Archive for November, 2007

New York City

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

New York City

I’m in NYC for a short trip to visit with some clients as well as some other “top secret” OpenNMS business (grin). OpenNMS has a large number of clients in New York and Chicago due to the financial industry and their need to have as close to 100% uptime of their networks as is possible.


NYC skyline

Having been raised in North Carolina and currently living on a horse farm where I can’t see another house from mine, New York is about as different a place as I can visit. When I first started coming here, I stayed in Midtown and absolutely hated it.

However, two old friends of mine from NC have moved up here and they won’t move back, so I started to get to see the City through their eyes. One lives in the East Village and works in tech, and the other works at the New Yorker and lives in Brooklyn (where I am writing this now). Once you get out of Midtown you start to see what a really wonderful place New York can be, and I always look forward to coming here.

I’m heading back today, but will return in a week or so. I’m hoping we can get a group of OpenNMS users together one of the nights I’m here, but I didn’t get any takers when I posted the invite on the discuss list. Oh well, at least I can always go see the big tree.

Thanksgiving

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

[Warning: The following post is an exercise in navel gazing. Feel free to skip.]

The fourth Thursday in November is Thanksgiving day in the US. It’s an interesting holiday since it falls on a Thursday, so about 3/4 of the people in the US get a four-day weekend. It is the official start of the end of year holiday season, and it is a time to get together with friends and family, to over indulge in eating, and to reflect on the past year.

My title at The OpenNMS Group is CEO, and often I think I suck at the job. I have worked for a lot of personally successful CEOs, but when I look at myself I don’t see in me the qualities I see in them. Note that I didn’t say that their companies were successful, but that they were “personally” successful. When their company failed they just went and got a job at another one. I can’t separate my personal success from that of OpenNMS and the people who work with me, and I lack the ability to pander to the world at large in search of Google hits and downloads. When we have a happy customer I don’t feel like that is “news”, that’s our job, and you won’t ever see me write a press release about “OpenNMS is the first to run on [new operating system]” especially if it is neither true nor newsworthy. As someone who is running their first company, it is very hard to look at what others are doing and not follow, but I can’t bring myself to do it if it isn’t the right thing to do.

At the OpenNMS project we have two main rules:

1) OpenNMS will not suck.

2) OpenNMS will always be free.

The second rule prohibits me from taking the easy way out and just coming up with a revenue model based on software licensing. Paying for software is the antithesis of open source, no matter what anyone else says. This means that the OpenNMS Group is a services organization – we do not sell software.

As a services organization, as well as an open source project, we live and die based upon the quality of our people. Thus I love Thanksgiving as a chance to give my guys a long weekend off, to spend with their families and re-groove their brains. Real CEOs refer to their employees as resources: like they were as replaceable as a bushel of wheat or a barrel of oil. My team is made up of people: extremely talented individuals, unique and irreplaceable.

With that long preamble let me jump into what I am thankful for:

I am thankful that OpenNMS was dropped into my lap. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t start OpenNMS. It was scary, and probably the riskiest thing I’ve ever done, but it has been one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made.

I am thankful for the community – the folks that make OpenNMS possible, especially those in the OGP. OpenNMS is far from a one man show – that’s why we have 25 developers and not just 2.

I am thankful for my team at the OpenNMS Group. It would be a honor to work with you guys anywhere. When we are successful it will be all due to you, and in the slim chance we fail I hope you can forgive my leadership.

Life is about the journey, and even on the bad days I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing. The thing I am most thankful for is my family who made this all possible. There are few people out there who would be so understanding. Hey, in those terms I am probably the most “personally successful” CEO on the planet.

Happy Thanksgiving.

OpenNMS on Mandriva

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Since we are located down the road from Red Hat, you would assume that there might be stronger ties between our project and that distro.

And by “ties” I mean, well, we run on Red Hat and that’s about it.

Outside of running on their distro, I did have a conversation many years ago with Paul Santinelli when he came over with the NOCpulse acquisition, and I sent an e-mail about getting OpenNMS into Red Hat Exchange (which was returned with a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” reply) when it was announced. Otherwise we are pretty much ignored.



On the other hand, we’ve been in close contact with the folks at Mandriva for years, especially Walt Pennington out on the west coast. They’ve been wanting to get OpenNMS on Mandriva for some time, but due to issues with Java, Tomcat, etc., and our packaging it was hard.

With the reworked packaging in the 1.3 branch of OpenNMS, Ben was able to get a repository set up so that Mandriva users can easily install OpenNMS using urpmi. I hope this will encourage more Mandriva folks to try out our product. It’s the least we could do for all the kindness Walt has shown us in the past.

OpenNMS am Frankfurt

Thursday, November 15th, 2007
In a few hours I start the long trek back home from Frankfurt. It has been a really fun trip. The only change I would have made is to the weather: it was a little cold and we had some snow/sleet yesterday.

Last night around 6pm Markus picked me up from my hotel in Eschborn and took me to Frankfurt for dinner. We met Stefan at the Paulaner restaurant right next to the famous Frankfurt Dome, a dominating cathedral in the heart of the city.

Markus is one of my handful of blog readers and through the OpenNMS discussion list we managed to find Stefan and Dietrich, who showed up later on in the evening.

The restaurant was a great choice for dinner. I had a stew of wild boar and the spƤtzle that the menu claimed was a specialty (it was delicious). There was weissbier, the wheat beer of the region, and I finished with an apple strudel.

I should note that when I say “finished” 5 hours had passed.

 

Near where I live in North Carolina there is a village called Old Salem where they preserve the way people lived over two hundred years ago. As school children, we were taken on field trips there. Out in front of the tavern is a sign that reads “Entertainment”, and it was explained to us youngsters that in those days entertainment didn’t mean television or video games, but food and conversation.

Last night was very entertaining.



Stefan, me and Markus

We talked a lot about OpenNMS, and computers, and politics. Dietrich showed up about 8pm to join us. When we were leaving the nearly empty restaurant I saw the clock read 11:30 and I was certain it was wrong.

I’m writing this blog as sort of a diary of what it is like to try to make a business based on open source software. Forgive me for navel gazing, but I figure when we are successful maybe someone else can use our experiences to follow their own dreams (ain’t that the open source way?) and if we fail we can always serve as an example of what not do.

I definitely think that successful projects are built one person at a time. It’s not about press releases and downloads and “my web site is bigger than your web site”. It’s about people and their insights and giving them the tools they need to do what needs to be done. Sometimes it is about code, but sometimes it is just about talking over food and beer. I think the OpenNMS project grew a little stronger last night, and I made some new friends. Sometimes that is its own reward.

Working from Home

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

I made it to Frankfurt without incident. Well, except that the taxi driver took me to the wrong hotel (same name, different part of town). I’m now ensconced in my fashionable Euro-hotel with expensive Internet access, and ready to work on getting into the local time as fast as possible.

International travel has certainly changed in the 10 or so years since I was last here. The rise of international data networks means that I can get here solely with my passport and electronic tickets, use my ATM card to get local currency, and once on the Internet it is almost like I’d never left home. No more travelers checks, paper tickets, expensive phone calls or time spent in line at the currency exchange.

These networks have also changed the way companies are organized. At The OpenNMS Group we are often spread out geographically, yet it doesn’t seem to matter. This week I’m in Germany, Dave is up at Quantico, Matt will be in Durham part of the week, Ben is in Vancouver (Canada) part of the week and Jeff is in Atlanta. But through IRC, Jabber, e-mail and Skype it is just another day in the office. This ability to run a company with a distributed workforce translates directly into the ability to run a distributed project such as OpenNMS, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on what makes the arrangement successful.

Trust: When I worked at NORTEL the phrase “Working from Home” was code for “I’ll be checking e-mail occasionally, but for the most part I’m slacking off for the day”. It takes a lot of trust in your people to know that you can leave them alone unsupervised and know that the are actually working. This is usually easy for the most part at OpenNMS because we only hire people who are extremely passionate about what they do. When you are selling services, your reputation is in your people and it is tied directly to your success. Thus I rarely worry about my guys not working (in my mind they work too hard), but that does lead into the subject of …

Time: At OpenNMS we are results driven. I’m writing this at about 10pm local time on a Sunday, which is well outside of normal business hours, and my team tends to work just as hard. Work gets done at all hours of the day and night. But it is important to set aside some period of time during the day where everyone is available. There is nothing more frustrating than needing some help and not being about to get it. In a traditional business office, one could just walk over to another office or cubical to ask for help. When everyone is separated by considerable distances and sometimes oceans, being able to quickly reach someone is important, and to have some kind of standardized work hours helps with that.

Tools: Another important aspect of running a distributed company is the choice of tools. For me, e-mail is king. My life is driven by my Inbox, as it also serves as my “to-do” list. During a normal business day I can expect a response to an e-mail sent to the team within 10 to 15 minutes.

If I need something sooner, or if it is just a quick question, we also use the Jabber instant messaging protocol. We set up a private Jabber server for just employees. While I love chatting with people, when I’m on public IM services I sometimes get overloaded with “Dude! How’s it going?” messages. It is key to have the IM equivalent of the “red phone” where people are quick to respond and the Signal to Noise ratio is high. We’ve had to actually implement strict “auto away” policies where if you are away for even a couple of minutes you status will reflect it, because unlike e-mail being unresponsive on IM is frustrating.

We also use a number of other collaborative tools. We have an internal mailing list, shared calendars and an internal wiki. The goal is to make sure that everyone in the company has access to the information they need, and no one is the sole source of any information that might be needed to address our client’s issues. We are also starting to use video more, but as anyone who has seen me can attest, this is not necessarily a good thing (grin).

Targets: You can’t run any company without targets, especially when your goal is to provide the world’s de facto network management platform and your opponents are IBM, HP, CA and BMC. We set deadlines, and although we don’t always meet them we always seem to work better and more cohesively when they approach. When your team is separated, it is important that they all know what the immediate goal is so they know what to work on and feel that the work they are doing is useful and important.

Temperament: One last piece to the puzzle of running a successful distributed company is finding people who can work well outside of the traditional office environment. Social scientists often talk about the concept of a “Third Place” meaning a place to gather outside of home and work. But what if home and work are the same place? There are a number of people who do not work well in isolation. The work/life balance becomes harder to maintain. When I started working with OpenNMS I actually had to set up a room in my house devoted just to work. Otherwise I found myself working all of the time and workplace issues started to bleed over into my personal life. With the growing availability of Internet access in a number of public places, it is becoming easier to find a place to work that removes that sense of isolation that can arise from working from home.

No matter how well your team works when apart, it is still important to get together once in awhile (we aim for once a month). I can tell in myself and amongst my team that prolonged periods of working without real world social interaction causes the bad parts of the job to seem worse than they really are, and the good parts less good. Even if it is just sitting together in a room working and listening to music from AirTunes, optimism and pride in what we are doing is just easier to spread that way.

Which is one of the reasons I travel so much – to spread the love (grin). I am really looking forward to meeting OpenNMS fans in Frankfurt this week as there is nothing that can replace meeting face to face. It is one way to build the community which is so important to success. I’ll be sure to post more as the week unfolds.