The Open Source CEO: Rod Johnson, Interface 21 (Part 20)

The twentieth installment in the Open Source CEO Series, this time with Rod Johnson, CEO and Co-founder of Interface21.

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

It's an amazing thing to build a piece of software that is adored on an industry-wide scale, but the Spring Framework fits this bill. My own company uses it, and I bump into enterprise users daily. It's an exceptional project.

The founder of the project, and the man who has since built a company around it, is Rod Johnson, CEO of Interface21 I talked with Rod to glean his expertise in building a successful company from a successful project in this twentieth installment of the Open Source CEO Series.

Name, position, and company of executive
Rod Johnson, CEO and Co-founder, Interface21, the provider of the leading Java application framework.

Year company was founded and year you joined it
I founded the company, with three others, in 2004.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We've just raised $10 million from Benchmark (June 2007). We pursued funding much later than the traditional approach, after we had an expansive community of developers, sales and 40 people on board. We've chosen to raise funding because we want to be able to execute our plans faster and because we believe that a top-tier VC firm adds real value to growing a business.

Background prior to current company
I've been a Java architect for over 10 years. Before that I did a lot of C and C++. By 1999 I was leading the Java strategy at a Fortune 500 company in London and I spent the next few years building derivatives and interbank clearing systems. Spring grew out of 30,000 lines of code I published with my first book, Expert One-on-One J2EE Design and Development, in 2002. Prior to that I had no involvement with open source.

Although I've spent much of my working life in a suit before this job, it was still a typical route to open source in that I had an itch to scratch and there was nothing out there that solved the problems I was facing. So I wrote some code, a community of developers formed around it, and we realized in 2004 that we needed to start a business to back what we wanted to achieve. So my path to being CEO of an open source company was on the technology side, although I had had a lot of responsibility in several jobs.

Before going into software I was an academic. After my first degree (majoring in Computer Science and Music) I wrote a Ph.D. on nineteenth century French piano music and worked for 18 months as a lecturer on Music History at Sydney University.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
This job is about people as much as software. Open source introduces interesting challenges as developers may be used to ways of working that may not scale easily. It's a challenge to ensure that the magic of a successful open source project is preserved while you progress to a point where you don?t need to rely on magic.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
There are challenges nearly every day. The biggest challenge is getting through everything I know needs doing. No matter how many people you recruit, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you try to delegate, being the CEO of a rapidly growing company is an impossible job. It's fun, but it's impossible, and there are always things you could do better.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
I think we got most of the big things right, either by luck or good management, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would have taken funding earlier (but still after the community had developed); I would have hired sales people earlier on. In other words, I would have tried to go faster. There actually aren't many things I would change about the direction of Spring or the way we've developed it.

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

  1. Make sure you have a real community before you start a company. Money doesn't create a community - good software and a talented, articulate, and professional team creates a community.
  2. Learn about the legal issues around open source; for example, the implications of different licenses. Make sure that your licensing strategy fits your intended community and business model. For example, do you want to encourage other vendors to build on your software to grow an ecosystem? In that case, an Apache style license is great. Do you want to try to prevent others from building products on your software? In that case consider copyleft licenses, but think hard before you make that choice. Copyleft licenses scare software vendors and some customers.
  3. Because open source is such an incredible distribution model, you are going to have customers worldwide very quickly. For example, I know two US-based open source companies whose first customers were in South Africa. When your business is still small you will be dealing with international financial and tax issues that normally affect much more mature companies that are better prepared for them. Make sure you're ready.

I loved Rod's insight. Here's a man who knows how to build a vibrant community, working through the exigencies (often thankless) of managing a company. But the most important thing, I believe, is that Rod began with community. Community, like charity, covers a multitude of sins, as it were. It's a great buffer for the mistakes that companies invariably make.