Fifteen Years

On Sunday my mother celebrated her 75th birthday.

Although a happy occasion, why is this relevant to an open source blog? Well, it was soon after her 60th birthday in 2002 that I started my first company around OpenNMS.

I did not start OpenNMS, it began in the summer of 1999, with the first code posted on Sourceforge in March of 2000 by a company called Oculan. I started working with Oculan in September of 2001, and in May of 2002 they decided to stop contributing to OpenNMS. I saw the potential, so I asked Steve Giles, the founder and CEO, if I could have the OpenNMS project. He looked at his watch and said if I was off his payroll by Friday, he’d give me the domain names, a couple of servers, and he would sprinkle water on me and I would be the new OpenNMS maintainer.

That was actually the easy part. Explaining to my wife that I had quit my job and started a company “selling free software” was a bit harder.

sortova.com from archive.org circa May 2002

And thus Sortova Consulting Group was born. It was named after my farm. When Andrea and I decided we wanted to have a farm, we first bought raw land. In driving out from Raleigh to work on it we would pass this little farm with a barn, some cows, etc., and on the mailbox was a sign reading “Almosta Farm”. I joked that if that was “almost a farm” then what we had was just “sort of a farm”. Later, when we bought the place where we still live, the name Sortova Farm stuck.

We pronounce it “Sore-toe-va”. Only one customer ever pulled me aside and asked if it really meant “sort of a” consulting group. He laughed when I confirmed that it did.

Considering that I didn’t have any prior business experience, Java experience, or even real Internet access at my home, it is amazing that OpenNMS survived to this day. It is a wonder what you can accomplish with pure stubbornness.

Now my one true superpower is my ability to get the most fantastic people on the planet to work with me. The first group of those came from the OpenNMS community. When I was running Sortova it was the gang that later became the Order of the Green Polo that kept me going, mainly through mailing lists and IRC. In September of 2004 my good friend and business partner David Hustace and I founded the OpenNMS Group, and that corporation is still going strong. In 2009 we mortgaged our houses to buy the copyright to the Oculan OpenNMS code and thus brought all of it back under one organization, and two of the original OpenNMS team at Oculan now work for OpenNMS.

When I visit Silicon Valley I often get to meet some brilliant people, but the joy of this can be offset by the pervasive attitude of focusing on technology simply to make money. I know of a number of personally successful people who built companies, sold them, and then those products vanished into obscurity. Remember VA Linux? Their stock rose over 700% on the first day of trading, but where are they now? Did they ever deliver on their promises to the stockholders?

I want to build with OpenNMS something that will last well beyond my involvement with the project. I’ve gotten it to the point where I am not longer expressly required to make it thrive, but I am still working on its legacy. We want it to be nothing less than the de facto standard for monitoring everything, which is a high bar.

Note that I still would like to make a lot of money, but that isn’t the core driving force of the business. Our mission statement is “Help Customers – Have Fun – Make Money” in that order. If you have happy customers and happy employees, the money will come.

Fifteen years ago I made a leap of faith, in both myself, my family and my friends. I’m extremely happy I did.

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