Behind the whys

This post is inspired in equal parts by Ashley’s fantastic post on why she joined Microsoft and Keith’s one on why he left Microsoft. Both tell great stories about open source at Microsoft. Here’s my take on them.

There’s no shortage of stories when it comes to open source in this place. Later this summer, it’ll be 7 years since I joined Microsoft, every single day of which I’ve spent working passionately in the open source space.

I joined Microsoft as an expat living in Ecuador when the local GM asked me to lead open source strategy for a handful of emerging markets in the region. At that time, I had spent 8 years of my career focusing on open source, from community to product. Canaima had been in market for a year and I was actively applying the learnings from years involved in policymaking efforts in Venezuela where I had the opportunity to join congressional workshops and debate with Microsoft reps that would then become my colleagues.

Suffice to say that what was front and center in every conversation I had wasn’t associated with Microsoft back then, and that my decision to join Microsoft didn’t come without repercussions.

I was immediately dismissed from the board of a local free software group and countless networks and contacts closed, a few still to date. My dad gifted me a copy of this book shortly after a local newspaper ran an interview with me about open source which he disagreed with (he insists I’m reading too much into the gift) And like many others, I was also thrown into the world of Office and Windows, products I hadn’t used since I was a teenager.

There are increasingly more posts (like Ashley’s) that brilliantly explain why would someone come in those conditions, and I won’t bother you with mine because hindsight is 20/20, but let me say that as terrible as all of that might sound, it was also a true calling – a calling for transformation. And after all this time responding to that call, I realize how thankful I am for being able to say my entire career at Microsoft has been focused on open source.

On one of my first trips to Redmond, I got to meet a handful of others in my role around the globe, and we were starting to cross-pollinate that community with the high-profile hires Microsoft had then. Just a few years later I had an opportunity to come to Redmond and help lead that community – a community that is still heavily influenced by Ramji’s and Hilf’s contributions to the space.

While in LATAM I had an opportunity to drive impact in disruptive ways: from supporting a Postgres conference (5 years before we had this) to coaching Microsoft Student Partners in rolling out a Linux distro. In my first few years in Redmond, I worked on projects from deprecating taxonomy and helping write priority memos so it was unequivocally clear how we wanted to work with open source, to curating and sharing global best practices and defining field strategy, all things I did with Mark Hill while I was his CTO.

Of course, those were testing years. I would equate some of my experiences to trying to change a belt in a running engine. It didn’t take long to realize we needed a new engine, and I had the opportunity to write a spec for it in an internal forum called ThinkWeek. When the paper got a Certificate of Excellence (long story short, way too many Skypers voted for it) I realized that the pieces had arrived and we were being offered a chance to build it. John said it best in his ChefConf keynote: it was a mix of opportunity, changing demographics and strategy shifts.

And although open source is visible across the company, it’s much harder to hide it in Azure, a product that I had first interacted with in 2008 (when Miguel de Icaza ran an open source panel at PDC08) and that I had mostly ignored in my first years at Microsoft (arguably because it was called Windows Azure then) but that in my eyes provided a clear vehicle for that open source transformation I joined for.

And so that’s how I ended up in the cloud whirlwind a few years ago, focusing on the open source portfolio across Linux, Java, Node.js, DevOps and containers, helping define and land our approach to open source and supporting our work with the ecosystem at large, lurking behind papers and decks in partnership with amazing people like John, Julia, Joseph, Gebi, Mark or folks around the globe like Caroline, Frederic, Alex, Rafael, Olga or Tito.

The first time I traveled to Redmond I met a dozen of open source enthusiasts from around the world (it might have been Gianugo’s first day, too) and fast forward to today where I get to share with 700 of my colleagues in a Yammer group dedicated to open source in the cloud. My colleague Stuart volunteers to help employees that want to take the LFCS certification: that’s another 700. Our team lives and breathes open source in a way that lets us share market intelligence with customers, partners and the community at large.

Later this month at our yearly readiness conference we will have a dedicated open source track. At the Inspire conference, we’ll award the Open Source Partner of the Year award for the third year in a row. And there’s no shortage of industry chatter on this transformation – for which we’re thankful and we learn every day.

But it’d be very easy to get lost in what’s new and what’s different and not realize why it’s meaningful. Stories like Ashley’s give us not only a fresh perspective but the energy to run the engines. And stories like Keith’s and others who have pursued a different career at Microsoft or elsewhere after being part of this open source journey (like Alessandro, Sara, Ahmet or Nik) motivate us to do it right.

When college interns and high schoolers alike reach out to shadow and spend time learning about open source in a place like this, that’s meaningful. When a customer in France interrupt your presentation to ask for your take on a particular corner of the open source world so they can make investment decisions, well, that’s simply awesome.

And that’s why stories like these inspire all of us doing open source at Microsoft. Welcome, good luck, keep being awesome, stay in touch, whatever that is: here’s to more open source stories!

Why I’m writing about hackers and parenting in Spanish

Earlier this month I went live with a self-published e-book in Spanish titled Cómo criar un hacker: how to raise a hacker.

This book is aimed at parents who are not IT professionals but wish to understand the hacker ethos and a key set of things they can do to build that ethos that is more than just teaching kids to code.

Sure, in the book I say it’s OK if your child isn’t interested in coding, I mention 2600 and Club Mate and I quote ESR profusely (largely for his authority on this topic, and not because I validate or agree with every position of his) but I hope all of that isn’t controversial because it isn’t at the core of the motivations for the book.

Instead, I challenge the inconsistent and unjustified battle against screens, I highlight the relevance of open source and I stake a claim for hackers on note taking and humor as a tool for building character and I do this all under the assumption that digital natives (whatever that means) aren’t set for excellence in a generation where every world leader is also a digital native: only hackers are.

Since this is a short book on parenting, I evidently don’t go into building actual infosec skills at any significant depth. I don’t even discuss the tactics of screen management, covered eloquently and empathetically in books like Screenwise.

In fact, it was by reading reviews on similar work that I found a huge gap in Spanish-speaking markets on this and decided to start there (plus, self-publishing in English would probably have taken me longer as I’m not a native English speaker)

I’m ultimately neither a family counselor, not an expert on parenting. I was just raised a hacker by folks who didn’t even know what that was. Feedback is always welcome. (Cómo criar un hacker is available on Amazon and Smashwords)

Perspective at //build

Recently I had the opportunity to share stage with some brilliant internal and external colleagues advancing open source in the cloud at //build, Microsoft’s developer conference in San Francisco. Beyond having been able to talk to about 400 attendees about how we’re approaching open source in the cloud, how customers are building open source applications in Azure and much more, speaking at //build had a very special meaning for me.

Before joining Microsoft, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the Microsoft developer ecosystem, the Microsoft subsidiaries themselves or the employees working there. I was focused in a number of open source projects such as Canaima (Venezuela’s national distro) a number of communities and expanding a small open source system integrator in the region.

Most of my interaction with Microsoft was limited to public debates, at industry events or in Congress, or to the ISO/IEC 29500 discussion back in the days (both of which I’ve covered in this blog, in Spanish) However, around 2009 or so, the company I was a CTO for and Microsoft decided to create an Open Source Interoperability Lab in Venezuela. The idea was to document common hybrid technology use cases (such as Samba-based DCs in Windows environments, or PHP and ASP.NET communicating via ESB) and transfer that knowledge to customers.

As a result of that effort, I ended up being invited to and participating in PDC09 in Los Angeles. PDC was the precursor of //build, a yearly conference aimed at Microsoft-centric developers. There are 3 things I remember clearly from PDC09: one, was the “convertible tablet PC” they offered attendees (running Windows 7 bits that rapidly became Debian bits), the second one was the PHP SDK for Azure, and the preview access to that new “cloud” thingy, and the third one was an open source roundtable led by Miguel de Icaza that mainly talked about governance and CodePlex.

While I didn’t know it back then, a lot of the things discussed in that roundtable influenced my decision, about a year later, to join Microsoft and work in open source strategy; a journey that brought me to Azure in less than 5 years. But I digress, and that whole story deserves another post.

Maybe some of the attendees then foresaw that Microsoft would end up acquiring Xamarin, or that attention would be put in non-CodePlex initiatives, like GitHub. What I really didn’t expect was that all of that new reality would converge into a PDC-like event, less than 10 years after. This year at //build it did, and then some.

For me, speaking at //build was a humbling opportunity to reconcile the many worlds increasingly pulled together by the force of open source. From the announcements to the content and all other metasignals at the conference, it was incredibly exciting to see this transformation manifesting itself within Microsoft’s developer community.

It highlights the importance of leaving no one behind when we explore new paradigms and technologies in the cloud, and how every individual in the open source community can exert change in this industry.

Why we go to LinuxFest Northwest

For the second year in a row since I moved to Redmond, I’ll be joining the Microsoft crew sponsoring and attending LinuxFest Northwest in Bellingham, Washington. This is one of the largest, if not the largest Linux & open source event in the region and draws large crowds of smart geeks from Canada, the United States and other countries, as well as corporate sponsors like us.

One of the questions I get the most is why does Microsoft sponsors and participates this event? Microsoft has been sponsoring and participating in many open source conferences, projects and events in many parts of the world but some people are wondering why a non-corporate, pure Linux event, and some others are naturally skeptical about it.

I don’t think there’s a single reason why we rally to convince our bosses to do it, but we have been trying to do more closer to home, when it comes to open source. There is a vibrant Linux and open source ecosystem in Redmond, the Puget Sound area and the Pacific Northwest and while we have been very active in Europe and in the Bay Area, we haven’t done a good job of connecting with the people closer to home.

For example, I recently had the fantastic opportunity to help the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network from the University of Washington to run their Ubuntu-based Node.js applications for their “Quake Shake“. I think being able to help with that project or with any other project or conference in any other part of the globe is a good thing – but there’s no distance excuse for Bellingham!

Another great reason is the LFNW community itself. We love the crowd, the lively discussions, the sharing and learning spirit. And as long as we are welcome by the community we’ll continue to seek opportunities to connect with it. Plus, this is a really cool conference. This year, I’m cutting my vacations to attend the event. A coworker is skipping church duty to help. We have heard from many engineers and program managers that they will be attending and want to carpool and staff the booth. And my friend has been investing all this time in logistic ensuring we are having a meaningful presence.

The community invites some of the sponsors to bring unique content that is relevant to the participants. Last year I had the opportunity to demo a Raspberry Pi device connected to Office via Azure. Most people in the room didn’t know Office runs in a browser, or that Azure could run Linux. But they listened and they thought it was cool. Some of them are now partners, helping customers do more with open source in Azure.

This year, I want to bring more Debian to this event because I have been working a lot inside of Microsoft to get more people up to speed with Debian-based development and we have serious community momentum around Debian in Azure. In true Microsoft tradition, we will have a cake to celebrate the arrival of Debian 8. I’ll have in mind all of those friends in the Debian community with whom I’ve been working with for years to make sure we don’t drop the ball when it comes to responding to what our customers, partners and the community want when it comes to Debian.

And, hopefully, next year we’ll be back again in Bellingham for LinuxFest Northwest 2016!

Thoughts on growth and open source services

For many years I was infatuated with the idea of creating value out of open source professional services. To a certain extent, this is a function of when, where and how I was exposed to open source. Even today, after acknowledging the challenges of this model (the hard way) I find myself spending time modelling what needs to change in order to innovate it.

While today there are statistically no skeptics of the tremendous impact that open source software has had in and beyond the IT industry, thinking prevails that the open source opportunity doesn’t lay on professional services.

It’s commonly accepted that only a handful of players have found success in this model. In fact, some would argue that it can only be one that exhausts it for everybody else. Media commentators shun on rising startups whose business model smells too much of support and services.

As Ben Werdmüller recently wrote (motivating me to write this article) those services are not recurring and not scalable. And there’s also proof in the market that well designed, talented and recognized organizations eventually fail in their efforts to seize the open source consulting business.

Back in 2008, after 5 years selling open source services either as a freelancer or in small firms, I was invited to lead technical strategy for an open source focused system integrator in Venezuela. The organization had recently scored a support agreement with a large multinational hardware vendor for a subset of their customers’ Linux needs, and they were looking for a portfolio and an attractive environment for talent and for growth.

I spent the next 3 years building a team of 50+ in several countries in Latin America, shipping open source products and solutions and managing large consulting projects for customers in the public and private sector. That support agreement became 3 partnership agreements with large IT multinationals. Yet with all the impact, the challenges of dealing with the subtleties and complexities of the open source professional services challenge remained unaddressed.

There were numerous learnings I grabbed from that experience, ranging from managing a team of talented professionals who went on to highly successful roles in Europe and the Americas, to the art of marketing something as bland and commoditized as open source consulting.

Among the fun learnings: with a highly mobile talent pool in multiple countries we managed our daily operations via IRC. We also built a lean-and-mean sales process led by the delivery teams, not sales, embraced document and knowledge management and invested in the communities and ecosystem that help open source be successful.

But I digress. Portfolio-wise, we had organized our offering in three core areas (infrastructure, applications and databases) and a number of incubation areas that gave us a unique competitive advantage such as knowledge management and end-user experience (we focused a lot on Linux in the desktop) or business intelligence and unified communications. All with open source, all with Linux.

Yet market disruptions, such as government policy in an economy where public sector concentrates an overwhelming amount of spending power, contributed to mask the unaddressed. Since 2004, there was a stated pro-open source policy in the public sector which evolved into a number of unstated policies trickling to public and private sector alike.

When this policy was introduced there was a small talent pool to cover the complex needs of a public sector that sprawled beyond the vertical with plenty of Oil & Gas, Financial Services, Manufacturing and other needs. Furthermore, virtually no relevant foreign organization took advantage of this opportunity due to general market conditions, a difference between how similar policies were rolled out in, for example, Ecuador (where the US dollar is the local currency)

Therefore, supply and demand reality made margin management, a critical discipline in the services business, an afterthought. Plus, the depth and quality of our technical results was a catalyst for business opportunities so marketing wasn’t really in the picture. We were a go-to open source consulting company and we got away with selling bland OpenLDAP clusters and Asterisk IPBX as if they were actual products, repeatable and scalable.

And in exploring other models we found support was something we actually enjoyed: we were really proactive and fanatical about it and generally speaking never had to sell a support agreement. In the training side of things we managed to set consistency standards across courses and deployments but all accrued to that non-recurring base of services, to that dreaded hourly rate. So they were never differentiated sources of growth as it always converged in a consulting project.

At some stage we did invest in a products team that explored all the right things which years later hit the market (agile embedded with general purpose Linux OS, SaaS and cloud-powered IPBXs, analytics and insights, etc.) but the reality is that our operation corpora was built on a professional services foundation which made it unrealistic to detach. We tried using a different brand for our product labs, but the talent we had attracted and developed thrived in services.

I still see the boundaries of a VAR, an ISV and an SI as pretty artificial in the open source world, just as I find it less relevant to look at the boundaries of development and IT professionals with an open source hat on. Of course the business models are different, some are based in volume and depend on marketing and channel while others are based in margin and depend on trust and references. This mix is not different from what we’re seeing today in open source startup IPOs.

Today I don’t struggle to articulate a value proposition or find demand for the open source capabilities I’m selling. I’m struggling to find the right partner to help me scale. And I refuse to believe I can only go to a global SI or a well-known Bay Area ISV for those needs, when I have lots of VARs, SIs and ultimately great people in local markets who can land meaningful solutions. Yet I’m wary about putting all the eggs in the basket of building value out of open source professional services.

We’re now living interesting times where the successful players in this space are crowd sourcing services growth via channel. This is a fascinating move from an open source support and services behemoth and has a lot of potential if it can connect the local talent with consistency that accrues to growth.

In the meantime, common sense will still indicate that entering the market to sell non-repeatable open source professional services can be highly rewarding in developing people, acquiring and developing know-how and making an impact. It can even help reduce the consumption gap for a complex product and help build market share. It just doesn’t seem to be a high-growth strategy for most people out there.