Notes from a Mozillian in lockdown


How are you?

Yeah, I know. The world is a bit of a mess right now. In so many ways it has not changed much since I wrote in May, but in so many other ways the changes have been such that I thought an update was looking a bit overdue.

When I last wrote, I had completed my work from Berlin and was building up to the launch of the new Firefox for Android, but before that there was the first Virtu-All Hands in June. All Hands are such a part of Mozilla and at its core is the goal of bringing people together. Any Mozilla event is special, but to gather people together at this time is extra special. As a result I spent extra time writing a poem for the event:

A poem for Virtu-All Hands 2020

This All Hands, Mozillians are working from home,
But when it comes to the open web, they are still in the zone.
You may not need your passport, power adaptor or wash bag,
But at least no one can complain about any jet lag.

It is fair to say these are times of great concern,
The full extent of which we have yet to learn.
We should take comfort that web use is probably on the increase,
And the quality of our new mobile product is such that many it will please.

For behind the meeting calls featuring family and pets,
Privacy is still a core goal of Mozilla, let no one forget.
Although people are in lockdown wherever they are,
They still look to Mozilla’s shining North Star.

It would be remiss not to mention the news on the radio and TV that show so much wrong,
Behind which are an elected official, the police and some social media barons.
Trying to understand it all may lead you feeling a combination of angry and sad,
but take some heart from knowing that unlike some of those aforementioned, you can still distinguish good from bad.

I guess it is time to bring this little poem to an end,
But I ask that you do not allow this current situation to drive you round the bend.
In time, I am sure that the pain and suffering will pass,
And we will be together again, helping rebuild society and having a blast.

For as a contributor I never think that I have missed the boat,
To contribute to an organisation that starts a meeting with a goat.

It would be very easy for a virtual event to just be a string of video calls – and that would still be awesome as at a time when so many of us are apart, just seeing another person can be very special. But this is Mozilla and we like to go one step beyond that. We all know that video calls can be very tiring, so the plan for the event was to make use of the Hubs platform – a VR space where we could talk and interact. Please give it a try when you get the chance, it really is rather good.

The core of the All Hands was over three days and the time shift was kind on on those of us in Europe. There was a photo, demos of new products and technologies, plenary sessions, community updates and chances to chat and share ideas. Readers of these texts (hopefully someone is reading them…?) will know the fun that I have with my schedule at Mozilla events – I try to be very busy. You will hopefully be pleased to hear that I was once again double booked for sessions as I was trying to fit in both SUMO and ReMo community meetings.

The event itself as a success and it did bring people together. As contributors we were given virtual stickers to decorate our desktops with – and it really helped me to think I was at event. Although the week was shorter, it felt like I was at a live event and having the chance to speak to so many people was really special. I will have fond memories of talking to a contributor from Mexico and his young son in Hubs. Even virtually, contributing to Mozilla is still magical.

It would be impossible to write about this year and not mention the reduction in staff numbers at Mozilla in August. I am not a member of staff, but having been made redundant in the past, I do appreciate the pain and anguish. I also appreciate that the people who where put in a position to seek opportunities elsewhere are still part of the wider Mozilla community and that Mozillian is very much a state of mind – they had it, have it and will go forth to share it with many others. It was a challenging time as we all lost close friends and colleagues and there are people that I really do miss, but for all they have done to inspire so many, they will continue to inspire so many more.

Oh, yeah…there was also a major update to Firefox for Android…

Before I explain what happened, perhaps it is best to reflect on how we got there. Firefox for Android is an awesome browser and was how I came to contribute to Mozilla. It took all that was awesome abut Firefox, made it more suitable for a smaller screen and put it on the solid Android platform. But while Firefox had been updated and upgraded, Firefox for Android had got a bit stuck. We knew people liked it, but we knew that they wanted it to be faster. We also wanted to give people the tools that they were looking for, but would struggle to build them on the platform we were using.

So the first step was to build a new engine. I hope you remember the Reference browser, the update to Firefox Focus as well as Firefox Reality – all of these use the new GeckoView engine, something that helps Firefox be fast and independent from other engines. Yes, privacy is baked into the very root of our browsers.

With the work on the engine coming along very nicely, work began on a new Firefox for Android, a new interface that would be faster and easier to use and new features that we were confident that people would love. I was very fortunate to see the early builds and quickly found myself using them as my main browser from early 2019. Not only was the browser faster, but the interface was easier to use. Do not get me wrong, there were issues as thre would be with any new pre-Release software, but this is why people were testing it and it was very evident that the developers were working very hard on evolving the product – each update brought new features and fixes. I was seeing a browser being built piece by piece every day by a team of people I have been fortunate to work directly with.

After so much work and testing, it was finally ready to be released. This was something that I had been getting ready for ever since work had started – I knew that as someone that answers a fair number of Android product support questions that I would be in the front line. The interface was different, there were some different features, it is a different product, but it was also faster, more stable and easier to use.

On top of the Support Forums, SUMO was also going to be providing support through the Google Play store. We had demoed and tested the platform that we were going to use in readiness and the launch of the new Firefox for Android was going to be the opening of this new support channel. It is a different style of support, but one that gets right back to users that raise a concern or have feedback.

The new Firefox for Android seems to be well received – compared to the previous iteration I was not seeing much or any comments about speed. Supporting the launch was very much a team effort that saw me working to near midnight for about two months – finishing a day at work (at home remember!), having some food and then turning to my own laptop and working to the very early hours of the next morning.

Looking back, I was clearly insane. But at the time, it was truly amazing. Morale was high, I knew it was going to be tough, but the product is good, and the team behind it have worked so amazingly hard (because they are amazing). For those that remember the work that SUMO did for the adpocalypse (that add-on thing that happened), it felt very much like that, but for longer. To be helping so many people, as so many more were seeing, using and liking the product was brilliant to be part of.

There were one or two negative reviews…some of which were very unpleasant. But the ones that made the task really horrible were the comments directed to Mozilla staff and contributors, sometimes calling people out by name. That is not cool, clever or funny. These people said very hurtful things about people I have met and worked with. We still answered them as professionally as always and their comments however disgusting, did not lead to any sudden change to Firefox. But as a result of that, when support volumes got back down to near normal levels, I have been slowing things down a bit. I had put in a massive effort, but it was beginning to hurt and at some point with any big effort you need to slow down and get back to “business as usual” work – even in a pandemic.

I needed to rest, but there was a Mozilla “bucket list” goal that was just within reach. Supporting users is not a competition, it is not a challenge to do more than anyone else. But even considering this I have been keen to get to 10000 contributions to the SUMO Support Forum. That is not 10000 questions I have helped with, nor is it 10000 successful answers, but it has always felt like a goal that was so close and a good number to aim for. It is not going to stop me contributing, but hitting a self imposed target does remind how amazing contributing to open source is.

I have also used lockdown as an excuse to work on a small side project. It is possible to take screenshots and video footage of the view inside a VR headset, but the process is not very user friendly. To help with this, I dusted off what I built a few years ago for the Amazon Fire TV devices and worked on how I could adapt it for a VR headset – the aim being to take a screenshot, copy it to my laptop over the web and erase it from the headset (to keep things nice and tidy) and to do this without a cable connection. My initial work was successful, but this was over a cable. Further study of the Android Debug Bridge taught me how to do that same action over WiFi. Sure, I need a cable connection to flip a pref initially, but once done, the scripts run very well. I even built in a context menu for each for the two apps for the set up and reset commands. Sure, there might not be anyone else in the world that will find them useful, but it was a great little challenge and it taught me new skills.

I guess that brings things more or less up to date. I am still working on supporting users in the Mozilla Support Forum, and alongside that looking at some smaller projects that will help the wider Mozilla Community. I am also very tempted to look at some new technologies and experiment a little, but I have yet to decide exactly what.

What I do know is that during the time of chaos and disorder, as open source contributors we have an amazing opportunity to learn more, to try new things and help, in our own way, to make the world that we emerge into when this is all over a better place.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this update. Wherever you are, I hope that you, your family and friends are safe.

Take care, keep being amazing.

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