Q&A: Mark de Visser, CEO of Sonatype

Java is doing fine, Sun's travails notwithstanding, and Sonatype aims to help keep things going strong for the stodgy, dependable language.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
5 min read
Mark de Visser Sonatype

I had the chance to do a question-and-answer session with Mark de Visser, new CEO of Sonatype. Sonatype was founded in 2007 and bills itself as "The Maven Company." Maven is build and release software for Java. Sonatype boasts all the main Maven developers including the project's founder, Jason van Zyl.

De Visser, for his part, is well-known in open-source business circles as former chief marketing officer at PHP tools maker Zend Technologies and former VP of Marketing at both Red Hat and Agitar. I noted a few months back when De Visser first moved to Sonatype, and I've been wanting to get an update on what's happening in open-source business and why he picked Sonatype.

I think very highly of De Visser. If he chooses Sonatype, there's a good reason behind it. I wanted to hear more.

Asay: Sun's market cap has dropped precipitously, and it's currently around $3 billion. Is this having an effect on Java?

De Visser: Java is a core development language for the enterprise and its portability, flexibility, and scalability continue to be strong points. It's out in the wild. Sun may have problems, both self-inflicted and otherwise, but they're not the only ones having a tough time. Each day brings news of more layoffs in high-tech companies.

Java, the language, however, is growing very quickly based on its strengths. Improving and extending Java will continue to be important.

Asay: So, why now? Why would you choose to start a new company at this point in time? Are you a glutton for punishment?

De Visser: Well, first of all, you give me a little more credit than I deserve for having control over when and how. But I will tell you, now is a great time to be building an open-source company. Software continues to have to be built and companies will be even more motivated to look for efficiency and cost savings during this downturn.

Maven delivers that and Sonatype helps companies adopt Maven with products and expertise. There is no better place in the world to come for support and training for Maven.

It also helps that the product is popular. Incredibly so. The Maven Central Repository has over 70,000 Java artifacts in it, including widely used open-source projects like Apache Commons, JUnit, Lucene, Hibernate, and Spring. The Maven database was linked to 200 million times in November alone. 200 million times!

My view is that open source should always have a low barrier to entry, making it easy for users who already know and understand the product to migrate to the commercially supported version when they need to. Maven is already there with more than 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies utilizing Maven.

Of course, there are always people asking, "What will make an open source company profitable?" But the answer is not as hard as some suppose: to sell open source you must be solving a serious problem, one that would-be customers can't afford to get wrong. The second principle is that there must be a network effect around the project: your solution must get better and more valuable to prospective buyers the greater the investment around it. Sonatype has both of these in spades. That's what got me excited about Sonatype.

Asay: How did it get to be this big? How does it compare to SourceForge as a resource for open-source developers?

De Visser: Oh, it's quite different from SourceForge. SourceForge is sort of a birthing ground for software projects of all kinds. Maven is much more structured.

At Maven's heart is an XML model of describing software projects, known as the Project Object Model (POM). By having the model clearly articulated and machine-readable, it is easy to incorporate into other workflows.

This means that once a few members in an organization begin using Maven and the POM, they're motivated to encourage others to adopt it as well, since doing so simplifies their work and enables others in the organization to basically speak the same language. That's the network effect I mentioned before. It's very powerful.

But clearly there's still a lot of work to do. Maven doesn't solve everything. It does not have a very fancy user interface, which is an area where Sonatype can add value. Integration with the Eclipse IDE and a .NET version are also areas where Sonatype can make improvements.

Asay: How do you see the changing role of the Java development community? Who are the major players in Java now? Has IBM displaced Sun at the center of the Java community?

De Visser: IBM is obviously important both for its contribution of the ubiquitous Eclipse IDE and because of WebSphere and its Rational tools. But IBM is often more hated than loved, plus its solutions are overly complicated, inflexible, and very expensive.

The open-source communities have responded and technologies like Tomcat, Hibernate, Spring, and Lucene have become standard components of the enterprise technology stack. In that world, Maven plays a key role in the build and release infrastructure.

Asay: Fine, but IBM is still big competition. How do you get sales against a behemoth like that?

De Visser: To market and sell our products, we don't need a large direct sales force. We plan to make all our products very easy to use and obtain. Users take advantage of the open-source version of each of our products -- and I mean really rely on it, it's not crippleware -- but as they grow and create bigger projects and need to connect more and more developers, often geographically dispersed, it's worth paying for training and support or for advanced features. At that point they will find our commercial products available online, affordably priced and easy to install and use. They come to us.

We're not trying to convince people who don't already know or like Maven. No need. There are plenty of Maven users already. I think building out an expensive infrastructure to build up a large direct sales force comes from the old traditional commercial proprietary software model. It just doesn't apply here.

Also, there are so many ways to promote yourself online these days. Try coming to our site to pick up the freely available O'Reilly book called "Maven: The Definitive Guide" in PDF. The physical book is a top seller in the Java books category. Or take Nexus, our repository manager, for a test drive. Or M2Eclipse, our Maven plugin for the Eclipse IDE. Or enroll in our Maven training or register for Maven support. Any time you want to learn more about Maven, come ask us. We can help.

It sounds like things are going well, and I'm particularly glad to see a vibrant open-source company helping to build up Java. With all the foofaraw around web scripting languages like PHP and Python, it's good to see the stodgy, dependable "uncle" Java still going strong.