Moving On From The Errors of GitHub and The Ada Initiative

The Story So Far

  • On March 15th of this year, Julie Horvath–a well-known and -respected advocate for gender equality in technology–left her job at GitHub. It caused a bit of an uproar among technologists on the internet.
  • On March 16th, GitHub issued a statement that they were investigating the allegations and that the accused parties were placed on leave or banned from the company’s offices.
  • On April 21st, GitHub issued a statement of findings. This one declared that the investigation was complete, that it had found no evidence of wrong-doing (but did of mistakes & error in judgment), but that the accused parties had left the company regardless.
  • On that same day, Julie Horvath responded to the announcement.
  • On April 23rd, The Ada Initiative issued a statement that they were severing all ties with GitHub as a result of the situation.

Before I dive into the rest of this post, there is one fact which I would like to make crystal clear:

A hostile environment–work or otherwise–is NEVER OK. If you are in an environment which makes you uncomfortable, please immediately do whatever is necessary and legal to get yourself to a safe place. If you witness a hostile environment, speak up. This is everyone’s problem and we all have a responsibility to make sure our friends, families, colleagues, and fellow humans are safe.

Therefore I fully support Julie’s decision to quit GitHub. She states that–for many reasons–it was a hostile environment for her. Staying was not an option. She had the awareness to recognize this and the courage to walk away.

This is not an article about Julie. This is an article about what happened after she left.

Shit Happens: GitHub Edition

When GitHub released its statement of findings on April 21st, the internet lost its shit (as it is wont to do), embroiling itself in its usual under-informed tea leaf reading. Some people expressed a desire to forsake the company’s services. Many more decried the company for it’s “non-answer.”

I confess that I, myself, am dissatisfied with GitHub’s statement of “findings.” In my opinion, it is a legalistic and opaque answer to the questions its community has wanted and needs resolved in order to mend damaged trust. This is counter to the culture of openness which GitHub has fostered. It has shared none of the details of the investigation, instead asking an already skittish and suspicious community to just take it at its word. This was a clumsy (but perhaps necessary) move on their part. GitHub either did not know or entirely disregarded how this sort of a statement was going to further damage their reputation.

Shit Happens: The Ada Initiative Edition

One of the most visible and potential damaging reactions to GitHub’s statement of findings came from The Ada Initiative, when they publicly denounced GitHub and dissolved their partnership with the company.

While I respect the mission of The Ada Initiative and believe they have nothing but the best interests at heart, if GitHub’s statement of findings was clumsy then Ada Initiative’s reaction to it was a pratfall. Rather than taking this opportunity to further its mission by assisting a company struggling with turmoil induced by alleged gender-insensitivity, Ada Initiative instead chose an emotional and reactionary path which removes repository access for underserved and at-risk individuals.

The Ada Initiative statement declares that “The sum of these events make it impossible for Ada Initiative to partner with GitHub at this time,” but it does not actually detail the umbrage which it takes against “these events.” The entire judgment call is left as an exercise for the reader, under, one must imagine, the false assumption that everyone who reads the statement both now and in the future will grok the wrongs performed here.

As well, Ada Initiative canceled their partnership with GitHub but did not tell us either what steps they took to correct the offenses prior to the cancellation, nor what they request of GitHub to mend the wounds. All we are told is “We will not accept future sponsorships from or partnerships with GitHub unless the situation changes significantly.” This is hardly a constructive or actionable statement.

While The Ada Initiative is definitely taking a strong stance here, it is doing so by causing harm to the community it is sworn to protect and uplift. Rather than assisting a company to learn how to make a safe workplace, it has turned its back on it. The Ada Initiative is willfully ignoring an opportunity to make a positive difference.

Moving Forward

There are two things which ought to happen for everyone to move forward and make something good and productive out of this otherwise ugly situation:

GitHub needs to be more open.

I suspect that the GitHub statement of findings was as legalistic and opaque as it was because there may be some potential pending legal proceedings. This would tie their hands as far as what they are allowed/or advised to say by their counsel.

However, if they wish to mend their growing poor reputation, they still should make an effort to be more open about what has and is going on over this issue. They should say as much as possible, and then also tell their community what they cannot discuss and why. Stop the weaseling, start the openness.

Part of this openness must be a discussion of what they are doing to make GitHub into a safe environment for all members of the company, acknowledging that past efforts–however well-intentioned–may have failed and detailing how they hope to change the process and the culture.

The Ada Initiative needs to work WITH GitHub, not against it.

I recognize that Ada Initiative is trying to protect the community and I respect that. However, they should consider making a statement of concern but holding off on their cancellation of partnership with GitHub. Instead, they should consider reaching out to GitHub with a cooperative plan to help improve gender/minority sensitivity in the company. That would be much more in line with the mission of the organization and more productive than walking away in a huff without, from the available evidence, trying to work things out with GitHub first.

I leave on this brilliant and insightful tweet from Nicole Sullivan:

Let’s all please keep that in mind rather than immediately jumping to the worst possible reactions. These organizations are trying to do the right thing. They’re just making mistakes along the way. It happens. Let’s make those mistakes productive rather than cut them down for making them.

A CEO is a Leader: The Recent Mozilla CEO Kerfuffle

Experience comes for free. Learning takes effort.

On March 24th, Mozilla announced that they had named Brendan Eich as CEO.

On April 3rd, Brendan Eich, after much internet uproar over his $1000 donation to disallow same-sex marriage, stepped down as CEO of Mozilla.

So.

WTF happened here?

First of all, some facts…

  • FACT: Brendan Eich is well within his rights to support his personal beliefs through financial donations. Furthermore, that he did not back down from his position shows a strong sense of integrity. He was correct to do what he did. (ed. note: I very strongly disagree with Eich’s position on this matter and share Rarebit’s disappointment, but defend to the death Eich’s right to express his opinion.)
  • FACT: Team Rarebit and others were well within their rights to express outrage at the appointment. They were correct to say what they did.
  • FACT: Yet others were well within their rights to defend the appointment. They were correct to say what they did.
  • FACT: The Mozilla board of directors appointed Eich because they truly believed they were doing what was best for the organization. They, however, erred.

What appears to have happened is that the Mozilla board of directors misunderstood the role of CEO in an organization, particularly in a non-profit and mission-driven organization.

A CEO isn’t merely a leader; a CEO is a Leader. In a non-profit and mission-driven organization, a CEO is a LEADER. LEADERship extends far beyond merely setting technical and strategic direction for an organization. It includes becoming the very public face of everything for which the organization stands.

As an organization with a brilliant track record for supporting diversity and freedom of all sorts, Mozilla could not have a CEO who was on public record as opposing what a great many people see as a civil right.

Undoubtedly, as CEO, Eich would have continued his admirable track record of not allowing his personal political and religious beliefs to impact his professional performance. He had, after all, been CTO of Mozilla almost since the beginning and from all appearances his personal beliefs did not affect that performance. But being CTO is not being CEO. A CTO is responsible for setting and delivering the technical vision for an organization. One’s opinion on social issues is unlikely to come up in such a role.

A CEO, on the other hand, is responsible for setting and delivering the overall vision for an organization. This vision includes not only business strategy but also culture and mission. As such, a CEO’s beliefs must completely track with those of the organization which they lead. This is part of what makes the hunt for a new CEO so challenging. While a CEO’s personal beliefs may not affect the easily quantifiable parts of their job, (as we have now seen) they can have untold effects on responsibilities which, while more fungible, are no less important.

If there is any blame to be placed here, it is with the Mozilla board for not realizing this fact. They were aware that Eich had taken a public stance on an issue which could be seen as contrary to the Mozilla culture, yet they apparently did not see this as a potential problem for acceptance of him as a CEO. It was this ignorance and lack of awareness which led to the recent drama. Thankfully ignorance is curable. And undoubtedly Mozilla has had an effective dose of its medicine for this ailment.

There is no doubt in my mind that Brendan Eich has the experience, the vision, and the competence to lead Mozilla for years to come. He has proved that with his many years of experience as CTO. But from a cultural point of view he was, unfortunately, damaged goods. As such, the Mozilla board of directors should have refused delivery of the CEO package. If they had, they could have retained him, his passion for the open web, and his talents to help further the Mozilla mission.

Instead they are left with a learning opportunity and without the contributions of a founding father. Thankfully, the organization is populated by thousands of brilliant and insightful human beings. Mozilla will recover from this mistake, and even while recovering it will continue its work toward the open web. Those of us who agree with and believe in this mission should, now more than ever, support Mozilla. Let’s turn this experience into learning and continue to move forward.