June 19, 2008

Portrait: Dominic Sartorio

Author: Tina Gasperson

Dominic Sartorio began his career as a "traditional" software developer, but his career path has been indelibly marked by two things: a solid appreciation for the open source method, and a desire to understand the big picture of open collaboration and how that can ultimately create long-term benefits for the industry and for customers.

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Sartorio is the president of the Open Solutions Alliance, a business collaborative dedicated to driving enterprise adoption by addressing shared issues such as interoperability between member-created solutions in an open environment. Sartorio is also senior director of product management at SpikeSource, and a blogger for the 2008 Open Source ThinkTank.

Sartorio graduated from MIT with a master's degree in computer science and engineering. The events leading up to a career in technology began for Sartorio back in the 1980s. "The culture and times were leading to increased faith in technology moving society forward," Sartorio says. He was a "nerdy kid," with an affinity for math and science. "I looked up to scientists like Carl Sagan [and] read lots of science fiction. Ray Bradbury was my favorite author."

Sartorio says it seemed natural to pursue a computer science degree and a career in information technology. "Most of my high school peer group was similarly technically inclined, and I was encouraged by family and friends. Of course, real life always tempers the dreams and expectations one has in childhood, but I still have a fundamental belief that technology can help move society forward."

Sartorio's first experience with open source software was at MIT. "I was working on an Internet packet filtering project, and needed to make changes to an operating system kernel in order to experiment with various ideas. My research group (the Distributed and Parallel Computing Lab at MIT) was a heavy user of the Mach OS because of its microkernel design, and there was a big push around microkernel research at the time. I remember going through the code and noticing how people contributed to various aspects of the overall project, but the whole OS really hung together well." Coincidentally, Santorio was working in the same building that Richard Stallman had his office in.

"Interestingly, at the time, it didn't really occur to me that open source was a significantly different, and in many ways better, way of delivering software. That didn't occur to me until much later, after several years of professional experience under my belt, working for proprietary companies thinking there must be a better way."

After graduation, Sartorio started his career as a developer, calling himself an "engineer at heart." Even so, he quickly found himself wanting to be more involved in the business side of the industry. "I wanted to ... understand how all the moving parts fit together. How exactly was the software helping customers? How were we making money? I couldn't get that just by designing and writing code all day." Sartorio made a "lateral" move into technical alliances and sales engineering positions, "to learn more about how customers and partners consume software. Then I moved to product management, which is all about making sure the moving parts do fit together. So I guess it was an intentional process, although I can't say I mapped it all out in advance. It was more of a discovery process, learning as I went."

Sartorio misses getting immersed in the details of coding a piece of software, but doesn't miss losing sight of the big picture, he says. "It's a rare person that can do both. Most of us mere mortals need to make a choice where we want to live. On balance, and in hindsight, I'm happy with the choices I made."

As the president of OSA, Sartorio has been able to watch the open source industry evolve and, he says, to be a part of the maturation. "The OSA's message has become mainstream, and it's a rewarding feeling to see people benefit from the work we do. I've had the opportunity to interact with a lot of smart people. There is no shortage of thought leadership among the membership and in the industry overall, and sometimes it feels like a day doesn't go by where I didn't learn something new from the people I've interacted with."

The biggest challenge for Sartorio with the OSA has been to keep moving forward with a fully volunteer work force, not unlike the direction of a grassroots open source development project. "The OSA does not have dedicated staff," he says. "Work is done by the member organizations' staff members, each of whom has a day job. The result is that I can't direct activity in the same way that a manager can direct employees. It's purely soft selling, getting people to buy in to the value and demonstrating how their involvement will, eventually, be a net positive for their company and themselves. This usually works, but I can't do anything about somebody having a fire drill at their day job that back-burners an OSA activity for a while. Consequently, I need to manage the OSA differently. I think of everything we do as a portfolio of activities -- some will succeed and some won't -- but as long as the net sum moves us forward, it's OK.

"For the most part, this has worked well. All member companies are part of the OSA because they fundamentally believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that by working together, we all win. This is very much an open source community way of thinking, and I think it comes more naturally for most commercial open source companies than proprietary companies. People are more willing to interact in a spirit of give and take rather than trying to be in control of the relationships. So, in that regard, we are very much like a true community. I have found that organizations must truly have a culture of openness, collaboration, and transparency in order for this to work, else the individual is always facing an uphill battle internally about why they are participating in the OSA and what is the benefit to the company. Some companies are open source in name only; they may have thrown some OSI-compliant code over the wall, or otherwise claim to be an open source company, but in their working culture and day-to-day operations, they act like a closed company.

"We do have competitive members, including middleware and intellectual property compliance. Every now and then I need to mediate, but by and large they have played nice. Sometimes they'll consciously decide to participate in different activities to minimize chance of conflicts. It hasn't really been a problem. Again, it goes back to whether they believe in the spirit of openness and collaboration, or if they are really closed companies at heart. Most OSA members are, of course, the former.

"There's a reason we structured the OSA this way. Unlike the operating system and tools markets, which are relatively consolidated and dominated by several large vendors, the open source applications and solutions market is very diverse and relatively young. There are lots of small companies, each focusing on individual business problems. We want the OSA to appeal to them, keep the dues low enough so they can afford membership, while still making it possible for them to be on the board. This means we couldn't sell board seats to members who are willing to pay more, as other 501(c)6s have done. That being said, the OSA board is constantly reviewing and considering our progress, and discussing at what point should we make a push for more funding or create higher-dues-paying member classes so we can hire a dedicated executive director and other staff."

Sartorio says OSA is making good progress in its mission of interoperability. "In our first year, we delivered several interoperability toolkits, such as single sign-on and common search, several white papers based on our customer outreach and hands-on work, and most significantly, an ambitious hands-on project to integrate several member applications."

The Common Customer View integrates customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, business intelligence, and business planning to provide a "single source of truth for everything happening in a business that impacts customer satisfaction. It's the functional equivalent of the Oracle data hub, but delivered by seven different companies, demonstrating not only some interoperability best practices, but also that by working together we can deliver great value. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts."

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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