In 2010, Toronto-born, Calgary-educated Gary Kovacs took a flyer. He’d been a senior manager at IBM, Adobe and Sybase. But he signed on as CEO of Mozilla, the non-profit producer of the Firefox web browser. Last year, Kovacs departed to become CEO of the digital security firm AVG Technologies. In March, Mozilla appointed Brendan Eich as his successor. But that move sparked a furor when Eich’s donation to a California anti-gay-marriage initiative was discovered. Kovacs and two other directors resigned from Mozilla’s board. A few days later, Eich quit.
There was quite an uproar in March. Did it surprise you?
Was there? I hadn’t noticed. Mozilla has important work ahead. Any distraction from its mission is not a good thing. We are a diverse world, and this is a big issue. It doesn’t matter what your race, religion or preferences: Diversity makes up all the great tech companies. Mozilla was built on that foundation.
Did you quit the board in protest?
I can’t comment on that.
Will you go back on the board?
No, but I will remain part of the Mozilla community.
Why is Mozilla’s mission so important?
It has fought to ensure that the Internet not be dominated by one corporation or a few of them. Firefox was meant to provide an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
You took a pay cut to join Mozilla. Why did you do it?
There were some problems that were tough, but worth solving. Mozilla had missed the move to mobile. Firefox was used by 200 million people, but it was used mostly on computer desktops, and its market share was declining. We had to develop our own operating system for smartphones. We also had no revenue stream. Our contract with Google [paying Firefox for search traffic] had expired, and many people thought that, because Google had launched its own browser [Chrome], it wouldn’t do another deal with us. But it did—for more than $1 billion.
When did you feel your work at Mozilla was done?
We had a huge media launch for the Firefox smartphone at the annual Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, in February, 2013. There were 900 media representatives there, 23 industry partners and the CEOs of most of the biggest telecommunications companies in the world were onstage with me.
Are you disappointed that the phone and the operating system still haven’t grabbed much market share?
It’s important that it be there. All of us are being asked to live our entire lives in two walled gardens—Apple or Google.
Is it true that your father sometimes called Mozilla Mozzarella?
It’s worse than that. He told me, “I bought your stock.” I said, “Dad, we don’t have a stock.” He’d purchased shares in a big mozzarella cheesemaker, Saputo, out of Montreal. I said, “Dad, it looks like a wonderful company, but I am not involved in management decisions of Saputo cheese.”
In 2012, you gave a TED Talk on Internet security that has been viewed close to two million times. What inspired it?Mozilla had developed a plug-in that monitored who was monitoring you, and showed that on your screen with a network of coloured dots. I installed it on my daughter’s computer one Saturday. I put that graphic on the screen at TED and it made an impact.
Are you happy to be back in the for-profit sphere at AVG, with a more streamlined decision-making process?
The way corporations used to be run-—and many still are—is hierarchical. Mozilla is a study of a new form of leadership. The CEO is not the dictator or presenter of everything. He’s the facilitator for smart people who work with each other. AVG is making a shift to what I’ll call social leadership—the Mozilla model. You push decisions to where it’s best to make them. The old-school CEO might say that all this will do is facilitate a lot of bitching and complaining. I say that employees are already doing that. Your choice is whether to listen or not.
This interview has been condensed and edited.