System76's secret sauce for success

Linux computer maker's approach to community-informed software and hardware development embodies the open source way.
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In The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst says, "show passion for the purpose of your organization and constantly drive interest in it. People are drawn to and generally, want to follow passionate people." Carl Richell, the founder and CEO of Linux hardware maker System76, pours that secret sauce to propel his company in the world of open hardware, Linux, and open source.

Carl demonstrates quiet confidence and engages the team at System76 in a way that empowers their creative synergy. During a recent visit to System76's Denver factory, I could immediately tell that the employees love what they do, what they produce, and their interaction with each other and their customers, and Carl sets that example. They are as they describe themselves: a diverse team of creators, makers, and builders; a small company innovating the next big things; and a group of extremely hard-core nerds.

A revolutionary approach

In 2005, Carl had a vision, which began as talk over some beers, to produce desktop and laptop computers that come installed with Linux. He's transformed that idea into a highly successful company founded on the belief that "the computer and operating system are the most powerful and versatile tools ever created." And by producing the best tools, System76 can inspire the curious to make their greatest discovery or complete their greatest project.

System76 lives up to its name, which was inspired by the American Revolution of 1776. The company views itself as a leader in the open source revolution, granting people freedom and independence from proprietary hardware and software.

But the revolution does not end there; it continues with the company's business practices and diverse environment that aims to close the gender gap in technology leadership. Eight of the company's 28 employees are women, including vice president of marketing Louisa Bisio, creative manager Kate Hazen, purchasing manager May Liu, head of technical support Emma Marshall, and manufacturing control and logistics manager Sarah Zinger.

Community-informed design

The staff members' passion and ingenuity for making the Linux experience enjoyable for customers creates an outstanding culture. Because the company believes the Linux desktop deserves a dedicated PC manufacturer, in 2018, it brought manufacturing in-house. This allows System76's engineers to make design changes more quickly, based on their frequent interactions with Linux users to learn about their needs and wants. It also opens up its parts and process to the public, including publishing design files under GPL on GitHub, consistent with its commitment to openness and open source.

For example, when System76 decided to create its own version of Linux, Pop!_OS, it hosted online meetings to discuss and learn what features and software its customers wanted. This decision to work closely with the community has been instrumental in making Pop!_OS successful.

System76 again turned to the community when it began developing Thelio, its new line of desktop computers. Marketing VP Louisa Bisio says, "Taking a similar approach to open hardware has been great. We started in-house design in 2016, prototyping different desktop designs. Then we moved from prototyping acrylic to sheet metal. Then the first few prototypes of Thelio were presented to our Superfan attendees in 2017, and their feedback was really important in adjusting the desktop designs and progressing Thelio iterations forward." 

Thelio is the product of research and development focusing on high-quality components and design. It features a unique cabling layout, innovative airflow within the computer case, and the Thelio Io open hardware SATA controller. Many of System76's customers use platforms like CUDA to do their work; to support them, System76 works backward and pulls out proprietary functionality, piece by piece, until everything is open.

Open roads ahead

Manufacturing open laptops are on the long-range roadmap, but the company is actively working on an open motherboard and maintaining Pop!_OS and System76 drivers, which are open. This commitment to openness, customer-driven design, and culture give System 76 a unique place in computer manufacturing. All of this stems from founder Carl Richell and his philosophy "that technology should be open and accessible to everyone." As Carl says, "open hardware benefits all of us. It's how we further advance technology and make it more available to everyone."

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.

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