Leaving Mozilla

I joined Mozilla in 2006 wanting to learn how to build & ship software at a large scale, to push myself to the next level, and to have an impact millions of people. Mozilla also gave me an opportunity to build teams, lead people, and focus on products. It’s been a great experience and I have definitely accomplished my original goals, but after nearly 10 years, I have decided to move on.

One of the most unexpected joys from my time at Mozilla has been working with contributors and the Mozilla Community. The mentorship and communication with contributors creates a positive environment that benefits everyone on the team. Watching someone get excited and engaged from the process of landing code in a Firefox is an awesome feeling.

People of Mozilla, past and present: Thank you for your patience, your trust and your guidance. Ten years creates a lot of memories.

Special shout-out to the Mozilla Mobile team. I’m very proud of the work we (mostly you) accomplished and continue to deliver. You’re a great group of people. Thanks for helping me become a better leader.

It's a Small World - Orlando All Hands Dec 2015
It’s a Small World – Orlando All Hands Dec 2015

Pitching Ideas – It’s Not About Perfect

I realized a long time ago that I was not the type of person who could create, build & polish ideas all by myself. I need collaboration with others to hone and build ideas. More than not, I’m not the one who starts the idea. I pick up something from someone else – bend it, twist it, and turn it into something different.

Like many others, I have a problem with ‘fear of rejection’, which kept me from shepherding my ideas from beginning to shipped. If I couldn’t finish the idea myself or share it within my trusted circle, the idea would likely die. I had most successes when sharing ideas with others. I have been working to increase the size of the trusted circle, but it still has limits.

Some time last year, Mozilla was doing some annual planning for 2016 and Mark Mayo suggested creating informal pitch documents for new ideas, and we’d put those into the planning process. I created a simple template and started turning ideas into pitches, sending the documents out to a large (it felt large to me) list of recipients. To people who were definitely outside my circle.

The world didn’t end. In fact, it’s been a very positive experience, thanks in large part to the quality of the people I work with. I don’t get worried about feeling the idea isn’t ready for others to see. I get to collaborate at a larger scale.

Writing the ideas into pitches also forces me to get a clear message, define objectives & outcomes. I have 1x1s with a variety of folks during the week, and we end up talking about the idea, allowing me to further build and hone the document before sending it out to a larger group.

I’m hooked! These days, I send out pitches quite often. Maybe too often?

Fun with Telemetry: Improving Our User Analytics Story

My last post talks about the initial work to create a real user analytics system based on the UI Telemetry event data collected in Firefox on Mobile. I’m happy to report that we’ve had much forward progress since then. Most importantly, we are no longer using the DIY setup on one of my Mac Minis. Working with the Mozilla Telemetry & Data team, we have a system that extracts data from UI Telemetry via Spark, imports the data into Presto-based storage, and allows SQL queries and visualization via Re:dash.

With data accessible via Re:dash, we can use SQL to focus on improving our analyses:

  • Track Active users, daily & monthly
  • Explore retention & churn
  • Look into which features lead to retention
  • Calculate user session length & event counts per session
  • Use funnel analysis to evaluate A/B experiments




Roberto posted about how we’re using Parquet, Presto and Re:dash to create an SQL based query and visualization system.

Fun with Telemetry: DIY User Analytics Lab in SQL

Firefox on Mobile has a system to collect telemetry data from user interactions. We created a simple event and session UI telemetry system, built on top of the core telemetry system. The core telemetry system has been mainly focused on performance and stability. The UI telemetry system is really focused on how people are interacting with the application itself.

Event-based data streams are commonly used to do user data analytics. We’re pretty fortunate to have streams of events coming from all of our distribution channels. I wanted to start doing different types of analyses on our data, but first I needed to build a simple system to get the data into a suitable format for hacking.

One of the best one-stop sources for a variety of user analytics is the Periscope Data blog. There are posts on active users, retention and churn, and lots of other cool stuff. The blog provides tons of SQL examples. If I could get the Firefox data into SQL, I’d be in a nice place.

Collecting Data

My first step is performing a little ETL (well, the E & T parts) on the raw data using Spark/Python framework for Mozilla Telemetry. I wanted to create two dataset:

  • clients: Dataset of the unique clients (users) tracked in the system. Besides containing the unique clientId, I wanted to store some metadata, like the profile creation date. (script)
  • events: Dataset of the event stream, associated to each client. The event data also has information about active A/B experiments. (script)

Building a Database

I installed Postgres on a Mac Mini (powerful stuff, I know) and created my database tables. I was periodically collecting the data via my Spark scripts and I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t re-collect data from the previous jobs. I couldn’t just bulk insert the data. I wrote some simple Python scripts to quickly import the data (clients & events), making sure not to create any duplicates.


I decided to start with 30 days of data from our Nightly and Beta channels. Nightly was relatively small (~330K rows of events), but Beta was more significant (~18M rows of events).

Analyzing and Visualizing

Now that I had my data, I could start exploring. There are a lot of analysis/visualization/sharing tools out there. Many are commercial and have lots of features. I stumbled across a few open-source tools:

  • Airpal: A web-based query execution tool from Airbnb. Makes it easy to save and share SQL analysis queries. Works with Facebook’s PrestoDB, but doesn’t seem to create any plots.
  • Re:dash: A web-based query, visualization and collaboration tool. It has tons of visualization support. You can set it up on your own server, but it was a little more than I wanted to take on over a weekend.
  • SQLPad: A web-based query and visualization tool. Simple and easy to setup, so I tried using it.

Even though I wanted to use SQLPad as much as possible, I found myself spending most of my time in pgAdmin. Debugging queries, using EXPLAIN to make queries faster, and setting up indexes. It was easier in pgAdmin. Once I got the basic things figured out, I was able to more efficiently use SQLPad. Below are some screenshots using the Nightly data:



Next Steps

Now that I have Firefox event data in SQL, I can start looking at retention, churn, active users, engagement and funnel analysis. Eventually, we want this process to be automated, data stored in Redshift (like a lot of other Mozilla data) and exposed via easy query/visualization/collaboration tools. We’re working with the Mozilla Telemetry & Data Pipeline teams to make that happen.

A big thanks to Roberto Vitillo and Mark Reid for the help in creating the Spark scripts, and Richard Newman for double-dog daring me to try this.

Firefox on Mobile: A/B Testing and Staged Rollouts

We have decided to start running A/B Testing in Firefox for Android. These experiments are intended to optimize specific outcomes, as well as, inform our long-term design decisions. We want to create the best Firefox experience we can, and these experiments will help.

The system will also allow us to throttle the release of features, called staged rollout or feature toggles, so we can monitor new features in a controlled manner across a large user base and a fragmented device ecosystem. If we need to rollback a feature for some reason, we’d have the ability to do that, quickly without needing people to update software.

Technical details:

  • Mozilla Switchboard is used to control experiment segmenting and staged rollout.
  • UI Telemetry is used to collect metrics about an experiment.
  • Unified Telemetry is used to track active experiments so we can correlate to application usage.

What is Mozilla Switchboard?

Mozilla Switchboard is based on Switchboard, an open source SDK for doing A/B testing and staged rollouts from the folks at KeepSafe. It connects to a server component, which maintains a list of active experiments.

The SDK does create a UUID, which is stored on the device. The UUID is sent to the server, which uses it to “bucket” the client, but the UUID is never stored on the server. In fact, the server does not store any data. The server we are using was ported to Node from PHP and is being hosted by Mozilla.

We decided to start using Switchboard because it’s simple, open source, has client code for Android and iOS, saves no data on the server and can be hosted by Mozilla.

Planning Experiments

The Mobile Product and UX teams are the primary drivers for creating experiments, but as is common on the Mobile team, ideas can come from anywhere. We have been working with the Mozilla Growth team, getting a better understanding of how to design the experiments and analyze the metrics. UX researchers also have input into the experiments.

Once Product and UX complete the experiment design, Development would land code in Firefox to implement the desired variations of the experiment. Development would also land code in the Switchboard server to control the configuration of the experiment: On what channels is it active? How are the variations distributed across the user population?

Since we use Telemetry to collect metrics on the experiments, the Beta channel is likely our best time period to run experiments. Telemetry is on by default on Nightly, Aurora and Beta; and Beta is the largest user base of those three channels.

Once we decide which variation of the experiment is the “winner”, we’ll change the Switchboard server configuration for the experiment so that 100% of the user base will flow through the winning variation.

Yes, a small percentage of the Release channel has Telemetry enabled, but it might be too small to be useful for experimentation. Time will tell.

What’s Happening Now?

We are trying to be very transparent about active experiments and staged rollouts. We have a few active experiments right now.

  • Onboarding A/B experiment with several variants.
  • Easy entry points for accessing History and Bookmarks on the main menu.
  • Experimenting with the awesomescreen behavior when displaying search results page.

You can always look at the Mozilla Switchboard configuration to see what’s happening. Over time, we’ll be adding support to Firefox for iOS as well.

Firefox on Mobile: Browser or App?

It seems common for people have the same expectations for browsers on Mobile as they do on Desktop. Why is that? I’d rather create a set of Mobile-specific expectations for a browser. Mobile is very application-centric and those applications play a large role in how people use devices. When defining what success means for Firefox on Mobile, we should be thinking about Firefox as an application, not as a browser.


Let’s start with navigation. On Desktop, navigation typically starts in a browser. On Mobile, navigation starts on the device home screen. The home screen holds a collection of applications that provide a very task-based workflow. This means you don’t need a browser to do many tasks on Mobile. In fact, a browser is somewhat secondary – it’s where you can end up after starting in a task-specific application. That’s the opposite of Desktop.

One way we started to optimize for this situation is Tab Queues: A way to send content to Firefox, in the background, without leaving your current task/application.

Another way to fit into home screen navigation is to launch favorite websites directly from home screen icons. On Android, Chrome and Firefox have supported this feature for some time, but Google’s Progressive Web Apps initiative will push the concept forward.

If the home screen is the primary way to start navigation, we can add more entry points (icons) for specific Firefox features. We already have a Search activity and we also have access to Logins/Passwords. Both of those could be put on the home screen, if the user chooses, to allow faster access.

Unsurprisingly, a correlation between applications on the home screen and application usage was a key takeaway from a recent comScore study:

“App usage is a reflexive, habitual behavior where those occupying the best home screen real estate are used most frequently.”

Content and Tasks

Creating a path to success means looking for opportunities that we can leverage. Let’s look at analyst reports for situations where browsing is used more than applications on Mobile:

  • Accessing news and information sources
  • Research tasks and cross-brand product comparisons
  • Retail, travel and shopping tasks

If this is the type of content people access using browsers on Mobile, Firefox should be optimized to handle those tasks and workflows. It’s interesting to think about how we could leverage Firefox to create solutions for these opportunities.

What if we were building a native application that allowed you to subscribe to news, blogs and articles? Would we create a view specific to discovering content? Would we use your browsing history to help recommend content?

What if we were building a native application designed to make researching a topic or product easier? How is that different than a generic tabbed browser?

Some ideas might end up being separate applications themselves, using Firefox as a secondary activity. That keeps Firefox focused on the task of browsing and viewing content, while new applications handle other specific tasks and flows. Those applications might even end up on your home screen, if you want faster access.

Retention and Engagement

Mobile applications, including browsers, struggle with user retention. Studies show that people will try out applications an average of 4.5 times before abandoning.

Browsers have a larger reach than applications on Mobile, while applications are awesome at engagement. How does a browser increase engagement? Again, we should think like an application.

What if we were building a native application that could save links to content? What other features would we add? Maybe we’d add reminders so people wouldn’t forget about those recently saved, but never viewed, links to content. Browsers don’t do that, but applications certainly do.

What if we were building a native application that allowed people to view constantly changing news, sports or retail content? We could notify (or badge parts of the UI) when new content is available on favorite sites.


We should be measuring Firefox as an application, and not a browser. Marketshare and pageviews, compared to the OS defaults (Safari and Chrome), may not be the best way to measure success. Why should we measure our success only against how the OS defaults view web content? Why not compare Firefox against other applications?

Research tells us that anywhere from 85% to 90% of smartphone time is spent in applications, leaving 15% to 10% of time spent in browsers. Facebook is leading the pack at 13%, but the percentages drop off to single digits quickly. There is certainly an opportunity to capitalize on that 15% to 10% slice of the pie. In fact, the slice probably ends up being bigger than 15%.


Treating Firefox as an application means we don’t take on all applications, as a single category. It means we take them on individually, and I think we can create a pretty solid path to success under those conditions.

An Engineer’s Guide to App Metrics

Building and shipping a successful product takes more than raw engineering. I have been posting a bit about using Telemetry to learn about how people interact with your application so you can optimize use cases. There are other types of data you should consider too. Being aware of these metrics can help provide a better focus for your work and, hopefully, have a bigger impact on the success of your product.

Active Users

This includes daily active users (DAUs) and monthly active users (MAUs). How many people are actively using the product within a time-span? At Mozilla, we’ve been using these for a long time. From what I’ve read, these metrics seem less important when compared to some of the other metrics, but they do provide a somewhat easy to measure indicator of activity.

These metrics don’t give a good indication of how much people use the product though. I have seen a variation metric called DAU/MAU (daily divided by monthly) and gives something like retention or engagement. DAU/MAU rates of 50% are seen as very good.


This metric focuses on how much people really use the product, typically tracking the duration of session length or time spent using the application. The amount of time people spend in the product is an indication of stickiness. Engagement can also help increase retention. Mozilla collects data on session length now, but we need to start associating metrics like this with some of our experiments to see if certain features improve stickiness and keep people using the application.

We look for differences across various facets like locales and releases, and hopefully soon, across A/B experiments.

Retention / Churn

Based on what I’ve seen, this is the most important category of metrics. There are variations in how these metrics can be defined, but they cover the same goal: Keep users coming back to use your product. Again, looking across facets, like locales, can provide deeper insight.

Rolling Retention: % of new users return in the next day, week, month
Fixed Retention: % of this week’s new users still engaged with the product over successive weeks.
Churn: % of users who leave divided by the number of total users

Most analysis tools, like iTunes Connect and Google Analytics, use Fixed Retention. Mozilla uses Fixed Retention with our internal tools.

I found some nominal guidance (grain of salt required):
1-week churn: 80% bad, 40% good, 20% phenomenal
1-week retention: 25% baseline, 45% good, 65% great

Cost per Install (CPI)

I have also seen this called Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), but it’s basically the cost (mostly marketing or pay-to-play pre-installs) of getting a person to install a product. I have seen this in two forms: blended – where ‘installs’ are both organic and from campaigns, and paid – where ‘installs’ are only those that come from campaigns. It seems like paid CPI is the better metric.

Lower CPI is better and Mozilla has been using Adjust with various ad networks and marketing campaigns to figure out the right channel and the right messaging to get Firefox the most installs for the lowest cost.

Lifetime Value (LTV)

I’ve seen this defined as the total value of a customer over the life of that customer’s relationship with the company. It helps determine the long-term value of the customer and can help provide a target for reasonable CPI. It’s weird thinking of “customers” and “value” when talking about people who use Firefox, but we do spend money developing and marketing Firefox. We also get revenue, maybe indirectly, from those people.

LTV works hand-in-hand with churn, since the length of the relationship is inversely proportional to the churn. The longer we keep a person using Firefox, the higher the LTV. If CPI is higher than LTV, we are losing money on user acquisition efforts.

Total Addressable Market (TAM)

We use this metric to describe the size of a potential opportunity. Obviously, the bigger the TAM, the better. For example, we feel the TAM (People with kids that use Android tablets) for Family Friendly Browsing is large enough to justify doing the work to ship the feature.

Net Promoter Score (NPS)

We have seen this come up in some surveys and user research. It’s suppose to show how satisfied your customers are with your product. This metric has it’s detractors though. Many people consider it a poor value, but it’s still used quiet a lot.

NPS can be as low as -100 (everybody is a detractor) or as high as +100 (everybody is a promoter). An NPS that is positive (higher than zero) is felt to be good, and an NPS of +50 is excellent.

Go Forth!

If you don’t track any of these metrics for your applications, you should. There are a lot of off-the-shelf tools to help get you started. Level-up your engineering game and make a bigger impact on the success of your application at the same time.

Fun With Telemetry: URL Suggestions

Firefox for Android has a UI Telemetry system. Here is an example of one of the ways we use it.

As you type a URL into Firefox for Android, matches from your browsing history are shown. We also display search suggestions from the default search provider. We also recently added support for displaying matches to previously entered search history. If any of these are tapped, with one exception, the term is used to load a search results page via the default search provider. If the term looks like a domain or URL, Firefox skips the search results page and loads the URL directly.


  1. This suggestion is not really a suggestion. It’s what you have typed. Tagged as user.
  2. This is a suggestion from the search engine. There can be several search suggestions returned and displayed. Tagged as engine.#
  3. This is a special search engine suggestion. It matches a domain, and if tapped, Firefox loads the URL directly. No search results page. Tagged as url
  4. This is a matching search term from your search history. There can be several search history suggestions returned and displayed. Tagged as history.#

Since we only recently added the support for search history, we want to look at how it’s being used. Below is a filtered view of the URL suggestion section of our UI Telemetry dashboard. Looks like history.# is starting to get some usage, and following a similar trend to engine.# where the first suggestion returned is used more than the subsequent items.

Also worth pointing out that we do get a non-trivial amount of url situations. This should be expected. Most search keyword data released by Google show that navigational keywords are the most heavily used keywords.

An interesting observation is how often people use the user suggestion. Remember, this is not actually a suggestion. It’s what the person has already typed. Pressing “Enter” or “Go” would result in the same outcome. One theory for the high usage of that suggestion is it provides a clear outcome: Firefox will search for this term. Other ways of trigger the search might be more ambiguous.


Is Ad Blocking Really About The Ads?

Since Apple released iOS9 with Content Blocking extensions for Safari, there has been a lot of discussion about the ramifications. On one side, you have the content providers who earn a living by monetizing the content they generate. On the other side, you have consumers who view the content on our devices, trying to focus on the wonderful content and avoid those annoying advertisements.

But wait, is it really the ads? The web has had advertisements for a long time. Over the years, the way Ad Networks optimize the efficiency of ad monetization has changed. I think it happened slowly enough that we, as consumers, largely didn’t noticed some of the downsides. But other people did. They realized that Ad Networks track us in ways that might feel like an invasion of privacy. So those people started blocking ads.

Even more recently, we’ve started to discover that the mechanisms Ad Networks use to serve and track ad also create horrible performance problems, especially on mobile devices. If pages load slowly in a browser, people notice. If pages start consuming more bandwidth, people notice. If you provide a way to quickly and easily improve performance and reduce data usage, people will try it. I’d even posit that people care a lot more about performance and data usage, than privacy.

Even if you don’t care about the privacy implications of tracking cookies and other technologies sites use to identify us online, you might want to turn on Tracking Protection in Firefox anyway for a potential big speed boost. – Lifehacker

Is there a way for Ad Networks to clean up this mess? Some people inside Mozilla think it can be done, but it will take some effort and participation from the Ad Networks. I don’t think anyone has a good plan yet. Maybe the browser could help Ad Networks do things much more efficiently, improving performance and reducing bandwidth. Maybe people could choose how much personal information they want to give up.

If you fix the performance, data usage and privacy issues – will people really care that much about advertisements?

Random Management: Unblocking Technical Leadership

I’ve been an Engineering Manager for a while now, but for many years I filled a Developer role. I have done a lot of coding over the years. I still try to do a little coding every now and then. Because of my past as a developer, I could be oppressive to senior developers on my teams. When making decisions, I found myself providing both the management viewpoint and the technical viewpoint. This usually means I was keeping a perfectly qualified technical person from participating at a higher level of responsibility. This creates an unhealthy technical organization with limited career growth opportunities.

As a manager with a technical background, I found it difficult to separate the two roles, but admitting there was a problem was a good first step. Over the last few years, I have been trying to get better at creating more room for technical people to grow on my teams. It seems to be more about focusing on outcomes for them to target, finding opportunities for them to tackle, listening to what they are telling me, and generally staying out of the way.

Another thing to keep in mind, it’s not just an issue with management. The technical growth track is a lot like a ladder: Keep developers climbing or everyone can get stalled. We need to make sure Senior Developers are working on suitable challenges or they end up taking work away from Junior Developers.

I mentioned this previously, but it’s important to create a path for technical leadership. With that in mind, I’m really happy about the recently announced Firefox Technical Architects Group. Creating challenges for our technical leadership, and roles with more responsibility and visibility. I’m also interested to see if we get more developers climbing the ladder.