Open Door Policy: Interview with Outercurve’s Sam Ramji

Posted by Kerry Godes
Senior Manager, Worldwide Marketing and Operations

Open Door Policy is a new series on the Openness blog that profiles industry thought leaders and individuals within Microsoft who are leading efforts to collaborate more openly, promoting interoperability and making it easier to develop and manage mixed IT environments.

The first annual Outercurve Open Source Conference and Hackathon is taking place in downtown Bellevue this week. We took the opportunity to speak with Sam Ramji, Outercurve Foundation board president and former Microsoft open source strategist.

Sam RamjiRead on to learn more about Sam’s perspectives on how collaborating more openly can drive innovation and help to solve real world problems.

Hi Sam, please tell us about the Outercurve Foundation and your role with it.
The Outercurve Foundation, or, is a not-for-profit open source software foundation. Outercurve is focused on open source governance, for the sake of more successful open source projects on all platforms. I’ve had the privilege to serve as the President of the Board of Directors for the last three years. Because Outercurve is a not-for-profit foundation, it’s all volunteer. My full-time - my day job, as it were - is as the Strategy Officer of a startup called Apigee, which is an API platform company based in Silicon Valley.

And where were you before that? 
I led open source strategy across Microsoft - I took over open source technical strategy in 2006, and open source market strategy in early 2008, which was a pretty extraordinary role, because we were able to work directly with Bill Gates on technology strategy and had a field organization spanning 80 countries. We worked on open source interoperability and with a range of open source technology projects to help them either run extremely efficiently on top of Microsoft platforms, especially Windows Server, or to improve interoperability between Windows and Linux. 

That was before it was really publicized that Microsoft was moving in a more open direction.
That’s right. We were doing open source at Microsoft back when that was innovative and scary. [chuckles] My manager and predecessor in the role was Bill Hilf, who’s now the GM of Product Management for Windows Azure. Our purpose was to solve big problems, and that’s always scary – it challenged the way Microsoft did business. Bill is a great leader and was willing to take on the way things were.

What's the scope of this week’s Outercurve Open Source Software Conference?
The conference itself is focused on bringing together the community of developers who work on projects that they’ve chosen to host with There are some very, very well-known projects like NuGet, Orchard, and WiX, which have tens of millions of downloads, hundreds of contributors, and thousands to millions of users. All of those project leads and contributors are getting together to share notes, talk about what’s working, and how to improve things. There are also lots of people who are aren’t working directly on those projects who want to learn about how to do more open source development, how to create and manage projects and, frequently, how to work with Microsoft’s open source teams.

Scott Guthrie [Corporate Vice President, Windows Azure], who’s a well-known guy and a great technology leader, will be talking at the conference as well. He’s been, along with Bill Staples [Director, Windows Azure Product Management], one of the visionaries at Microsoft in shipping products that incorporate open source. And he’s done that both in the .NET division and now also in Windows Azure, adapting some of the technology that my team had built to host open source projects directly on top of Microsoft technologies. He’s bringing together all of the knowledge-sharing and excitement about open source development, especially as it relates to Microsoft technologies. In this case it’s one of the flagship components of Windows Azure – running Linux on Azure, WordPress on Azure, PHP, and so on.

What can you tell us about the hackathon this Friday and Saturday?
Hackathons and plugfests in general are a staple of the open source community, and this one’s no different. Developers will be getting together and testing out new product ideas. Also, new developers who are interested in contributing to one of the existing Outercurve-hosted projects will get a chance to talk to committers - the architects of the projects - directly, and start to get set up on systems, trying to figure out how to build and run it. Once you’ve got that up and running, you’re set to understand how that code works, and you figure out how to do it better and contribute for the benefit of everybody else on the project, and anybody else who might need it.

Folks will be working on NuGet, Orchard, CoApp, maybe a little bit of WiX, probably Maven, maybe ChronoZoom. It’ll run the gamut - from package management and installation of software, to content management systems, all the way to some really fascinating, innovative stuff like ChronoZoom, which was the UC Berkeley-led project that allows you to zoom in and out into the history of the universe in a very satisfying, visual way with a ton of depth of information. They won a major award at South by Southwest this year.

Sounds like fun. So, more generally, why do you feel being open is so important at Outercurve and at Microsoft?
A couple reasons. We are still in - to quote Bill Gates when he was talking about the concept of search about five years ago - ‘the first ten yards’ of open source as an industry. That is, if you imagine the end state of open source as the end zone on a football field, we’re still in the first ten yards. The ways to have smart engineers collaborate, whether you classify them as software vendors, consumers, corporations, governments, are just beginning to be explored. The crucial nature of Outercurve is that we’re promoting a very friendly environment for learning how to do a great job managing the evolution of open source software projects. 

Unfortunately, too many projects have come up with great ideas and had quick success and then disappeared from the history books, mainly because what the “rules of the road” were - in other words, open source governance - have been really poorly understood. The projects that succeed do so because they kind of worked it out, but the vast majority of projects are not successful. So what we do with them at Outercurve is work directly on open source governance: what are the processes, what are the promises, what are the licenses, how do you correctly approach an open source project to make it successful, both non-commercially as a community, and commercially, as a product that’s being used by large companies or governments.

What has been your most memorable Outercurve experience?
It was a huge moment when NuGet launched, really quickly gathered steam, and suddenly Microsoft announced that the project was so useful and so impactful to the developer experience that they’d be shipping it as part of Microsoft Visual Studio. That was an amazing moment - I was on an Outercurve board of directors conference call and suddenly the announcement hits, and now all of a sudden we’re part of this leap forward in the maturity model, both for what Outercurve was able to contribute and what Microsoft was able to take action on.

How do you see the spirit of openness changing the way Microsoft does business?
What makes me happy is I’ve seen Microsoft relax into a spirit of pragmatism. When I joined Microsoft in 2004, there was a level of anxiety around open source in general. There was the idea that as an engineer at Microsoft, if you even looked at open source code, you would be “tainted,” and that’s not a very good word, is it? It would drive more anxiety. The fear was that if you were tainted, you’d no longer be able to contribute to Microsoft products. That’s not good for your career.

That was 2004, and it’s no longer the case. Now, you don’t have these concerns about what open source is and isn’t, you can just go and develop some experience. You can meet some open source people. You can find out that they’re great software developers who just want everything to work better. Now Microsoft is saying: “Here’s where we can contribute, here’s where we can use open source effectively. We can offer great platforms like [Windows] Azure that any open source developer can run any open source code on, including Linux, directly on top of a Microsoft product.” In 2004, that was like the idea of cats and dogs living together, but in 2013, it’s more like, “Oh, this makes sense. We know how to do this.” It’s nice to see the increase in the peacefulness there.

During your interactions with the world outside of Outercurve and Microsoft, do you find that people are surprised at the company’s commitment to openness?
There seem to be three main schools of thought: There’s a group that’s never been a part of the Microsoft ecosystem. They’ve never used .NET, don’t really ship software on Windows, and so on. Frankly, they don’t really seem to care one way or another. There’s another group, though, that’s totally shocked - they pay attention to Microsoft and use its products. But they have this sense of insularity - they work with Microsoft products and people, and that’s it. Sometimes I’ll run into someone I haven’t seen in a long time, and they’ll ask what’s new. I’ll tell them about Outercurve, or [Windows] Azure, and they’ll be flabbergasted. They can’t believe Microsoft would do that.

There’s a third contingent, probably the largest, it’s the pragmatists. The software developers and the startup people who say, “We just want to make the world better. We want to see more software doing better things” There’s this analogy we use—if you’re building something and your carpenter shows up and says, “I’m a screwdriver carpenter,” and he doesn’t know how to use drills, or saws, or all the tools at his disposal - you’d kick him out. So these people see Microsoft is not trying to be screwdriver carpenters, they’re running PHP, or Python, working with GitHub, and they say “Wow, it’s about time. It’s great to see Microsoft doing this.”

Have any life experiences affected the way you work? Or vice versa, has your work influenced your life outside of it?
Three things stand out for me. One, it made me very curious seeing open source as a basis of human collaboration - it’s worked so effectively in software - I want to see it on a larger scale, in businesses, in economies. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the economics of openness, where you can see linkages between openness and increased GDP for economies. You look at what their laws are, the points of entry and exit in their economies, the barriers or lack thereof in foreign investment, and there’s a pretty strong correlation over the last forty years. I think it was a US ITC (United States International Trade Commission) study. At a macroeconomic level, that’s fascinating.

At a smaller level, I spend a lot of time these days with Apigee working on open APIs. As opposed to source code, it’s the ability of enterprises to share a tremendous amount of data and business process openly on the web via HTTP with other partners, some of whom they’ve never met before. You’d be surprised what comes out of collaboration: better business results, faster time to market, new ideas, happier customers.

There’s a great quote from James Governor at RedMonk. He says, “20th Century business was about increasing barriers to entry, but 21st Century business is about lowering barriers to participation.” The company that can be the most collaborative gets backed up by market share.

The big experiences I had in open source development were with Microsoft, going out and meeting open source developers from communities, places with previously bad Microsoft relationships. If the internet is to be believed, you’d conclude that these are very angry, frustrated people and if a Microsoft person showed up would’ve been torn apart, thrown to the lions. But in fact, going out and being open, listening, paying attention, I found that open source developers were just great developers who want to make things work.

When someone showed up, even from a company with a history like Microsoft, they just want to talk, share points of view, figure out if there’s anything we can collaborate on to make things work better. When you meet someone face to face, you’d be surprised at how much you can do together. That was a visceral experience for me that changed how I look at people. I don’t tend to expect the worst anymore.

What’s your favorite piece of hardware or software that you’ve ever used or worked with?
I’m totally fascinated by Raspberry Pi. It’s on a piece of hardware that’s very open, relatively cheap, and easy to hack on. It’s ushering in era of open hardware. If you asked me a year ago, I would’ve said the Arduino, but Raspberry Pi is even more interesting. And the proof of that, the power of openness, is that a six-year-old built a supercomputer out of 64 Raspberry Pis and a bunch of Legos. The Legos were there for airflow, and the computing was just Raspberry Pis. It’s mind boggling - if a six-year-old can do these kinds of things with open technologies, then we can have some pretty high hopes for the future.

There’s also an article from last week about OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) dropping off a bunch of tablets in an Ethiopian village, and the kids using them to teach themselves English, and they even hacked the tablets.
It’s so amazing that they hacked the tablets. There was that big debate a while back about whether tablets would inspire people to program or if they would just make computing more accessible. There’s that kinesthetic experience with the tablets which you don’t have with a regular computer, which should make computing more approachable and we should see more computer literacy. The idea that the kids are hacking the tablets is very exciting.

That also reminds me of one other very exciting piece of technology, the Kinect, and particularly the NUI, Open NUI, and the open source projects that have sprouted up around it. One of the key guys in that community is a fellow named Josh Blake. The amazing thing we’re seeing is these people building these Minority Report kind of experiences, in environments we haven’t seen. The example that leaps to mind is surgeons in operating rooms. People are building these Kinect-based systems, and the surgeons can now just turn toward the computer from the patient and move their hands around in three dimensions, and have the computer understand their gestures. No need to leave the operating room to access a computer and then scrub back in.
The combination of the Kinect, as a really innovative piece of hardware, and the openness that that team has shown toward open source development and open innovation is really transformative. I would hope to see Microsoft make nurturing the open Kinect community a very high priority.

Thanks for your time today. Any closing remarks?
I’d just like to close by saying that there’s a tremendous quantity of value that open source is going to bring for the rest of the century. The most important thing we can all do is to understand it better, figure out how we can use it and how we can collaborate more openly so that we can solve large-scale problems.


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