Renaissance man

Rod Johnson: “I just find the whole startup experience way more satisfying”

Elliot Bentley
rod-johnson-teaser

The Spring Framework creator speaks to JAXenter about his startup portfolio, VMware frustrations and rediscovering his love of piano.

Following the news that
Spring Framework creator Rod Johnson would be
joining Hazelcast’s board of directors
– the fourth such
startup he has joined in the space of a year – we caught up with
the ex-SpringSource CEO about commercializing open source projects,
the internal politics of big companies like VMware, and, of course,
his PhD in classical music.

JAXenter: Why join Hazelcast? What drew you to
the company?

Johnson: I guess one of the things that really interested me in
Hazelcast is the size and strength of the open source community. I
mean, obviously I have had quite a bit of experience in open source
businesses, most notably of course SpringSource. But I think one of
the things that really stands out about open source businesses is
[that] it’s really hard to create a business and then grow a
community. Whereas the right way to do it is [to] create something
that developers love, build a great community around that, and
then think about, y’know, what may be the business
opportunities that arise from that.

So, I don’t think there’s a huge number of things out there that
developers feel strongly about, and I think Hazelcast is one of
those things where the community is quite large and growing
rapidly, and also where a lot of developers just feel really,
really good about what it does, and the existence of that
capability in open source.

How will you be contributing to the company (besides a
portion of the $2.5m investment)?

Well, as a board member, I think the role varies depending on
the company and depending on the stage. So, one of the reasons I
actually enjoy being a board member is that you can’t really plan
anything over the next, say, six months, and say, “hey, this what
I’m going to be doing”.

Typically, what I’d expect to do is work with Talip [Ozturk,
Hazelcast CEO] and the rest of the team in terms of making the
transition to it not only being an open source project, but to also
being a company [Note: sentence clarified 22/9]… work
with the executives and the other board members in terms of getting
the marketing and sales engine working… and also working with the
Hazelcast team to try and make sure that we are doing the right
thing on the product for existing and future customers.

Why hasn’t the open source movement disrupted the
in-memory data grid market already?

There have been a couple of open source projects. But I think
one of the issues has been a focus in terms of what problems
developers wanted to solve. I think, broadly speaking, there’s been
less open source activity than you’d expect in this space, and I
think some of the other players have been kind of more focused on
going into a direction they found exciting than a direction that
the community found exciting.

I think also – Hazelcast is Apache licensed, which I think’s a
positive thing in terms of community adoption. And I think one of
the things that’s just incredibly important in growing a community,
is Hazelcast is really, really easy to use and get started with.
And I think that not only attracts people to use it, [but] it also
makes people feel really good about “wow, these guys have created
something that’s actually making my job easier”.

I think that kind of ease of use, and helping developers become
more productive, actually creates a community that really wants to
give back. So, a community that thinks “wow, these guys are really
doing good stuff, maybe I should tell my colleagues about it, maybe
I should eventually contribute”.

Do you think it’s important to turn community projects
into profitable businesses?

I think it is. I mean, obviously this is a matter of some
ideological debate. But the reality is that, if you take any piece
of open source that is both complex and important – so, starting
with Linux – the majority of the people who work on that software
are employed by companies that derive some benefit from it, direct
or indirect.

I do not believe that it’s really viable to rely purely on
volunteerism in terms of open source. And especially when you look
at something like Hazelcast, where you’re dealing with very complex
problems like replicating data in-memory across potentially a very
large cluster. This is not a very easy thing to do, and I think
it’s something important that the product can have a very
predictable amount of investment. And it’s important as well that
there’s the existence of y’know, commercial support for the
companies that would feel more comfortable if they had that.

I’ve always had a pretty strong view that open source is
definitely a good, and that given a choice, it’s much better for
something to be out there in the open and enable people to work
with and contribute to, but I certainly think that – just as in any
complex piece of software – I think you’re safer if you’ve got at
least one company that’s incentivized to develop the software.

Hazelcast is one of many investments you’ve made over
the past year…

I wouldn’t say one of many. Neo Technology [in 2011], Meteor,
Elasticsearch and Typesafe. And I haven’t invested in any
infrastructure software beyond those things.

How do you split your time between those
five?

It varies quite a bit. You want to be helpful, but you don’t
want to interfere. So, I think for example, if I was putting too
much of my time into any one thing, I think management might think
that I’ve crossed that line. In general, how much time you put in
depends on what the company’s doing.

There can be a number of things that can involve putting in a
lot of time. For example, recruitment is one of those classic
things where a board member will really try to help a lot with
trying to get people on board. Also, say, trying to brainstorm
around a product roadmap, those kind of vision issues often can
take a bit of time. And then there’s situations where everything’s
going great, and it’s more a weekly call. So, yeah, it really
varies quite a bit.

You’ve made an investment in each company, and you’re
sitting on the boards of each company, right?

Essentially, yes. But the investments in some cases are really
pretty small. So, I mean essentially in all of those companies, I
am really an independent board member rather than an investor. I am
actually not on the board because I invested, I’m on the board
because I have some knowledge of the space and can hopefully help.
The exception is Meteor, where I actually represent Andreesen
Horowitz. So I am actually the board member representing Andreesen
rather than myself personally.

So to you, it’s less about the money, and more about
wanting to be involved in these companies?

Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I would be very happy if I make
money out of these different companies. But the biggest motivation
is, for me, frankly, trying to help other entrepreneurs. I did
quite well out of SpringSource [Note: VMware paid US$362m in cash
plus US$58m in stock and options]. So I would like to make more
money but it’s not the most important goal I have in my life. So I
actually find the process of working with talented technologists
who are setting up businesses – I find that a very rewarding
thing.

How do you choose which companies to become involved
in?

Well, three things. The first is the technology: do I believe in
it, do I think it’s a good technology? I mean, I definitely
couldn’t imagine myself being interested and being involved in
something that I thought was inferior. Secondly, do I like the
people? Do I think they’re smart people capable of running a
company, and do I actually want to spend time working with them?
And thirdly, whether the company, I think, has the
potential to succeed. I wouldn’t see myself investing in something
that I thought was not very likely to succeed.

Plus, of course, I ideally look at things where I honestly think
that I can contribute. There are probably plenty of companies where
I’m not sure that I could really help that much. Whereas I think
with every one that I’m involved in, they’re using the space and
the kind of business I think I can help with.

It was just over a year ago that you left VMware. Was
this to pursue these entrepreneurial ventures?

I just don’t think that I’m a fit in a big company. I actually –
there were definitely things I liked about VMware, but I felt to
the point that I’d looked after the people that I’d brought into
VMware, I felt like I’d proven that the business that we brought in
would grow very nicely, and just to be honest, it was just not that
exciting to me, to be an executive in a big company.

So, when I looked at what I wanted to do after that, I just find
the whole startup experience way more satisfying. When you look at
any big company, you see a lot of politics. You see a lot of people
who, frankly, probably aren’t doing that much constructive. And I’m
certainly not singling out VMware in particular! I think this is
true in general.

Whereas the marvelous thing about a little company or a startup
is, with few exceptions, everybody there is working very hard to do
the best for the technology and for the company. You don’t tend to
get a lot of individual agendas. If you get an individual agenda
from someone in a startup, that’s the exception.

Whereas in a big company, yeah, you get a pretty good chance of
sitting in a meeting with people of whom two have an agenda that is
very much around themselves and their group, rather than the
company at a whole.

I mean, the other thing is – in big companies, it’s frankly more
difficult to get things done. You have this strange contradiction
between having a lot of resources and finding it incredibly hard to
get things done due to politics. [laughs]

The Spring Framework passed its tenth birthday this year
— what do you think its legacy has been?

Well, I think certainly – it’s a little early to talk about
legacy. It’s pretty much alive. I mean, if you drop by the
SpringOne conference in Santa Clara, I think they had something
like 1200 people. So I think Spring is still quite alive.

I think the biggest legacy is that it really played a very
important role in simplifying what people did in enterprise Java. I
think people now forget just how bad it was before Spring. In, say,
2000 through to 2005, when there was EJB2 and the heavyweight
application servers were dominant, I think Spring greatly
simplified things, and essentially killed off the traditional Java
EE application server. And I think both of those things will be
very beneficial to developers.

In July, you said
Scala needed “to see more evolution in the community than in the
language itself”
. Do you think your comments have been taken on
board, despite the initial backlash?

Yes, I think so, and I think it’s important to note that I
wanted to start a debate rather than finish the debate. So with
some of the things I was saying, I wasn’t so much saying “this is
the answer”. I was saying “this is something we as a community
really, really need to discuss”. And I was actually very encouraged
by the panel discussion [“Scala in 2018” at the San Francisco
meetup group] last Thursday night.

Because essentially we had a very open and very civil discussion
on things like: Do we want Scala to be mainstream? Or do we want it
to be something that’s used by a smaller group of people? How do we
bring on new developers in a way that they will progress towards
what we might regard as more idiomatic Scala? So yeah, I think
overall it has actually contributed to community discussion, which
is what I’d hoped for.

In an interview
with Markus Eisele
, you described yourself as a musician. Do
you still make music?

Yes I do, I play the piano, and in fact my highest education
qualification is a PhD on French piano music between 1830 and 1848.
So, I still play. Not as often as I should, but I play
predominantly classical music, especially romantic music.

Why didn’t you pursue a career in music?

You know, at some point, I realised – I mean, my first full-time
job was in music. So, my first full-time job was teaching music
history at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and I think at some
point I realised that I needed my personal happiness to continue
with both music and computer science.

Because at that time – that was the mid-90s – I was writing
Windows shareware. And I kind of realised at one point that I had
it the wrong way around, that I’d be better to have a career in the
one that had more solid job prospects. And then of course, I got so
busy that I didn’t play the piano for ten years.

Since you’ve stepped back from Spring, have you found
time to play piano some more?

I definitely have had some more time. Actually, I started – I
bought myself a piano as a Christmas present in 2008. So for the
last year of SpringSource as an independent company I’d actually
started playing again. And I found it was marvelously therapeutic.
So, I can remember actually being at home and having ten minutes
between conference calls, and calming myself down by playing
Brahms.

So, yeah, I definitely have more time now. I’ve also started to
do a lot more exercise, and I’m also trying to pay back some of the
debt to my kids in terms of spending the first years with their
father being a CEO who travelled 150 days of the year.

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