Mozilla under fire: Inside the 9-day reign of fallen CEO Brendan Eich

The co-founder's high-profile exit from the maker of Firefox wasn't just about his gay marriage stance. Insiders describe a revered technologist with management issues -- and a reluctant board.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
16 min read

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich speaking in 2012.
Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich speaking in 2012. Stephen Shankland/CNET

On a Friday night flight home to San Francisco from Boston in March, Brendan Eich should have been unwinding. It was the end of his first week as chief executive of Mozilla, the nonprofit organization he'd co-founded 16 years earlier to promote an Internet built on open technology. On top of that, he'd just spent a long day talking about data privacy at a Harvard University seminar.

Instead, Eich was tapping out emails as he worked to dampen the firestorm over his long-held opposition to gay marriage. Many in and around the Mozilla community were incensed, even though his personal views on the issue were old news. His beliefs first surfaced when Eich was chief technology officer for Mozilla, and revered as the father of the most popular programming language for the Web. But after his appointment as CEO, the scrutiny became broader and more intense, and the story about his stance on gay marriage went viral.

It was clear the controversy was blowing up, not blowing over.

On April 1, just nine days after being named Mozilla's chief, the man Silicon Valley tech insiders hailed as a member of the "pantheon of the Web" resigned. He also quit Mozilla and disappeared from Twitter, leaving his 35,000 followers in the dark.

From the outside, it may seem that the gay-marriage issue brought Eich's CEO career to an abrupt end. But accounts from those with inside knowledge make it apparent the embers were already smoldering. Mozilla's board struggled to find a new CEO, settled hesitantly on Eich, and didn't support him strongly. The gay-marriage issue may just have accelerated a falling-out that would have happened anyway.

Eich's departure has left uncertainty around Mozilla's Firefox browser and mobile operating system, software the group positions as alternatives to better-known programs from Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Mozilla's handling of the matter has also raised questions about how effectively it can stay true to a manifesto that claims the group embraces a "global community of technologists, thinkers, and builders working together."

Firefox OS expands Mozilla products into the mobile OS market.
Firefox OS expands Mozilla products into the mobile OS market. Mozilla

"Losing Brendan will shake the organization," one former Mozilla employee said. "Maybe it needs the shake, but he is a giant in the industry -- one of a small handful. If he doesn't get back in the game, then the open Web movement truly loses."

Eich is staying out of the spotlight. When asked in recent weeks for his view of how things played out, he would only say, "I resigned because I could not be an effective leader under the circumstances." He's not totally disengaged, though: he restarted his Twitter account and then made an appearance at a JavaScript standardization meeting in June.

Still, it may be some time before the Mozilla community recovers. The episode has become a touchstone around whether political correctness now means CEOs of Silicon Valley companies are less free than other Americans to assert their First Amendment right to free speech. "In the old days it was, 'Can you generate a return for shareholders?'" said Scott McNealy, who during more than two decades as CEO of Sun Microsystems espoused fiscally conservative politics and sharply libertarian views. "Now we have, 'How do you feel about gun control, immigration, gay marriage, abortion, and big government?'"

Illustrating just how toxic Mozilla's controversy has become, few high-ranking figures in the Bay Area's tech scene were willing to go on the record to comment on Mozilla's plight. Taking a public stand on Eich means painting a target on yourself, said one tech company executive. "Intolerance tends to beget intolerance. There are no winners here."

The "mindset behind Mozilla"

There are plenty of casualties, though, starting with Eich, who until the controversy erupted around him, wasn't well known outside of tech circles. The 52-year-old can now add another title to his list of credentials: shortest-tenured CEO of a tech company.

A fast-talking native of Pennsylvania, Eich earned enduring fame in the world of computer coding with a 10-day burst of activity in 1995 when he invented JavaScript, the programming language that was crucial to transforming Web pages from static documents into interactive sites.

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At the time, the obvious choice for making Web pages interactive was Sun's Java language. Adobe Systems' Flash emerged a few years later. But JavaScript surpassed both and so far has kept newer alternatives such as Google's Dart at bay. It now runs sophisticated Web apps such as the Google Docs word processor and the browser version of the Contre Jour video game.

Eich, who holds degrees in math and computer science from Santa Clara University in California and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, created JavaScript while working at Netscape Communications -- the company that popularized the Web with its Netscape Navigator browser and helped ignite the first dot-com boom.

In 1998, he and another Netscape executive, Mitchell Baker, co-founded Mozilla to build Netscape Navigator's source code into an open-source project anyone could freely use and contribute to. AOL bought Netscape in 1999, but when it shut down the browser group in 2003, Eich and Baker helped transfer the work to the independent Mozilla Foundation. In 2005, they helped set up the Mozilla Corp. as a for-profit entity within the foundation. Eich was the chief architect guiding the software.

"Brendan is clearly and has always been the mindset behind Mozilla," said one programmer who's been in the browser industry for years. "He has always been the supreme authority of Mozilla. Of the strategic choices over the last 10 to 14 years, all of them were made by Brendan."

Those decisions included taking on Microsoft and its Internet Explorer (IE) browser. "Most people thought Firefox was impossible, but it happened," said another tech executive familiar with Mozilla's history.

Eich became a fixture in the world of Web development and standards, with the sort of strong online presence that proves useful in marshaling allies. He kept up a substantive personal blog and was highly active on Twitter, offering up nearly 19,000 tweets. On Hacker News forums, he's unafraid to take on adversaries -- even powerful ones. "Google is acting more like Microsoft of old," he said in one discussion, drawing a parallel between Google's Dart programming language and Microsoft's ActiveX technology, reviled to this day for making South Korean online banking and purchasing reliant on IE.

But standing up for what you think is right cuts both ways -- as Eich found out.

Leadership questions

Mozilla began searching for a new CEO after Eich's predecessor, Gary Kovacs, quit in April 2013, and then went on to become head of online security company AVG Technologies. A formal search for his replacement began in August.

One obvious candidate, acting CEO and former Chief Operating Officer Jay Sullivan, didn't work out. Among other things, Mozilla board member and former CEO John Lilly wasn't a supporter. Eich had risen through the ranks and in early 2014, became the leading candidate, edging out another contender, Chris Beard. Mozilla's former chief marketing officer, Beard had left in June 2013 to become executive in residence at venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Beard is now Mozilla's acting CEO.

"The CEO recruitment was going really poorly," one Mozilla insider said. It didn't help when in February, Kovacs -- still on Mozilla's board -- hired away Mozilla's head of business and legal affairs, Harvey Anderson.

Mozilla acting CEO Chris Beard
Mozilla's acting CEO, Chris Beard Eric Millette/Greylock Partners

Eich, described as "opinionated" and "intense" by those who know him, had a strong technical track record. But some within the organization lacked faith in his management credentials. "Brendan's biggest flaw...was his inability to connect and empathize with people. I've seen and felt that over the years, finding Brendan brilliant, but distant," Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman wrote in a blog post after Eich resigned. "He is the perfect chief scientist," said another who's worked with Eich at Mozilla.

Lilly was troubled by Eich's inability to lead and to empathize with others, sources within Mozilla said. He and Eich had tangled before -- for example, when Eich bluntly said that an engineer whom Lilly favored was ineffective. One Mozilla insider said the two were like "oil and water."

Lilly declined to comment.

Concerns about Eich's leadership abilities led the board to consider a new option, the sources said: Eich would serve as Mozilla co-CEO alongside Executive Chairwoman Baker. But that idea flopped in March when Mozilla executives who worked with Eich panned the approach and drafted a letter asking for him to be sole CEO. Baker hadn't been enthusiastic about the idea anyway, one source said.

At no point did the board discuss Eich's history on Proposition 8, an effort to ban gay marriage in California. "Maybe that was my mistake," Baker told CNET in a 30-minute interview last month. "We did not."

Baker declined to discuss details of the board conversations but acknowledged that the CEO search was difficult. Mozilla's nature guarantees it, she said: The organization combines the mission-driven ethos of the nonprofit world with the competitiveness of the mass-market computer software industry. "Mozilla is an unusual organization, looking for a skill set that is an odd mix," she said. Imagine running an automotive safety organization that also competed directly with Ford and General Motors.

On Monday, March 24, Eich was named the fourth CEO in Mozilla's history. The same week, three members of Mozilla's board resigned: Lilly, Kovacs, and Ellen Siminoff, CEO of Shmoop, an online education startup. Lilly resigned over Eich's appointment, tweeting "I voted with my feet." But Siminoff had been planning to leave since before Eich was even a candidate. Kovacs was no longer welcome and on his way out, sources said. Kovacs, in addition to hiring Anderson without warning, had "an extremely poor relationship" with Mozilla's community of contributors, one source said.

Kovacs declined to comment.

Former Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs
Former Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs Stephen Shankland/CNET

In any event, that meant Mozilla's board was down to Baker, Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and Katharina Borchert, the Spiegel Online CEO who had joined the board just as Eich was named CEO.

Hoffman and Borchert declined to comment.

In crisis

The origins of Mozilla's current crisis date back to 2008 when Eich, married and a father of five, donated $1,000 to a cause behind Prop. 8, the move to ban gay marriage in California. The donation became public in 2012 when the Los Angeles Times posted employer-sorted data about Prop. 8 donations. "I experienced intense pain," said Mozilla programmer David Mandelin, when he found out about the donation by his close colleague and mentor.

At the time, Eich defended his professional behavior: "I challenge anyone to cite an incident where I displayed hatred or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity."

That was enough to make his donation a non-issue in 2012. It was a different story when Eich was tapped for the top job.

"Mozilla is about people-power on the Web and Internet -- putting individual users, who create as well as consume, above all other agendas. In this light, people-fu trumps my first love, which you might say is math-fu, code-fu or tech-fu," Eich wrote on his blog when named CEO. "I'm honored and humbled, and I promise to do everything I can to lead Mozilla to new heights in this role."

But his people skills just weren't good enough to defuse the Prop. 8 issue.

The pressure on Eich, Mozilla and Firefox began immediately. The opening salvo came from Rarebit developers Hampton Catlin and Michael Lintorn Catlin, married gay men who took Eich's Prop. 8 support personally. The same day Eich took over, they withdrew their Firefox OS app Color Puzzle from the Firefox Marketplace app store. "As a gay couple who were unable to get married in California until recently, we morally cannot support a foundation that would not only leave someone with hateful views in power, but [also] give them a promotion and put them in charge of the entire organization," Hampton Catlin wrote.

The ripples spread. In a meeting on Tuesday, March 25 at Mozilla's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Eich reminded the staff he was one of the people who helped create Mozilla's Community Participation Guidelines. Under those guidelines, "We welcome contributions from everyone as long as they interact constructively with our community, including, but not limited to people of varied age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location, and religious views."

The prospect of resigning arrived on the third day of Eich's CEO tenure.
The prospect of resigning arrived on the third day of Eich's CEO tenure. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

It didn't take long for the possibility of undoing Eich's CEO appointment to arrive. One Mozilla board member raised the idea of Eich stepping down on March 26, three days after his appointment, Eich said later on Twitter.

Blog posts about inclusiveness at Mozilla from Eich, Baker, and Mozilla didn't help. Public opposition from a handful of Mozilla employees came next -- though employees of the broader Mozilla Foundation rather than Eich's domain, the tighter Mozilla Corp. group.

"I'm an employee of @mozilla and cannot reconcile having @BrendanEich as CEO with our org's culture & mission. Brendan, please step down," tweeted Sydney Moyer on March 27. "I'm an employee of @mozilla and I'm asking @brendaneich to step down as CEO," Chloe Varelidi and Chris McAvoy each tweeted on the same day.

A Mozilla Foundation employee in London, Paula Le Dieu, said she refused "to earn my living from Mozilla while it is seen to exclude and alienate anyone."

Though Eich's Prop. 8 support is at odds with the positions of many in the famously liberal Bay Area, an analysis of the L.A. Times' data around tech companies found that Eich is hardly alone: Intel and Hewlett-Packard employees contributed more toward Prop. 8 than against it.

One Mozilla employee objected to Eich's CEO appointment.
One Mozilla employee objected to Eich's CEO appointment. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

One reason it was hard to foresee the firestorm was that those inside Mozilla already had years of experience working with Eich and knew his personal beliefs didn't affect his day-to-day work, Baker said. "If you disagreed with that view you would still be welcome inside that organization," she said. She later learned, "That doesn't carry over into a larger public setting."

Still, some employees voiced support for Eich, including Christie Koehler and Jason Duell, who wrote on March 27, "I'm a Queer Mozillian and I don't feel threatened by @BrendanEich becoming CEO. He'll do a great job and Mozilla remains LGBTQ friendly."

Controversy out of control

By Friday, March 28, as Eich was heading back from Boston, the opposition had seized the agenda. "Things started spiraling out control," said one source close to Mozilla.

On March 31, dating site OKCupid suggested Firefox users switch to a different browser. It was a major blow. A week after Eich's appointment, more than 70,000 people had signed a petition at Credo, a progressive action organization, asking for his resignation.

On April 1, Eich broke several days of silence in an interview with CNET News about the gay-marriage controversy. He apologized for causing pain with his Prop. 8 donation but wouldn't say what he'd do if he had the chance to make the same choice again. He argued against requiring executives to pass a political "litmus test." And he said critics can't have it both ways: Mozilla's principle of inclusiveness also protects his own beliefs and those of Singaporeans involved in Mozilla who are opposed to gay marriage.

"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," Eich told CNET News in the 30-minute-long conversation. "A world without Firefox and without Firefox OS and without our approach to putting the user at the center of cloud services instead of having users get pulled into walled gardens -- I think that would be a pretty dark world."

Although OKCupid withdrew its anti-Firefox message, Eich failed to mollify enough critics.

"People just didn't feel like he was even listening or cared if they had a difference of opinion," one insider said. "He could have defused it. When he didn't, they got double angry," added another who thinks Eich could still be CEO today if he'd been more conciliatory. That's what Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman did when up against the same issue, saying in 2013, "I have come to embrace same-sex marriage after a period of careful review and reflection."

Mollifying words might not have been enough, though. Behind the scenes, relations between Eich and Mozilla's board had deteriorated. In blog posts, Baker said Mozilla supported marriage equality, and Mozilla emphasized its commitment "to openness and equality for all people," but neither offered any particular defense of Eich's abilities. In a March 31 meeting with Mozilla executives, Baker talked about social change and how important it is for Silicon Valley CEOs to look like they're doing the right thing. Board member Hoffman had supported Eich as CEO earlier, sources said, but evidently that support waned as the week progressed.

Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker speaking in 2014.
Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker speaking in 2014. Stephen Shankland/CNET

On April 1, the same day as that interview with CNET News, Eich called Baker to say he was resigning as CEO and leaving Mozilla. It was a major moment for the organization, though it wasn't publicly announced until April 3.

"It was an unimaginable thing," Baker recalled. "Mozilla is bigger than any one of us, but [Eich] has such a presence in the Web...Every single one of us trusted his word every single day."

Baker said she didn't consider Eich's job a lost cause until he called it quits. "Brendan can make amazing things happen when nobody else thinks it's possible or when it's late in the game. It's been part of the history of Mozilla," she said. When the big problems came -- and they did for just about every major version of Firefox over the last decade -- "Brendan historically has found a path to a solution."

But not this time.

In his exit email to the staff, Eich said, "Our mission is bigger than any one of us, and under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader for Mozilla."

The board agreed -- though Eich went farther than they wanted. They tried to offer Eich a position in Mozilla's topmost ranks. He declined.

Eich's departure may have removed the obvious source of controversy, but Mozilla is still dealing with the fallout. There's plenty of sympathy for Eich's point that inclusiveness means including everyone, not just those with opinions that are locally popular.

Meanwhile, conservative political voices in Silicon Valley and beyond seized the opportunity to make Mozilla an example of liberal intolerance run amok. "We wanted to remind people that the totalitarian impulse of the Mozilla corporation is real," said right-wing site RedState on April 8 after blocking access by Firefox users. The National Organization of Marriage also called on people to uninstall Firefox, accusing Eich's detractors of a "McCarthyesque witchhunt."

It's been a rude awakening for an idealistic organization. "For more than 16 years, Brendan fought for openness and freedom on the Web, and led many of the people who built that open and free Web," Mozilla programmer David Flanagan said. "In a senseless, vicious convulsion, the Web turned on him."

"I thought Mozilla is politics-proof," wrote Rami Khader, a 10-year Mozilla contributor who works for the United Nations, on April 6. "Mozilla is the place that I run to when I want to escape from the political world."

What's next for Mozilla

Eich's parting blog post detailed his hopes: help individually weak ordinary people "gain bargaining power versus Net superpowers" and "open the walled gardens to put users first." But he said others will have to shoulder the work.

He leaves big shoes to fill at Mozilla. His detailed technical understanding encompasses everything from low-level programming to the sociopolitical machinations of standards bodies. "He belongs to the pantheon of the Web. You can probably name only 10 or 12 people like him," said one tech industry executive. Added another, "He is an amazing CTO who can think big and small."

Eich ascended from day-to-day coding responsibilities to a high-level role that included carrying Mozilla's message to the outside world, steering projects internally, and mentoring programmers, added Andreas Gal, the new Mozilla CTO, whom Eich plucked out of a postdoctoral program to overhaul Firefox's JavaScript performance. "Brendan is the person who helps us identify the right ideas, work on them, and attract the right talent," Gal said. "Brendan is the tip of the iceberg. He's busy channeling this entire organization."

Outside the company, Eich brought passion to Mozilla's work. He defended JavaScript against Google's Dart and publicized Mozilla technology called asm.js that let JavaScript fend off Google's other Web programming idea, Native Client. He helped lead "Harmony," a project that got JavaScript moving into the future.

And most important now, Eich championed the effort to bring Mozilla into the mobile era through Firefox OS after the organization was slow to acknowledge the power of the mobile market. The goal of the project isn't to rival Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems, per se. It's to bring a Mozilla-flavored dose of openness to a market that's characterized by closed ecosystems. Mozilla says it wants to reverse that trend through apps, app stores, and services built atop relatively open Web technology. A streaming-media subscriber who watches video with a browser on a laptop could do the same with no new account or special apps on a mobile device, for example.

Although Firefox OS is real, it's raw and unproven. Eich helped bring it out of the research project stage within Mozilla, but it's up to others to turn around the skeptics, develop the necessary Web standards, and attract developers. Eich isn't likely to completely disengage. But Mozilla has lost an asset of tremendous importance, say his supporters, and that means the Web has, too.

Beard, meanwhile, back at Mozilla as interim CEO while the organization searches for a new leader, says his agenda includes filling the roles Eich held -- and presenting a Mozilla that's moving forward. "I wouldn't underestimate the Mozilla community. Mozilla is resilient. Mozilla pulls together in difficult times to achieve great things," Beard said in a statement to CNET. "I have incredible faith in our ability to take what we've learned from recent events and emerge stronger and with a renewed energy and focus."

Baker declined to comment on the status of the search for a new CEO, and wouldn't say whether candidates will be queried about their views on gay marriage.

The trials and tribulations around Eich do give Mozilla a new opportunity to explain itself. The organization can take to heart the words of Mozilla Foundation executive director Surman: "Never waste a good crisis."