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Who Will Fill Sam Ramji's Role as Microsoft's Open Source Leader?

Now that Sam Ramji, Microsoft Corp.'s point man on open source software, is leaving the company at the end of the month, who will possibly fill his shoes and continue to lead Microsoft further into the world of open source collaboration?

That's the big question after the announcement was made last week about Ramji's pending departure after three years in his job. Ramji is Microsoft's senior director of platform strategy and has been primarily responsible for driving the company's recent Linux and open source strategies. In a post on Microsoft's Port 25 blog last week, Bill Hilf, who held Ramji's job previously before becoming the general manager of Windows three years ago, wrote that Ramji is leaving to become interim president of the CodePlex Foundation and to take a leadership position at a California-based start-up. CodePlex is the new non-profit group, sponsored by Microsoft, created to provide a framework to help commercial software developers participate more easily in open source projects.

"Sam joined my team three years ago to drive open source technical strategy," Hilf wrote. "I have eagerly supported him as he passionately articulated a vision that Microsoft could coexist--and even thrive--in a heterogeneous IT world. The perspectives on [open source software] at Microsoft have evolved to the point where Microsoft's open source strategy is no longer just locked in a single 'lab' on campus--now OSS is an important part of many product groups and strategies across the company."

To continue that, Hilf wrote, "we are actively seeking someone to fill Sam's shoes at Microsoft. We will not waver in our commitment to open source."

 

Obviously, Microsoft likely is already working on internal lists of desired candidates to take Ramji's position, but at least one name has already popped up online inside the open source community.

An Early "Draft" Effort Emerges

On the day that Hilf posted his Microsoft blog item about Ramji's departure last week, software developer Caleb Jenkins, who formerly worked for Microsoft as a developer evangelist several years ago, posted his own suggested appointee on his blog, "Developing UX."

In his post, Jenkins suggests drafting longtime open-source activist and technical wizard, William Hurley, known in the open source community as "whurley."

whurley (Credit: Facebook)whurley, who has been the chief architect of open source strategy at BMC Software Inc. for the last several years, has been bringing his enthusiasm for open source to the company since he arrived. He's hugely popular in the open source community, speaking often at conferences and sharing his expertise, and he is a character who is able to communicate with the guys in the suits and the guys in T-shirts huddled around an X Box playing Rock Band. In an interview in Computerworld two years ago, he was articulate and enthusiastic about his work as a point man for open source at BMC. Sources inside BMC say that he's already announced his intentions to leave BMC. Could that make him more available to Microsoft if his name is on the list? Could we sometime soon be seeing whurley zipping down the halls of Microsoft on his beloved mode of transportation--his five-foot-long green skateboard?

Jenkins, who is now a software developer in Dallas, said in an interview that he began his "draft whurley" effort because he thinks he'd make a great choice. "I met whurley at a BarCamp event several years ago and I was very impressed," Jenkins said. "I think he has a unique perspective on a lot of... things that are happening in the tech world. He balances that with a good business mindset, including looking at how does a business not just engage and not be afraid of open source but leverage it for their customers. He embraces the perspective that what is good for his customers is good for his business."

Jenkins, who is a certified Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, said he was impressed by BMC when it brought whurley in to work for them because he doesn't fit the typical executive mold. "I think that was a big move from BMC's perspective. I think it would be a bold move from Microsoft's perspective. I'd love to see of more of a position with more influence even within Microsoft, someone who can come in and help take the things that have already started there and move those things forward."

"I'm not an advocate for something just because some is open source, but for what is the best tool for the job," Jenkins said. From Microsoft's, he said, "it makes a lot of sense that there's a strong strategy to embrace the development community and how they can play in a greater ecosystem."

So does Jenkins think that Microsoft could hire someone like whurley for the job?

"Do I in my heart of hearts think that Microsoft would do some that big or that courageous? I don’t know, but I think it’s a neat kind of thing to talk about and to throw out there. Hey, what if?"

Others have posted similar ideas on their Web sites.

The Nagios blog also suggests whurley as a candidate for the post.

Reached by instant messenger today about the Microsoft vacancy and the draft effort begun by Jenkins in his behalf, whurley said it "it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment at this time."

The Linux.com List

whurley is a fine option, but we thought that Linux.com readers would like to see our own list of possible replacements, from an open source perspective. This list isn't scientific, doesn't suggest that any of these people would want or take the job, and certainly doesn't purport to be accurate or even possible. Consider it a sort of "fantasy league list" of eligible players out there in the community who could be considered.

  • Marten Mickos, former CEO of open source database software vendor MySQL AB, which was acquired by Sun Microsystems Inc. early last year. (Sun was then acquired by Oracle Corp. this April but that deal is pending approval or disruption by the European Commission next January):Mickos is a proven open source community leader as well as an established large enterprise business leader, bringing together the best of both requirements. Mickos is friendly, persuasive, funny, charming and well-respected in the open source community and in the larger business community. Would he take such a job? At least one unnamed pundit said that's unlikely, calling Mickos "too rich" to take such a lower level post compared to where he has been. There's also likely a non-compete agreement in effect since his departure from Oracle that could hinder his candidacy.
  • Chris J. DiBona, the open source and public sector programs manager at Google Inc.: Long involved in the open source community, DiBona has experience, credibility in the community, proven leadership and visionary skills, and the needed energy to take on the Microsoft job. DiBona is a visiting scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management and has a master's degree in software engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. But would he ever be able to work happily within the walls of the Klingon battle star known as Microsoft?
  • Allison Randal, Program Chair for O'Reilly Media's annual Open Source Convention and a longtime open source software engineer who created Parrot, a virtual machine for dynamic languages: She's a member of The Perl Foundation board and has co-authored and edited a wide variety of technical books on dynamic computer language. She has the needed experience and knowledge of open source to bring new perspectives to Microsoft and she has the needed talents, but she just began a Ph.D. program in England, which likely removes her name from real consideration.
  • Kim Polese, CEO of SpikeSource Inc., which builds a software development platform for open source and proprietary software: Polese has a long resume in open source and IT, having co-founded the former Marimba configuration management software vendor in 1996 and operating it as president and CEO until it was acquired by BMC Software in2004. She also previously worked for Sun Microsystems and was the original product manager for Java.
  • Joe "zonker" Brockmeier, the community manager for Novell Inc.'s openSUSE Linux distro: Zonker, as he is known in the open source community, is an active, knowledgeable and well-respected member of the community. He has the open source and corporate experience for this post, as well as the social skills to do it well.

The Waiting Begins

Danese Cooper, a prominent open source activist who has worked inside corporations for years, said that no matter who gets the job, it's a tough one. "It’s a terrible job--think of it," she said. "The open source community doesn't trust you" if you work there, "even if you are whurley."

"It's really hard to sort out how much Sam was doing that was real and how much was window dressing," Cooper said. "The people inside the company aren’t so sure that they trust you."

But on the other hand, Ramji did help get some things done, she said, including negotiating code use and licensing for the Apache Poi project involving code owned by Microsoft. The company was already making code donations but Ramji arranged clarifications of those agreements, she said.

"I do think that they need somebody centralized," she said. "It's a big company and they're not yet convinced" about working with open source software. "But it's also a very rich company and a software centric company. It's not going to be that they all of a sudden become altruistic and lovely-dovey about open source. It will happen when it helps their company."

The person who will replace Ramji won't likely be someone who is completely at odds with them, Cooper said. "I don’t think they’ll look for anyone who has a chance of disagreeing with their objective. The candidate has to be able to deal with being in the hot seat of the community."

The company will also have to "sell" the selected choice inside Microsoft to people who are still opposed to open source as an idea, she said. "The tricky part is to find somebody trusted inside and still credible outside" the company. "I think it’s a short list."

"They're not at the place yet to turn things inside out, but that could happen at some point in the future."

Allison Randal, of O'Reilly Media, said she's not in discussions with Microsoft for the job and reiterated her new pursuit of her Ph.D., but said in an e-mail reply that the soon-to-be vacancy at Microsoft will be interesting to watch.

"Sam will certainly be missed," Randal wrote. "He was the visionary behind a lot of the recent changes for good at Microsoft. But, he also put together a dynamic team of people who are really interested in seeing open source move ahead at Microsoft. I would look first to the top layers of that team for Sam's successor."

 

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