October 2, 2014

Silicon Valley offers advice to SC IT specialists at POSSCON

IT-ology's Lindsey Stork operates an online jobs board at POSSCON

Software users, developers, educators and companies are gathering at the Palmetto Open Source Software Conference (POSSCON) in Columbia this week in order to network, learn and meet some Silicon Valley superstars like Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems or Larry Augustin of SugarCRM, who coined the phrase “open source.”

Technology consumers may not be familiar with the term  “open source software,” but most are very familiar with “cloud computing” or Google, which are powered by it.  Open source, instead of closed or proprietary software, allows a user to make changes to the source code. It is also a philosophy that innovation truly happens when people collaborate.

One of the organizers of POSSCON is Lonnie Emard, an executive with Blue Cross, Blue Shield South Carolina and the director of IT-ology, a statewide consortium to help train and build the state’s high-tech workforce.

He says South Carolina is becoming a leader in understanding the connection between the IT profession and education, along with becoming a destination for young companies. 

Yet, South Carolina is not Silicon Valley, says Emard. “If Silicon Valley leads in terms of technology, we’re trying to lead in terms of people who it takes and the skills that it takes to apply that technology to real business.”

That is where open source comes in. Decision-makers, he says, must be open to using and contributing to sharing and improving software.

At POSSCON, we talked about this with SugarCRM’s Larry Augustin after his keynote speech.

Byrd: Explain why you prefer open source?

Augustin:“One of the things that happens as a result of this is it enables people to collaborate on software. So if you only have a single supplier, you know, an Oracle, a Microsoft, or a sales force as a single supplier, then you’re entirely beholden  to what they want. Whereas with open source, because have access to the code behind it, you have the opportunity to work with other people, enhance the product, and take it in the direction that those vendors may not choose to go. I also personally believe that this creates better software. There’s a theory: “with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow” which means if enough people look at a problem they find all the potential issues. If only one vendor is looking at a piece of software then they’re the only one that can find issues. Whereas if you enable a lot of people to look at it, which is what open source does, you end up with a better product.”

Byrd: Where is this in our daily lives?

Augustin:“Most people don’t realize it, but open source powers many of things they use on a daily basis. So, for example, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, there are 800 million users on Facebook today, Facebook is enabled and built using open source software, it’s the technology that runs Facebook. It’s the technology that runs Amazon. It’s the technology that runs many of the websites we see today. We wouldn’t have the internet were it not for open source software as the power behind it. Google, people use Google all the time, Google is powered by open source software. So all the code they use behind all of those sites is driven by open source.”

Byrd: What would you say to people who prefer to think “inside the box” — that is, that proprietary software is safer and a better business model?

Augustin:“Well, I would tell people that I don’t think you can really have security. I don’t think you can have really any kind of control unless you can see the code. I’ll give you an analogy, would you buy a car where the hood was welded shut and didn’t have access to the engine, or not just welded shut but locked shut and only the dealer had the key? I mean think about that, if anything goes wrong you have to go to the dealer to fix it. That completely takes away your flexibility. It means that whatever the dealer wants to charge, that’s it, you don’t have any choice. Whereas if you can open the hood you can take that car to multiple service stations, multiple places to fix it. You have different choices there, but beyond that you can also innovate. There are all of these companies that create add-ons to your engine. Now you want to create add-ons to the car, you want to expand and build it out yourself. So that enables everything from the hobbyist working on their own engine to third-party performance shops that create add-ons, all the way to third-party dealers and service stations and, of course, the vender still as well. Because you have that flexibility you create a much broader ecosystem for things. Open source is the equivalent of that in the software world.”

Byrd: How important is this conference to somewhere like South Carolina?

Augustin: “The great thing about this conference is that it brings people from all over the country, but people internationally as well. It’s great to see all those people coming to Columbia, it’s a great city, and you have a fantastic collection of people here from all over the nation that can come to this place and look and understand the city and see it as an opportunity to bring business here. To grow their companies in a place like Columbia and see the thought leadership that can happen here.”

Byrd: One of the issues that companies in the state are up against is finding the skilled workforce. Today you mentioned you are looking for engineers,  so this is an issue in South Carolina –and Southern California?

Augustin: “One of the things we see across the US as a whole today is a demand for engineering talent. So, our headquarters, SugarCRM, are in Cupertino, California in the heart of Silicon Valley, and it’s interesting the contrast between where we can’t hire people and the unemployment rate. We see unemployment rates now, you know, upper single digits approaching 10 percent is some places, and yet at the same time we can’t fill jobs that we have. And I think it’s an overall problem in the country that unemployment is not really a jobs problem for us, it’s a skill set problem. There are lots of jobs out there for the right skill set and for people who have the wrong skill set, there are not jobs, and as a country we need to solve and fix that problem. That’s a broader problem for us as a country, but we see that everywhere. We can’t hire engineers enough, we can’t find them, and we don’t have enough people with the skill set. That’s a skills mismatch that we as a nation have to figure out and solve.”

Byrd: They can name their price right now?

Augustin: “Hiring engineering talents is very expensive right now because it’s in such demand. We need to figure out how to get more people trained on the skills that are in demand. And to me that goes a big way to solving the unemployment crisis in the nation today.”

Byrd: As an employer yourself, what would you say to employers in South Carolina about how to grow the next generation of companies?

Augustin: “I think that employers today are going to have to figure out to train the next generation of work force. That means being more creative about programs like internships, programs where you work with universities. We have a couple of very good universities that we work with right now with internship programs who are constantly rotating people through. When you think about those kinds of training, and sometimes on the technical side, we need to think about the technical side more in the vocational sense and that is don’t necessarily think about that engineer being someone whose gone through a four-year traditional college program to become an engineer. Some of the best engineers I’ve ever known hadn’t completed four-year college degrees. If you get the right skill set there and the right training you can make it a vocation as much as you can a need for an advanced education degree.”

Byrd: What do you want attendees here to take away from this conference and from conversations with you? 

Augustin: “So one of the things I’d like to leave people with today and coming out of the conference is the understanding that the software industry is changing and that access to the source code gives you the control that you need to take your business in the direction that you may need to take it. And then when you look for suppliers there understand that it’s not just about a black box. You have to understand the infrastructure underneath, you have to understand the technology, and you have to understand what you can do with a technology today. There’s immense advances happening, part of what we see in Silicon Valley is the availability of the vast variety of software on the internet has enabled the creation of whole new companies and products: Google, Facebook, Zinga, and all those social networks that we know. They’re all enabled and powered by this technology today. I would tell entrepreneurs to look to those as sources of technology, look to the internet, look to what’s out there in open source and use it to build a business. You can build some amazing businesses in very cost-effective way if you take advantage of that technology.”

Byrd: And the overhead?

Augustin: “We wouldn’t have businesses like LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, today, without open source because the cost would have been prohibitive. The cost of open source is much less and the power and flexibility of the technology is there. So, as entrepreneur I always tell people to look at that as an underlying source of technology in a place where you can build a business.”