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