Mozilla Co-Founder Mitchell Baker’s Advice to Her Younger Self

Advice to Her Younger Self features female leaders who are harnessing the power of technology to drive change—and want to help the next generation do the same. These experts are using tech to build better communities and a better world as active members of the new field called Public Interest Technology, and they’re opening up to us about what they’ve learned along the way. This series is produced in partnership with the Ford Foundation.


What unites the educational and career stops on Mitchell Baker’s “oddball path,” as she puts it, to becoming the head of Mozilla may not be completely obvious to outsiders.

To the California native, though, the theme is crystalline: “A very deep interest in organizational dynamics and social dynamics,” she declares. “How do communities form? How do people work together, why do they work together, what motivates people?” 

Such questions have propelled Baker since her undergraduate days at the University of California in Berkeley, where she focused on Asian Studies. One of a tiny group of students then interested in China, she wanted to understand exactly how a culture so unlike her own operated. What rules and conventions did people abide by to make sure that their society was functional, intact and enduring?

It is an inquiry that can be applied to a seemingly endless number of contexts—and, in fact, fueled Baker through the rigors of law school and beyond.

At Berkeley’s Boalt Hall she examined those questions by way of contracts, which she says fascinated her because they create a unique partnership in which private citizens make private agreements that are enforceable by the state rule of law.

“That is the thing that caused me to become a lawyer,” she says. “I wasn’t actually sure I would ever work as a lawyer, but I certainly wanted to understand that.” This kind of private-public collaboration “allows a huge variety of activities,” she explains. “It allows a kind of confidence and trust, and allows both risk taking and new ideas, and it allows us to describe beforehand how we’re going to share risk and share benefit.”

After graduation, Baker sought work that would take her back to China, and found it with a law firm that represented Palo Alto tech companies. Her brief was software licensing, but it was the early days, still, of the tech era, and she wanted and needed a granular understanding of her subject matter in order to perform her job well.

She started, then, by asking more questions: “What is this piece of technology, where does it fit with others, how exactly does it connect, how are you going to sell it?” From there, she hopscotched her way up the tech ladder—moving first to the now defunct and for-profit Sun Microsystems to Netscape and then, finally, to Mozilla. In that path, she moved from the private world to the public, and to the revolutionary act of creating and supporting now ubiquitous and global free internet software–the very foundation of public interest technology.

Baker realized early on that open source software offered yet another apparatus through which to answer the question that had long guided her: “Why do people voluntarily contribute to a shared workflow and a shared asset at the end of it, which is what open source is?”

Creating open source software required meeting the same challenges put before any nascent society or communal system. “How do we organize ourselves and open source communities?” she asks. “There are a few core open source licenses, and when they were written and debated, people really thought of them as ‘what is the constitution of the community that I am joining, and how does this software development work, and what are my rights, and what are my obligations?’”

Forged in part by her desire to examine these questions, Baker’s path was, as she says, “sui generis” because of its unpredictability. But it was also unique because of her comfort with making her own way, and because she was a woman working in an industry dominated by men.

Baker didn’t really understand the importance of mentors when she was coming up, and simply barreled ahead professionally—but she urges younger people, particularly women, to cultivate beneficial relationships with more experienced colleagues. “If you’re lucky, some set of people actually go out of their way to really help you,” she says. “I think that’s harder for women. Research shows that people go out of their way to draw in people who are like them.”

Gender disparities also played themselves out in more insidious ways in Baker’s experience. One colleague from AOL, for example, disliked her self-confidence. “The words he used—‘I was too aggressive, blah blah blah,’” she recounts. “Ten years later we start to see research about how sometimes it’s a no win setting for women; if you’re not aggressive you’re passed over, but if you actually are as assertive as the mostly men around you, you’re too aggressive and you’re unpleasant and all that stuff. All of that language, almost verbatim, is what he said about me.”

Baker didn’t lose her nerve, her job or the support of her other colleagues. And that proved powerful. “The fact that Mozilla exists as an independent organization, a non-profit organization, is because there were other people,” she says, “and they had to be men, around who were willing to bridge that gap between me as the leader of Mozilla and this man who refused to talk to a woman who knew what her organization needed and was determined to get.”

The persistence of sexism aside, Baker is now preoccupied by two pressing concerns. One is the shifting balance between the state and the individual in traditional democracies, such that rights of content makers are being privileged over the rights of the individual. The other is a subsequent question: How can people retain free will in an age when every platform seems to mine and exploit personal data?

“What really causes you to buy something? What really causes you to be angry? Or what causes you enough to be angry to get up and do something? These are things that data will tell you,” she says. “The predictive power of machine learning is very strong. And will increasingly be so….how do individual human beings, you and I, continue to have, I’ll call it agency, but understanding and influence/control over how we’re acting?”

Baker does not know the answer, but wants very much for people studying tech and STEM to do so with an eye toward ethics and the humanities, disciplines that will undoubtedly help us engage this question. She wants university curricula to weave these issues into their pedagogy “so that the learning process includes its impact on humanity.”

“There’s a range of things about how technology impacts people,” she says, “like neuroscience, right? And research into manipulation. What the curriculum looks like—we need to develop it. And it needs to start very young, because technology starts very young.”

About

Sara Ivry is a writer, editor and podcaster based in New York City. Her work on art, media, books, education and other topics has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Tablet Magazine, the Poetry Foundation website and other outlets.