The Open Source CEO: Dries Buytaert, Drupal (Part 10)

In this tenth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I talk with Dries Buytaert of the Drupal project.

In this tenth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I shifted gears again to talk with someone that has chosen not to carry the CEO title, despite ample opportunity to claim it. (I know a range of VCs who would love to invest in Drupal.) Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, is Linus-like in his ability to build an amazing community without undue concern for commercializing his success. I think he's one of the most interesting people in open source, given what he's accomplished and what he continues to forego in terms of cash and publicity.

I caught up with Dries on his way to the O'Reilly Foo Camp. Here's a guy who has created one of the world's best open source web content management systems...yet I bet no one will recognize him at the airport...or even at FOO.

Name, position, and company of executive
Dries Buytaert, Founder and Project Lead, Drupal. Dries blogs here.

Year company/project was founded and year you joined it
I started working on Drupal in 2000, and released the first version of Drupal on January 15, 2001.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
$0.00. Drupal has never raised any outside money. A community of volunteers manages and develops it.

Background prior to current company
It's funny, but I once had a little project kicking where we wrote IRC scripts for both mIRC (a Windows IRC client) and eggdrops (popular IRC bot software). This must have been in 1997 or something. We released these scripts for free, and worked on them with a distributed team of 20 people or so. The way we communicated, collaborated and released our software looked a lot like open source software development. We didn't use a free or open source software license, though. I don't think any of us realized that we could.

Drupal has always been a hobby project for me - and still is. During the day I'm a PhD student at the Unversity of Ghent, during the night and weekends I work on Drupal. As part of my work at the university, I'm surrounded by open source software, though mostly as a user and to a lesser extent as a contributor.

Before I went to the University of Ghent to pursue a PhD, I worked as an embedded systems engineer for 3 years. I was part of a small team that developed a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) for embedded devices. In October 2002, we made that JVM available as open source software. During that time, I was already working on Drupal.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
Open Source software development is not just about getting the technology right, but also about being able to foster a healthy community of volunteers, hosting companies, development shops and consultants. You have to succeed at both. And if you managed to get both in place, make sure not to try and control everything. It is not always easy, but if you manage to get out of the way of your project's community, unexpected and surprising things will happen. It will get your project to more places faster. The technology is easy; the community is hard.

[Matt's note: This is one reason that Dries opted to go with PHP for Drupal instead of Java, despite the fact that he's somewhat of an expert in Java. It's what most of his academic papers and background is in! And, shockingly (as I've written before), Dries didn't even know PHP when he started coding in it for Drupal. He learned "on the job."]

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Growing is learning to take on more and bigger problems. When you were a 4-year old kid, you basically had no problems, except maybe that you don't feel like eating all those potatoes on your plate. Newborn open source projects have no problems either. But once you start school, you might start to lose some sleep over your grades, whether you'll ever make your way through school or why you're not allowed to stay up a little longer at night. These are big problems.

Later when you're done with school, you look back and you realize how ridiculous it was to even worry about your grades. If you'd have to go through school again, it would be the easiest thing on earth, you believe. However, you're now faced with new and seemingly bigger problems: will I ever find the right person to share my life with? How am I supposed to pay the rent? How to raise my kids? How am I going to cope with the loss of a close relative?

So growing is learning to deal with more and bigger challenges. This is true for your personal life as well as for the life of your open source project.

With that in mind, you'll realize that the question is kind of moot. The answer to that question depends on what stage in life you are at, and for projects that are still growing, their biggest challenge is the problem that popped up just yesterday.

Right now, the hardest challenge is to manage Drupal's explosive growth. We have raw and untampered ambition but we're left wondering how we can scale our infrastructure with the available resources, how we can attract more top-talent to help get all the work done and to fill in the missing pieces, and how to maintain - and raise - the high quality of our work. We're also learning how to deal with legal issues, we're figuring out how to better market ourselves, and how to efficiently organize large conferences.

This sounds a lot like "How will I be able to pay the rent?" (infrastructure) and "How can I score more girlfriends?" (more top-talent, better marketing). So by that standard, Drupal is a young adult that just moved out from its parent's place. We have a dozen of new things to learn and explore, but we huge motivation and ambition.

We're still growing so it is guaranteed that one day we'll look back and realize how ridiculously simple it was to scale our infrastructure or to organize a 400-attendee conference. But that same day, when we look forward, we'll be confronted with even bigger and higher mountains to climb. What exactly these challenges will be, I don't know yet.

Ultimately, we'll be old and dreary, unable to fight.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
When you look back, there are hundreds of things that you could have done better or that you should have realized earlier on. For example, from a technical point of view, it sometimes took two or three tries to get something right. Having more knowledge and experience would have saved us some time. Most of the lessons learned are small when you put them into perspective. I don't think I would have done things fundamentally different if I could start from scratch. We've always been open to change, and quick to adapt, and that prevents fundamental mistakes. That helps.

Top three pieces of advice for would-be open source CEOs
We actually neglected to discuss this question, given the time spent on the others. I've asked Dries to send me something tomorrow if he has time....

As ever, well-informed and unique, Dries. Thanks for taking the time out of your Clark Kent/Superman life (PhD student by day, and leader of one of the world's best content management systems by night). And yes, for those who didn't know this, Dries' Drupal competes with my company, Alfresco, though I prefer to see areas of collaboration between the two. There's plenty of room for great software in this world.

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...John Roberts of SugarCRM, one of the industry's big success stories...and one that I had a minor role in shaping early on. Very minor. Basically nonexistent. But I want to claim it, all the same. :-)