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Should Microsoft hire an open-source diplomat or a revolutionary?

Microsoft is at a crossroads in its open-source strategy and should carefully consider the sort of person it wants to lead its efforts with the open-source community.

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
3 min read

Microsoft has had some exceptional people driving its open-source strategy over the years.

Now, with Sam Ramji, senior director of platform strategy and Microsoft's point man on open source, officially leaving for a Silicon Valley-based start-up at month's end, Microsoft has the opportunity to select someone who will ramp its open-source engagement to the next level.

Should Microsoft choose a pragmatist or an anarchist?

Sam Ramji

It's a provocative question, but one that becomes easier to answer when you consider the state of open source at Microsoft and how its various open-source leaders have managed it.

Initially, it was Jason Matusow who took the bullets for Microsoft (and protests/pickets) as it cut its teeth on open-source engagement. Later, Bill Hilf took the reins and moved Microsoft's open-source involvement from discursive engagement to practical deployment: the company opened its open-source interoperability lab, and Hilf lobbied to partner with a variety of open-source companies.

Then came Ramji, who brought open-source credibility to his role at Microsoft, having used it extensively at a previous start-up. Ramji helped to kick off CodePlex, Microsoft's open-source code hosting site and has actively educated Microsoft on open source as much as he has worked with the open-source community to understand Microsoft. (Ramji is also becoming interim president of Microsoft's newly created CodePlex Foundation.)

Microsoft, as Hilf explained Thursday in announcing Ramji's departure, is far more advanced in its open-source activities than it once was, which suggests the ideal replacement for Ramji:

The perspectives on OSS at Microsoft have evolved to the point where Microsoft's open source strategy is no longer just locked in a single 'lab' on campus - now OSS is an important part of many product groups and strategies across the company. We have become increasingly clear on where we work with open source - development methodologies, projects, partners, products and communities - and where our products compete with commercial open source companies or platforms. Today, there are engineering and business leaders across the company, myself included, looking at how to drive interoperability for customers and as a lever for new growth.

Open source is, in other words, increasingly part of the standard fabric of Microsoft's technology and business strategy. As such, it doesn't need a missionary so much as a diplomatic, pragmatic messenger to discover areas within the company where open source can take greater root and to engage with the community outside Redmond.

Microsoft doesn't need a talking head, someone to fill panels at every open-source conference and pontificate on the immaculate conception of open-source code. Rather, it needs someone to help motivate Microsoft's rank-and-file to get involved in such events and to intelligently explain Microsoft's diverse and sometimes seemingly contradictory positions on open source--a fact that shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has worked at a big company.

Microsoft doesn't need a Che Gates, someone who believes open source is The One True Way and is afflicted with the unhealthy and unhelpful Microsoft-hating disease. Such a person will never be heard within Redmond and rightly so: the world has already figured out that open source is a powerful means to develop and distribute software, but it's not the cure for global hunger.

Rather, Microsoft needs a thoughtful mediator to deepen its engagement with the wider open-source community while continually reminding its employees to consider open source in product and business decisions.

In short, Microsoft needs someone who can credibly advocate for open source without being consumed by mindless rhetoric. Someone, in other words, very like Matusow, Hilf, and Ramji, but probably with a shorter Microsoft tenure (similar to Ramji). Any ideas? Send them to Hilf.

To end on a personal note...Sam, you have been incredibly generous to me, usually when I least deserved it. You have been patient and forbearing. I think the world of you. Your new start-up is lucky to have you. The only area in which you failed is I can't remember a single Arsenall ticket being sent my way. But we all have failings. :-)

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.