March 6, 2007

Portrait: Zak Greant - ombudsman, advocate, and strategist

Author: Bruce Byfield

Zak Greant belongs to the first generation of adults to mature with free and open source software (FOSS). Starting with his discovery of the PHP programming language a decade ago, Greant has grown along with FOSS until today he is a consultant advising companies and projects on legal issues and corporate strategy. Recently, he founded Foo Associates, a small consulting company where he plans to continue promoting the values of the FOSS communities in business.

Greant found the FOSS community by accident. Dropping out of grade 11 in Calgary, Canada, Greant trained as a cook, only to discover after a year in the training program that he disliked the industry -- and, he adds, "hard work of any kind." After a series of random jobs that included work in a ceramics factory and a dental lab, in 1994 he went into his business with his mother, a writer, and his brother, a salesman. They asked him to learn computer skills -- specifically, HTML.

From there, Greant branched out into consulting work. Within a few years, he says, he was "trying to solve some programming problems with brute force HTML." His Internet service provider told him about PHP, but, Greant remembers, "Being young and arrogant, I said, 'I don't need that crap. I can do all of that in HTML and a lot easier.'" However, after working on a project involving 4,200 pages of handcoded HTML, Greant decided to reconsider his position.


Zak Greant (photo by Roland Tanglao)

When Greant first discovered the PHP mailing lists, he lurked. As he started to learn, he asked questions privately, and was gradually encouraged to ask questions publicly and work on bug fixes. "I just felt this obligation," he says. "I had taken a lot, and I had to start giving back." By 1998, after PHP had several releases in quick succession because of a lack of quality control, he took on a major role in testing. "I said, I'll try it," he remembers. "All you really need to do is break software. I can break software all day long." This testing work led to assisting with several technical books, notably The PHP Functions Essential Reference. "I was terrified of producing crummy material and being humiliated in the community," Greant says, to say nothing of wanting to live up to his mother's standards as a professional writer, but he also "had a chip on his shoulder" that made him determined to prove himself.

In 2001, Greant's writing resulted in an invitation to give a presentation at a conference in Germany. Despite practicing his talk at every opportunity, Greant remained nervous, and considered using the September 11th attacks, which occurred then, as an excuse not to go. However, in the end, he says, "My loving wife put a firm foot on my ass and pushed me out the door."

As Greant gave his presentation, he focused on several members of the audience with expressive body language, so that he could gauge how his presentation was being received. One them was a long-haired German who congratulated him afterwards. The German turned out to be Werner St├╝renburg, a MySQL trainer. "I was stunned to find out that MySQL was a real company," Greant says.

Soon after the presentation, Greant was reasoning with himself, "If MySQL can hire this very nice, eccentric German guy, they can certainly hire this equally nice, eccentric Canadian guy." Armed with a recommendation from St├╝renburg, he tried to get MySQL to hire him as a technical writer, only to learn that the position had been filled. Crestfallen at first, Greant recovered and wrote to everyone he knew at MySQL. He received an offer of employment from Michael Widenius, one of MySQL's founders, and Greant went to sleep that night "over the moon" -- only to get copied on an email from David Axmark, another MySQL founder, saying that hires had to be approved by the company's board. A nightmarish week and a half exchange followed, but, in the end, Greant was hired on contract as a company evangelist. "They gave me a nice little bonus for being so patient, and for not getting freaked out by how they handled things," Greant says.

For the next two and a half years, Greant divided his time between traveling as a representative of MySQL and working from home on licensing issues and as a liaison between MySQL and the community. "When I started, I didn't have much experience explaining licenses," Greant recalls. "I don't think I'd even successfully made my way through [the GNU General Public License (GPL)] at that point. But I had the good fortune to be working with an excellent lawyer, Keith Moulsdale. I found it was a topic I enjoyed very much, and I started getting more involved and reading more about licensing and attending the Free Software Foundation's educational seminars." Among the issues that Greant was involved with was MySQL's switch from the Lesser GPL to the GPL, a move which hindered PHP's ability to bundle MySQL libraries and required the so-called MySQL exception to resolve.

Eventually, Greant resigned from MySQL when his manager denied him a leave of absence. "It was a great job," Greant says, "but it was also a hell of a job, one that really stretched beyond the skills that I had. So, to make up for it, I put in a tremendous amount of time. After about two and a half years of that, I just burned out."

After a short period as an evangelist on the staff of Sxip Identity in Vancouver, Canada, Greant become a district manager for eZ Systems, an open source content management system based in Norway, and began expanding his list of clients. It has since included the Mozilla Foundation and smaller companies such as the Dabble DB, the makers of an online database application. In addition, Greant has worked free for such companies and projects as Sun Microsystems and Asterisk.

One of the things that Greant says he learned at MySQL is that his job was complicated by a lack of seniority. "If part of your job involves negotiating compromises between companies and communities," he says, "you have to have enough authority to make those agreements stick. With eZ Systems and Sxip, I made it very clear that, to be an effective ombudsman, I had to be part of the executive team. I had to have enough authority that it wasn't easy to override a decision that the group made with me. And that's been much more effective."

Greant acknowledges that his work would be easier in some ways if he were a lawyer. However, he finds that his position as a lay expert also carries some advantages. Conditioned to think in terms of the law, many lawyers may discard an option prematurely based on precedence, or fail to think of consequences outside of the law. "What I don't know about legal agreements, combined with what I do know about how communities will react and what businesses have for their priorities lets me think differently. Typically, I work best as a foil for a lawyer. I can provide them with a good sense of how things work on the open source or free software side of things."

Currently, Greant volunteers to answer licensing questions for the FSF's compliance lab and is a member of the committees involved in the drafting of the third version of the GPL. His recent work for eZ Systems includes drafting a proprietary license that is more open than most, and which includes a minimum of restricted rights, plain language, and a release under a Creative Commons License so that others can learn from it.

However, much of his recent energies have been focused on expanding his consultancy business from a single-person operation into a small company under the name of Foo Associates. As well as continuing his consultancy business, Greant is designing Foo Associates to reflect the FOSS communities in which he has been involved for over a decade. "We're doing almost all of our business development transparently," Greant explains. "As we develop a business plan, it gets thrown up on the Foo Associates blog."

An interesting part of Greant's plans is that when the company grows to about 15-20 people, he plans to split it into two smaller companies and divide Foo Associates' specialties between them. In this way, he hopes that team members can "feel passionate about the area they work on," and that the body of expertise contained in the company can expand to meet the growing demand for it as FOSS continues to grow in popularity.

"I'm arrogant enough to think that the way we do things benefits the community as a whole," says Greant. "And the person we really end up serving is the end user. [And] by keeping things small, I get to manage risks, and keep this a fun experiment."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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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