The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Monday July 09, 2018

Success at Apache: The Apache Way for Executives

by Alex Karasulu

I'm a long time member of the Apache Software Foundation and have been an executive officer of several corporations over the course of the past 20 years. I've co-founded several projects in the community and mentored several others.

The "Apache Way" has benefited several aspects of my life, however I never imagined it would help make me a better executive. Even non-technical executives, in organizations totally outside of the realm of technology, can benefit from the Zen of the Apache Way.

Life is hard when you're stupid

I was involved in a number of early dot com startups as an executive, however that was before my involvement with Apache and long before any exposure to the Apache Way. To this day, I remember how opportunistic decisions for short term gains, the lack of collaboration, openness and communication kept causing friction that made my job and ultimately my life much harder than it had to be.

Learning while on the job

Exposure to the philosophy began early even while lurking on mailing lists but picked up more while incubating the Apache Directory Project where I worked with others to grow an active community. Meanwhile, I was the Chief Technology Officer of a large financial services company called Alliance Capital Partners. It was 2002, and the first time I had to conduct myself as a C-Suite executive in an enterprise that was obviously not a technology company. Incidentally, the lack of hands-on coding got me working on a pet project that ultimately became the Apache Directory Server and Apache MINA. The project was medicine to keep me sane and technically up to date. Unbeknownst to me, this would save my career, not as a developer, but as an executive.

The Apache Way makes life easier

The most important and first lesson I learned from the Apache Community was to avoid short term gains that were unsustainable in the long term. This very important core principle derives in part from the concept of "community over code". It does not matter how much code you write, or how good your code is if you cannot get along, compromise, and communicate respectfully with your peers. The code does not write itself, its the community behind it that keeps the code alive. Involving only the most technically proficient contributors should never trump the need to build a sustainable community. I saw projects often suffer from self-centered yet skilled coders added as committers for short term gain at the detriment of a healthy sustainable community. So as a corollary to community over code, avoid short term gains that get in the way of the long term sustainability of an organization's culture. This has immense applications for any executive in both technical and non-technical fields.

While growing my new development organization in this financial services organization, I decided to avoid hiring people that seemed to be very skilled technically but lacked the desire or social skills to collaborate with others. Thanks to experiences at Apache, I could start telling them apart much better than I did before. Also, I was calmer and less anxious when hiring to fill gaps on the team. It was better not to have the resource than to introduce a bad apple onto the team. 

This was contrary to how I had operated earlier and started producing great results. The application of this basic principle lead to a solid team that worked better together than ever before in the past. They were able to leverage each others' skills thanks to collaboration to out perform any one skilled developer. This is all thanks to the concept of community over code where social skills, and collaboration were stressed more than technical skills. In the end, being kind, listening, and asking smart questions begets the kind of collaboration needed to build complex software. 

Not only did this help with developers, it also worked with teams that did not produce code like project managers under the CTO office. The rule is golden, and IMHO should be applied to any executive's decision making process regardless of the nature of the business or topic at hand.

Inner Source is the Apache Way

Executives drive the architecture and cultural direction of their organizations and the Apache Way provides a solid framework to create healthy foundations through open collaboration, communication and the availability of knowledge for everyone to participate.

Several very successful technology companies have adopted the Apache Way without really realizing they're doing so.  In 2000, Tim O'Reilly coined the term Inner Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_source to apply Open Source principles to any organization. Tim was essentially talking about applying the Apache Way within organizations. The Apache Way has proven itself with companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, SAP, PayPal and even financial institutions like Capital One which have adopted the Inner Source methodology which is one and the same.

Without going into the details, of which we the Apache Community are intimately aware (using it daily within our projects), I would like to stress how important the approach is for executives outside of Apache to understand. The Apache Way can save organizations from all out disaster, not to mention billions of dollars by impacting the quality of services and products they produce. Again this does not only apply to companies in technological sectors. Capital One a financial services company has also used Open Source methods for internal projects to be extremely successful https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/using-open-source-methods-for-internal-software-projects .

Conclusions

The Apache Way provides several benefits to executives aware of the approach. Executives can directly integrate the principles of the Apache Way into their own thinking to improve their potential for personal success. However the biggest value comes from the cultural framework it produces for the entire organization, however to leverage it in their organizations, executives must be aware of it. The Apache Way has personally helped me grow as an effective executive and it can help others as well. It also provides a compass for how to properly build effective organizations, not only technical ones.


Alex Karasulu is an entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience in the software industry and a recognized leader in the Open Source community. He is widely known as the original author of the Apache Directory Server, used by IBM both as the foundation of the Rational Directory Server and also integrated into the Websphere Application Server. Alex co-founded several Apache projects, including MINA, and Felix, among others, which, along with their communities, thrive independently past his day-to-day involvement in the projects. He is the founder of Safehaus, where he authored the first low-resource mobile OTP algorithms in Open Source with the OATH community that was later adopted by Google in their Authenticator product. In addition to IBM, Atlassian, Cisco, and Polycom are just a few of the many companies that sell commercial hardware and software solutions that bundle or embed software and products that Alex has created. Alex holds a BSc. in Computer Science and Physics from Columbia University. He is the founder and co-CEO of OptDyn.

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"Success at Apache" is a monthly blog series that focuses on the processes behind why the ASF "just works" https://blogs.apache.org/foundation/category/SuccessAtApache

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