MindTouch CEO on open standards, culture, and working at Microsoft


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(...hint: it might not be what you expect!)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Fulkerson, founder and CEO of MindTouch. Before founding the company in 2005, Fulkerson (and co-founder Steve Bjorg) worked in Microsoft's advanced strategies division. After leaving Microsoft, the duo recognized a growing need for a scalable, easy-to-use open source collaboration platform for business and focused their efforts on a pet project, Deki Wiki. Within three years, Deki Wiki was rated as one of the Top 5 OSS projects by SourceForge.net and ultimately grew to become the company known as MindTouch today. MindTouch offers a robust enterprise collaboration platform with more than 16 million users and 400,000 web visits each month.

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Fulkerson has emerged as a true open source leader. Aside from being a much sought-after public speaker and prolific blogger, he has grown and managed MindTouch to a company of 50 that was voted one of the best places to work in San Diego, CA .

Aaron is also a fellow Tar Heel – I learned through my interview that he and I are both UNC-Chapel Hill graduates. After talking college basketball for a few minutes, I wanted to get Aaron's perspective on leading and managing a true open source company, and his views on where open source is headed in the future.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about the culture at MindTouch? How would you describe the culture at the company that you built? How does it reflect the open source way?

First and foremost, everybody at MindTouch is really passionate about open source and open standards. Furthermore, Steve and I built this company around three cultural tentpoles: honesty, excellence, and pride. We want to work with people who love what they do and are always trying to make themselves better at what they are doing.

The way that we've adopted and systematized these three doctrines (or pillars) ties in very directly to the open source way. For example, we don't fire anybody on the spot if you've been with MindTouch for more than 6 months. Have you ever worked at a company where people are scared because they don't know if they will be fired from day to day? Well, that never happens at MindTouch. Instead, we put people of concern on a correction plan for 60 days.

Regarding excellence, we want our people to excel. That's why we give all of our co-workers $600 per quarter to spend on professional development, which could include classes or any other development tool of the employee's choosing.

And finally, pride. We've worked hard to foster a culture where everyone at MindTouch feels comfortable bringing attention to the co-worker who might be in need of some improvement. “You know that work you just did? Well, it's not the best work I've seen.” And that goes all the way to the executive team.

I'll give you an example. One of our marketing admins had a concern about how one of our outside vendors was being treated. She felt comfortable enough to go to the head of the department and say, “Look, I don't like how you're treating this outside vendor. We've been delaying, delaying, delaying in giving the vendor an answer and haven't yet paid them.”

There is absolutely a cultural meritocracy at MindTouch. The guy who runs our support team started out as an office manager, and very quickly moved into running the entire support team. He just excelled at it.

And almost every single one of our developers, every single person in engineering, has a side project that they are working on – whether it's a side company, or an open source project.

 

Leaving Microsoft to start an open source company must have been an interesting transition. Can you compare & contrast the culture at the company you've built with that of Microsoft?

For me, my experience at Microsoft wasn't that different from working at an open source company because Steve and I were in a small research team that reported directly to Craig Mundie, who had been the CTO. On my team was Chuck Thacker, who just won the Turing Award a few weeks ago, and guys like Henrik Frystyk Nielsen who also worked on HTTP 1.1 and co-wrote the SOAP 1.1 & 1.2 specifications. Somehow Steve and I lucked into this small group.

My time there was very different from what most people's experience might have been at Microsoft. It was more academic. I had the opportunity to not only work with a Turing Award winner, but I met other award winners like Jim Gray and Robin Milner in my time working there. It was a very different experience from what one might expect within Microsoft.

Speaking of Turing Award winners, I studied under another while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Of course, that man is Fred Brooks, author of the Mythical Man Month and founder of the computer science department at UNC. He's a god.

 

In your experience working at proprietary companies, do you feel that aspects of a company's culture can stifle innovation? And , conversely, can aspects of an open source company's culture accelerate the rate of innovation?

Some people, when they first come into MindTouch, are surprised by how much freedom they have, both in rising to the occasion and taking on responsibility that might be outside of their specific domain or sphere of influence, but also in simple things like engaging the community.

I had a new employee once ask me “can I write a blog post on this?” I said “Well, yeah, why are you asking me that? It's like asking me if you can go to the bathroom.” (laughs)

Who can tweet on the MindTouch account? Whoever wants to! (laughs)

It's that culture of openness that is so typical of open source companies and you don't see in most software companies.

As MindTouch grew and we started bringing on some people who might have had more of a background in proprietary companies and were unaccustomed to working with open source, it even became apparent to me that for them it felt odd. But as we all grew to be more comfortable being open and honest and authentic, it created a humanness for the company that resonates with users and prospective customers. And it drives more users and prospective customers. So that's one key thing that I've seen.

Another thing that I have come to realize is that companies that have tried to own the protocols and own the standards generally don't succeed. Look at what happened during the SOA era – you know, SOAP and all these very heavy web services – the reason why those web services were created the way that they were was because large companies like IBM and Microsoft and all those people who were involved in the standards creation wanted to sell very expensive heavy tools on top of the services infrastructures. And it was frankly a huge failure that undoubtedly set us back 5, 7, maybe 10 years because they wouldn't embrace these open standards that already we've proven could scale and provide a very extensible platform.

Specifically I'm talking of course about HTTP and XML. You look at how these very large companies put all of their weight and dollars and marketing budgets and essentially everything they had into creating this new world of SOA, and all these promises were made ... it was all about them owning the protocol, owning the platform, providing very heavy tools and ultimately it was proven to be a huge failure.

So instead we opt to live in a completely different world where it's open standards and everybody benefits – including companies like MindTouch who adhere to open standards. Everything at MindTouch is like-orienting ... meaning it's all HTTP. Everything we do revolves around open standards. And again, it's a huge benefit.

The third thing I'll say is that MindTouch would have gone out of business a long time ago if we hadn't been able to build up an install base. In the beginning we bootstrapped this company – we certainly didn't have all the resources to dump into sales and marketing and other such things to go out and fight against Oracle and Microsoft.

We've been successful by making our products freely available, building up a large, very fanatic install base of users, and then offering them commercial solutions built on top of that.

 

Opensource.com is about applying open source principles beyond technology. How do you see open source playing a role in areas such as business, education, law or government? Can you see any opportunities in today's world for the open source way being applied to solve some of our biggest problems?

Absolutely. We're seeing it in education, obviously, with MIT and several other very prominent universities making their courseware, videos, and tutorials available online.

I have also witnessed firsthand how this is changing the legal landscape. It's funny – and most people don't realize this – but the small start-up open source companies that came up in the 2004-2006 cohort, of which MindTouch is one of the younger ones, all shared the development of things like legal contracts and partner agreements to save on legal costs. My contracts might be a little different now, but I remember for the first few years, MindTouch's contract templates tracked back even to JBoss.

What I'd like to see – and I've pushed hard on this but have never been able to see any movement yet from my efforts – is an emergence of open source as applied to manufacturing. We have seen some projects around electric cars, and people like the BugLabs guys and others working on personal devices and things like that. But what I foresee happening is that as more and more of our manufactured products become commodities, true innovation will come from sharing with one another just how these things are manufactured. I think everyone will benefit as a result.

 

MindTouch recently released a list of “The 20 Most Powerful Voices in Open Source”. According to the post, the list is comprised of “the most vocal” open source leaders, i.e. the ones holding the “biggest megaphones”. In a community-based format, do you feel that being the most vocal is equivalent to being the most powerful?

No, I don't think that's necessarily the case. MindTouch conducted what was (and probably still is) the most comprehensive survey of best practices in sales and marketing in the enterprise open source space, back in September 2009. We had 25 open source companies participate in the study, including SugarCRM, Jaspersoft, Alfresco, and others.

One of the questions we asked was, “who do you think is the most influential person in open source?” We had 50 executives respond to the question and released the results of that question in a post to the MindTouch blog in October 2009. Larry Augustin, CEO of SugarCRM, received the most mentions. Matt Asay, Marten Mickos, Jim Whitehurst, and Dries Buytaert rounded out the top 5.

The “Most Powerful Voices” study was a different way of looking at this metric. We developed an MPV measure that considered an individual's Twitter and Google “buzz” to determine one's impact and broadcast power. I was a bit skeptical at first but agreed to conduct the analysis, but told my team I wanted to see the list first before posting it.

A bit hesitant, I looked down the list and thought “yeah, I can see it breaking out this way.” What I thought was especially cool about it was that there were a lot of people who I didn't even know on the list. Channy Yun from Korea, others from abroad ... names and faces that aren't instantly recognizable. And I thought that was pretty awesome.

We expected the “I don't know any of these people, so it can't be right” reactions. But that's OK. They might be huge in Korea, or huge in Italy, or huge in the communities in which they participate.

So overall, no, I don't necessarily believe that having the biggest microphone makes you the most influential person. In fact, with regards to open source, I think volume can actually be ineffective. Megaphones aren't always the best way to reach engineers.

 

Want to learn more? Check out Aaron's blog, as well as the MindTouch blog. We particularly enjoyed recent posts on the Brief History of Free and Open Source Software and The Most Powerful Voices in Open Source.

 

--

As co-founder and CEO of MindTouch, Aaron, in less than three years, has grown a small open source project into one of the World's most popular and positioned it as #1 in open source collaboration (source: Sourceforge.net) with tens of millions of users globally and an impressive customer list of Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies and mid-market companies. Prior to co-founding MindTouch, Aaron was a member of Microsoft’s Advanced Strategies and Policies division and worked on distributed systems research. Previously he owned and operated a successful software and Information Technology consulting firm, Gurion Digital LLP. He has held senior positions at software startups, has helped to launch several non-profits and businesses outside the software industry. Aaron received his BS in Computer Science from University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. He resides in San Diego, CA with his wife and two children. You can find Aaron on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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6 Comments

Unidentified's picture

That thing is not open source at all. On their site it says: "Software License: Shared Source". As far as I know, that is code name for Microsoft quasi-open source licenses which are in conflict with section 6 (and some with 10 also) of open source definition.

What else to expect from ex-Microsofties.... openwashing.

Aaron Fulkerson's picture

Open washing? :-)

MindTouch Core is released under GPL v2 but some components (MindTouch Dream) are released under Apache. Download here (Core is GPL2 and free). I write about Open Core here, which links to several other posts on the topic.
The gist is, you can think of MindTouch Core as an up-stack app server that is specialized in collaboration. MindTouch 2009/2010 is a commercial product built atop MindTouch Core. MindTouch 2009/2010 is designed to be the killer app for strategic (product and service) documentation.

I'm confident most, if not all readers, readers at OpenSource.com have used MindTouch before. For example, the Mozilla Developer Network is powered by MindTouch. There are many other documentation bases that are powered by MindTouch including those for Zmanda, Fonality, RightScale, Intel, Microsoft, Intuit, ExactTarget, AutoDesk, EMC and many others.

Anyway, GPL v2 and Apache...not open washing. :-)

Unidentified's picture

Thanks, though I found out that myself later, when I've done screaming "openwashing":-) I see you are puzzled by the term, it is pun to greenwashing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwash

When they say they are open and they are not. But not case here, it seems. I am always suspicious when there is word Microsoft involved. My apologies.

Aaron Fulkerson's picture

Thanks for the comprehensive interview. It's very flattering. One thing though, you write "chairman" when you mean "Turing Award".

j_q_adams's picture
Open Minded

Thanks, Aaron.

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As Red Hat's resident Brand Manager, John Adams strives to both protect and advance the Red Hat brand every day.

okan's picture