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In the trenches with...Matt Heitzenroder of SugarCRM

The Open Road catches up with Matt Heitzenroder of SugarCRM.

I've really enjoyed this In the Trenches series so far, as I've felt like I've met new people and I've definitely learned some new things. No matter how long you've been in open source, with all the disparate perspectives open source feeds, it's hard to open your mind without having it changed by someone else. If it seems that I think I've got it all figured out, I don't. Not even remotely. The longer I'm in open source, the less I think I know definitively. I just pretend sometimes. :-)

I was therefore really glad to get this submission from Matt Heitzenroder of SugarCRM. He works in Support for SugarCRM, and it sounds like his role is Special Forces-like in its scope and purpose. Given how much time my own company spends on trying to ensure our support offering is perfect, I'm grateful to hear how others manage.

Matt didn't follow the outline I provided, though he does (mostly) answer the questions I had posed. I'm including his post because I think it's indicative of the passion that open source can evoke. Anyone can get excited by a particular technology, but by a licensing model? Curiouser and curiouser!

My name is Matt Heitzenroder. Most people call me "Roder." I join you from beautiful, sunny Miami, FL....For as long as I can remember, I have been sitting in front of computer. In the '80s, my mother made me do a "Science Fair" project on telecommunications. It was the first time I had ever seen a modem or a fax, and I was hooked. When the movie "Hackers" was released, I was just a rebellious teenager that wanted to be a cool "hacker" too.

So I did research on the burgeoning Internet on the definition of a "hacker" and found something called Linux. With every penny I had ($34.95) and with every hope of becoming a cool hacker, I took the plunge, even though I had no idea what Linux was. When the envelope arrived in the mail, it was like Christmas Day. I furiously unwrapped the contents of the envelope and attempted to install it on my mother's Mac, but only thing the attempted installation yielded was a non-operational computer.

During the "dot com" boom, I found myself intertwined with startup companies and technology. The first startup in which I was involved led me to my mentor and CEO, Tom Petzinger. He and I shared an amazing commonality (well, at least I thought it was amazing that there was someone that shared the same beliefs), the belief that the "value of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Tom was extremely involved in the complexity/chaos theory community - so much so that he is the author of several books regarding business and complexity. He also writes a column in the Wall Street Journal. He encouraged, supported, and pushed my interest in social and mathematical systems, and again, I was hooked.

I decided to give Linux another shot. Something else happened as well - my philosophy of business, social networks, and technology began to meld. I had an epiphany - you know, the light went on, my heart began to pound, I felt the shot of electricity through my body - my passion was right there in front of me. I had found my love... or maybe it had found me. Open Source... and I knew then that it was "the future."

Then came 9/11, which ended my time with my first start up. I found myself working in a technical support position for a proprietary software company. It just felt wrong. I couldn't look at the source code, and I couldn't really help "my" customers. After the company was acquired, I decided to try my hand at starting my own company.

I pulled together a small team, and we attempted to bootstrap a company by sewing together several pieces of open source software together for the enterprise market. It was meant to be groupware that would compete with Microsoft Exchange, but allowed Outlook to behave as if it were connected to MS Exchange. The technology was good for the time, but bootstrapping a company was difficult. I learned that a company needs more than just a good product; it needs a good team.

When an opportunity to join another startup was presented to me in Boston, I left my hometown of Pittsburgh to find a place that might be more accepting of new ideas. While I was in Boston, I leveraged all of the open source software that I could, but the company just did not get off the ground. In the end, it was okay though, as I met great people, most notably a dear friend who taught me about sailing. I left Boston and went to New York City, where I worked as a technologist for an extremely large PR firm in Midtown Manhattan. No open source there! I had to leave.

I was ready to give up the open source startup dream. I bought a sailboat and was ready to go poke around the Caribbean. All I needed was something to help "keep me afloat." I scoured the Internet looking for telecommuting work, which was when I found SugarCRM ("Sugar"). Sugar's doors were open for about one year when I joined them. JACKPOT! Here was a funded company in Silicon Valley, blazing a trail for open source software... oh yeah, coded in PHP, my language of choice. In July of 2005, I joined the Customer Support team as the Customer Support Engineer, bringing the team total to two - my manager and me.

Sugar mixes my social and technology beliefs with my passion for startups. This of course is not just a good thing for me, but also for Sugar. I work 20-hour days and weekends pretty often, and because I love to. The Customer Support organization has grown tremendously, and I was recently promoted to manage a newly-created Advanced Support team within the Customer Support organization.

The Advanced Support team is the "SWAT team," the elite tactical team that turns our customers' negative experiences around to be successful implementations of our product. We manage the technical support needs of our most high priority accounts. We deliver many sophisticated webinars and also travel on location to deliver trainings in person. Our team makes code-level customizations and fixes bugs, thus constantly contributing back to the quality of our product. Think of Harvey Keitel?s character from Pulp Fiction, Winston Wolf.

I love what I do, and I do it all because I want to advocate and evangelize the philosophy and power of open source software.

This leaves one last question: "What do you think open source companies could learn from proprietary vendors?"

There are practices that we (open source companies) will inevitably incorporate in our businesses from the proprietary software vendors. As we acquire employees from proprietary software vendors, we will also acquire the old behaviors, processes, and practices. We need to do more "unlearning" than "learning.? Behaviors that have been ingrained in us for 20 years will need to be relearned, rethought, and redone.

Imagine finding someone like Matt, desperately looking for a place to hang his hat 20 hours each day out of passion and interest. And imagine that this person is responsible for ensuring that bad customer situations get turned around and made into success stories. It sounds like a recipe for success....