Mission Driven Orgs: Don’t Alienate Alumni, Leverage Them (I’m looking at you, Mozilla)

While written for Mozilla, this piece really applies to any mission-driven organization. In addition, if you are media, please don’t claim this is written by Mozilla. I’m a contributor, and Mozilla is at its best when it encourages debate and discussion. This post says nothing about Mozilla official policy and I’m sure there Mozillians who will agree and disagree with me.

The Opportunity

Mozilla is an amazing organization. With a smaller staff, and aided by a community of supporters, it not only competes with the Goliaths of Silicon Valley but uses its leverage whenever possible to fight for users’ rights. This makes it simultaneously a world leading engineering firm and, for most who work there, a mission driven organization.

That was on full display this weekend at the Mozilla Summit, taking place concurrently in Brussels, Toronto and Santa Clara. Sadly, so was something else. A number of former Mozillians, many of whom have been critical to the organization and community were not participating. They either weren’t invited, or did not feel welcome. At times, it’s not hard to see why:

You_chose_Facebook

Again this is not an official Mozilla response. And that is part of the problem. There has never been much of an official or coordinated approach to dealing with former staff and community members. And it is a terrible, terrible lost opportunity – one that hinders Mozilla from advancing its mission in multiple ways.

The main reason is this: The values we Mozillians care about may be codified in the Mozilla Manifesto, but they don’t reside there. Nor do they reside in a browser, or even in an organization. They reside in us. Mozilla is about creating power by foster a community of people who believe in and advocate for an open web.

Critically, the more of us there are, the stronger we are. The more likely we will influence others. The more likely we will achieve our mission.

And power is precisely what many of our alumni have in spades. Given Mozilla’s success, its brand, and its global presence, Mozilla’s contributors (both staff and volunteers) are sought-after – from startups to the most influential companies on the web. This means there are Mozillians influencing decisions – often at the most senior levels – at companies that Mozilla wants to influence. Even if these Mozillians only injected 5% of what Mozilla stands for into their day-to-day lives, the web would still be a better place.

So it begs the question: What should Mozilla’s alumni strategy be? Presently, from what I have seen, Mozilla has no such strategy. Often, by accident or neglect, alumni are left feeling guilty about their choice. We let them – and sometimes prompt them to – cut their connections not just with Mozilla but (more importantly) with the personal connection they felt to the mission. This at a moment when they could be some of the most important contributors to our mission. To say nothing about continuing to contribute their expertise to coding, marketing or any number of other skills they may have.

As a community, we need to accept that as amazing as Mozilla (or any non-profit) is, most people will not spend their entire career there nor volunteer forever. Projects end. Challenges get old. New opportunities present themselves. And yes, people burn out on mission – which no longer means they don’t believe in it – they are just burned out. So let’s not alienate these people, let’s support them. They could be a killer advantage one of our most important advantages. (I mean, even McKinsey keeps an alumni group, and that is just so they can sell to them… we can offer so much more meaning than that. And they can offer us so much more than that).

How I would do it

At this point, I think it is too late to start a group and hope people will come. I could be wrong, but I suspect many feel – to varying degrees – alienated. We (Mozilla) will probably have to do more than just reach out a hand.

I would find three of the most respected, most senior Mozillians who have moved on and I’d reach out privately and personally. I’d invite them to lunch individually. And I’d apologize for not staying more connected with them. Maybe it is their fault, maybe it is ours. I don’t care. It’s in our interests to fix this, so let’s look inside ourselves and apologize for our contribution as a way to start down the path.

I’d then ask them if them if they would be willing to help oversee an alumni group. If they would reach out to their networks and, with us, bring these Mozillians back into the fold.

There is ample opportunity for such a group. They could be hosted once a year and be shown what Mozilla is up to and what it means for the companies they work for. They could open doors to C-suite offices. They could mentor emerging leaders in our community and they could ask for our advice as they build new products that will impact how people use the web. In short, they could be contributors.

Let’s get smart about cultivating our allies – even those embedded in organizations with don’t completely agree with. Let’s start thinking about how we tap into and help keep alive the values that made them Mozillians in the first place, and find ways to help them be effective in promoting them.

29 thoughts on “Mission Driven Orgs: Don’t Alienate Alumni, Leverage Them (I’m looking at you, Mozilla)

  1. Anonymous Coward

    Don’t forget the number of former employees (who either left of their own volition or were terminated) who had their summit invitations revoked by the head of Mozilla HR. Great way to keep folks involved!

    Reply
    1. Gervase Markham

      If they were terminated, then that speaks straight to the really difficult question of “what happens to someone who MoCo fires but wants to stay involved in the community” – to which there is no easy answer. But if it were true that people were disinvited from the summit, without a conversation as to their future involvement, merely because they had left Mozilla’s employ of their own volition, that would be most disappointing. :-(

      Reply
  2. beltzner

    There is a Mozilla Alumni group … on Facebook. Organized by Mozilla Alumni.

    While it’s not quite as dire (and the Twitterer in question was just making an ill-phrased joke) as it could be, it’s certainly not great. For this particular Summit, applications to receive invitations were sent through the Mozillians email list, and many people I know don’t read those communiques (a broader problem: how as a Mozillian should I try to stay involved?) or didn’t expect that to be the process by which they would receive an invite to the event. A definite pity.

    The thing I find most frustrating is that having now worked for a couple of startups, there is a lot of great data and feedback I’d like to share with Mozilla about things like mobile, apps, etc. I’d also love to be a strong advocate for them. I feel, however, like any attempts I make to do so are met with initial enthusiasm and then poor follow up. I’m left wondering how best to contribute, when my contribution is not purely code based. Some people may argue that this, in particular, is the problem, and not a new one.

    I totally agree that a small amount of the community team’s time dedicated to providing great support for alumni would be fantastic. I know, first hand!, that we are some of the most effective evangelists for Mozilla.

    Reply
  3. mbrubeck

    Hey, that tweet made me uncomfortable too (even if it was in jest) so thank you for calling it out and writing this. I’m not sure if I agree with your broader conclusions, though.

    For one thing, a number of former staff did come to at least visit during part of the summit and were welcome in discussions there (including some now at Facebook, like my former teammate Frank Yan).

    But none of the ex-employees that I’ve personally worked with are really engaged with the Mozilla project anymore. (Those who are can opt in to communications like summit invitations in the same way all our community can.) That’s their choice to make, and I absolutely don’t fault them for it. People burn out or become otherwise dissatisfied, or just need to focus on their new thing for a while. But since the summit has a limited amount of space and we already need to turn away some community members who would like to attend, we *should* prioritize people who are active in the project now over people who were in the past.

    That’s not to dismiss the value that alumni bring to an organization even after they disengage. I’ve stepped down from several companies and open source projects in the past. Being part of the alumni network for each of those groups benefits both me and the group. I can provide links between my old colleagues and new ones, and evangelize ideas and products (as Beltzner mentioned). But in my new role as an outsider with ties to a group (rather than a current member of the group) I no longer expect to be invited to the yearly off-site or company picnic or whatnot.

    So I agree we should value and strengthen ties with alumni whether they remain active contributors or not, but I think the expectations are different for the two cases. And Beltzner is right that there are many ways we fail to engage properly with non-full-time contributors in many areas; I’m one of those who would argue this is a general failing that extends beyond former paid staff.

    Reply
    1. Wes Johnston

      Yeah. I wanted to chime in and say about the same thing. I don’t know if the former-empolyees know, but there are plenty of people who are very VERY active contributers to the project right now, working more than a few hours every night on stuff, who weren’t invited as well (in the cases I know about, the timing was off between when they started contributing and when summit invites were sent).

      i.e. you weren’t alone in not getting invites, and it wasn’t an intentional slight. Just prioritizing people who were especially active at the moment invites were being sent out. Thems the logistics for an org thats much much larger than just its paid staff. At least, that’s how I took/explained it to my active contributers.

      Reply
      1. gervmarkham

        One of my suggestions early on to the Summit team was that they save 5-10 spaces per location for “rising stars” who had burst onto the scene at the last minute. Perhaps logistics prevented it… :-|

        Reply
  4. rhelmer

    This is a very valuable conversation to have. I don’t want to pick on the twitter thread in here, since for one I posted on it :) and also I thought it was clear that it was a joke between friends, and that we were sad the person in question didn’t get invited and thought they should come anyway. I am afraid that this is going to cause hurt feelings where there shouldn’t be any, and that’d be unfortunate because we need to have this dialogue.

    I’ve been a contributor, then staff, then a contributor, and then staff again – so I think I have some perspective of both sides here. I have primarily contributed on the code and devops sides (I helped get tinderbox up when it fell down and helped with code for it’s replacement, as a contributor, to give a concrete example). I have also done some big-picture thinking (with prototypes!) as a contributor, and made a lot of noise and pinged people about it.

    My personal experience is that many teams are very busy and in some form of crisis mode pretty much all the time, and were very receptive to the former and enthusiastic but didn’t have time or energy to follow up on the latter, much to my chagrin. I also wasn’t privy to a lot of the project-wide thinking and priorities, not because they are secret so much as because I didn’t have time to call into meetings and try to keep up with that sort of thing.

    Whether I got invited to events or not largely seemed to be related to how recently I had helped out, and also just random expressions of interest in such things while out to lunch/dinner with at-the-time former co-workers. I think the process is more formal now but I think it’s pretty hard to define “active contribution”.

    Reply
  5. J. Paul Reed

    It’s unfortunate that (based on admittedly anecdotal, but looking at other comments here, corroborated data), it’s probably worse than that: Mozilla’s actions over the past few years, both organizationally and through its director-level-and-above management have not only alienated people, they’ve actually turned alumnis into something between apathetic and detractors.

    I don’t know how you tackle this, but current employees giving public presentations and tech talks denigrating the work of Mozillians who came before them is likely a good place to start.

    Reply
  6. Chris Cooper (@ccooper)

    There is tension here, whether officially recognized or not.

    I admit to feeling a spectrum of emotions when I first read the tweet in question, and I certainly heard mixed reactions when I talked to various people at the Summit about this. People move on for a myriad of reasons, but some people also choose to stay with Mozilla. I miss my friends who have moved on, but how much influence do I want former employees to have on our mission, something that I’m still living and breathing every day? Petty on my part, perhaps, but that’s how I feel.

    What I’m hearing from this conversation is that alumni have trouble plugging into process once the leave. What expectations should former employees have for engagement, especially if they once held positions of relative power and access within Mozilla? How should we be handling input from former thought leaders? How do we measure that contribution versus some other traditionally volunteer activity like e.g. l10n?

    I’d love to see my ex-Mozilla friends at the next Summit, but it really has to be for the *whole* Summit, and not just the parties. Mozilla needs to find a way to enable and value their ongoing contributions in such a way that inviting them to the next Summit is a no-brainer.

    Reply
    1. mrz

      coop, I feel like the implication is that just because I’m not paid-staff that I don’t still “live and breath” the mission every day. I’d suggest that that’s what’s pretty powerful about Mozilla – as some have left paid-staff the Mission values go with them and into other work places.

      Reply
    1. J. Paul Reed

      In the (Facebook) thread above, a (Facebook) event was created for Mozilla to “take over” Old Pro in Palo Alto.

      While this is a great idea, and it’s sure to bring a lot of people who a) randomly saw this blog post and followed the comments, b) are in the area, and c) able to attend on that one specific night that was picked, part of the problem is that events like this are created, and through some transformation, this singular event apparently convinces those involved that doing so solved the problem that is called out in this blog post, a la “Hey, let’s just grab some beers, hug it out, and suddenly, it’s all OK. Mission accomplished!”

      it doesn’t solve the problem. In certain ways, it exacerbates it.

      Reply
      1. beltzner

        Christ on crackers, Paul, I’m using Facebook to invite people out for drinks so we can hang out together. Nobody other than you has used the words “mission accomplished,” or even suggested that this is a solution to the problem. It is, however, a more constructive step than simply denouncing the problem and any attempt at making things better.

        I kind of hope I don’t see you there if this is the attitude you’re going to bring.

        Reply
      2. J. Paul Reed

        Replies apparently aren’t allowed for threads greater than three responses deep, but this is in response to Beltzner’s comment:

        Please allow me, Mike, to put this as plainly as I possibly can: when you single out individuals who are true to their own experiences and express concerns about the exact issue raised in this post, and you choose to do so by trying to devalue their experience, discredit their character, and say things like “I kind of hope I don’t see you there if this [is what you’re actually feeling about the situation],” you are exemplifying the exact behavior that causes the problem described in this post. Maybe it’s unclear to you, but this behavior alienates people.

        (Also, you “kind of” feel that way? Would you like to expand on “kind of” feeling that way?)

        If you’re actually interested in solving this problem, you should work on talking to people who feel alienated, instead of setting up random, one-off invites to events wherein you set the expectation that those who already feel unwelcome shouldn’t expect to be able to talk about that in any constructive way because “[you] kind of hope [you] don’t see [them] there.”

        And to clarify: I didn’t denounce the problem at all; in fact, I did the exact opposite, so I don’t know why you chose that word. I did denounce your proposed solution, because I don’t think it solves the problem. It looks to me to be an opportunity to hang out with the specific people referenced in the blurred-out tweets (thank you search.twitter.com), which… there’s nothing wrong with that, but again: it doesn’t solve the problem raised in this post.

        I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear any solutions from you that are more than going to a bar (but “kind of” excluding the buzz-kills) and drinking until “we all feel better.”

        Reply
    2. gervmarkham

      IIRC, while “join this mozillians.org group” was the way of asking to be considered for a Summit invite, it wasn’t the way the process was announced. It was announced in the Monday meeting on 1st April (did people think it was a joke? ;-), and on Mitchell’s blog and the community blog (and so on Planet).

      Also local communities were asked to go and encourage their members to apply. Perhaps it’s English-speaking bias here, but could it be that the reason several ex-Mozillians represented here didn’t even hear about it is that there’s not an “English-speaking Mozilla community” group in the same way that there’s one for French or German or Korean?

      Still, I would sort of expect Mitchell’s blog to be required reading for anyone who wanted to maintain a connection to Mozilla. It’s not like it’s high traffic…

      Reply
  7. Justin Dolske

    One thing I want to explicitly note here is that individual instances of what’s meant (hoped?) to be “friends teasing” becomes something different when it’s part of a pattern. There’s been a lot of it, and when a group of people is the subject of the same joke for the 10th time, and/or from 20 different people, it’s time to stop. And from from talking with some Facebook employees at the summit, it was already pretty clear they’re quite tired of it, and it’s a disservice to both them and us.

    And so even though the particular tweet you happen to call out in this post didn’t have ill-intent and wasn’t (afaik) received that way, that’s not the point. It’s a problem to fix, and a fine place to start talking about the broader alumni topic.

    Reply
    1. rhelmer

      Sorry to hear that this is part of a larger pattern :( From the Facebook thread (linked elsewhere in these comments) it’s clear that the quoted tweet was sent/received as a joke but it clearly touched a nerve for those observing it, and it’s important to respect that. While I wasn’t either of the people in the tweet quoted in this post, I really hope nobody took my lame attempts at humor in the conversations surrounding that one as anything else – I apologize in any case (reached out personally in the cases I am thinking of, since re-reading my recent tweets it’s certainly possible to take them the wrong way!)

      Communicating and especially listening in a sincere way with alumni seems like a good start – also http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/about/governance/policies/participation/ seems appropriate and might be helpful (and maybe revisit if we need to!) – conflicts arising from humor backfiring seems especially appropriate.

      Reply
    2. Jeff Walden (@jswalden)

      Yeah, definitely this. I can be pretty direct when I talk in lots of technical discussions. But this sort of non-technical thing, I tend to be a bit more sensitive when talking. And the somewhat-restrained frustration in those “teasing” responses, while understandable, didn’t seem to be particularly helpful to me. People change. They move on. (If not always moving *fully* on.) Expecting equal involvement from everyone is never going to work, for lots of reasons. So yeah, thinking at least a little before joking, or even before expressing frustration however justified, seems good to me.

      Reply
  8. glandium

    I don’t know what the alumnis group on Facebook provides, but why is there a need for a mozilla alumnis group at all? As i see it, either you moved on, and an alumnis group is only ever going to help you keep contact with other people that moved on (how good is that, really?), or you’re still involved as a mozillian, and well, then, you’re not different than other non-employees.

    Reply
    1. beltzner

      We use it to keep in touch and socialize with people who became a large and important part of our lives through our interactions at Mozilla, as well as to network and share opportunities. So, uh, pretty good, really! :)

      Reply
  9. Jonathan Lin

    Man facebook is awesome, just for their work on open datacentres and the opencompute project. As a member of mozilla IT, I feel that they really do their part in their own way in opening the web. They have their own internal needs, etc when it comes to privacy and policy, etc, but as with everything in the world, it is shades of grey.

    Reply
  10. Robert O'Callahan

    The question of having alumni at the summit seems relatively simple to me. The Summit should be for community members who are making significant contributions to Mozilla, whether they were paid by Mozilla in the past, are currently paid by Mozilla, or have never been paid by Mozilla. I see any reason to invite “alumni” who contributed in the past but who have ceased contributing for whatever reason. (I’d treat optimistically contributors who contribute significantly but sporadically and haven’t contributed recently, by assuming that they’re planning to contribute again.)

    On the other hand, we definitely need to treat our alumni with more respect and have better relationships with them.

    Reply

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