Q&A: BMC's William Hurley talks up open source

He's as comfortable in the boardroom as on his long green skateboard

At 36 years old, William Hurley has been involved in IT for more than half his life, starting after a car accident that left him badly injured. While recovering, he began hacking X-objects for MacroMind and later Macromedia Director in the open-source multimedia community, then went to work at Apple Inc. and IBM, where he was a master inventor and senior manager of targeted Internet applications. Later, he joined a string of start-ups, including Qlusters Inc., where he was chief technology officer; Symbiot Inc., where he was a co-founder and CTO; and HireStorm Inc., where he was the founder and CTO. He has combined his love for open source with his longtime work in IT systems management, which he has pursued at BMC since joining the company in February. Hurley has a unique MO that makes him as comfortable in the boardroom as he is on the legendary long green skateboard he often uses to commute to work -- and to get around at open-source conferences.

Hurley, better known in the open-source community as "whurley," talked recently about his background, his enthusiasm for open source -- and his skateboard. Excerpts from that interview follow.

So how does an open-source activist like you end up as the chief architect of open-source strategy at a traditional company like BMC Software? What they were looking for was an open-source leader who could say, 'Here's how you take a company that for 27 years has done proprietary software and integrate open source into their business model in every way, shape and form.' This isn't about trying to jump onto the open-source marketing bandwagon. It's about directly interacting with customers, in how you can apply open source in leveraging that to building better products. I'm a guy who likes a challenge and even with the support of the management team that I do have here, you're still talking about a very large company, a pretty big ship. They don't turn on a dime so this is a pretty big commitment by both sides. The company has been working with open source for a number of years, they just haven't been bragging about it. There's a huge difference in being a leader of a community and being a member of a community. And BMC is a member of our community. We're the voice of many. BMC doesn't want to have an open-source community where ... there's a dictatorship. That's not a community.

So how has that been going? How have you been able to bring your community-based thinking into BMC and its way of doing things? When I was working in open-source systems management, obviously I wanted to change the world of systems management overall. But as a systems dude, I think that most large systems can only be changed from the inside. So to really move systems management forward, and my career, rather than doing a start-up and trying to circumvent everything, it made more sense to find a willing partner in BMC that I could work with, that has the visibility, that has the resources, that is the establishment, to kind of change things from the inside out. When you look at that, that sums up why I went to an established player. And then the follow-on to that is, out of the Big 4, why BMC? Because of the management team. Because the management team gets it, they understand it and most importantly, they want to do open source right.

How was their approach different from other companies out there? The thing I liked about BMC was that they weren't one of the companies that were like, 'Oh yeah, open source, come do it. That's great.' Because every time I've worked with one of those kinds of companies, they've ended up doing things for the wrong reasons. They don't understand how it can benefit their businesses, they don't understand how to properly build credibility in the community. So the thing that attracted me to BMC is that they weren't chomping at the bit. They knew they wanted to do it, they knew it was strategic and they knew it would move from strategic to tactical. But they were also giving the time to make sure they were doing it right. When you go to a customer, they don't see project A and project B, and the Big 4 and the Little 4 as competitors. They see them as choices, so you really have to put yourself in that customer mind-set.

Does that mean that customers are looking at open source differently than in the past? And if so, what does that mean for vendors and the open-source community? I think that if you look at the Richard Stallmans and the Eric Raymonds and all of these people, that was kind of like Open Source V1.0 in a lot of ways. And I think there's a bunch of people trying to commercialize it, now that there's a bunch of people who are using it as a marketing ploy, now that it's kind of becoming a common thing. So when you look at how rapidly it's changing, it's how much it's being integrated into just one way that we do software. I think we're in this new era of open source and there's going to be new leaders, and I think those new leaders are not going to be those iconic leaders of the past. Rather they're going to be more connectors, people who sit on both sides of the fence, and I don't by any means think I'm the only one at all. But that's what I saw coming and that's kind of where I put my career. I have done patents in the past. I have worked at IBM, have managed large groups, have managed software projects. But I've always at the same time been doing open source. My career's developed participating in both of these worlds. The thing I always say is it's not about the code, it's about the community. Software is software is software. You look at proprietary code. You look at open source. They both have licenses, they both have code, they both have to be compiled. At the end of the day, there's no difference between open-source software and proprietary software other than all these crazy differences that people make up in their imaginations and in their heads. It's software that solves someone's needs and the only real difference between the two is the community. It's the way you interact, the spanning layer that you create between you and the people using your product. You're making that product with them rather than for them.

If you look at it that way, then you can see the obvious reasons that a company like BMC would be interested in being the first to jump out there and take a leadership position. Open source represents a way to do that on a very massive scale, involving competitors and a bunch of open-source projects and a bunch of people who may not ever buy BMC products -- but who might have really good ideas to solve complex systems management problems. Why wouldn't BMC not want to be seen and take a leadership role in Systems Management 2.0?

So what does it mean for BMC to have you working there? You are the guy who is known in the open-source world for traveling with your big green skateboard and riding it at conferences and for commuting. How do you fit in there? I do clean up rather nicely. It's definitely a step into a different direction for them. I did work at IBM as a master inventor for a number of years. I've done the customer proposals; I've worn the suits. It's not that I don't have any experience in that that. That helps a lot. As far as them understanding my world, they've been very open-minded. They're ready for this new open-source energy for the company. They're ready for someone like me who may not fit in. I think BMC's not as traditional a company as you might think. In my hallway, there's tons of people in flip-flops and shorts. The executives have really turned it around in the last few years. These are some really forward-thinking guys. It's actually not hard to fit in with them at all. This is not a revolutionary change, this is an evolutionary change. This is what BMC has done.

Does having that big green skateboard help you bridge the gap between the open-source community and traditional IT vendors and customers? Does it help me with the open-source community? Absolutely not. The currency in the open-source community is credibility. With executives, I went with one of the executives at BMC to meet with a customer early after I joined the company. When I landed, I was wearing a jacket, I had a suit. The BMC executive said, 'What are you doing? What are you wearing?' They wanted me to be just like I am like every day, normal, because the expectation with the customer was that I would be different, that it would be refreshing. That was my first and last attempt to dress up for any meeting at BMC. I think they expect me to be different.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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