OSCON, Pt. 5.0: Sam Ramji's Wonderful, Terrible Job

There's a part of me that thinks Sam Ramji, director of Microsoft's Open Source Lab, has the worst imaginable job at Microsoft. But he doesn't see it that way: Where other people would see such a position as being crushed between two wholly opposed forces (Microsoft and open source), Sam sees it as a way to build a bridge that didn't exist before -- and maybe to transform Microsoft all the more from within.

There's a part of me that thinks Sam Ramji, director of Microsoft's Open Source Lab, has the worst imaginable job at Microsoft. But he doesn't see it that way: Where other people would see such a position as being crushed between two wholly opposed forces (Microsoft and open source), Sam sees it as a way to build a bridge that didn't exist before -- and maybe to transform Microsoft all the more from within.

For my last little stint at OSCON before boarding a plane and enduring a horrible red-eye (more like purple-eye) flight back to New York, and right on the heels of a major announcement from Sam about the Apache Foundation, I cornered Sam for a few minutes and listened to him speak his mind.

"I think often this is the best job in the world," Sam told me Friday, after both of us had spent a solid week immersing ourselves in the open source community in all its aspects. "But I also know it's challenging. I knew that when I took over this job that I would be unpopular for a few years, but I would also be in a path to get things fixed. It just takes time.

"Bill Hilf asked me to take over from him back in January 2006, and I started formally in February. Right around that time, I felt like the company was at an inflection point of sorts -- the industry as a whole was starting to turn, there was very much a 'hub' feeling, and it was a moment in time when the company itself was turning, too. There also did not seem to be that many people who could do the different parts of this job right -- the technology, the business angles, being a presenter, all of that. And of those who would choose to do it, not many would be willing to take the chance to do this via Microsoft."

So why do it?

"I've learned to follow my interests, and if you're at an interesting place and time, interesting things happen. I've shown open source to Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie; that was a highlight for my whole career. I've also been able to get into a whole range of discussions that have progressively led to a point where we've been able to make a lot more moves than ever before -- to do the right thing with different open source communities.

"In March, Bill stepped down as the head of the team, and said, 'Sam, you've been doing the tech stuff for a long time -- now let's see if you can take over the business and marketing side of things, too.' We went from 12 people working for me to about 112 in 65 countries -- it's been a real trip! That said, I just had an internal conference with 53 of the 78 people who work for me worldwide, include 12 or so from the core team, and we also had a summit with the theme of 'Community.' That's what we've been doing -- building an internal community and focusing on acting as ambassadors to other communities."

Funny he uses the word "ambassador," since the term I've used in the past is "being a good diplomat" to the community -- communicating your intentions and the steps you're taking to an often-skeptical audience. Sam quoted back at me Allison Randal's words during the Participate '08 panel, where any newcomers may need to be kicked a few times when they do dumb things, but after a certain point you have to stop kicking and start teaching.

One of the manifestations of that in the last several months, as far as I saw it, was the dialing down of the rhetoric Microsoft has typically thrown around regarding patents. Sam was clear that he didn't like that sort of talk either: "I've given consistent feedback to our executives and communication teams that such language does not move us forward. And it seems to be taking."

Another thing I noted was how now that open source software and platforms are going mainstream, they need to win the sympathy of the very people they have not done a great job of attracting: the end users.

"I think there has typically been a strong core audience for open source, and that audience has been in a development role; that's the part of the reason for the vicious cycle [of open source being written for developers and not end users]. There has typically been a great deal of care and concern for 'on-ramping' [his term for ease of adoption and use] with proprietary software, and ... see, there's this Far Side cartoon I love. There are two pilots in an airplane cockpit, and there's a toggle switch on the side of the cockpit, and one pilot asks the other, 'I wonder what happens if we push this.' And the label next to the switch says WINGS STAY ON / WINGS FALL OFF. A company is a bit like that: The day you stop focusing on on-ramping is the day the wings fall off!"

After we finished laughing, we detoured into a bit of a discussion about the difference between evangelism and marketing: "To me, evangelism is when I can sit down have a one-on-one, or one-to-few experience with someone and say, 'Hey, here's this really neat thing, check it out!' It's limited in its ability to scale. But marketing is about being able to get some level of that experience out to an audience a hundred thousand times bigger, so it needs to be done differently. Depending on what you're doing, you can practice evangelism, marketing, or both. Evangelism works for a core technology audience, but you need marketing to get it to the next wave of adoption by typical end users. I think Mark Shuttleworth's [Ubuntu] team is doing great work in this regard."

That reminded me of something. Some of the people I've talked to about Ubuntu are worried that it might not outlive Mark's personality -- that if he leaves or takes on another role, the momentum will vanish.

"I've been a student of management for about 10 years, and one of the books that inspired me was Jim Collins' book Built To Last, and the follow-up, Good To Great, which is even more important. What he talks about is 'clock-builders, not time-tellers.' He talks about the transition from good companies (which are typically successful and led by heroes) to great (companies which outlive their founders). You can ask people on my team -- this is something I deal with often -- I'm not a 'hero.' I'm building a clock. If I fall over tomorrow, all this stuff has to keep working.

"I've accepted the spokesperson position kind of reluctantly, because I'm not a hero, and I don't want people to be confused into thinking I am. I tried to hire people to do speaking engagements for me, and we had good conversations about this with more than a few people, but after taking about six months to not hire anyone, the hard truth was that I had to go out and do it. I got supernervous, as I hated public speaking; I would nearly throw up before going on stage! But as it turned out, to lead change you need to lead; and to lead people you need to speak.

"One of the analogies I use about why I speak: There are two strategies for finding moths in a forest at night. You can go creep around and look in every tree, or you can stand in the middle and light a bonfire. And they'll all come to you. Not everyone in every setting is going to agree with what I'm trying to produce, but the ones who do, they show up! I've had conversations with people I couldn't have imagined, and results from those I couldn't have imagined either. In fact, that was how we started working with Samba: I opened my mouth at the Microsoft Technology Summit in March 2007, and I said something about Samba, and someone there blogged about it immediately. And as a result of that I got an e-mail from Jeremy: 'Hey! I hear you want to help!' And that was the start of the whole thing. That's one good example of speaking despite the cost of getting onstage."

Who here at the show has been best to talk to?

"I would say two: Neal McBurnett (of Ubuntu), on the subject of patents -- his father was a patent lawyer, so I think he has more background than I do. And Brian Behlendorf on Tuesday. He was really positive that it was the right time for Microsoft to participate with Apache and that Apache developers could get more support from their admin staff."