Gianugo Rabellino is living proof that there are many roads to open source. Born and raised in the Italian seaport of Genoa, he went to a high school that emphasized Latin and philosophy over math and science. He went on to earn a law degree and worked for a couple of months as an attorney before deciding “the profession sucked big time,” as he wrote in his English-language blog, BoldlyOpen.
So Rabellino turned his teenage passion for computers into a career. He co-founded the Italian Linux Society in 1994, and joined the Apache Software Foundation in 2003, where he serves as vice president of the XML project. His open source consulting company, Sourcesense, employs about 60 people and has offices in Milan, Rome, London and Amsterdam. Rabellino has become “geek” enough to post an ultrasound of his second child on his blog. The baby has an internal code name: BPmo―a play on the Italian phrase “Bambino Piccolissimo,” which translates into Japanese as―well, I’ll leave that to my translator.
In fact, Rabellino has thought a lot about the limits of communicating in a second language, particularly in how that can limit participation in open source development. Europeans joining forces in the European Union know a lot about the perils of translating both language and culture. The same holds true across the Atlantic. Rabellino has written that when it comes to open source, Europe and the U.
- You trained as a lawyer. How did that turn into a career centered on open source?
I never took a single formal class in computer science. Back in 1987 when I started my university career, computer science in Italy was more about electrical engineering. But even when I was about to graduate law school, I was not convinced I was going to end up being a lawyer for the rest of my days. I had been hacking with computers since I was 14. I discovered the Internet by opening up a BBS and hanging around with people who were more knowledgeable than me. I landed a volunteer job at a local university in setting up their Internet connectivity, and I was hooked. Eventually I did graduate in law, but that was just so my mom could be proud. By that time, I had already decided that my career would be in computing.
- So you were self-taught. What code did you teach yourself?
I started with a Commodore C64 computer, which meant I used to be a BASIC guy. Then I had to endure my time with C, because when Linux started, that was more or less all that you got. When Perl came along, I became a Perl hacker. Then PHP seemed to be able to take the world by storm, so I got into that. Eventually, I landed in the Java field, and that’s more or less where I’ve stayed for the past eight years or so. That’s what led me to the Apache Software Foundation.
In fact, pretty much everything I’ve learned about computing is because of open source. That’s true not just because that was the software available to an “illiterate” hacker like me who just had a few books to start with. Open source allowed me to interact with people you could otherwise only interact with if you landed a job at IBM―because they were hanging around the open source communities. So I’ve come to think of open source’s value in terms of connecting to people. Everyone who joins an open source community has a possibility to be mentored by someone who would have been otherwise hard to reach. That fact has made a huge difference in my life. If it weren’t for open source, I would by now be an unhappy lawyer.
- How does the open source movement in Europe compare to that in the United States?
From an adoption perspective, open source is as mainstream as it is in the U.
S.―but with a difference. The United States has a longstanding tradition of viewing software as products. That’s not surprising. In the United States, software is a big business. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle contribute substantially to the gross domestic product. And so whether you are licensing software or, in the case of SaaS, purchasing a subscription, you are thinking in terms of products and product cycles.
Whereas, Europe is more of a service model. With the exception of SAP, we don’t have many large software houses. So Europeans tend to think of software in terms of integration and customization. That’s not to say that we don’t have the product model over here or that we don’t understand it. But we tend to view it more as a nuance.
- Does that mean Europeans are more reluctant to pay for software?
That’s probably true. U.
S. chief information officers tend to say: “I don’t care whether software is open source or proprietary―as long as it works, I am happy to pay.” Whereas European CIOs are more likely to actually care about paying―and they view open source from that vantage point. They are not happy to pay for a commercial license or subscription if they can get something comparable with open source―though they might consider paying for support. I think that’s roughly where Europe stands at the moment, and that difference is reflected in our approach. The big key European players are all systems integrators. They offer services. So we have more of that kind of culture, in which the value is not the software per se, but in what the integration and customization brings.
- You deal with large European enterprise customers considering open source. What do you hear?
These companies represent a huge chunk of the market and, as a group, they are far more receptive than their U.
S. counterparts. They know what open source is, understand the potential benefits, and want to know more. Of course, there are differences. Some companies are more committed than others. Some see open source as a strategic move for the company. Others see it more in terms of budget. But pretty much, if you have something interesting to say about open source, you can knock on the door of any CIO and they will listen―because open source is already part of their agenda.
I also think a lot of open source adoption comes out of frustration. People are saying to the commercial sector: “I’m fed up with software that I cannot change, that I can’t adopt my needs. I don’t like that once I am your customer, all the power, including the ability to set the price, is in your hands.”
- What does the open source community look like in Europe?
We are extremely good at Balkanization over here. So we are extremely good at establishing different open source communities that sometimes take completely different approaches. There are several communities especially tied to the Linux world. In Germany, there is a very strong Eclipse community. In Italy, we have an extremely strong Java community. We also have strong attendance at conferences like Fosdem, which attracts thousands of developers every year. We have a Java conference called Devoxx, once known as Javapolis, that also attracts thousands of people. Italian Java Day is held in Rome each year. So grass roots support for open source is strong.
- I picture Italian developers drinking espresso while talking about Java.
Yes, that’s actually true. And please note that no real Italian would have cappuccino after 11am―that would be like having oatmeal for lunch.
- As you travel around, what do people still not understand about open source?
In the beginning there was an obvious misconception that open source means “I don’t have to pay.” By and large, we’ve gone past that stage, which is a good thing. But now people think they understand open source better than they in fact do. So they don’t do the kind of homework they once did. There’s a lot of ignorance when it comes to licenses, for example. People may only know about the GNU General Public License, and when you start talking about the pros and cons of the GPL, you get blank stares―as if there weren’t alternatives.
But I think the biggest misconception is that people think open source is primarily software. I don’t think that’s true. It’s not about the bits. It’s not about the code. It’s not even about free software I can modify and adapt. All of that takes a back seat to the importance of the community. Having a community you can rely on is the single most important part of the open source movement. In fact, I prefer not to call it “open source.” I prefer the term “open development”
―because it emphasizes the process and the fact that this is about people.
- You mentioned how open source gets Balkanized in Europe. I assume that’
s partly due to language differences.
Yes, but there is a bigger barrier in the fact that many developers don’t speak English. I imagine that’s a problem in Japan, as well. I know a lot of Italian people, for example, who would be wonderful open source developers, but they just don’t contribute because of the language barrier. I can name 20 people who would be open source superstars, have their own entry in Wikipedia and be leaders of their own open source project―if only they would be brave enough to overcome their ability and knowledge of English.
When you want to contribute to open source, you need to overcome your shyness and your fears of getting laughed at. You don’t want to feel you can’t make your point because you don’t have a sufficient enough command of the language. I have my own scars to prove that. I’m not only a self-taught programmer, but I never studied English at school either, and I find that the language issue kicks in every single time. And of course, we Europeans do have a bit of national pride. We don’t want to speak English―we want to speak our own language.
The consequence is that it’s very hard to find communities that are well balanced between Europeans and Americans. You will find a lot of US-centric communities with some participation from Europe. You will find a lot of European communities with some participation from the US. But few have equal participation. I don’t have an answer for this―but it’s too bad.
- What about differences in culture?
It’s very hard to make a general assumption about that, but culture might play a role. I’ve made the point that code doesn’t matter―it’s community that matters. Communities are about people interacting, but when that happens, all sorts of social baggage comes along. Culture affects everything from the way you address someone to the way you have arguments.
- It strikes me that you have changed cultures in a different sense: from law, to coding, to consulting.
It’s true: as my company has grown, I’ve done a lot more traveling, with a lot less time for hacking. I’m more like an executive: they took my developer stuff away and replaced it with spreadsheets, which kind of sucks―but hey, that’s life.