Rod Johnson is an accomplished author (‘Expert One-on-One J2EE Design and Development’ and ‘J2EE without EJB’), a world authority on Java and J2EE, and an entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of SpringSource, which builds Java infrastructure software. Rod holds a BA with Honors in Computer Science, Mathematics and Musicology as well as a PhD from the University of Sydney.
SM: I detect an accent. Where is that from?
RJ: I come from Sydney, Australia. My accent has been confused because I also lived in London for seven years. I have lived in the Bay Area for a bit over a year now.
SM: You grew up in Australia then?
RJ: Yes, I grew up and got my education in Sydney.
SM: Is there much of a local entrepreneurship ecosystem in Australia?
RJ: To be honest, I am the wrong person to ask because very little of my IT career has been in Australia. I think the Australian economy has been pretty strong in the past few years, but it does have a bad reputation for being able to retain talent. I think it is harder to raise money. There is an excellent education system, and a lot of great engineers come from Australia. All too often they end up going overseas if they want to start a business.
SM: Like most economies. I think venture capital and startup financing is generally not abundantly available anywhere. Perhaps there are exceptions now in Israel, India and China. When I started my entrepreneurial career in 1994, I started my first India operation and the industry there was so immature it was ridiculous. Over the past 12 years that has changed completely. I have imagined that Australia is much like Latin America and has not had any major impact.
RJ: It also affects your ability to get people to buy into the vision. We have found it is much easier to get employees in the Valley to seriously focus on an opportunity that could be public than it is in Australia or Britain. Both of those locations still have a bit of irreverence and skepticism. If you tell a British or Australian person that you are going to build a billion dollar business, they laugh.
SM: What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up knowing you were going to leave at some point?
RJ: No, I really had no clear view at all about what I wanted to do with my life until I was at least 25. My first degree was a major in computer and music. I then got a scholarship to do a PhD in musicology. I wrote a thesis on piano music in Paris from 1830–1848. That was something that I did without having to think too hard about it. I had a government scholarship to do it and it was a good opportunity. I was very interested in doing research and I felt I was learning a lot of interesting things and stretching myself in interesting ways. I then taught at Sydney University for a couple of years.
SM: Did you ever pursue music as a professional musician?
RJ: I was a pianist. I suppose you can say I am a pianist who does not play anymore.
I really wanted to keep up my programming skills, so I wrote a couple of moderately successful shareware programs. I then decided I wanted to switch into IT. Gradually I started getting into more senior roles.
SM: Were you still in Australia through all of this?
RJ: No, I had moved to the UK by that point. All of my studies were in Australia, but I moved to the UK to do IT work.