He speaks hacker

Sam Williams
1,901 words
15 November 2000
Copyright (c) 2000 Upside Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

At first glance, it's hard to tell whether Ned Lilly's job title is an omen of things to come or yet another soon-to-die artifact of the nitro-fueled '90s, the same decade that turned "chief yahoo" and "human resources goddess" into suitable business card material.

As vice president of hacker relations for Great Bridge LLC , a Norfolk, Va.-based company that specializes in products and services built around the open source database PostgreSQL, Lilly's own business card certainly inspires a double take. Even in the software industry, it's rare to see the word "hacker" embossed on business card stock.

Whatever feelings of whimsy the card may inspire, however, quickly disappear upon meeting Lilly, a burly 32-year-old Virginian who looks like he spent the better part of his high school and college years beating up hackers rather than cultivating friendships with them.

Nevertheless, Lilly says he enjoys his current role as chief inside liaison for the PostgreSQL community. He also considers his job the clearest signal his company can send that it wants to play by the rules of the open source community.

Good relationships

"It's a response to the challenges facing our company," says Lilly, an executive whose previous ventures include a trio of Internet-based startups backed by Great Bridge's parent company, Landmark Communications.

"We got started in this market because we saw a business opportunity. Our first question was, what can we do to be successful? One answer was clearly to develop good relationships with the developer community and to show that we're for real."

Schmoozing hackers is a common pastime in the open source business community. Rare is the Linux- or Apache-related company that can't boast at least one inner-circle developer on staff. Still, for a growing number of companies, the importance of coherent communication with the hacker community has elevated the need for a single community liaison.

"It's not unlike developer relations at large companies like Apple (AAPL), only different and much faster," says Chris DiBona, Linux community evangelist for VA Linux (LNUX). "The open source community makes it both easier and harder from a company perspective. It's more chummy, but companies looking to take part in open source without attempting to receive buy-in from the developer community are just looking for trouble."

For a company such as Great Bridge, a relative latecomer on the open source scene, having a community liaison within the highest level of the companies is more than good sense. It's good politics, says Bob Gilbert, Great Bridge president and chief executive officer.

"There's no better place to preach religion than from the highest altar," Gilbert says. "Seeing Ned's position as one of the highest in the company sends a message to the open source community that we take it very seriously."

Hiring developers

Whether that sermon is making it out into the hinterlands of the hacker community depends on whom you talk to. Great Bridge certainly has bolstered its message by hiring some of the top PostgreSQL developers. At the moment, three members of the six-person PostgreSQL "steering committee," Jan Wieck, Bruce Momjian and Tom Lane, have joined the company.

For those who have yet to climb on board, however, the company still maintains a low profile.

"Most of Great Bridge we never see," says Tom Lockhart, one of the six steering committee members and a principal in PostgreSQL , a Nova Scotia-based company that is also trying to market commercial versions of PostgreSQL and PostgreSQL-related services. "We see Jan and Tom. The rest of Great Bridge is off there building a company. We don't really know what they're doing."

Nevertheless, the company has had an impact. This spring, the company sponsored the first ever meeting of the steering committee, giving many PostgreSQL developers the first opportunity to meet their colleagues face-to-face.

That spring meeting culminated a months-long period of quiet research, Lilly says, during which he and other executives checked out the PostgreSQL project, learning the various quirks and rituals before approaching developers with the proposition of a working relationship.

"Basically, we did our homework," says Lilly. "We spent a lot of time lurking on lists, talking to PostgreSQL users, reading the Web pages. We basically went to school on their technology first, and then when we felt like we knew enough to talk, we spent a weekend together."

The open source connection

Such an approach owes much to the background of Great Bridge's parent company, Landmark Communications, and its founder and chairman, Frank Batten Jr.

Batten is best known within the open source community as one of the original investors in Red Hat (RHAT), a parlay that netted the North Carolina businessman more than $500 million in post-IPO equity. Following the Red Hat IPO, Batten charged Lilly and other Landmark executives with finding another open source arena with the same untapped potential that the Linux market exhibited in 1994, the year of Red Hat's founding.

The executives' search turned up the incipient open source database market. Although still a long way from chewing into the marketshare of database giants Oracle (ORCL) and Microsoft (MSFT), researchers sensed a strong opportunity for any company willing to build a strong Red Hat-like brand presence. Enter Great Bridge LLC, a company financed by Batten personally.

Aside from Great Bridge, Landmark's other major holdings include the Weather Channel , the Virginia Pilot newspaper and a number of other news outlets along the Eastern seaboard. Interestingly enough, Lilly says his job title and the company's attitude toward the open source community draw equally on both sides of the Landmark tradition.

"In early drafts of the business plan, we called this position the ombudsman," Lilly says, alluding to the community liaison job title employed by many large newspapers and television stations.

Comparisons between community-based software and community-based journalism go only so far, however. By employing members of the PostgreSQL team, Great Bridge possesses the power to destroy the very project that serves as its economic foundation. One of the first hurdles is learning how to adjust to the open source notion of contributing to a project without controlling it.

"I think they are trying hard to learn and to fit in with the open source community," says Tom Lane, a PostgreSQL developer who also works for Great Bridge. "They've made some missteps in terms of doing things that looked a little funny. They've gotten flamed and learned from those episodes."

As an example of a recent company misstep, Lane cites the case of Wieck, another developer and Great Bridge employee, who came under fire from other PostgreSQL developers when he inserted a new utility into the main CVS code branch days before a stable code release. Lane and Lilly say the utility had been requested by Great Bridge document team to cover up a potential flaw for business users.

As a developer with commit-level privileges, Wieck was fully within his authority to add the code. Still, the fact that the code was inserted at the last minute, at the request of Great Bridge and without lengthy review, was a cause of concern for other Great Bridge developers.

"Basically, it was a faux pas on Jan's part more than the company's," says Lane. "Still, they should have realized that there should have been a little discussion before inserting anything into the stable branch."

Wieck, a programmer who lives in Germany, was not available for comment.

As for Lilly, he admits to contributing to the "faux pas."

"Where I fumbled from a hacker relations perspective was in trying to put [the utility] in the main package -- a no-no this late in the development cycle -- instead of the contrib directory where it really belonged," Lilly says.

Learning process

Lilly says the past few months have been something of a learning process. Although he had programming experience in the realm of middleware scripting and Web development languages prior to the job, he avoids passing himself off as a hacker. Instead, he prefers to portray himself as the guy who pays attention to and understands exactly what the hackers are saying so he can pass the information along to the rest of the Great Bridge staff.

"For the moment, my job comes down to a lot of email, a lot of reading," he says.

For those in similar positions, however, being a member of the hacker community is considered a necessary prerequisite.

"I think you have to be [a hacker] to have the right perspective," says Susan Harnett, senior technical staff member with the IBM (IBM) Linux Technology Center. "The open source community is much more of a brutal meritocracy. You can't hide behind your status."

Harnett, who describes her own role as the open source community's "conscience" at IBM, says working within a large, established technology company can put different pressures on a community liaison. For one thing, she spends as much, if not more, time educating IBM executives and engineers on the peculiarities of the open source community as she does assuring open source developers of the purity of IBM's motives. Secondly, she has to deal with the fact that her company has dozens of concurrent open source-related projects, creating the potential for wasteful overlap inside and outside the company.

"It's not that we want there to be a single voice so much that people are implying the same thing when they talk about open source," says IBM's Harnett. "Part of my role is to make sure that we try to sensitize all the developers to the way open source development works. It's not necessary that IBM source code byte for byte ends up in an open source program but that we make a contribution, whether directly or indirectly."

Building a brand

Lilly, meanwhile, looks forward to the days when limiting redundancies between internal projects is the main concern of his position. For the moment, the Great Bridge business strategy is to build a brand presence in the PostgreSQL and then replicate the act in other unsettled regions of the open source ergosphere. "My role as the guy facing the Postgre community will start to sunset," Lilly says. "And I'll move on to the next group of hackers we want to reach out to."

Hence the need for doing things right the first time. Asked what lessons, if any, he's learned in the past 10 months, Lilly points to the spring developers meeting sponsored by Great Bridge. Such a meeting would have been impossible without the prior demonstration of respect. Like a businessman returning from an overseas trip, Lilly says it's important to know what the local respect rituals are. In the open source community, those rituals happen to be deference to those who have worked their way to the top of the "brutal meritocracy."

"Lesson No. 1 is do your homework," Lilly says. "Anyone that comes charging into an open source community blaring the trumpet, saying 'I got this great new idea,' is in for a rough ride. You gotta understand the people, and you gotta understand the technology. Most importantly, you have to understand how the project became successful in the first place."