Spotlight Series: From Physics to Open Source to Smart Cities, Crypto and Music
This series highlights the key insights and lessons from our Digital Leadership series of podcasts. We spotlight the important takeaways from our interviews in an accessible format. The following insights come from Marc Fleury, Founder and Ex-CEO of JBoss and Founder of FreeSide Fund. Stay tuned for the full podcast interview with Marc Fleury, in the meantime, take a look at our full library of podcasts.
Could you share what led you into technology?
I was born in France, Franco-Spaniard lived in France and Spain, did all my studies in France and came to the United States in the early 90s to finish a PhD in theoretical physics I was working on in Paris, and did my work at MIT in the research lab with electronics on x-ray lasers etc. What I remember from those days was crossing the Harvard bridge between MIT and the Back Bay. There were these two guys walking, one was a journalist interviewing what I now know as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and he was so exciting in the way they were talking as they were walking, about the Internet. There I was deep in a physics lab and all I knew was they had energy and I wanted to be there.
When I left academia, I finished my PhD, and then went to work for Sun Microsystems in the early Java days. The second strong force was just the energy of the guys doing the worldwide web revolution in ’93-’94. The second force was again an energy was the people in open source, and that was the days of the Linux server and Apache server, and I could feel that energy, and again I wanted to be a part of it. Within Sun I specialized in Java, Enterprise JavaBeans which was the standards for commercial applications in middleware, and started JBoss as an open source group. I managed to publish it in open source and attract very bright minds, and then JBoss was a revolution in middleware first, and second in how we did business with open source.
That venture took seven years. Out of Silicon Valley we were in Atlanta Georgia from 99-2007, and then sold to Red Hat in 2006, now acquired by IBM as you know. After that, once I sold the company we moved to Spain with the family and I became a Dad again. Went back to physics, physics research which I conduct now in ontology of quantum mechanics, and music, a lot of art and live programming of electronic music and things like that. More recently because of open source, because of the financial world which I’ve studied during the crisis, and interests me greatly, crypto was kind of a natural thing that introduced into bitcoin in 2011, when I got in contact with the original Bitcoin team and they wanted my opinion on the open source approach of bitcoin etc. I didn’t take it seriously at first, but now as you know, I’m back in in that field, a lot of interesting developments, not necessarily about technology, mostly about finance in own opinion.
How did the idea for JBoss emerge?
When I was at Sun and doing Java, I was a Java evangelist working on core box etc., I really wanted to join their developer ranks, and because I had a background in physics not in programming, nobody would have me. So, the teams at Sun were like, ‘Yeah, we like you Fleury, but you’re not a programmer’. I tried to join WebSphere and the same story, I remember vividly sitting in Silicon Valley in traffic at a red light thinking, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to do this in open source and do it myself.'
At first it wasn’t obvious to do Java in open source, in fact there was resistance on both ends, meaning the people who were making money with Java did not see this open source thing with glee, it was a destruction of sales from the point of view of WebSphere or IBM, and that lasted throughout. By the same token the open source guys were all SELinux, and this Java thing was enterprise software.
What happened is, I went out with this open source project trying to make a living with it, training came easily, and eventually the VC was right, we started doing what Web Sphere was doing, the same sales approach but with a radically cheaper product to maintain that made it the darling of a lot of developers.
What were some of the initial challenges you may have faced in your experience trying a new path versus the traditional way of doing things at the time?
Well, certainly the open source development model was successful by the time we started operating, but what was new was this mix of let’s take an open source project and turn it into a company. On the development front it wasn’t really challenging, but it was kind of easy because I never saw a resume for example, and the only guy I ever fired personally in the development ranks was a proprietary developer who wanted to come to open source and couldn’t make the transition.
The other challenge, which was also not really difficult, it was adapting the two models together was on the business side. Then we brought in expert people, I worked with Bob Bakle who was a manager at HP, managed the Software Division so he knew the business, and growing a sales and marketing arm we knew how to do that, and that’s what they set out to do. One of the things we pioneered and still remains in the literature was the marketing lead qualification, we had the interesting problem of being one of the open source leaders, so a lot of traffic, millions of people on the website, how do you go from millions of clicks to 10,000 qualified clicks – ‘Oh this company is looking at this’, or, ’They’ve read this many hours of a doc’, and, ‘Maybe they need help because they’ve been reading about clustering’ etc., and how we would generate the information from the website and funnel that to a multi-layered sales team that would qualify for the deal, so that by the end you would hit the senior sales people, it was a fully qualified thing. We had very high closing rates compared to the rest of the industry, just because of the open source buzz, noise and visibility, that we had to transform into a more classic sales channel.
What has attracted you to the business problems and opportunities that fall under the broad umbrella we call smart cities?
It is a broad umbrella, I come from the background of IoT under that umbrella. Once I’d sold JBoss I took a couple of years off, and after that the first thing I did is I studied an open source project called OpenRemote. For the past 10 years OpenRemote has evolved from home automation which is difficult and really a niche market for rich people, to smart city infrastructure which I find personally a lot more interesting because we’re dealing with sewers, medical applications, and whatnot, and that’s very real in infrastructure, a little more discrete than what people understand as IoT buzz.
The second characteristic that I find interesting, to me it’s not not necessary a product play. What I mean by that is you have 10,000 products in the field already and new ones coming, it’s difficult given the amount of products in the market to make a niche for yourself, unless you come with some genius design say like Nest have done with a UX that’s really cool for thermostat etc. By and large in the industrial world it’s a very anonymous world from the product standpoint. In a city project we get involved with we come in and there’s already a vendor for the lights, and there’s already a vendor for the automated parking meters, and there’s already a vendor for the cameras. It’s mostly a problem of middleware protocol integration which was very close to our JBoss background, and then UX and use cases.
What do smart cities need? They need the products for sure, but we don’t have a shortage of products, we have a shortage of savoir-faire of how do you accompany a smart city through the process of deploying studies to assess what hardware needs we have, so we can know the capital requirements, because as you know smart cities are usually in later stages, very capital intensive. And how you go through the process of becoming a smart city, a green city, is usually what we find as the demand of that and financing. It’s mostly a cry for help that we see now from the smart cities that say, ‘We have these products, we don’t want to sell it between 10,000 products, we have too many vendors, can you please integrate and give us UXs we can use?’ ‘How do we finance it?’ etc. etc. and that’s where crypto comes in.
What gives you a lot of hope over the next decade or so?
Well, it’s funny that we’re reaching the age that Karl Marx used to call third stage abundance, meaning the machines do all the work, the AIs do all the work. It’s always interesting to me to hear leading thinkers, be it Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, have rightfully-so a very dark reading on what’s going on. Certainly, we’re reaching the very interesting paradox of the tools of capitalism have created this abundance worldwide. And because we’re still stuck in the work for pay, work to eat mentality, this is not per se capitalism, it’s just the modern world where you have to work, there is a bit of a paradox here of the machines do the work, so we don’t have to work, and therefore we cannot eat the produce of the machines. I know you don’t want to get existential but I view crypto as directly addressing parts of that. Well, let’s give the smart ones the capacity to create their own money and their own value, and create more abundance.
One of the things that makes me very optimistic, besides the state of tech, but I think the state of tech maybe has lost a little bit of its intent, both the bright and the dark intent. What I mean by dark is all the palm-book, the hardcore libertarian, even honor kiss components of open source, and I don’t mean dark negatively, I mean just the more deconstructive aspects of crypto. Also, the very positive aspects of this new community base innovation with crypto, and what I love in crypto is the energy, they’re young, they’re excited, they meditate, they’re scared of the future, they’re excited about the future. It was the same energy I loved when I was a young guy and I wanted to do Internet, it was the same energy I loved in open source, and I find it in crypto. The 30-year-olds, the millennials, they’re all about their meditation and their manifestations, and I like that and it makes me optimistic because it’s a certain mindfulness, a certain thoughtfulness that they take advantage.
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