From Volunteer to Mozilla Community Champion

An early Mozilla volunteer’s curiosity about open-source software led him to a career with a company whose mission he believes in.

Asa Dotzler, product manager for accessibility at Firefox, embodies the passion, commitment and talent of Mozilla’s community. As a graduate student in the mid-1990s, Dotzler was intrigued by open-source software. He wasn’t a developer, and his initial attempts to join the Mozilla project were rebuffed. But his effort and leadership as part of Mozilla’s nascent volunteer community led to a career doing what he loves at a company whose mission he fervently believes in. Here, in his own words, is Asa’s Mozilla story.

“Back in 1996, I was studying architecture in college and had some friends who were electrical engineering majors. They were really into the Linux operating system, which used a free model where people, mostly academics, collaborated on the software.

I thought it was a really neat way for people to pool their collective resources to build something that typically would be made by a large commercial outfit. In addition, it came with a license that allowed them to modify it in any way they wanted.

But one day they showed it to me and I realized it was just Unix, which I used at university for email and was the bane of my existence. I said ‘forget it.’

In 1998, Netscape announced it was going to open-source the code for its browser and give it away with the idea that people from around the world could collaborate to improve that software. By harnessing the resources of the internet community, they’d be able to more effectively compete with Microsoft.

“All of a sudden instead of it being me and five or 10 other non-programmers trying to get involved, there were like 10,000 non-programmers trying to get involved, because everyone could play with it.”
Asa Dotzler

So now there was the development model I thought was really neat combined with a product I actually used. I decided to insinuate myself into that somehow.

When they released the source code a few months later, I downloaded it on my 54-kbps modem. When I looked to double-click on something to make it start, there was nothing. It wasn’t end-user software. It was the recipe to make the browser. I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t have the developer tools to turn the source code into a running program.

Netscape had created a group of about 10 employees to become the leaders of the Mozilla project. A group of us reached out and said we want to help, and they basically said go away. They wanted programmers.

Some community members and I found out that occasionally a programmer would convert the source code into an app you could run on your computer and post it to a website, so then I could get a snapshot of what the browser was looking like and play with it. But it was horrible. It broke, and it crashed, and it just didn’t work.

I started reporting problems to its open bug tracking system, the ticketing system where you can give technical feedback on what’s working and not working. And the developers closed my bug reports and said ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not sophisticated enough. You’re not a programmer and you’re wasting our time.’

Over time I learned what they wanted in a good bug report, what details you needed to include so it would be actionable by a programmer. I got pretty good at writing those bug reports.

The community – maybe I had a hand in it – convinced Mozilla’s leadership team to start making downloadable apps available on a daily basis. All of a sudden instead of it being me and five or 10 other non-programmers trying to get involved, there were like 10,000 non-programmers trying to get involved, because everyone could play with it.

A bunch of bad bug reports started to get submitted that were like my early ones that were not helpful. And the developers were overwhelmed and said they were going to have to close down this public bug tracker.

“I got to talk with people who make the browser that I love. How cool is that?”
Asa Dotzler

I told them I’d go in and try to fix all of those problematic bug reports. I lived in Austin at the time, which gave me a time zone advantage over the West Coast. I had to get up early for work, but I’d get up a couple hours earlier and look at any bug reports filed by people that didn’t have Netscape or Mozilla email addresses – those would be volunteers.

And then I got overwhelmed. I created a group of people who could help me. I instituted a weekly event, where every Tuesday for about six hours I would be online and I would train new people.

It was just a hobby. It was fun and it was also social. I got to talk with people who make the browser that I love. How cool is that?

Pretty soon we had about 50,000 people downloading those apps every single day. I got credit for a bunch of the good feedback people were giving because I created the tutorial days. And Mitchell Baker, who was the head of the Mozilla leadership group and responsible for the community side, asked me if I wanted a job doing this full time. I quit my job, my wife and I packed up, and we moved to the Bay Area.”