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In the trenches with...Chris Harrick of SugarCRM

Chris Harrick of SugarCRM tells us to study the proprietary world...and do the opposite. Our next installment of the In the Trenches Series.

One of the first people I thought of when thinking up this In the Trenches series was Chris Harrick of SugarCRM. I've known Chris for a year or two, and have always been impressed. He's the sort of employee that any company would want, whether proprietary or open source. Fortunately for the open source world, he left Siebel to join SugarCRM.

When you talk with Chris, you don't get the sense that he spends much time mucking around in the ideological side of open source. He cares about customers and figuring out how to make them happy. And, as you'll see below, he thinks a lot about this and other issues that affect an open source business.

Name, company, title, and what you actually do

Chris Harrick, director of Product Marketing, SugarCRM. My team is responsible for communicating the benefits of SugarCRM products to open source users, prospects, customers, analysts, partners, and the media. Responsibilities include creating product messaging, competitive positioning, supporting sales, developing demos and webcasts, briefing analysts and the media, and authoring lots of collateral (White Papers, Datasheets, Press Releases, Web Site, Customer Case Studies).

Do you work remotely or in an office with co-workers?

I work in Cupertino most days but Sugar is flexible and allows me to work from home; one of the many reasons why it is such a great place to work. Sugar management is about results, not face time.

If you've had a similar role in a proprietary software company, how does your current role compare? Similarities? Differences?

I had a similar role but with less responsibility at Siebel Systems, which had a pretty unique culture. So I knew that wherever I went next, it would be different.

Siebel was full of a lot of smart, driven people and its command-and-control culture was a good training ground to learn the fundamentals of outbound product marketing. I still use a lot of the skills I developed at Siebel in my present position.

One of the big differences is that at Siebel you asked "When?" as in, "When do you need this by?" and never questioned anything. At SugarCRM you are encouraged to ask "Why?" because part of our mission is to overturn the artificial and somewhat bizarre lock-in tactics proprietary vendors place on their customers (think source code, proprietary APIs, hidden pricing, and excessive product versioning).

Our commercial open source business model does not accommodate people who do not think before they work. Resources are focused on engineering, not sales and marketing, so you need to figure out what matters and what is just noise.

How familiar were you with open source before you joined your current company?

I thought I knew something about open source before joining SugarCRM, but by Day Two, I realized I knew very little and most of what I knew was wrong. Some general misconceptions that were quickly demystified:

Myth: Open Source means Linux, which is written by thousands of developers.

Reality: Only a dozen or so people have access to the Linux kernel. Linux is an important part of open source, but there are thousands of projects and communities across every software domain.

Myth: Open Source is only for development.

Reality: Open Source is a development, distribution, and marketing process. It touches and transforms every part of the business.

Myth: Open Source versus Proprietary is a zero-sum game. Reality: Open Source expands the pie by reaching users and geographies that cannot be addressed by a proprietary business model.

Myth: Licenses do not matter to marketing.

Reality: I do not think I ever read a software license before joining SugarCRM. I quickly learned that licensing is at the heart of any software business, especially an open source one.

Why did you join an open source vendor?

I watched Siebel go from a $2 billion to a $1 billion business in a short period so I knew that something was fundamentally wrong with the proprietary license/maintenance business model. After meeting with SugarCRM CEO John Roberts, who is very persuasive, I saw a vision for a company that was pursuing a totally different model based on openness and engineering excellence. So I took a leap of faith.

How long did it take you to adjust to an open source operational mode?

At least six months, if not more. I have been with SugarCRM for almost two years and still catch myself thinking in proprietary ways. It is an ongoing process which is what makes it fun. You find yourself constantly learning.

It can be especially frustrating when dealing with people who are still in the proprietary mindset. For example, when someone sends us a 200-question RFP about our product functionality, we just scratch our heads. Sure, in the proprietary world, RFPs are a valuable way to gather information about products because you do not get to see the actual product until you purchase. But with open source, the only excuse is laziness because the product can be fully inspected by prospects at any time.

Another annoyance is the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) documents competitors circulate which misrepresent our product functionality. The same rule applies ? people can easily look into our product and realize that most of the accusations are patently false.

What do you think open source companies could learn from proprietary vendors?

In many ways, we look at proprietary firms and try to do the opposite. The open source movement is a direct response to how proprietary firms do business.

That being said, I think you can learn a lot from individual companies. How Apple creates an emotional connection with users is a very valuable lesson. How Microsoft built an amazing ecosystem around its products. How IBM transformed itself to deal with technology shifts. And, until recently, how Dell created a more efficient distribution channel for personal computers is worth examining by any student of technology.

Chris learned software from one of the most rigidly proprietary companies in the business (I once had to negotiate a deal with Siebel and vowed that I would never talk with a Siebel employee again - life is too short to have to deal with people who take themselves seriously because they're wearing ties :-), and yet he seems to have emerged relatively unscathed. He's an exceptional find for SugarCRM.