ROSE Blog Interviews: Erica Brescia, CEO of BitRock

Rikki Kite

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Aug 24, 2009 GMT
Rikki Kite

I met Erica more than a year ago at LugRadio Live USA, and since then I've run into her at several events, including OSCON and OpenSourceWorld 2009. In July, Erica was one of many people who contributed to making the first Community Leadership Summit such a success.

Q: Who are you?

A: I’m Erica Brescia, the CEO of BitRock. We make server software easy to deploy on site, in virtual environments, and on the cloud. I’ve been with BitRock since we launched the company in early 2005. Prior to joining BitRock, I managed several sales teams for T-Mobile and served as a liaison to the mobile enthusiast community. In the past, I also worked as an Analyst at Oakwood Worldwide and as a consultant with Chekiang First Bank in Hong Kong, where I helped to plan the launch of its Internet banking service.

Q: What do you currently do in open source? What do you love about it?

A: My primary involvement in open source is via the company. BitRock works with most of the leading open source software vendors, such as MySQL, Ingres, JasperSoft, Pentaho, Groundwork, and Zenoss, to make their software easy for end users to deploy. We also sponsor the BitNami project, which provides freely available, easy-to-deploy packages of popular open source applications, such as Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla!, Dokuwiki and many others. The idea behind BitNami is to make it easy for everyone, including those who aren’t technical, to get up and running with open source web applications. So, we’re not developing open source code, but we are trying to help encourage people to use open source by making it easy for them to set up.

I love open source for a lot of different reasons. I love that it is open, collaborative and merit-based. It is incredibly cool to see projects like Ubuntu, Drupal or Apache that bring together volunteers throughout the world to produce highly valuable, ‘enterprise grade’ applications. There are so many different ways for volunteers to get involved in ways other than just contributing code – they can report bugs, help with documentation or translations, or even just spread the word. I love the fact that demographics don’t really come into play when it comes to getting involved in open source. Gender, nationality and financial status don’t really matter (you don’t need to disclose that info on a mailing list or on IRC) – what matters is how good you are and how you behave (are you responsible, fair, collaborative, etc?).

Aside from what I mentioned above, I love that it produces great, freely available software. With open source, people who could never afford to purchase a proprietary software license can get access to powerful technology. We worked with a project called Gnosis that developed an open source medical records keeping system for developing nations. We made the software easy for them to install in clinics and they now have 6 of them set up in Latin America, which will help them to provide better care for patients. I’ve heard so many inspiring stories like that since I’ve been involved in open source, and it is extremely fulfilling and motivating to learn that something you have worked on has helped so many other people. I love my job because I feel like my company does that – we have had people from more than 160 countries/territories download software from our site.

Q: You're speaking to a group of women from other fields who are considering switching careers. Why should they consider moving into an open source-related career? What should they know about the open source environment to prepare them for the transition from a different field?

A: There is a huge amount of energy and passion in most open source projects and companies. People work on open source because they either a) have a problem they need to solve and want to work with others to do it, b) believe in the open source ethos and want others to benefit from their work or c) both. Either way, they are intrinsically motivated to work on it, which means that they do a better job and enjoy it more in most cases. I love working in with people who are truly excited about what they are working on, and that is more often than not what you find when you engage in an open source project.

Also, as I mentioned previously, it is incredibly motivating to see so many people using something you have worked on. In some cases, something you worked on may reach millions of users. It’s hard to get that kind of scale in most other companies and I find it very rewarding.

With regards to being prepared for the transition to a career in open source, I think there are two key things that people need to be aware of:

  1. You can never ‘own’ a community. Missteps can be painful.
  2. There are a lot of very vocal and opinionated people in open source.


The first point could inspire an entire book, but I’ll try to be concise. I think it is easy for people coming from traditional corporate backgrounds to think of the community around a project as a bunch of volunteers ready to help out with whatever needs to be done. That is definitely not how it works. People sign on to work on a project with the expectation that it will be run in an open and fair way. If they are a primary contributor, they will expect to have a say in how the project develops. What the community wants may not always agree with what the company wants. It is important that an open source company consider both corporate and community needs with any major decisions if they want to encourage people outside the company to get involved in the project. Every employee in the company needs to understand that, because decisions that ignore the community’s desires can lead to fairly serious consequences, including community members forking the project and operating independently of and in competition with the company. This has happened several times in the past and will continue to happen as long as people make that mistake.

On the second point, I think the first exposure to criticism in an open source environment can be a bit shocking. One of my favorite things about open source is the passion of the people involved, but passion leads to strong opinions. In a traditional corporate setting, people may have strong opinions but are often fairly diplomatic. That’s definitely not the case in many an open source conversation. There is a culture of speaking your mind and people are not afraid to call you out if you are wrong or they disagree with you. The fact that most conversations happen via IRC or mailing lists, rather than face to face, leads some people to be much more aggressive and just downright mean than they would be in person. It’s important to be prepared for that and to remember to keep things in perspective and not get sucked into a heat-of-the-moment argument over something in a chat channel or on a list.

Q: You're speaking to a group of high school students (male and female). Why should they consider exploring career options in open source?

A: By its very nature, open source is collaborative. Some companies may engage more with the communities around the project(s) they are working on than others, but most take a very different approach to doing business. Transparency and maintaining an open dialogue with contributors and users is paramount in open source, and it creates a better working environment, in my opinion.

Q: What question do you wish I'd asked? And how would you answer it?

A: What do open source projects need to do better? I think a lot of projects can be incredibly intimidating to get involved with – they aren’t all friendly to newcomers and don’t provide a clear onramp to getting involved. If projects want to grow, they need to have documentation around which areas they need help with and how to get involved. Setting clear expectations around which questions are appropriate to ask on mailing lists. Some projects do an excellent job of all of this, but I think others should work to be more accessible if they want to grow their communities.

__________________________________

If you are a woman in open source, I'd love it if you'd take a moment to answer these interview questions and send your responses to me at rkite AT linuxpromagazine DOT com. (Otherwise, I'll try to track you down at an event or online!) If you'd like me to interview a particular woman in open source, drop me a line and let me know who she is and where to find her.

Additional reading:

ROSE Blog Interviews You (add your own interview and see comments for responses from Dru Lavigne, Amber Graner, and other women in open source)

Interview with Carla Schroder

Interview with Kelaine Vargas

Interview with Moose (Ohio LinuxFest)

Interview with Beth Lynn Eicher (Ohio LinuxFest)

Comments

  • 'contributing'

    Hi AJ,
    Thanks for the feedback. I'd argue that Erica does contribute, which is why I asked her for this interview. By your definition, I suppose I don't contribute to open source, either. However, if you think any person who helps educate, document, promote, market, package, and deliver open source to people contributes, then it's clear that Erica and I both contribute.

    I started this interview series for two main reasons:

    1. I wanted to focus on something positive. Frankly, I was feeling discouraged after hearing a few too many rants about what's going wrong. Instead of looking at all the things keeping women out of open source, I wanted to look at why women are involved with open source and what things are going right.

    2. I wanted to look at a variety of women involved in a wide range of contributions in open source, not just the few well-known women we might already be familiar with. Women are playing a bunch of really cool, interesting, unexpected roles in open source and contributing on all levels that we might not even recognize. I think a lot of people are interested in hearing about women who might be flying below the radar, and I think drawing attention to the variety of contributions and the spectrum of women will help other women (people, for that matter) see themselves as an important part of open source or inspire them to become more involved.
  • A bit disappointing

    I arrived here from the geekfeministblog.
    This interview is quite disappointing, while it shows a woman can be CEO of a IT (successful?) company, which is nice, I do not see how she contributes to OpenSource. What she does in the interview is promoting her company. Hey, if she has the choice of some free advertisement, I do not blame her, but I was more looking forward to read about one of those women who truly contribute to open source like Dru Lavigne, Carla Schroder or Valerie Aurora.
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