Order of the Blue Polo Profile: Michael Shuler

It is almost seven years ago to the day that I became an administrator of the OpenNMS project and started out on my own to build a company to provide services around the application.

At the time I had three customers: a hospital in Minnesota, a government agency in Florida, and a growing hosting provider based in San Antonio, Texas, called Rackspace.

The hospital is still a client (having renewed yearly support seven times they are an example that we must be doing something right) but the other two are not (although they both still use the product). I lost the government agency in 2003 when there was an accident that caused all spending to freeze, but we had Rackspace as a client up until last year.

The reasons that Rackspace no longer pays for support are myriad, but I’m happy as long as they still find the product valuable. I wasn’t quite sure this was the case until we got an OBP entry from Michael Shuler this week.

I knew Rackspace when it was much, much smaller, and I’ve watched it grow into the large, publicly traded company it has become. I’m still a big fan, and their concept of “Fanatical Support” has been heavily borrowed by our company. But a company with thousands of employees and public shareholders to please is a different animal than one staffed by a small group of highly intelligent mavericks, and I can’t say that I don’t miss the old days at Rackspace.

I used to go down to San Antonio where we worked on the darkened second floor of the Broadway Bank building. The days were spent solving both complex and interesting problems, but about 6pm the gang would take a break and play Return to Castle Wolfenstein. This included everyone – from the newest hire to the VP. It was a true “work hard/play hard” environment and it was a lot of fun.

Many of those people are gone now. The VP is off at Google, and others have decided to go someplace smaller. However, there is still some of that entrepreneurial feeling at a division of Rackspace called Racklabs.

Rackspace long ago figured out hosting, but they are smart enough to realize that they can’t sit on their laurels forever. Racklabs is where the new technologies are built, such as their cloud computing offerings, and it still retains the old spirit I’m familiar with.

I’ve never met Michael but we’ve corresponded a bit through e-mail. To be honest, his letter got me all verklempt. I was trying to find a bit to excerpt but it’s all so good that I can’t. Go read it.

As Rackspace grew and had to expand, the new people they hired were more comfortable with tools other than OpenNMS. In some areas it became easier to buy a commercial product than to spend the time to get OpenNMS to do what they needed, although I like to think that as OpenNMS improves that one day they’ll start using us as well. I wish them well, but it hasn’t always worked in the past. If you want to get a laugh out of a Rackspace old-timer, just mentioned the work “onyx” (like the stone). They’ll know what I mean.

Regardless of whether I get paid by them or not, I owe Rackspace a debt of gratitude. Perhaps that’s why I get so caught up on community. I have never measured success in terms of raw revenue. I prefer to measure it in terms of usefulness. Create something useful, treat people fairly, and the revenue will come.

Our mission statement has always been “Help Customers, Have Fun, Make Money”. It may not make Sand Hill Road happy, but it makes us happy, and I guess in the long run that’s all that matters.