May 4, 2007

Rosie's blog builders say it's all about community

Author: Tina Gasperson

EchoDitto helps its clients create online communities. It believes in open source software and relies heavily on the Drupal content management system both internally and for its customers. EchoDitto CTO and co-founder Justin Pinder says it's the community that makes open source invaluable.

Pinder is not a stranger to the open source world. Even though he's only 31, he has been "dabbling in Internet technology" for 18 years. "My father was a professor and he got me access to a supercomputer," he says. "So I've been playing around with Unix and Linux for quite a while."

Back in 2004, Pinder worked as a lead developer for Howard Dean during his time as a presidential candidate. When he arrived at the Dean campaign, the team there was already using PHP. Pinder quickly learned to love it. "I decided PHP was such a rapid language, it would be a good basis for EchoDitto. And after that, we realized there were so many CMS projects already getting to a level of maturity that we could use those as the foundation for our development work.

"One of the things we used on the Dean campaign heavily was Drupal," Pinder says. "It's so easy to deploy and configure. We've recognized a lot of efficiencies in it versus a traditional commercial product, or building from the ground up."

When the campaign was over, Pinder and his colleagues wanted to keep on working together. Not only did they make a good team, but they discovered the power of providing an online presence and facilitating a community to surround it. They decided to move to Washington, DC, together and start a company. Since they had no money, they decided to live together too -- all seven of them, in a two-bedroom apartment that also served as the original office space for EchoDitto. Since then, team members have all secured their own separate living quarters and brand new office space in downtown DC.

Pinder says EchoDitto focuses on selecting clients it considers "progressive or socially responsible," like the Clinton Global Initiative, Rock the Vote, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, and even Rosie O'Donnell's personal blog. "Rosie is kind of a unique client," he says. "I don't work with her directly -– we're there as tech advisers. She has her own Web cluster that we manage, but they're her machines." Because O'Donnell's site generates heavy traffic, EchoDitto keeps it on separate servers.

One of the projects Pinder is most proud of is the Pearl Harbor Survivors Project. The site houses a database of survivors and space for those survivors to tell their stories. "We set up a VoIP system with Asterisk," Pinder says. "They can call in, tell the story, and it automatically gets converted to an MP3 file and deployed to the Web site." Some veterans have submitted video accounts of the attack as well. EchoDitto built a Flash application that displays the locations of the ships that were in the harbor at the time of the attack, and when the user clicks on a ship, it presents a list of pertinent details from the database. "It's just some interesting ways to leverage Drupal like a development platform," Pinder says.

Pinder also recognizes the value of the community surrounding Drupal. "There are lots of meet-ups and local events where Drupal developers get together," he says. "We're able to leverage what they do for our clients, and we don't do a lot of ground-up development. It's more about using the existing technology and customizing and adding features. Then a lot of it gets recommitted back to the community."

Pinder says that unless you have some "tech-savvy" people on board, "open source can be a difficult road to go down. When we decided to install a VoIP system, we went with Asterisk because you can do some custom things. But none of us had any knowledge of Asterisk, and we had to commit a good number of resources to getting it deployed. We enjoy having the flexibility, but if we had gone with a closed source or traditional product we wouldn't have had to commit those internal resources."

For entrepreneurs considering building a business using open source technology, Pinder says its all about the community. "When you're approaching developers, it's important that you find individuals who are willing to spend a lot of off time investing themselves in the community of developers so they can get specifically acquainted with the knowledge. There's no central foundation or going to school and learning this stuff. So it's important to find the individuals who are active in communities. Networking, participating in meet-ups, discussion forums, and other online communities, and making sure you're staying abreast of developments.

"One of the things we encounter is that open source software development moves at a lightning pace. It's hard to keep up. For example, between Drupal 4.6 and 4.7 there were major changes to the infrastructure that made it impossible for us to identify an upgrade path -– we had to redevelop for the clients. If you're not in sync, it's really challenging to deal with the changing nature of these projects."


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