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Mozilla Wants Your Super Powers

TORONTO -- Mike Shaver, co-founder of the Mozilla project, believes that everyone has a super power that can be used for open source good.

Don't worry if that super power isn't big. Though Mozilla is a big project, it wants people to start small.

Shaver delivered the opening keynote at the fifth annual Free Software and Open Source Symposium here today.

He began his talk by apologizing if he looked a bit tired. Mozilla, after all, did just ship its Firefox 2 release, which was no small task.

Yet it is a combination of many small tasks, the little things, as Shaver called them, that make all the difference in the world to ensure the success of Firefox.

Shaver knows of what he speaks; he was at Netscape in 1998 when Mozilla was created and has been a key part of the Mozilla story for the past eight years.

All the little patches where do they come from? Shaver's slide read.

"Certainly a lot comes from us [Mozilla], but a lot comes in small pieces from a lot of other people," Shaver said. "Capturing those things are important to our success."

Small is a good thing when it comes to software development. When things are done in little chunks, they are more easily able to understand them and then put them together when they are done, Shaver commented.

"The little stuff is where I tend to push people when they join the project," Shaver said. "Getting to the little bits and pieces works well and it's a lot easier to test."

Small also works well in that it tends to fit with personal circumstance.

"People just don't have a lot of time to contribute, and that is a real advantage of open source," Shaver said.

"On commercial software development, they have to make the software their professional life. They are not able to just contribute on their side or level of interest."

Limited skill is also part of it. Especially when someone is just starting out and they need to beat someone else out for a job.

"In open source you can contribute to the level of your ability," Shaver said. "And as your ability grows you can contribute more. It's an important weapon for us in how we build our software."

There is a risk in going small in that it is also sometimes inefficient and not always worthwhile.

Shaver noted that there is cost of reviewing all the patches and a potential for loss of knowledge and continuity. If someone comes in then leaves, when they go away the project doesn't get the same coverage.

A key for Mozilla that Shaver would like to change is to lower the cost per change so they could attract more change and greater growth.

"We don't do a good job of making it easy to make changes," he said.

A critical point for Mozilla and open source in general is to help make it easier to allow people to contribute.

"The improvement we make will help to bring people in, and some people that start small end up being very important," Shaver said. "It's our audition process if you will."

It's also important for open source projects to make sure that their needs are clear and to manage contributor expectations.

"People do better work when they have a personal investment instead of just going through a bug list, but it is a good first place to start," Shaver said.

There are some contributions that Mozilla doesn't want; they don't need support for Windows 3.1, for example.

"Having someone come in and have them believe that their contribution will be valuable and then to turn them away is somewhat discouraging."

According to Shaver, the key is matching people's special magic super power to your project. Whether someone has a way with words, is good at math, is single minded, has an artistic flair or is simply just good at reading and writing, there is a place for them in open source.

Shaver recounted that his first open source contribution in 1995 was a whole pile of comments for the Linux kernel.

"Think about what is the thing that I do best," Shaver told the audience. "Whatever it is, that's my X factor, my superpower. Think about how you can you use that.

"I hope people match those things up," Shaver said. "That's my call to action."