The Open Source CEO: Kelly Herrell, Vyatta (Part 7)

In this seventh installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I talk with Kelly Herrell, CEO of Vyatta.

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
4 min read

In this seventh installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I talked with Kelly Herrell, CEO of Vyatta, the open source network software company (router and firewall).

I first bumped into Kelly back in 1998 when my employer (Mitsui Comtek, the high-tech subsidiary of Mitsui & Co.) invested in Cobalt Microsystems (Linux microserver company acquired by Sun for $2.1 billion). I bumped into him again years later when he was running operations and strategy for Monta Vista, an embedded Linux pioneer.

Kelly is one of those people that you respect even when he's kicking your tail (as was the case at Monta Vista - I was at rival Lineo). Once known for being "the world's best-dressed Linux backer" [Correction: I inadvertently linked to an article on Peder Ulander, who dresses much better than Kelly, though I do have to say the first time I met Kelly he was wearing a green shirt and matching green shoes :-) ], Kelly's reputation is now right where it should be: a tier-one open source executive.

Name, position, and company of executive
Kelly Herrell, CEO, Vyatta.

Year company was founded and year you joined it
Vyatta was founded 2005; I joined a year later in 2006 when there were still only six people.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We closed our Series B in Q1 2007. Investors are Arrowpath Ventures, ComVentures, Panorama Capital (JP Morgan), and Comcast Interactive Capital.

Background prior to current company
If there's a general theme to my background, it's matchmaking: products to markets, companies to customers. Not at some highfalutin' level (at least I hope not), but where it really makes a difference.

I started in large enterprise computing companies (NCR, Teradata, Oracle) and then jumped ship for my first startup ten years ago. Vyatta is my third open-source company (previously MontaVista, and Cobalt Networks before that). I didn't intentionally pursue the open-source pattern; I think it has more to do with the fact that I like wildly disruptive technologies, and open source has been on the constant rise, creating exciting potentials for new companies.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
Market leverage is happening faster than even we thought it could? and I?m a pie-eyed optimist to begin with. :-) But leverage is coming fast, from two angles. First, users want to be passionate about their solutions, and it's clear that as long as we keep doing the right things they quickly realize that passion. Second, the industrial ecosystem is finding new breath in old but changing markets because of what Vyatta enables. It has been exciting - and humbling - to watch how fast it's happening.

[Matt's note: Kelly has been at the cutting edge of several different market waves for open source. First it was edge-of-the-network Linux servers at Cobalt. At that point, cost was the big driver, but it drove Cobalt to a $3 billion exit. Next, it was at MontaVista, where flexibility and performance was the big driver for pushing Linux into a wide range of embedded devices (cell phones, wireless routers, etc.). Now it's the open source router and firewall market, and I can't help but believe that this tsunami that has followed Kelly from market to market is about to hit again.]

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Ease is hard. Open source is inherently about freedom. To encourage that attitude among our users, the organization must have the mission of eliminating barriers of all types, technically and operationally. That requires a new breed of team, people who don't hide behind traditional corporate mechanisms or who are willing to say that a "good enough" effort will suffice. It's not easy to find the right people for this sort of endeavor. For users, ease doesn't mean "good enough"...it means "Wow, I've never experienced something that great before." That's what Vyatta does, and we break our pick every day to get better at it.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
Early on, I would have spent less time on the networking side of the industry and more on the server side. IP-based networking is driving convergence at a frightening pace, but the tale of the tape easily has the computing industry at a 10:1 advantage....Cisco is smaller than Intel, and Intel is 1/3 the size of IBM alone.

Top three pieces of advice for would-be open source CEOs

  1. Make money because of open source, not from it explicitly.
  2. Software is service. Given time and budget, customers can write their own code. Open source drastically lowers the hurdle of this fundamental fact. You have to figure out how to serve the customer's larger need.
  3. Be not simply good; be good for something. Begin with the assumption that constant code improvements will eventually over-serve the broad market requirement, so build must-have offerings around that inevitability. The product is the company, not the code.

It's fascinating for me to read that counsel because I can see much the same arising from my own experience in the embedded world. Funny how our past conditions and educates our future....

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...Satish Dharmaraj of Zimbra, the open source email collaboration company.