Spring Creator Rod Johnson Leaves VMware, Makes Mark on Java

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2012-07-05

Spring Creator Rod Johnson Leaves VMware, Makes Mark on Java

Rod Johnson has left the building, but he left a sign on the wall for the Java elite: Rod was here.

Johnson, the founder and CEO of SpringSource and the creator of the Spring Framework, announced that he has left his position as senior vice president of application platform strategy and general manager of the SpringSource division of VMware.

And Rod did it Sinatra style€”his way. He made his mark. Not necessarily in Sinatra€™s New York, but in the New York City of the software world nowadays: the open-source business. If you can make it big in the open-source biz, you can make it anywhere in software. It takes a tough and scrappy exterior to make your way to the top of an open-source pile. And topping out in open source in the enterprise software world means you€™ve done something real. Rod€™s contribution to the world was the Spring Framework, which has helped a whole generation of enterprise Java developers by alleviating the pain of dealing with Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs) and other Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) complexity.

The best tools are typically those that come out of need. Rod needed to make enterprise Java development easier for his own sake. He was working as a software consultant in London and decided to do something about the complexity he had to deal with in building enterprise Java apps. So he created Spring in his €œfree€ time. Above the many qualities that set Johnson up to succeed in the software business, perhaps his greatest is his ability to connect with developers€”to feel their pain.

€œI love to code,€ Johnson once told me. €œCoding has a profound effect on me. It€™s like playing the piano in that respect,€ he added. Johnson holds a Ph.D. in music history, as well as a B.A. in math, computer science and musicology. He even spent time as an instructor at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music while writing software on the side in his homeland of Australia.

Spring emerged from code Johnson wrote and published in his 2002 book, Expert One-on-One J2EE Design and Development. The Spring Framework open-source project began in February 2003 and Interface21€”which was later renamed SpringSource€”was launched in 2004. That year, Johnson also published the sequel to his book, J2EE without EJB with Juergen Hoeller, co-founder of the Spring Framework project.

Johnson Stood Up for Those He Hired and Nurtured


In a blog post announcing his plans to leave VMware €œto pursue other interests,€ Johnson said, €œSpring was created to simplify enterprise Java development, and has succeeded in that goal. The Spring community continues to grow, Spring is more widely adopted than ever and Spring has become the dominant programming model for enterprise Java.€

Tod Nielsen, co-president of Application Platform at VMware, told eWEEK that SpringSource was central to VMware€™s strategy for connecting with developers. He said the company had watched as SpringSource became a seat of power in the Java community as the number of developers using Spring reached into the millions. €œWe knew we wanted them on our team,€ Nielsen said. Nielsen, who helped launch and then manage the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), knows a little something about connecting with developers.

€œJust as James Gosling€™s and Anders Hejlsberg€™s efforts cemented the object-oriented and VM-based platforms that define enterprise app dev today, Rod€™s efforts defined the next transformation, and his departure marks the end of an era,€ said Mik Kersten, CEO of Tasktop Technologies, founder of the Mylyn open-source project and a close friend of Johnson. €œDependency injection, aspects, open-source frameworks and vendor independence have won. The simplification of the programming model that Rod drove will be permanent, and his efforts as both technologist and entrepreneur have made the lives of Java developers much easier. That's quite a dent to have made on the way that software is built, both in terms of what Spring delivered, and in the way it continues to influence other platforms. Let€™s hope that Rod doesn€™t consider himself to be done just yet, as I know that he€™s got more of this drive left in him.€

I first ran into Rod at a TheServerSide Java Symposium (TSSJS) in Las Vegas. I sat in on his talk and watched and waited while a throng of developers hit him up afterward to share their coding problems and ask him for advice. I introduced myself and asked for an interview. At first, a reluctant Johnson waved me away but eventually he relented. I knew there was an emerging story there. And if you ask him, Rod will acknowledge that I was the first journalist to hit him up. That wouldn€™t last long, however.

Johnson Is Much More Than a Technical Visionary


Soon after, Johnson became the angry man of Java. He€™d take every opportunity to diss EJBs and speak to usually standing-room only audiences about the persistent problems with J2EE and his resolutions. He also railed against the Java Community Process (JCP), at one point comparing it to the commissar in Soviet Russia.

€œThe best compliment I can give Rod is that I personally observed him maintain his focus on his ideas and proposals despite the pressures he received from the big vendors to align himself with one or more of their competitive agendas,€ said Eric Newcomer, former chief architect at Credit Suisse. €œIt was this dedication to what he knew was right that set him and SpringSource apart, and brought enterprise Java to a better place. In fact, the Spring Framework won the €˜hearts and minds€™ battle instead of one of the big vendors who had invested so much in competing with each other that they sometimes lost sight of the developer's view.€

€œRod's greatest achievement was incontestably to turn the massive EE ecosystem on its head and force a radical evolution that eventually led to the emergence of EE6,€ said Sacha Labourey, CEO of CloudBees and former CTO of JBoss. €œJava EE would never have reached that level of simplicity and completeness if it hadn't been forced to fight back the Spring threat.€

The origins and evolution of Java EE, especially EJBs, in the mid-to-late 1990s were as much shaped by the political agreements among the leading Java vendors of the time as they were by the technical and application requirements the specifications were designed to meet, Newcomer, a mainstay in the standards process, explained. For example, at the time EJB was proposed it was seen as the future of transaction processing and distributed computing, to take over the market from C++ and the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA). By now, however, it has been broadly recognized that Java EE did not achieve all of its original goals, and that it is too broad and too complex for most enterprise applications, Newcomer said. Today, the need to subset and modularize the Java EE world is taken for granted, but that was not always the case.

€œWhen Rod published his seminal book and started SpringSource, best practices for Java EE were not well-understood, since in some cases€”entity beans and OR [object-relational] mapping for example€”the  specifications did not truly achieve their stated goals and it took some time for the industry to determine which specifications had worked and which had not,€ Newcomer said. €œMeanwhile, the major proponents of Java EE promoted it in its entirety virtually without qualification or reservation. Today, the use of frameworks such as Spring and abstractions such as dependency injection have been widely adopted, and the innovations Spring pioneered to simplify Java EE have been incorporated into recent versions of Java EE, as can be seen in particular in the JPA [Java Persistence API] and EJB 3 specifications.€

€œWhat Rod and SpringSource demonstrated was that open source can out-innovate standards-led approaches like the JCP,€ said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation. €œIn many ways, it was Spring that helped retain Java's relevance on the server, because it arrived just in time to save Java developers from the Java EE bloatware. Our own Eclipse developer survey shows that Spring is the leading Java server framework, with more usage than either EJBs or servlets. Rod was a pioneer in creating a developer-led community-based technology for enterprise Java.€

Spring has come a long way since its launch. €œWith its mission of simplification in mind, Spring has evolved to address problems and integrate with systems well beyond the scope of the original Spring Framework,€ Johnson said. €œThat evolution continues today with Spring-created technology at the forefront of enterprise development: Spring for Apache Hadoop and Spring Integration help with big data distributed processing problems; Spring Data simplifies access to NoSQL and distributed data stores; Spring Social and Spring Mobile let developers build the critical services to mobilize enterprise applications. While the Spring Framework started during the heyday of the traditional monolithic enterprise Java application server, today€™s world is very different: dominated by lightweight runtimes and cloud platforms where Spring is still the best programming choice. The Spring team is amazing and will continue to stay at the forefront of enterprise development, including addressing the problems of enterprise big data, the rise of multiple client platforms and around cloud computing.€

€œOn the VMware acquisition, merging a middleware company with an infrastructure one isn't for the faint-hearted; the DNA are simply not the same,€ Labourey said. €œGiven this, and knowing that Rod is more a small-company entrepreneur, his three-year tenure at VMW is a good signal that shows that the SpringSource €˜asset€™ within VMW is safe and will survive Rod's departure. VMW's objective when it acquired SpringSource was to get access to what it was sorely lacking: enterprise developers. With VMW's increased focus on the Cloud, SpringSource per se becomes less sensitive and mainly acts as a tool used to convert developers to the next-generation platform: the cloud.€

Another of Johnson€™s qualities that helped him succeed was his ability to align himself with good people and form a formidable team. From Hoeller to his hire of aspect-oriented programming (AOP) expert Adrian Colyer from IBM, to his hire of serial entrepreneur Neelan Choksi and veteran business and engineering manager Peter Cooper-Ellis, among a host of other top-notch talent, Johnson surrounded himself with strength at every position.

"I suspect a lot of people will talk about Rod's technical contributions to Java and the industry,€ said Neelan Choksi, president and chief operating officer of Tasktop and former COO of SpringSource. €œAnd yes, Rod contributed heavily to the industry with dependency injection, AOP, inversion of control, etc. As COO of SpringSource through the adolescent years of the company, I got to see Rod through a very different lens. Rod is much more than a technical visionary. Less seen by the outside world, I would actually argue that Rod's business acumen, strategic thinking, and competitive fire may be his stronger suits. I recently reread the business plan we wrote when we raised our Series A funding at SpringSource, and contrary to the current thinking of Lean Startups and pivots, that original business plan absolutely nailed what the company would do and what would make it successful. Rod also helped push professional open source from the Wild West to something that senior leaders in the largest, most conservative companies in the world would be comfortable with. Most importantly, Rod was the heart of the entire SpringSource organization and the inspirational leader of both the technical and business people. Anyone who worked with Rod is better for it. So, I am thrilled that my friend has chosen to close this chapter of his life and look forward to seeing what he does next."

Indeed, those who worked with Johnson at SpringSource when VMware acquired the company for $420 million in 2009 are better for it. Word is Johnson took care of his people. Not only financially, but he also stood up for them against criticism. There was a time when SpringSource and JBoss were at war, flaming each other on message boards and TheServerSide.com. I can recall interviews where Johnson literally had to bite his tongue or get up and pace before answering questions that mentioned JBoss. The two companies were competing not only in the marketplace, but also for their place in open-source history. Now, Labourey and Bill Burke, two vehement JBossians, have posted congratulations on Johnson€™s blog about his decision to leave VMware.

And Johnson leaves VMware under solidly positive circumstances. Although he had long since felt his work in integrating SpringSource into the VMware fold was done, VMware€™s top brass had asked Johnson at least twice to remain in-house€”to which he agreed€”before he made the decision that he was going to call it quits.

€œOver the last decade, a small number of open-source entrepreneurs€”Marc Fleury from JBoss, Gavin King from Hibernate and Rod Johnson from Spring€”probably had more impact on how Java is being consumed in enterprises than any of the big software vendors out there,€ Labourey told eWEEK.

Enough said. Hats off to Rod; you made your mark, brother.

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