As many know, I have spent the last year and a half trying to get the OpenStack open source cloud operating system off the ground, after convincing Rackspace to embrace this model almost 2 years ago. We had our OpenStack conference last week in Boston, and announced the big next step: creating the OpenStack Foundation. Jane Silber, CEO of Canonical and very wise woman, was kind enough to suggest I join a community discussion list dedicated to discussing foundations. Learning from those with experience in such things is going to be vital as we sort through the many options as a community. Her only recommendation was to write a brief bio to kick things off, which somehow morphed into this insanely long post.
Like most of you, I started hacking in elementary school because girls were scary. In middle school we moved to Austin and I got my first computer, a Coleco Adam, because my parents were both public school teachers and we couldn’t afford an Apple. SmartLogo ftw! In High School I learned Pascal, and like most young nerds was obnoxious enough to try and teach my teachers a few things. I competed in (and won) quite a few programming contests, to offset my time riding the bench for the basketball team with something I could actually achieve.
My first (and only non-tech) job was a 3 day stint washing dishes over memorial weekend at a local restaurant overlooking Lake Travis in a small community called Briarcliff (which Willie calls home). This netted me a whopping $100, and I spent it all on a microsoft mouse to see what the apple zealots were buzzing about. It had two buttons, Apple suckers! This should help me get girls for sure.
When I turned 16 I started working at a local mom and pop computer shop (remember those?) in Austin and probably assembled over 1000 PCs over the years with these summer jobs. I also did sales and training, so I’d sell the PCs up front, go back and assemble them, then train the customers on how to use these magic machines. This was like 1987. I had bad hair and no style. Still scared of girls.
I tried Computer Science at Trinity University for a semester but decided I didn’t want to be a career programmer (also, I kinda sucked) so ended up studying economics. Not because I wanted to become an economist (eww!) but because I found it interesting and my parents were paying for that paper so I had to study something. Finally met a girl (we are now married).
After I (barely) graduated I started at Dell working in a performance lab (thanks to my friend Todd Brannon) doing benchmark testing on new hardware that hadn’t reached the market yet. This was a geek’s dream come true, playing with the latest stuff before anyone else. Also, benchmarks can take hours, so what is a geek going to do? Play games. Anyone remember Command & Conquer? It destroyed my friend Rigo’s legal career because he dropped out of law school to play it every day. Now he’s a successful entrepreneur. Play games, people.
Eventually I went to the dark side (business! money! greed!) and tried product marketing, because playing games all day does eventually get old. This led me to realize that what I really loved was forging partnerships in the tech industry and taking risks on behalf of my company, because what the hell. It’s not my company! As an example, we once picked a graphics chip for a new gaming PC we were building from an unknown, unproven graphics start up with only 30 employees. They called themselves “Nvidia”. Now they all drive Porsches. Worked out.
I did a brief stint at a web start up (it was 2000, duh) and another tour of duty at Dell (first biz dev job, working with broadband companies a.k.a. big Telcos) eventually ended up at Musicmatch, a cool music app company you would remember, had Apple not erased those memories. I loved escaping the big company environment (Dell had lost the magic after becoming #1, but that’s for another post), working with passionate entrepreneurs who cared about their users and wanted to build a sustainable company. Just what I was looking for! We were acquired by Yahoo 3 weeks and 1 day later. Drat.
Turns out, Yahoo was full of incredibly bright people, and I worked in the music group in L.A. for 5 years forging partnerships and learning how to dress. I started learning about the dynamics of platforms, which fascinating me from my economics roots. I worked with a team that built the first Yahoo! music app for Facebook and had a million users in a month. This opened a few eyes at Yahoo! and got me thinking about the future of “business development” in the age of APIs, but mostly we were focused on building a business within the constraints of the music industry. The economics of music licensing and the insistence on DRM by the major labels were (and continue to be) major impediments to innovation in music, and we had the added burden of trying to educate the world on the concept of subscription music in the face of Apple’s simpler approach.
After years of lobbying we finally got the labels to agree to let us sell music in MP3 format, but it was too little too late. Our subscription music service was still bogged down by MSFT DRM by the music labels, and Apple was garnering all the users anyway. We eventually sold off the subscription business to Rhapsody (a deal I worked on, but didn’t particularly enjoy, as I like building things!). Now we see Spotify getting lots of press and traction, which fills me with both pride and dread since we had the same damn thing 5 years ago… but as they say, there’s little difference between being early and being wrong. We also had the #1 personalized radio station called LaunchCast. Didn’t Pandora just have an IPO? Could certainly do a whole series of posts on Yahoo.
Yearning to get back to my geekier roots and actually be part of building a platform ecosystem (and escape the unfolding drama at yahoo) I hooked up with the good folks at Rackspace, who I knew from my days working with Jim Curry at Dell. They were building a cloud by developers for developers, because a lot of them were the slicehost team we acquired (Jason Seats is the man, if you don’t know him you should), who really got it. My title was “biz dev” but the role was more about convincing developers at cloud companies to adopt our platform APIs. We launched a program called “Cloud Tools” to promote their work, which was great fun. Shining the spotlight on other people’s work feels good, and it turns out it’s great business too.
I quickly started pitching to Lew Moorman (president of the cloud group and chief strategy officer for Rackspace) the idea of open sourcing some or all of our cloud (amplifying others ideas, including Jason Seats and Jim Curry to be precise. Credit where it’s due and all that. These days OpenStack has 1000 fathers it seems. Jonathan Bryce tells me they were talking about it as early as 2007, so I can’t take too much credit). This got the first sign of real traction in December of 2009, when Jason Seats started pitching the idea. People (read: Lew) listened to Jason, as they should. By January Lew asked me to start pulling a plan together to evaluate, and by spring of 2010, Jim Curry and I we were pitching the board and Bret Piatt and I were lining up companies to join the mission. The fuse was lit.
Boy did we light a fire! We had no idea how much pent up demand there was for an open cloud standard. The excitement immediately exceeded the readiness of the code, but the brilliant thing about open source (done right) is that there is no barrier to contribution. The more eyes were on it, the more payoff for contributors who didn’t want to fall short of the crazy high expectations. Everyone could feel the potential.
After convincing Rackspace to pursue an open source development strategy, my role in the community has been in many ways to create those insanely high expectations, by growing the community of commercial backers and code contributors and marketing the successes. These two roles are very complimentary, especially in the first year, where one of the best pieces of news we could share to generate excitement was that a new tech giant was getting behind the movement. Within the first year we had Dell, Citrix, Cisco, Canonical, even Microsoft on board.
Did we hype OpenStack? Hell yes. There is a powerful self fulfilling prophecy at work in a community driven initiative with no barrier to contribution except drive and the will to do it. One of the best decisions we’ve made IMHO is recruiting incredibly talented marketing folks like Lauren Sell and Todd Morey, who have been the unsung heroes of the first year in an world where code trumps all. (Also want to hat tip Anne Gentle who has proven that documentation is where the user meets the product and is vitally important).
I know that many developers question the value of marketing, and that in open source in particular it’s looked at as irrelevant or, at best, a distraction. I also know that there is a rich history of open source projects, foundations, and lessons learned. We truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. But we also haven’t been afraid to do things “the openstack way”, to borrow a phrase from Apache, including making marketing and other “non code contributions” a priority.
I think every new community needs to respect and learn from other communities, while also nurturing their own unique characteristics and taking some risks along the way. My gut tells me that as we take the next step to establish an OpenStack Foundation, we, as a community, will again need to balance a reliance on proven models and the voice of those with far more experience, with the emerging “openstack way”. If I could be so bold as to define the “openstack way” just a little bit, I think it would be this: think big, everyone’s welcome, and all contributions matter.
Update: Josh Mckenty, who did as much to make OpenStack a reality as anyone (having led the creation of Nova at Nasa Nebula which became OpenStack Compute, and now CEO of Piston) pointed out an important part of the OpenStack Way. This principle was established on the eve of the first OpenStack Design Summit in Austin over drinks at Star Bar, just days before the public announcement. Tensions were running high, as he was still jumping through legal hoops at NASA to make the launch happen, and we needed a guiding principle (and a bit of comic relief).
Free as in Speech, Love, and Beer.