For years the Mozilla community has prided itself on being a “merit-ocracy”: those with the talent and the skills got the recognition. Not only is it a wonderful concept, it was true. I know because my life has been incredibly affected by it. Those of you who have been around a while may remember a drunken and rambly (but well received!) toast I made in 2006 about my family’s path and the role Mozilla has played in it. Mozilla didn’t care about resumes and past history, they simply saw the invaluable contributions made to the project and did what they could to support those contributions continuing and flourishing. Because mconnor demonstrated his “merit,” he was trusted and asked to “do” more.
So what’s wrong with a “do-ocracy?”
Somewhere along the way, and I have my own opinions on exactly when and how, things got flipped. In the last year I am starting to hear more and more about Mozilla being a “do-ocracy”: the people who get things done get the recognition. I personally feel this concept is toxic to a thriving and open community. I am not suggesting that by using the term people feel the things I describe as negative are good, I do suggest the term is oversimplifying. Here’s why:
While you’re doing, where is everyone else?
The emphasis on getting things done precludes the idea of taking time to involve and teach others. Mconnor didn’t become the owner of the browser module because he already knew how. He was willing to learn and had the seemingly rare ability to put up with Ben Goodger (or maybe it was Ben who had the ability to put up with Mike? but I’m teasing)! This is where the subtlety of the difference in terms comes in. Yes, mconnor earned his merit with Mozilla by “do-ing” things, but he did other things to earn the trust and respect to move up to new roles. Similarly, there were mentors in place who weren’t just “do-ing” but also helping him learn and prove his “merit.”
Inviting people to participate can get you the results you want better.
I was encouraged when the original article made its rounds, and recently there is a new blog post about another instance of increasing the percentage of women speakers at tech events going around. How did they do it? They actively engaged the women they wanted to see participate. They recognized the “merit” of the women who in actuality weren’t “do-ing!” The organizers persisted in encouraging the women to participate and it benefited everyone involved. Once these women were confident that others saw their “merit”, they started “do-ing.” Before MoCo was formed this was built in to a degree. Needed help? You couldn’t hire someone to take that feature off your hands, you had to cultivate help from the community.
The fastest way to get things done is to pay someone.
A concern many people had when MoCo was founded was that eventually it would take over and there would no longer be a community of volunteers, just a compnay. Even if this was never anyone’s intention, it’s still a valid concern. With the competition in the browser market heating up Mozilla understandably chose to add employees to help stabilize development and keep progress moving. Because it’s easier to get something done with paid employees than volunteers. That’s a truth we have to be wary of, if we truly value Mozilla as an open community of volunteers and employees alike. If getting something done is the primary motivation, using volunteers, and certainly allowing them into leadership roles, doesn’t make sense. Neither does recruiting from the community. Go out and find the people who have already added a particular task to their resume and hire them to do it again.
HR should be a “do-ocracy.”
This is one case where I feel the term applies nicely. I think we all know someone in public service that can’t get that promotion they’ve worked hard to earn because all jobs have to be posted publicly and interviewed for to be sure the absolutely best possible candidate – on paper anyway – gets the job. If there is the need for a paid position and someone is already doing the job, hire them! If someone is already doing the job, but they could be doing it better, don’t just hire someone else into it, help them become better! I know there is a need to balance hiring out of the community and creating an expectation that community members will be hired, however I do worry the pendulum has swung too far. I think that if 2004 mconnor (and others) applied for Mozilla today he would have a very hard time competing with the intern program.
Long live “merit-ocracy!”
There is more to earning and displaying merit than getting something done. Merit also lives in how something is done. Being willing to learn, being friendly and encouraging to others. Having the experience to know why something is or isn’t a good idea, mentoring those who are “do-ing.” Standing up for the community’s values. You can’t “do” openness, it’s not an end result but a method. Mozilla has been a values organization, it has always won on values. Products and features are just the vehicles for the values. To remain a thriving and open community Mozilla must continue to “do,” but to “do” with “merit.” For these reasons, I believe we should stick with the traditional term “merit-ocracy” when trying to describe Mozilla and what it aspires to be.
Simply “do-ing” makes us the same as everyone else.