Major Developer Exodus: The Untold Story Behind Opera’s Engine Change

As you might have heard by now, Opera Software had decided to dump its own rendering engine in favor of Chromium, which is based on Webkit. While announcing its dramatic shift, Hakon Wium Lie, CTO of Opera, stated that the change will enable Opera to dedicate more of its resources to developing new features. While rumors surrounding layoffs were floating in the air, Opera’s PR refused to comment beyond stating, “We have never had more people at Opera working on our products than right now, and we look forward to contributing to WebKit”. Now, Norwegian IT journal Digi.No has confirmed that leading up to the change, Opera underwent what is probably its most dramatic downsizing operation.

Opera-Presto is reporting that as many at least 90 developers were pushed out of the door over the past few months. Several employees took the severance package before Christmas, including Yngve Pettersen, André Shultz and Lasse Magnussen, who were among the first developers to join the company in the 1990s. Pettersen was in fact employee number 3 in the company that was co-founded by Jon Tetzchner and Ivarsøy Geir. After the new year, several more (Digi.No puts the figure at 50-70) were asked to take the severance package. Most of the affected employees were from the Core team. However, a sizable number of developers were also retained and moved to other divisions (mainly mobile). What is not clear is whether these employees were given the option of picking between working on something else and taking the severance package, or were they simply fired. It’s quite possible that veteran developers voluntarily left the company due to the dwindling opportunity to work on core technologies. Opera’s “Open Web” team, which was tasked with promoting web standards and fixing website compatibility issues also probably contributed to the headcount reduction.

Wilhelm JoysAndersen, who used to manage Opera’s core testing team before quitting last year, is alleging that the situation is far worse than being reported in the press. He believes that the number of people forced out might be close to 200. He also claims that the “morale is at rock bottom, with a number of people leaving on their own” and “those laid off are terrified to say anything publicly”. Opera was once known for housing extremely talented engineers, and managed to lead the way in terms of core-technologies as well as user facing innovations. However, there has been a noticeable exodus of talent over the past few years including the likes of Ian Hickson and Anne van Kesteren. Opera has also lost key executives like Chief Development Officer Christen Krogh, and Chief Strategy Officer Rolf Assev. Although I am yet to hear back from Opera’s PR, Opera’s Håvard Moen has dubbed Digi.No’s report as misinformation.

Interestingly, just days before Opera went public with its engine shift, news emerged that Opera co-founder and previous CEO Jon S. von Tetzchner sold large chunk of his shares in the company for between 180 and 200 million NOK (about 32-35 million USD). He resigned as CEO in 2010 and resigned from his post as strategic advisor in 2011. “It has become clear that The Board, Management and I do not share the same values and we do not have the same opinions on how to keep evolving Opera”, Tetzchner had revealed in his parting email. It’s well-known that Tetzchner was averse to the idea of letting Opera being acquired, but he will no longer be able to singlehandedly sway the board’s decision. Looking at the timeline of events from the outside, one can’t help but wonder whether Tetzchner, a man who placed more importance on values and ethos than cut-throat business, decided to reduce his stake in the company because the Opera that he knew and built is gone forever?

Update: Nils Broström, VP of Communications, Opera Software, issued the following clarification:
“Opera has never had more people working on the end user product than we do today. Shifting technology platform means that we can put our clever people on developing end user benefits and innovations rather than developing and maintaining our own core. This required a lot of people, and with our move to WebKit, our aim was to fill as many of these more product related positions by recruiting internally from our core team.

Included in the 90 are people from various parts of the company, including marketing and sales. Opera has worked with each of these to provide and offer severance packages, so nobody has been laid off in this process, but this was of course somewhat emotional for all of us anyway. We never like to see good people leave, but at the same time, we need to make sure everybody works on what we are focusing on in the future, making the best possible end user product. The move to WebKit is an engineering decision, and the reasoning is that we now can focus on what matters most for our users: really good products.

It’s always sad to loose good colleagues. These guys are very talented, and they will be a great asset in the IT industry, either in Norway, or where they choose to work in the future.”

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Pallab De

Pallab De is a blogger from India who has a soft spot for anything techie. He loves trying out new software and spends most of his day breaking and fixing his PC. Pallab loves participating in the social web; he has been active in technology forums since he was a teenager and is an active user of both twitter (@indyan) and facebook .