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Commercial OpenSource: SpringSource CEO Rod Johnson (Part 3)

Posted on Friday, Jan 16th 2009

SM: When you put your framework out there in the OpenSource domain you did it as an individual, correct? What went through your mind as you saw the adoption?

RJ: I have always had a somewhat hardnosed attitude about it. When I was writing the book, I was doing it to help build my personal brand as a consultant. At first with Spring it was the same mentality, but it rapidly became apparent that it was at another level. Downloads went from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions.

The scope and complexity of the software was getting to the point where it required a dedicated company to maintain and extend. There was a significant business opportunity which was much more exciting than the consulting-style business opportunity I had been thinking about.

SM: What year was this and where were you?

RJ: I wrote the book largely in Australia in 2001. I returned to Britain in early 2002 and it was published in November of 2002.

SM: Did the downloads start in 2003?

RJ: It really took off in 2004.

SM: How were you making a living from 2003 to 2004?

RJ: During the writing of the book I was going through all of my savings. We ended up probably $100,000 down in our mortgage because after going through the savings there was more living to be done. I went back into the workforce doing consulting. One of the things I learned in the consulting jobs I did after writing the book was that I was even more right than I had originally thought.

Being in situations where I saw the problems, I described and the damage that those problems could do. For example, I had a project in London that wasted £70 million and ultimately produced nothing of value. That was in 2003–2004.

SM: What was the problem?

RJ: Basically they had taken the approach to enterprise Java that I criticized in the book and that Spring was designed to address. There was no concern about complexity. Every part of the system was insanely complex. It was impossible to deliver the system requirements because any trivial requirement would require tens of lines of code and changes in the database, and to deliver and entire system under those circumstances was impossible.

The prevailing attitude was that complexity did not matter. I stayed on that project for seven months, having pitched battles with the consultancy which was in charge of the architecture. Eventually I could not stand it anymore, so I resigned and left behind a variety of documents of different lengths which detailed why the project would fail. There was a four-page version and a 30-page version.

SM: When you left, were you ready to start the company?

RJ: I did one shorter contract which was a more pleasant experience because I actually used an early version of Spring and used the ideas I had developed and found them to be successful. I then started the company with a number of the other core developers of Spring. We had five founders, and we bootstrapped the company with consultancy.

In enterprise Java the developers tend to be a bit more business savvy. One of our co-founders had previously worked for a VC. Another couple had worked in large consultancies where they tended to get a fair amount of exposure to the business issues. We all had some business experience.

Along with our consultancy work, we did a training business which was based on our software. Afterwards we moved towards what we are today, which is a software business. All of this happened while I was still in the UK.

SM: When did you moved to the Valley?

RJ: After I decided to raise a Series A. That was in April of 2007.

This segment is part 3 in the series : Commercial OpenSource: SpringSource CEO Rod Johnson
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