet even though I worked on the agency side, I was also very much an outsider. For one thing, agencies are never cause-driven, they’re revenue-driven. Being the kind of guy who asks “why” too much, the blind pursuit of profit isn’t exactly enticing. Up until I joined The Project, the best I could do was defend the interests of users to clients who wanted to make their bosses happy. Their bosses would all want to know if they would profit. And, to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t care much about making yet another nameless executive even MORE money. Eventually, the entire agency/advertising world had totally gutted my sense of purpose in life.

But what else was I supposed to do that still allowed me to practice the craft I loved so dearly?

2.0

Like most other folks, I joined Mozilla because I believed in the mission, the values, and the products. The fact that I now have a real opportunity to do good — for the sake of doing good — absolutely helps with the “purpose” part. Of course, this motivation alone doesn’t qualify me to be an official “Mozillian”. Why? Because like at any other office, I’m wasn’t on the inside just because I showed up to work. Perhaps a few had overheard that I was the guy working with the Content Services (CS) Team to design ad tiles. Otherwise, I was utterly unknown; an outsider.

So, when the CS Team asked me to explore how advertising could work on New Tab, I immediately thought of two things. First were the hundreds of millions of Firefox users it would effect. Second, was my swift death if I screwed it up. Naturally, therefore, the proposition sounded like Mission Impossible. It’s one thing to make big decisions that fundamentally changes a popular product; it’s another thing entirely to implement something that truly makes users happier than they were before. And when you start talking about advertising, corporate partnerships, and revenue generation, people tend to react strongly to very idea of change.

3.0

I had a lot of time to think since those first conversations. I also learned a lot more about the industry. In short, advertising on the Web is generally a terrible experience, and yet it pays for the majority of the free content and services we all enjoy. It’s a game rigged to reward those with the deepest pockets and access to troves of user data, and yet it’s all completely invisible to the users themselves. It’s not a system everyone particularly likes (or agrees with), but it’s the one we’ve currently got, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

To change the game, however, you have to get into it. Mozilla can’t just sit on the sidelines and say “you’re doing it wrong.” From the beginning, we all knew that advertising on New Tab would stir emotions and invite criticism. But the more I thought about things, the more I saw it all as an extraordinary opportunity, and less of a problem to solve.

After all, the organization does have a mission to fulfill and users around the world who count on Mozilla to make meaningful change on the Web. It takes time, people, and a lot of money to achieve any measurable success. Although money itself is never our bottom line, the more of it Mozilla can generate, then the more we can invest directly in our Firefox products and the Web community as a whole. More importantly, if we can do that through an advertising model that respects user’s privacy, allows for more user control, and rewards content providers for the actual value they provide… then why not try? In doing so, we might even be able to make the Web a more equal place for everybody – ordinary users, content providers, and business or technology partners alike.

4.0

I understood enough about the organization and what it stood for to plant a flag, but that’s about it. It was very unclear, especially in the beginning, how this experiment would be received by Firefox users, my peers, or the community. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Nobody at Mozilla kicked me out of the clubhouse. Members of the community filed a few bugs. Most crucially, users seemed to be okay with the first release of Enhanced Tiles on New Tab. While there was certainly some blood left on the mat, nobody lost anything important… like an eye, or our values.

In fact, it’s a shared obsession for a Web that’s open to all – one that respects user control and sovereignty – that binds so many different people together at Mozilla. Six months ago, I felt like an awkward middle-schooler trying to blend into the wallpaper. Today, I’m actually a part of something much, much bigger than “me”. Now it’s “us”. And when everyone is in the game for the same reasons, big challenges quickly become new opportunities.

Of course I want to win. I want Firefox, Mozilla, and the mission to succeed. The competitive instinct in me will never die. Only now, there’s so much more at stake, and there’s so much more to be done. The path forward is going to be a serious battle (our competitors and the ad industry writ large aren’t exactly rooting for us), and anyone with skin in the game is going to bleed a little more. Personally, I might even get my ass kicked and my teeth knocked out trying to create a New Tab experience that redefines the relationship users have with advertisers. But that’s okay. I finally have a purpose worthy of the scars.

5.0 – Release

The real test is yet to come. As more of the experiences we design make their way onto the New Tab page in Firefox, hundreds of millions of users around the world will judge for themselves whether or not Mozilla has real vision, or has their back. With the power of their fingertips, ordinary people we’ll never meet will determine what’s valuable to them – not a client.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Because that’s what being a Mozillian is all about: Ensuring the Web is an open platform for opportunity and choice.

More change is coming. Only this time, users will have a more direct role in shaping the future of Firefox, and perhaps even how the Web itself works.

For once, it feels good to be on the inside.

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