Should the Mozilla CEO have stepped down?

UPDATE: Thanks to some smart and thorough commenters below this post, my opinion on this is in flux. I am still mostly in favor of what I’ve written below, but I have additional questions. For example, why did Eich decide to step down? Was it the CREDO Mobile and OkCupid protest? Was it the pressure from Mozilla employees and community members? Also, to what extent was this about his past support of Prop 8, and to what extent was it about his current statements defending that past support? In any event, thanks to the people who posted thoughtful comments below. Smart discussion and disagreement is exactly what should happen with issues like these.

The Mozilla CEO just stepped down. Here’s the Economist on what happened:

MOZILLA, the outfit behind the Firefox web browser and other software, has just lost its chief executive, Brendan Eich (pictured), who resigned on April 3rd after spending little more than a week in the job. His departure raises thorny questions about where lines should be drawn between leaders’ personal beliefs and their corporate roles. Mr Eich quit after a controversy blew up about his views on gay marriage.

FoxBondOkay, so what are we to think of this? Is it now okay to pressure someone out of a job because of personal opinions? Whether or not Mr. Eich’s beliefs were based on his faith, this seems to have huge implications for religious freedom. Intolerance and hate are bad, we can all agree on that, but doesn’t that go both ways? You just can’t be intolerant against someone who disagrees with you.

I see two issues here that are important to note. First, Mr. Eich didn’t step down solely because of his beliefs–he’d been in top leadership at the company since at least 2005, and it was no secret that he’d supported Prop 8. Will Oremus sets the stage:

In 2008, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment limiting legal marriage rights to heterosexual couples. Four years later, it came to light that Eich had been among Prop 8’s supporters, donating $1,000 to the anti-gay marriage campaign. The revelation sparked a righteous Twitter storm among technophiles, who tend to lean socially liberal regardless of their economic views. As far as I can tell, however, it did not lead to broad-based calls for Eich to resign from his post at Mozilla, where he had been Chief Technical Officer since 2005.

So Mr. Eich wasn’t pressured just because of his beliefs. A CEO, as I understand it, has a literal role and a symbolic role. In the literal role the CEO leads meetings and addresses stockholders and sets strategy and all kinds of hard rubber-meets-the-road stuff for the corporation. But there’s also a symbolic role, one where the officer embodies the values, sets the tone, and interprets the mission of the company. Apparently there was little issue with Mr. Eich’s literal CEO credentials–he’d been CTO for years and hadn’t faced any significant backlash. It was the symbolic issue that mattered.

Which brings me to my second point: Mozilla is a unique company. They addressed the whole situation with a thoughtful blog post, beginning with the following:

Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.

So Mr. Eich didn’t leave because of his beliefs, but he left because his beliefs didn’t jive with the company’s ethic and mission. You would be sending an odd message if you elevated an Occupy Wall Street supporter as CEO of CitiBank, right? Back to Will Oremus:

An organization like Mozilla might tolerate that in an underling, and it might even tolerate it in a CTO. But in a CEO—the ultimate decision-maker and public face of an organization—it sends an awful message. That’s doubly so for an organization devoted to openness and freedom on the Web—not to mention one with numerous gay employees.

It’s an even bigger problem for a tech company in Silicon Valley, where competition for top engineers is fierce. Mozilla’s edge over goliaths like Google and Facebook is that it offers employees a chance to work for an organization whose values they can truly believe in.

When an organization is so values-driven, those values are going to play a role in CEO selection. Maybe this isn’t an issue of Mr. Eich’s values being under attack, after all. Instead, maybe it’s an issue of Mozilla’s values being undermined, and what they have the right to do when that happens. The Economist, for example, puts this in almost religious terms:

Mozilla isn’t a typical company. It is more of a community organisation that is strongly committed to so-called “open-source software”, which is developed collaboratively and then licensed for use in such a way that it can be studied and changed easily by others. The outfit also campaigns actively to keep the internet open in the face of efforts by a few giant tech companies such as Google and Facebook to carve it up into fiefdoms that they rule over.

So Mozilla is a bizarre beast in the world of tech: part business and part internet missionary. It also relies heavily on the goodwill of programmers and others to support its efforts. To woo them, the outfit has stressed that it is an open and inclusive workplace.

I do not want to live in a world where religious beliefs are grounds for termination. But I just don’t think that’s what has happened here. Mr. Eich was fine at the company in a significant literal leadership role, but as soon as he took the symbolic leadership mantle of CEO of this particular company, it was a whole different story.

As one final comment, I often try to put myself in others’ shoes to help understand what they’re thinking. I imagine if Mozilla’s CEO stepped down after a hubbub over anti-Mormon views. I imagine that he had worked to pass legislation in California that would disallow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from voting, or something like that. (Update: edited this to account for the fact that the Mozilla CEO stepped down 100% of his own choosing) And I imagine he suddenly came to the realization that it wouldn’t make smart business sense for him to head a this company, based in Utah in this imaginary situation. I believe most Mormons would be mature enough to endure an anti-Mormon CTO, but once the company validates that viewpoint by elevating it to the top, maybe we’d think twice before applying to work there, or to send them our business.

It’s a tough issue. I just don’t see it as an attack on religious freedom.

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14 Responses to “Should the Mozilla CEO have stepped down?”

  1. Thomas
    April 4, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Eich was forced to resign because extreme anti-heteronormative activists started a campaign to boycott Mozilla over his past support of Proposition 8. There’s no sugarcoating that fact.

    I’m starting to understand that the only thing liberals didn’t like about the 1950s blacklists was that they blacklisted liberals.

    Blacklisting Stalinists = bad; blacklisting people who, in 2008, shared President Obama’s views on marriage = good.

    • Jeff Swift
      April 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Well, I disagree that blacklisting people is a good practice. For example, I said “I do not want to live in a world where religious beliefs are grounds for termination.”

      I apologize if I was unclear about that: I think we need to have a diversity of opinions on a wide range of topics. This post isn’t to say that I think anyone who disagrees with me on X political issue needs to lose their job. On the contrary, I’m just pointing out some of the nuances of this particular case.

    • Justin McAffee
      April 5, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

      I don’t find that to be a fair comparison. When people were being blacklisted for being communists in the 1950s, Congress was investigating and imprisoning people who didn’t cooperate. Blacklisting was out of fear of jail time. It would be a little different if a corporation today simply didn’t want a known communist who helped fight communist causes heading their corporation. This has a freedom of association element to it. The other difference is that when a company is intolerant to intolerant behavior, there is justification. BTW, Obama didn’t help fight the Prop 8 fight, so that’s not the same either. This isn’t simply a question of someone believing something… this is someone actively trying to prevent an entire class of people from having important civil liberties that are supposed to be allotted to all citizens of this country. That’s how I sees it.

  2. Thomas
    April 4, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    Every knee must bow, and every tongue confess.

    • Jeff Swift
      April 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Agreed!

  3. Tory
    April 4, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    The problem with the “CEO as mascot” model is that it doesn’t seem to hold up outside of exceptional cases like Steve Jobs. For instance, people don’t know that Mozilla itself has had no CEO for the past year; they likewise know little about Gary Kovacs, the last CEO to hold the position that Brendan Eichs stepped into. Few CEOs really serve as symbolic embodiments of corporate ideals.

    From an LDS perspective Eich (not for the issue in question, but representing a person with potentially inflamatory personal beliefs) should certainly have stayed put; we are used to examples of “promotion” like Ezra Taft Benson, whose extreme political views caused a lot of concern prior to his becoming president of the church, but whose track record as prophet was appropriately moderate. We would therefore not consider Eich’s past record to be sure condemnation of his future role “in the mantle;” let him be ousted after he does something wrong in his current role. Those who claim he is out of sync with the real mission of Mozilla seem to overlook the fact that he was one of the original founders of the company.

    Mozilla selecting Eichs seems definitely to have been asking for trouble; but caving to pressure and letting him go sends a loud message that gay rights issues do, indeed, effect broader society, right down to the nationless realm of internet software, and that companies like Mozilla are living in an appallingly cropped world. They will now be forced into an apologetic rebuild effort in the aftermath of this mess; instead, Eichs could have led Mozilla in setting a precedent that true diversity of beliefs, not rejection of the opponent, is possible in the internet of the future.

  4. Jeff Swift
    April 4, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    I agree with you that not all CEOs are as popular as Steve Jobs, but would you also agree that CEOs have a literal and a symbolic role as head of their company?

    Your example with Ezra Taft Benson is apt, in the sense that there’s no guarantee that past behavior automatically determines future behavior. What do you think, however, about my anti-Mormon example there at the end of the post? If his resignation were to be due to a past viewpoint current being defended, would that make a difference in your opinion?

    So I guess my biggest question to your third paragraph is whether you see equal rights for everyone, including gay people, have an effect on broader society?

    • Tory
      April 4, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

      CEOs have a literal and a symbolic role as head of their company, certainly. But particularly at a company like Mozilla, which has gone so long without a CEO, that role is nebulous. Apparently it means that they can be slammed by their employees.

      Were he to currently continue making donations to causes contrary to company ideals, knowing he was now a public representative of the company, decisions to pressure him would make more sense.

      A common defense of the LGBT-rights groups has been that their interests would not effect/damage broader society. This case is a clear demonstration that this is not a valid defense.

      • Jeff Swift
        April 5, 2014 at 11:27 am #

        My understanding is that he was defending his donation and continuing to make the arguments, so this was an ongoing issue rather than something that happened 4 years ago.

        I’ve never heard that defense of LGBT rights. I’ve heard the defense that marriage equality will not harm traditional marriage, but I think the whole point of the LGBT movement is to have an effect on broader society–make it a place where gay teens don’t commit suicide 5 times more than their heterosexual counterparts, make it a place where we can all learn to actively accept one another despite our differences.

    • Jeff Swift
      April 5, 2014 at 11:33 am #

      Worthy indeed. I really respect Sullivan and Friersdorf, and I think they (and you) bring up good points. And I agree with them–like I said in the post, I don’t want to live in a world where someone gets fired for their religious/personal opinions. Your arguments and this article have made me take a second look at my contention that this isn’t a case that moves us closer to that world.

  5. Tory
    April 5, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    Here’s another excellent article, which comes at a different angle on our discussion.
    https://medium.com/p/7645a4bf8a2

    • Jeff Swift
      April 5, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

      Thanks, Tory. I’ve added an update to the beginning of my post to take these thoughts, and the others you’ve shared, into account.

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    […] if Donald Sterling compared at all to Brandon Eich. Eich, former CEO of Mozilla Corporation, was forced (?) to step down in large part due to his donation to the Proposition 8 campaign. As far as Eich is […]

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