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In the trenches with...Jonny Brown of rSmart Group

In this installment of In the Trenches, we look at open source in the Higher Education market with Jonny Brown of the rSmart Group.

Most people aren't aware of how vibrant the open source community is in the Higher Education vertical market. Sakai, uPortal, and other Higher Education-specific open source projects thrive in the academic environment. Oddly enough, two of the premier open source vendors in this space hail from Arizona, not normally known as the center of open source. Something in that heat must generate school-bound open source....

One of the strongest commercial open source vendors in this market is rSmart, which provides commercial support for the Sakai project, among other things. Jonny Brown hadn't taken Open Source 101 before he joined The rSmart Group, but as you'll read below, he has clearly imbibed the Kool-Aid.

Name, company, title, and what you actually do

Jonny Brown, Senior Information Architect, rSmart Group. In the very narrowest sense, my job is to find, create, and distribute to our subscribers and the open source community information about using Sakai software. For the most part, this means that I'm a technical writer - a role I played for many years quite some time ago and have never had much desire to revisit. For sure, it wasn't the nature of the meat-and-potatoes work I do (which is very detail-oriented and tends to be boring) that brought me to rSmart. Neither was it the pay check that lured me - I was happily self-employed, reasonably well compensated, very busy, and quite challenged.

Before interviewing at rSmart (which I agreed to do mostly to pacify an old friend), I had only the vaguest idea of what "open source" was. I'd worked for and with larger, proprietary software vendors for many years, and rSmart's emphasis on "cooperation" and "win-win" seemed like typical empty corporate rhetoric to me. After the first conversation, however, I was interested, and soon I was quite intrigued by the business model and the company president's obvious sincerity and commitment to making the world a better place, in part, through working with the open source community. So, much to my surprise, here I am.

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

I work in the office four days a week and at home one day. By comparison, I worked from home for the preceding ten years and in corporate offices before that.

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

The process of writing software documentation is much the same at rSmart as it was for me years ago, but that's pretty much where the similarities with my old jobs as a technical writer end. Here I'm encouraged to explore all available technologies and mine all sorts of information sources, figure out what our clients need, come up with new ways of delivering information to them, take a lead role in nearly any endeavor that has a shred of promise, work with anyone in the company regardless of rank or department, and manage my own time and priorities. The corporate culture is different here, too. For one thing, it's less structured. For another, I think there's more respect for a wide variety of opinions, and quite a range self-expression is accepted.

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

I was a complete newbie to open source.

Why did you join an open source vendor?

See above. I didn't set out to join an open source vendor, per se. I fell into it by accident, but was intrigued by the company's sincerity and mission.

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

Unlike many larger corporations, rSmart provides no soft skills training and coaching (to the best of my knowledge), so this isn't the place for people who rely on such support systems to help them grow in their jobs. Also, we're just beginning to explore and put much-needed processes in place that are usually taken for granted by folks who work for proprietary vendors.

So, I'm still learning to operate in an open source fashion. I've worked here almost a year now and feel quite well adjusted and downright delighted. That said, I still have a lot to learn about our business model and the nuances of our relationship with the Sakai community, not to mention the best role for me to play.

I LOVE this place: great ideals, great folks, and lots of challenges as we refine our approach and strive to make this business model work well for our clients, the open source community, our investors, and ourselves. We've got rough edges, but we?re on a great road!

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

Not answered.

You can find this sort of enthusiasm in proprietary software companies, too, of course, but I think it's telling how consistently you meet open sourcerors who are genuinely excited each day by the work they're doing. In part this is because open source is not self-centered (at least, not completely). No matter your motives, if you're doing OSI-approved open source, you are sharing. Even if you intend otherwise. People like to work for places where they are not only serving themselves, but also feed communities.