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E21: Jeffrey Borek, Head of IBM’s Open Source Program Office

Today I talked with Jeffrey Borek who’s the word-wide Program Director for Open Technology & Developer Advocacy at IBM. Jeff has worked in open source for the past 20 years and is currently the head of IBM’s open source program office.

Needless to say, he has seen firsthand how open source has evolved. In this episode, Jeff covers the four waves of evolution for open source software and talks about open source business models and how IBM is monetizing open source today.


Henry: Jeff thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

Jeffrey: Hey, happy to be here Henry.

Henry: So, you’ve been at IBM for the past 24 years, and I’d say you definitely qualify as a true IBM-er through and through, but before joining IBM, you run a start-up that was acquired by AT&T. So, can you talk a bit about your journey from this point through to today?

Journey into open source

Jeffrey: Sure. Well again, my background is in engineering and then I went back and got an MBA business degree because I’ve always sort of liked to have that balance of focusing on the technical, but also, what are the practical ramifications of what you’re, what the business is trying to accomplish. And I worked for a mobile operator before coming to IBM back when smartphones were not nearly anything like that smart, they were actually analogy devices the original cellular system was all analogy. And so, I had a great time at that start-up and it did give me a great appreciation though, for the difference between people that could operate technology versus people that could build technology. And the company I worked for McCall cellular was a very innovative company, but most of the other communications companies back then were more what I would call Swiss, watch winders, not so much Swiss watch builders.

And so, when the former AT&T long-distance company acquired the wireless start-up, I worked for my standing joke was I didn’t want to work for a large bureaucratic organization. So, I left went to IBM, but it was actually a great time to join IBM because IBM was then coming out of another struggle period that they had. And IBM is a company that’s over a hundred years old and there aren’t that many companies that survive that long. So, it is a testament that IBM has been able to reinvent itself not just once, but several times and lunar Shiner was getting things back on track and again, I had an appreciation for the fact that IBM was a technology company and that it really was doing some very clever things at the time and without going into a huge amount of my history the short version is that I worked for again over 24 years, but I really had sort of three different focus areas over that period.

The great thing about a larger company is that you can kind of reinvent yourself and do something different every three to five years and work in a different part of the business. And I always also like to say, I’ve kind of been attracted to the pointy end of the spear, and what the interesting thing about that is you tend to, you end up arriving first, but sometimes you run into the immovable object. And certainly, trying to do early wireless data at my former employer was pretty challenging back when the infrastructure was analogy. But at IBM, my first third was essentially working in the telecommunications industry for IBM, engaging both my former employer, as well as the cable properties and cable was emerging as a big opportunity area as well. And I did that successfully for about seven years or so.

And then I actually, as during that time became part of the AT&T integrated account team focus back on the large long-distance company based in then the New York-New Jersey area. But when I pivoted to the second chapter of my career, it was really starting to focus more on software and hardware from not just engaging with our clients, but how are we going to continue to grow IBM as a company? And I took my first corporate strategy job doing cross-platform Linux strategy. So, what’s the benefit of running Linux on the mainframe, Linux on Unix machines, and of course, Linux on X86 where it all started. So, that was really a great pivot for me because I went from not knowing IBM to kind of becoming immersed into IBM. And another challenging thing I think about, especially in larger companies, is that it can be so challenging to understand the larger organization that you lose sight of what’s happening outside in the rest of the ecosystem.

So, that’s when I first again, got introduced to open source and learned a bit more about some of the really savvy IBM did and open source in the early days, most people recall that it was around 2000 when IBM said it was investing a billion dollars in Lennox and that was certainly a smart thing that IBM did when most people thought Lennox was sort of college students experiment to try and create a Unix type operating system that would run on X86 architecture, but IBM also supported the creation of the Apache foundation. IBM actually helped write some of the bylaws and provide a healthy start to what’s now become a great institution and open source the Apache foundation. And then lastly, IBM helped to found eclipse the unified software development IDE for initially focused on Java, and the reason IBM wanted to do that was that back in that era, you had sun and bee and WebLogic and other companies trying to create a vibrant marketplace for developers and application development around Java.

And the alternative back then was Microsoft saying, hey it’s all from one vendor It all works together It’s all easy and so providing a common platform to try and unify the Java ecosystem was a smart thing. And but I started to get concerned about IBM activities in the cloud space. Because if you go back and look at 2010, which seems like ancient history now, but that was when Amazon was starting to prove some traction in trying to provide public cloud as an alternative to customers using their own data centre. And at that time a lot of people don’t realize it, but even Bomber when he was running Microsoft realize that the public cloud was an opportunity for them as well. And the thing that made it easy for them to get engaged was that neither AWS, Amazon, nor Microsoft had sort of legacy business to keep it occupied and defend or protect.

And IBM’s bread and butter were, hey, we make hardware, so you can buy hardware from us. We make enterprise software happy to provide that. And we also do all sorts of services to help you with software and hardware and that kind of approach very successful model for IBM for the last 20 years plus since I joined it, but it was really clear to me when I took a role in the cloud. And this was again, 2012 half the industry was saying, the cloud is all about private cloud. So, cloud in your data centre and the Amazon and a few others who were saying, no, it’s really going to be more about public cloud. And Amazon was an early leader, but for me in 2014, it was a realization that no customers are really going to… customers don’t care about this argument between traditional vendors and Amazon. Whether it’s private or whether it’s public, they were going to decide for themselves where they would land along that spectrum and mix and match.

Both IDC and Gardener’s data showed that both public and private were both growing at double-digit keggers compound average growth rates. And so, the debate didn’t make sense because there would be, you could choose both and customers would want to choose for themselves, not be told by vendors what to do. And so therefore I wrote a blog back in 2014 on the value of the hybrid cloud, and it became the most popular piece and the IBM Forbes website that near it got over 17,000 hits, which was a pretty big number for IBM back in that day. It’s still a decent number today, but success in that cloud space got me into my current role. And what I do today for IBM is I work in open technologies and I also run the open source program office at IBM.

And it’s interesting because a lot of it kind of flies under the radar, but you might be surprised to learn that we enable IBM currently today has some 350,000 employees worldwide. Our group touches about 80,000 of those employees every year because we have an open source annual certification. So, if you’re working in open source, we want you to take this annual review to make sure that you’re dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s. We also do these internal webcasts similar to what we’re doing here, where we make IBM or is aware of open source projects that are happening in IBM or other things, they should be aware of. And then we also go out to the various IBM labs and engage with the people that are working there because clearly, our open source was becoming a real force in the industry about six or seven years ago. And it was really important that IBM start to get really engaged.

And the critical thing back at that point was that IBM had a good reputation, but IBM just wasn’t as visible, we were kind of again, flying under the radar. But for example, if I told you that two years ago, we cleared over 400,000 open source packages as part of the review process to build open source as part of our offerings. That sounds like a great number. Well, that was 2019, and in 2020 we cleared over 512,000 open source packages. So, we both consume and contribute back to open source in a balanced way to try and ensure that IBM is not just helping to take advantage of the innovation that’s happening out in open source but to effectively contribute back, to make sure that we’re, we want to be good members of the communities in which we work.

Henry: Definitely, and I think IBM was probably one of the first to be willing to contribute to a lot of these communities because they saw the value in it. And that’s kind of the enterprise open source strategy approach that I think a lot of companies are taking today, but it’s been really interesting to hear you’ve definitely been at the forefront of this evolving landscape, which is open source.

And so, I’m curious to know in the past 20 years, how have you seen open source evolve?

Three stages of evolution of OSS

Jeffrey: It’s really been interesting. I typically look at what I call the four waves of open source. And the first way was all about individuals and whether it was a software developer or an entrepreneur, somebody who saw the potential of open source, a lot of it in the early days was just individuals and a lot of passion around convictions of what was right. Some people viewed it as almost like a religious thing of a kind that software should be free and other people had a more pragmatic, well, there’s a role for free software, but there’s also a role for companies to find ways to make money off software. And famously, Bill Gates back in the seventies wrote this note to the industry saying paraphrasing, stop passing around free software, or none of us are ever going to make any living in this industry.

But sharing software has been happening as long as there’ve been computers, and the second wave of open source was when companies like IBM took notice. And I mentioned back in 2000, we supported Linux. But it wasn’t just IBM; there were other companies like HP and others that saw the value of the potential. And you could almost think of early open source was sort of like doing fundamental research in university. It’s like you don’t want to just do your own research you want to publish papers and share your knowledge and build the common knowledge base of the area that you’re working in. And so that era lasted for about another, seven or eight-plus years. And then suddenly this third wave of impact started to happen, essentially the emergence of hyper-scale players. So, some people call the thing, but it’s like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, all of these, but there are more Twitters and other examples eBay, eBay is another early example. All of these companies started to build their platforms with conventional enterprise software, but the real opportunity to be a game-changer was to leverage open source software, to build a massive platform affordably.

The interesting thing is all of those hyper scalers used open source to grow, but they all had different approaches to whether they would contribute back or not. Apple was an example of somebody who was very reluctant to contribute back early on It just wasn’t in Steve’s job’s culture to be a sharing, caring kind of guy. It’s like, sure, basically you want to give me a free software, I’ll take it, but expect something from me forget that. Again, I’d mentioned IBM, IBM was the senior leadership back then was very savvy about open source and realize that IBM just showed up and these are young open source communities and said, “Hey, we’re the 800-pound gorilla.” and here’s how it’s going to work. All those people would walk away.

And that’s one of the great things about open source is that individual have freedom of action, just like, companies do. And so that’s a reason that IBM always has tried to be a balanced consumer and contributor, but after the hyper scaler phase, we’re into this new fourth wave of impact. And that’s those traditional enterprise companies, companies like IBM’s customers are starting to change the way they consume open source software. They’re still going to have these subscription support relationships with the red hat or Sue say or canonical or over into all the other recent start-ups. Because that’s one of the key things that some people don’t really understand about open source in the enterprise is that say you’re Mongo DB, and you put this open source database out there and you’re getting all of these folks downloading copies of it and you’re going great.

How do I tell of all these thousands of people that are using it? Who can I actually sell something to? And some people would say, “oh, it’s the big companies you can sell the big companies” and, “or it’s the financial sector you should sell to the financial sector,” but those are both wrong answers. The people that will actually give you money are the people that are using your technology to build mission-critical apps. Because if you have a mission-critical app that incorporates open source software, you want someone to pick up the phone when things go wrong, which has influenced the direction that enterprises are taking. So, they will still have that relationship. But now they’re seeing the value of putting some of their own software developers directly into open source projects that they feel are significant to them.

And a great example of that in our marketplace is a financial company called capital one. They started innovating over 10 years ago. They decided that they needed to, or have a research group. Why would a bank need a research group? But they knew that technology had potential. They actually started their own open source program office five or six years ago. And they’re now also they’ve joined the cloud-native computing foundation as part of the end-user community. And they have some of their people participating again, not everywhere because resources are not limited, but selectively they’re just one example of what I believe will happen with pretty much any significantly sized enterprise company in the next five years will have their own open source program office because it’s just becoming that important to their business industry structure.

Henry: And I just kind of say the hospo or open source program office as the heart of open source within the company. I think that it’s definitely very important to have that central point for people to come to and ask the questions, particularly because there are so many around compliance security and everything related to open source. And the way that you described the four ways of open source, I thought that you had a very similar perspective to Mickey McCauley when it comes to describing those different waves. And Mickey was actually a guest on the podcast. He also works at IBM, funnily enough. But if I recall correctly, Mickey explained the evolution of open source in three waves rather than four. And he explained that the first wave involved individuals who wanted to scratch their own niches, like you said, and it turns out that they obviously saw the merit in reusing the code that others use.

And they also understood the benefits of sharing it and building upon it to become experts themselves down the track. Then in the second wave, he was saying that people recognize that they had all of these collective libraries, but they didn’t have a way to build upon them. So, they ended up providing value in the form of services. And then the shift from product to service meant that everything became a service. And at this time companies knew that they had an itch, but they didn’t necessarily want to scratch themselves. And instead, they wanted others to scratch it for them. He then defined the third wave, as I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast the enterprise open source strategy phase, which I think you definitely hinted at in your fourth wave and that’s happening now because companies are finally coming to terms with the fact that open source isn’t just in IT, it’s in every area of the business.

Jeffrey: Well, I think that’s true. I think it’s also interesting that some people look at what’s happening in open source today and some of them basically are saying, wow, this is kind of concerning because it was marked Andreessen that famously said, some time ago that software was eating the world.

Henry: Yes.

Jeffrey: And then some people observed about 10 years ago that opensource is kind of eating enterprise software. And if you think about it give me a name of a new enterprise software company that’s emerged in the last decade there really isn’t anything that comes top of mind in any significant fashion. And so, in this world where everything’s becoming a service, we’ll open source thrive because one of the other challenges that have been a hot topic and open source for some time now is how do we make it sustainable?

There are some people that have tried to come up with some of these innovative models where you can be an open source coder and you can kind of get sponsorship or something like that, or you can become an open source coder, and kind of do piece work. And it doesn’t always necessarily provide a robust, comfortable standard of living if you’re kind of doing work hand to mouth like that. But companies like IBM they support their developers doing work in open source because it fits into this bigger picture. So, some people have said, well, gee, maybe in the future only cloud companies or major tech companies will contribute to open source because there’s really no opportunity for individual developers. And I think the enterprise angle is the solution to that concern because it’s not just the big tech companies it’s now midsize and even start-up companies.

There’s a very innovative company out of Ireland called near form that emerged out of the vibrant activity around the JavaScript community. And they have created a model in which they can engage with clients, help them quickly leverage the power of JavaScript to provide rapid application development change in their organization. And do that in such a way that it works for nearform, it works for their clients and it helps support the open community around JavaScript.

I think the other interesting question is what’s next is there a fifth way? And I think part of that fifth wave is going to be the influence of open source in industry verticals. Because one of the things that open source has been quite successful with is it’s basically some people like to call it the plumbing. It’s the common infrastructure.

Does the world need 12 operating systems? It’s always a very interesting question, but as the source has kind of moved up the stack there now seems to be this opportunity for other industries to innovate. And one example of this is the Linux Foundation has supported the creation of a sub-foundation called the LF energy. And it’s principally focused on the electrical industry and why were they user, how would they use open source? And if you think about it, just like you hear people talking about in its software fabric or network as a service, the ability of a utility to move away from the old model. Because if you think about electrical infrastructure, how do you buy from certain vendors and yet have interoperability of the electrical grid and how do you get away from the very expensive, proprietary electrical grid infrastructure and try and move towards something that’s a bit more affordable and a bit more flexible.

And if we’re going to, as a society, make this big pivot from fossil fuels to a more renewable electrical future, certainly there seems to be an opportunity for open source software to provide a substantial layer of that infrastructure that can be effectively shared across members in that industry vertical. So, usually just one example certainly open source in healthcare is another example. One of the things that happened out of the COVID situation was that company I mentioned earlier near farm, was able to work to quickly develop a contact tracing app by collaborating with apple and with Google around the Android operating system and come up with a way that phones could be aware of other phones around that. And yet, so maintain the privacy of the individuals. It’s that kind of rapid innovation that I think will start to impact other industry verticals. So, there’s, there’s my call for the fifth phase.

Henry: That’s exciting and it’s definitely in line with something that previous guests in the podcast Cal Eric Malls. He is working at a Brit, was previously the head of open source at Sony. We have a whole episode on open source in the automotive industry, and he was having a conversation with the head of a large truck company in Europe. And they were saying that in the next five years, they don’t think that the development around open source in the automotive industry will be much different to it is today, but within 10 years he sees its significant impact on open source, particularly from the automotive industry, which is exciting.

But I’d now like to shift gears and focus on open source business models. So, can you touch on this concept and explain how IBM is monetizing open source technologies today?

How IBM monetizes open source software

Jeffrey: Sure. It’s funny because in the before times and where we still went to conferences, I would collaborate with a colleague of mine, Steven Wally, and we’d actually do a bit of a debate on the topic because he had created this, very thoughtful pitch on why there was no open source business model. And I suggested to him three or four years ago now that – hey, why don’t we do a sort of the next generation of your thoughts here and do it as a debate. And you can take that position if there isn’t one, and I’ll take the position that there is. And so, we’ve done that and had a fun time doing it. The developers in the crowd always seemed to kind of enjoy the give and take of it. But the net of it is, is that he argues that open source is really a distribution method and a highly efficient way to create software at scale.

Because again, this concept of reuse this concept of collaborative software development and giving you the opportunity to rapidly share because of the nature of the open source and the licenses and being certain you have to pay attention to whether the license you use is a bit more permissive or whether it’s restrictive, but he looks at it from that engineering perspective. And I totally respect that point of view, but I also think it’s missing something If you just say, well, there is no open source business model because look at Firefox, for example, they survive in part on ad revenue, and so that’s their model. And look at it, GitHub – I mean, people were shocked in the industry because GitHub became sort of the most dominant repository for open source software.

And you probably know this, some of your audience may not, but GitHub was based on git, git was developed by learners to help him deal with the complexity of the Linux kernel development, and GitHub was one of the few companies that took the open source, get the software and said, we’re going to put this user-friendly UI wrapper around it and then other values add, and that was their model. And so, GitHub got to a certain size where again, they were the half of the software created an open source, lived on GitHub, but the ability to monetize that was underperforming VC expectations. And there were rumours in the industry that, oh my gosh what happens if they flame out what happens if they don’t get to a sustainable business model? And they turn the lights off that would have been tragic. And so, lo and behold, people were very surprised when suddenly the news broke that has Microsoft is buying GitHub and not just buying it, but buying it for $7 billion and.

Henry: Incredible.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I joked to Steve, hey, that sounds like a pretty good business model to me.

Henry: Wish I’d thought of that.

Jeffrey: And it was less than a year later that IBM announced that they were buying red hat. And if $7 billion sounded expensive, $34 billion is quite a bit of money as well. But it’s just a validation of the fact that open source is here to stay. That some people will look at some of the warning signs and predict the sky is falling, but somehow open source continues to sort of evolve and survive and that it’s going to continue to have a significant impact in vertical industries, as well as it’s changing fundamentally a lot of things that are happening in intellectual property and did research other things.

Henry: Definitely. One interesting thing that Amanda Brooke said on the podcast was open source is like gravity. It’s here to stay, you’ve got to accept that it’s here and move on knowing that it is here to stay. So, I think that definitely does resonate with some things I’ve heard in the past, but that’s all we’ve got time for today. Thank you so much for your time. Jeff, it’s been amazing chatting to you, getting to know you, and also just learning so many things in this podcast and on a previous call we had so thank you.

Jeffrey: Henry. It’s been my pleasure, wish you continued success and look forward to it, we’ll have to chat again sometime in the not-too-distant future.


Henry: Definitely, I would love to, and for everyone who’s listening, thank you for listening. If you’re watching these, thanks for watching. If you’re watching this from YouTube, then please leave a like and comment letting us know what you think. Also, subscribe to see more content like this and do the same on Apple podcasts or Spotify just to really stay up to date with the latest news in open source. So, thanks very much, everyone. Thanks, Jeff until next time. Thank you.