SitePen: Passing the Open-Source Torch

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2008-04-14

SitePen: Passing the Open-Source Torch

SAN FRANCISCO-When companies such as Adobe, AOL, Eye-Fi, JPMorgan Chase, Sun Telelogic and even Google want a certain something in their Web applications, they go to SitePen, a Web application development shop that does a little support, training and consulting as well.

The reason these companies come to SitePen? The company has an all-star team of experts in AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), DHTML and Web 2.0 technologies. The company is a virtual who's who of AJAX stars, with CEO Dylan Schiemann and Alex Russell, SitePen's director of R&D, as co-creators of the popular Dojo Toolkit, an AJAX development library.

SitePen also features Joe Walker, creator of Direct Web Remoting, also known as DWR-a Java-based library for AJAX development-and Kevin Dangoor, the creator of TurboGears, a Python-based Web application framework. And that's just a short list of the Web 2.0 name brands employed at the company.

I met with Russell here and asked him how a small, distributed operation could attract and maintain so many hot commodities. He credited the open-source model.

"It's not like there's some secret to this," Russell said. "People want to work on things that matter to them, and insofar as SitePen is deeply intertwined with a number of pretty successful open-source projects, we wind up as people-not as the company, but as individuals-being incredibly identifiable inside those communities."

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Moreover, "it's kind of a weird thing about open source, but a lot of those people who have enough time to work on open source have enough time to work on open-source stuff because their jobs suck," Russell said jokingly. "So it kind of turns into this interesting scenario where a lot of people who otherwise might not be well-connected are very well-connected into these open-source communities and want to work on something more interesting.

"So in a lot of cases, it's just that people don't want to move, for one. And we all want to work with people we know we like working with. And we volunteer to work with these people in our spare time, so why wouldn't we want to work with them day to day? It helps that we pay competitively and have interesting work."

When I asked to meet Russell at the SitePen offices, completely prepared to drive to Palo Alto, Calif., he made no bones about not having an office. "We're truly distributed," he said.

Like many technology entities, SitePen is "headquartered" in Palo Alto but has no single brick-and-mortar office it calls home. So Russell and I met at a Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant at the corner of Harrison Street and The Embarcadero in San Francisco, smack dab on the route the Olympic torch relay was supposed to run (coincidentally right about the time of our lunch meeting)-except San Francisco authorities got smart and rerouted the relay away from throngs of protesters lying in wait for the torch to pass by. The protesters still marched and protested, though many gave up and some even wound up in Gordon Biersch to have a beer and watch the actual torch relay on TV.

Anyway, listening to Russell's smart, clear-headed thinking on OSS (open-source software), I couldn't help but view the SitePen brand of OSS as a passing of the torch-what OSS is really all about.

"We put a lot back into the open-source projects we work on, such that it's almost the easiest thing to do that if you're a super-valuable contributor to one of these open-source projects we'd love to have you if you play well with others," he said. "It comes down to basic, good community practice-give more than you take, create a lot more value than you personally want to siphon off and make it easy for people."

Among the open-source projects SitePen leads or contributes to are Dojo, DWR and CometD. The popularity of Dojo attracted investment and support from organizations such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems and the Mozilla Foundation.

Russell said it's absolutely right that software tool vendors develop products for and sell into the trend of distributed, collaborative development.

"But let me preface everything I've said about our model by saying that I think it's clearly preferable to have people in an office working together," he said. "Insofar as you can do it and still get the right people on the bus, then you should. But when you, for whatever reason, can't ... we feel that it's significantly more important to have the right people. And that's where we step in. We're able to be so much more effective than teams we wind up interfacing with, or replacing in a lot of cases, just because of who is involved. Not anything more sophisticated or important than that. It's just who we've got on the project."

SitePens Lifeblood

As far as tooling to support the 30-person team of developers and other professionals that is SitePen, Russell said the company uses a Jabber server. Jabber is an open-source instant messaging service. SitePen has 30 people spread across 13 U.S. states and a location in London-SitePen UK, where Joe Walker resides.

"Jabber is the lifeblood of the company," Russell said, adding that it's important for a distributed company to be able to see who's around and what they're doing. "We also have internal wiki-like collaboration and information management tools. But the most important thing for us has been Jabber. It's kind of like our IRC [Internet Relay Chat] if we were an open-source project."

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I asked Russell if he thought the SitePen team could stay together or if the lure of greater recognition at a bigger company might draw some of the team away. He said the core team has been together for four years and has worked through previous job changes. Yet, "things inevitably go south in any environment. And it does get more complicated when you're talking about an employment situation, but we have advantages that most employers can't dream of, right? We see people's code. Not only that, we've vetted peoples' code. We know the people that we're talking to; we know what they're good at. We know that they're not BS-ing us."

I also asked Russell if he thought a technology shift might impact the company. He said the team knew all along that AJAX was "a transitioning technology, and we said so. We're solving problems that your browser vendors should be solving for you." But the company will continue to work through technology shifts, he said.

Meanwhile, Russell acknowledged the downsides of some OSS efforts, such as "outsized personalities" and folks who do not play well with others.

"There can be a lot of anti-social behavior passed off as the building of a meritocracy. I find that troubling," Russell said. "Our goal is not to set up fiefdoms. Our goal is to get software written."

The element of not playing well with others also "has had significantly detrimental effects with regard to how open source is viewed in general, not least of all by potential contributors," he said.

"People talk about where are the women in open source," Russell said. "Why would you [as a woman] show up if you didn't have a bone to pick and a testosterone fix, if that's the environment that you're going to walk into? I just don't understand how people can separate out the participants from the process in such a discrete way. The participants define the process, so in many ways, participating in an open-source process is kind of a precursor for coming to work at SitePen. But we've set the tone differently, and so it follows."

Meanwhile, it all comes down to what you can deliver. "When our clients engage us, they're not engaging a bunch of open-source hackers; they're engaging people who are going to build a product to get their problem solved," Russell said.


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