Slide, Marc, slide!
Marc Fleury, the ostentatious one-man show who helped make JBoss into an entity that could command a $350 million price tag, announced last week that he was hanging up his cleats and leaving Red Hat, the company he sold out to last April.
Fleury once told me he was the P. Diddy of software (more on that later), but to me he was more like the Jackie Robinson of open-source software. Because just as Robinson changed the face of professional sports, Fleury helped to change the software business by showing that open-source infrastructure software could perform just as well as closed-source commercial offerings that cost a whole lot more to license and maintain.
Robinson became pro baseballs first African-American player. He broke Major League Baseballs color barrier in 1947, and during his 10 years in the league he stole home 19 times (no small feat). Robinson ran the bases with abandon, daring pitchers to try to throw him out so he could capitalize and advance on an error.
Likewise, Fleury played the software industry with abandon. He braced the big boys and taunted them mercilessly in the press. Meanwhile, he took the offensive technologically, laying down bunts when necessary, but also singling, doubling and swinging for the fence often enough to muscle the fledgling JBoss Java application server into what became a tight three-way race for market-share supremacy. And IBM, BEA and JBoss still jostle in that tight race for the lead in the application server space.
Leaving of his own accord, you might say Fleury slid in to home plate safely and avoided the tag of the post-acquisition slump that can wrack a driven entrepreneur after the company he started gets acquired.
I remember asking Fleury a few years ago what his endgame would be. What did he want to be when JBoss grew up? He said he first wanted to make sure he took care of his core developers and ensure that they were compensated. Beyond that, he invited me to check back in a couple of years.
I also every so often would ask Fleury what he thought his legacy would be. He, to the end, said “professional open source”—his term for the process of building a business around the service and support of free open-source software, and paying your developers handsomely to innovate.
The model resonated with me, and apparently also resonated with much of the market that is willing to invest in software produced by the so-called professional open-source camps.
“I first heard about JBoss because many of my portfolio companies were using JBoss as the underpinning of their products and loved it,” said David Skok, a venture capitalist with Matrix Partners, who invested in JBoss and counseled Fleury along the way. “They chose it first to do free development and expected to have to replace it at time of shipping, but realized the product was actually much better than the expensive competition.”
Added Skok: “I think that most new open-source businesses are modeling themselves around business model ideas that JBoss pioneered, and trying to emulate that success.”
One such company that is working from a similar business model is Interface21, the maintainer of the popular Spring framework.
Rod Johnson, CEO of Interface21, said, “Love him or hate him [and there were plenty in each camp], Marc Fleury represented an important stage in the growth of Java open source. He generated a lot of attention to open source; he got people talking; and he deserves his financial success.”
Besides, “Marcs aggressive style kicked open the enterprise software door for open source,” Johnson said. “However, open source doesnt need a bullhorn anymore. As were seeing at Interface21, the Fortune 500 now sees open source strategically. They dont need to be told to use it; they need to be shown how, and they need partners who look more like them.”
Ari Zilka, chief technology officer at Terracotta, which also follows a JBoss-like model, said, “I think Marc was a brilliant business leader, and he helped change the shape of IT for the better. … He opened the door for smaller companies and individuals to lead innovation.”
However, Dain Sundstrom, a former JBoss core developer who left the nest a few years ago to develop on the competing Apache Geronimo platform, sees things a bit differently.
Asked about Fleurys contribution to the industry, Sundstrom said: “It really depends on your point of view. For businessmen that are thinking of building based on open source, JBoss is fabulous case study. For businessmen thinking buying an open-source company, JBoss stands as a classic cautionary tale to be careful to personally inspect that land in Florida before purchasing it. For open-source programmers, JBoss stands as cautionary tale to what can happen when you turn your hard work over to businessmen.”
Jeff Genender, another developer innovating around Geronimo, called Fleury “quite a flamboyant individual, and I think part of his image was his uncanny ability to be disruptive on many levels.”
Yet, “as much as there were things that Marc did that seemed to rub folks the wrong way, he made a huge wake for open source,” Genender said. “His open-source application server was incredibly disruptive to the big software vendors, and they saw JBoss as a threat. I think vendors thought that the Global 2000 would never embrace open source. But he brought JBoss to a level that companies could honestly feel comfortable looking at open-source alternatives.”
In addition, Genender said he respects what Fleury did for open source. “I honestly think he was a significant factor for why I can go into a Fortune 500 company and they dont even blink when I mention open-source solutions,” he said.
Sacha Labourey, CTO of the JBoss unit of Red Hat, said Fleury used to manage JBoss like a record label, thus the P. Diddy reference. P. Diddy, now known simply as “Diddy” but previously known as Sean “Puffy” Combs or Puff Daddy (whew, a mouthful), is the founder of Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, a record label and music publishing conglomerate.
“He managed to find the magic chemical equation that made all of these great developers feel at home and respected,” Labourey said of Fleury. “But that wasnt for the show, it was genuine respect.”
Moreover, in spite of (or maybe because of) his antics, Fleury quickly became one of my favorite software industry folks—right up there with Microsofts Bill Gates and others. And despite his open-source ties, Fleury has often noted his own respect for Gates and the Microsoft way. Indeed, Fleury is proud of the Xbox 360 unit he has at home … the one that bears Bill Gates autograph on it.
Skok, Fleurys VC investor, said part of Fleurys success lies in putting the right people around him.
Sundstrom agrees with that, sort of. “In the end, I think JBoss was simply the right people in the right place at the right time … unlikely to ever be repeated, but Im sure Marc will give it a try.”
Laboureys view adds a slight twist to that, however. “Finding a good businessman is difficult,” he said. “Finding a good engineer is very difficult. Finding both is impossible. I guess we have been lucky.”
Meanwhile, folks are taking bets on where Fleury will show up next in the tech business. Doug Levin, CEO of Black Duck Software, said, Fleury “is bound to re-emerge on the tech scene because he is a very smart guy with high energy.”
I dont know when or if hell be back, but Id bet if he were to come back Fleury could get a team together in no time. But right now hes enjoying life teaching by day and spinning tunes in the Atlanta night life as his alter ego, DJ Red Baron. The thing is, just like Jackie Robinson—he was the first athlete at UCLA to letter in four sports (baseball, football, basketball and track) in the same year—Marc can do a lot of stuff.
In “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a movie of Robinsons life in the major leagues, theres a scene where Robinson steals home in a crucial game. That scene was later recounted in an episode of the TV comedy “Sanford and Son.” In it Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford is watching the Jackie Robinson movie for the umpteenth time, and at the point where Robinson makes his move to steal home, Foxx yells: “Slide, Jackie, slide!”
So I just wanted to give Fleury a shout out and say, “Slide, Marc, slide.” So you can steal home, leave your mark, and hurry up and get back up to bat.