Christian Heilmann

From corporate to creative – hello Mozilla!

Sunday, December 19th, 2010 at 1:49 am

On the first of December I started my new job at Mozilla and this week I spent in the headquarters in Mountain View, California for a work week where the foundation invited all the people working here and a few contributors. I don’t know why, but I somehow I feel compelled to share my experiences (as I am, to put it in an eloquent way, fucking happy and excited).

This week was quite an eye-opener for me. Having come from a large company which has offices world-wide but reporting as part of a valley-based team I had my share of frustration with miscommunication and feeling left out of conversations. I was part of a huge force that somehow didn’t pull in the same direction. I took risks where other people played it safe sticking to top-down dictated goals even if they didn’t quite sound right. And that’s why I left – my job felt disconnected from the rest and I spent most of my days asking for information of what I should do to align with the rest of the team.

Open communication

The first thing that startled me at Mozilla is the amount of communication. Where you had to ask for info in other places your main skill here is to triage a constant and constructive flow of information. Nothing happens on closed systems – Wikis, Etherpad, Google Docs, IRC and Skype are the tools of the trade and everything is edited live. It is amazingly powerful to have a shared Etherpad open and type what you hear and what you want to share whilst listening. No XLS or DOC as an email attachment that needs macros enabled and clog up your inboxes. The mail system and calendar is also web based (Zimbra, actually). In fact, the computer I got as my work machine had nothing installed – and arrived a week before I signed my contract.

When I started here I subconsciously expected the same second-class citizen treatment of being the guy not in the US office and somehow reluctantly took part in conference calls the first week. When meeting my team face-to-face I realised though that we are a team of 6 working in 6 different time zones – so all are in the same situation and you won’t get stuck on a conf call with 5 people discussing things with a phone in the room without pausing or explaining who is stating what.

Lack of drama and egos

The next big new thing for me was the amount of understanding and interest I encountered. I had a meeting with the marketing team about an upcoming campaign and had massive doubts if it could be done the way the marketing department envisioned it.

This is good as it is the job of creative people to push ahead and force tech luddites to reconsider the current ways. It gets annoying though when it means you have to write one-off solutions and can’t use open standards. A lot of companies have a very sane approach to building and maintaining their sites but the marketing materials are terrible, expensive Flash sites or even needing other plugins. You probably had this, too – getting internal emails that are massive JPGs is the first sign of the brandocalypse.

Now, in the meeting I mentioned my concerns, and the marketing people asked what would make it easier and could be delivered quicker. Other people added to that and within an hour we had a very good idea of what can be delivered and looks cool. Instead of hearing a lot of “this is what we need to build” there was a lot of very good questions and bouncing of ideas. It was amazing. I am looking forward to this product now.

In every meeting I got more questions than statements – it is amazingly powerful to do that.

Company messaging and introduction

Let it be known that I hate team building exercises and massively branded all-hands. I just cannot fathom that you should put a team in the woods to help each other cover patches of mud to make them work better in the office. If the communication doesn’t work in the office then this is where you should fix it – as simple is that. I’ve been part of a lot of off-sites and suffered a lot of rah rah rah all hands presentations where probably 20 people worked on a few powerpoints to tell the employees of a company who they work for and what might be ahead.

So I came with a sense of dread when I heard that we are going to meet in San Francisco for an off-site with the team. What happened was that we walked around the Golden Gate park a bit and then had some drinks and dinner together. No games, no tasks to master as a group, no group hugs and high-fives. Just a walk in the crisp fresh air with the chance to introduce yourself and chat a bit about your experiences. That was all. Splendid!

The same applied to the “holiday party” – we had a few busses taking us to a place in the mountains and instead of a stage with a huge logo and rehearsed end of the year speeches we had a “hi, drinks are to the right, food is in the room over there, have fun and chat” as a welcome. Trusting your people to have a good time and ask each other interesting things? Unheard of!

The all-hands was a presentation and a video but once again I was just amazed that I watched a 5 minute video on a big screen and could say “yes” to what it stood for. It just made sense. It did not have to sell me its ideas, it just mentioned them.

Just check these few points:

  • Non-profit – Firefox is fundamentally driven by the Mozilla mission rather than business concerns
  • Empowering innovation – Firefox enables individuals to create and build without permission or restriction
  • Community driven – At its core, Firefox is about people and is powered by a global community of individuals working together for the public good

This is for Firefox, how about these quotes?

  • We believe that secrecy is trumped by honesty
  • We believe that the web is more cared for than owned
  • We don’t have a fancy stock abbreviation, we don’t have sacred Rock Stars we put above others

I’ve lost a lot of cynicism this week, I hit the ground running in a new group of people without ever feeling that I would have to fathom what someone’s angle is. I’ve heard people’s stories and was inspired by the freedom and initiative people had taken and how much everyone makes their deliveries their personal plans rather than things to check off to get a paycheck. There is no need to measure your work hours as people do what they want to do. All messaging is about what you work on and what might be interesting for others.

I can see cool stuff happening here, and I am happy to be part of it.

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