Five things the new Mozilla CEO must do

The next Mozilla chief is going to have to have a different set of skills to run an organization at a crossroads. Simply put, Mozilla is no longer an upstart, but needs to harness a startup mentality to fend off Google Chrome.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Mozilla CEO John Lilly is stepping down and the non-profit behind the Firefox browser is looking for a new CEO. The next Mozilla chief will need a different set of skills to run an organization at a crossroads. Simply put, Mozilla is no longer an upstart, but an established institution with its own quirks and culture that may not be conducive to being a leader in browser technology.

As noted by Lilly's exit missive, Mozilla is a bigger organization. Lilly writes:

I’ve always been a startup guy at heart — Mozilla was originally going to be a quick volunteer effort for me, but quickly turned into a full time job, and at the beginning of 2008 turned into the CEO job that I have now. I’ve really been missing working with startups, and want to learn how to invest in and build great new startups, so am planning to join Greylock Partners as a Venture Partner once we transition here.

In other words, Mozilla has grown up and that requires new leadership to manage all the problems that larger outfits face. Much of the focus today appears to be about Lilly's departure, first reported by Kara Swisher. But the bigger issue is the yet-to-be found CEO. Jeff Nolan at Venture Chronicles sums it up.

The only reason I am taking the time to post about this is that it is my view that Mozilla is at a crossroads, while accomplishing much over the years it seems to be remembered more for the potential it once displayed than the path it is blazing forward on...It’s great to have competition in this market and IE was destined to achieve mediocrity through indifference until Mozilla surged and presented a strategic threat to Microsoft. However, at some point just being as good as IE stops being something you highlight and Mozilla’s destiny seemed to be “we’re #2 and we try harder”.

So what does this new CEO have to do? Here are five thoughts about the to-do list for Mozilla and the skills needed to deliver.

Create faster development. Mozilla's development cycle can be plodding and needs to be better. It's no longer pushing the envelope on technology as much as it is keeping up. Without Google Chrome, there's little chance that Mozilla would be aiming to be "super-duper fast" as it wants to be in Firefox 4. However, the new CEO almost has to be in tune with the open source community. He has to herd cats and create a culture that wants to win. That's very hard in a non-profit organization.

Also: Firefox 4: Can it become 'super-duper' fast?

Gallery: First look at proposed Firefox 4

Better develop a research arm to find the next big thing. The new CEO is also going to have to harness the community to deliver interfaces that push the envelope. Firefox 4 looks nice, but it also looks like Chrome. It took Google to break the browser mode and think a little different---largely to come up with a way to fix Firefox's memory consumption issues. Nolan, like the rest of us, couldn't help but see that "Firefox 4 is going to be a lot like the Google Chrome we already have, minus h.264 support, and it even looks like Chrome."

Find a cause. When Mozilla first hatched, it was all about kicking Internet Explorer in the teeth. Mission accomplished. Firefox is now 26 percent or so of the browser market, but that win was so yesterday. The new CEO has to figure out if the goal is to be No. 1, be the center of social networking management or just have fun. This issue has been raised before. I had mentioned that Mozilla may want to act more like a for-profit and got a bevy of interesting email responses. Most of them concluded that Mozilla can't be quick and lacks focus. A suggestion: Make diversifying revenue away from Google a goal.

Should Mozilla go public? In a word: No.

Make Webkit a friend. The Firefox 4 docs show Webkit as a gap. And it is. Nolan sums this up well: Firefox should embrace Webkit. The question is: How will the new CEO navigates those waters? And that question does get to a big definition question: Is Mozilla about the browser engine or the interface? Is there too much focus on building stuff that's already been built? Also: Browsers: Does minimalist win the race?

Scale the open source model. Mozilla is a commercial success, but as we've seen, it has a lot of the problems that many enterprises face. It has to be more nimble; it has legacy code it must support and an ecosystem that can be limited with its reverse compatibility issues. Chrome became a threat for one big reason: Google could afford to start from scratch. The new CEO at Mozilla has to create a start-over motif while not destroying what made the organization great in the first place.

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