Whither Canada?

It has been a bit over ten years since I started Refractions Research, and in that time most everything that has happened has been unanticipated. The best laid plans rarely yielded what was expected, though they often brought good surprises.

For a founder, one of the side effects of success in a company is that your role is constantly changing. In a company of two, your job is radically different than in a company of twenty. This is both good, in that it provides lots of variety, and bad, in that it can result in being “promoted” into a role that might not be a good fit.

And so it is with me. I have moved from being someone who works on software and problem solving to someone who pays other people to work on software and problem solving. This has not, as it turns out, been a recipe for job satisfaction in the long run.

Back when I had no wife/house/child/child I was able to balance out my role by just working more – spent all day on meetings and email? no problem, play with technology at night.

But that doesn’t work any more. I don’t feel like I have the leadership focus I used to, nor do I get to spend enough time on technology and problem solving. Since I am doing neither job well right now, I am going to pick the one I like more, and do that for a bit.

So I have decided to make a big change. I am going to leave the company I started, and return whence I came, to independent consulting. Solo consulting is tricky, because the work is “gappy”, but it has a good rhythm: in the gaps, you learn new things; in the peaks, you apply those things.

I don’t know what other opportunities might come along (best laid plans and all) but in the meanwhile some quality time with my computer and some concrete problems sounds great. I am looking forward to getting my hands dirty in the guts of the many open source projects I have thus far only experienced as a user.

Refractions is a big (relatively, 25 people) company now, and has momentum – good institutional clients, great delivery skills, stable business processes. I have ensured over the last six months that I am not in the critical path for any of our projects. The leadership team has been operating independently of me for a number of months, and can keep building the company into the future. The staff are an excellent group of folks, the best collection of geospatial smarts in the Pacific North-west.

I will miss spending regular time with the folks at the office, but will continue to do occasional work with Refractions as an associate, so there will be lots of opportunities to keep in touch, have lunches and beers, and keep the creative juices flowing.

So Long

Thanks everyone, it has been an amazing experience, I look forward to working with you again in my next incarnation(s).

Timmy's Telethon #2

Moving on:

  1. Risk: Our landscape is changing so fast there is an extreme amount of exposure to dumping resources into a solution that isn’t supported. If any one component of the enterprise stack changes you’re vulnerable and I trust those I’m paying to cover my maintenance than I do an ethereal community. When it comes to supporting my clientele I need tangible support resources. How good are the support resources for open source solutions? Is there comprehensive up to date documentation? Can I call someone in an a oh $*!&% moment?

I think this article at InformationWeek (number three in the Google search for “open source support”) sums it up well. There is not one answer, there are a number of answers, and you need to choose the one(s) that make sense for your needs.

  • Product support, from specialist companies with expertise in particular components (Refractions for PostGIS, DM Solutions for Mapserver, TOPP for Geoserver)
  • Stack support, from generalist companies putting together mixes of components (Wheregroup)
  • Community support, much maligned, but better than the technical support provided with most proprietary packages
  • Training, from folks like the companies above, or specialist trainers like Open Technology Group
  • Hiring project developers, an often unappreciated source of top notch trouble shooting and knowledge,
  • Consultants, who have to know the tools they use

For me, the money quote is:

CIOs would be well-advised not to buck the open-source trend. On the contrary, they should assume responsibility for open-source initiatives and ensure that their companies have the right support structures in place… They’ll find the more mature an open-source software project, the more mature support options its users enjoy.

Open source requires you to assume responsibility, which is hard for an organization man, with years of CYA behind him, to do. In exchange for taking responsibility for your own infrastructure, you are rewarded with a software ecosystem where there is more than one source of support.

What do open source organizations do when their support provider isn’t up to snuff? They get a new support provider.

What do ESRI customers do when ESRI support isn’t up to snuff? They bitch about it on James Fee’s blog.

Timmy's Telethon #1

So, addressing Timmy’s concerns about open source geospatial:

  1. Staffing: The specialized skills necessary to build and maintain an open source app are hard to come by. There is a premium on any specialization, is the talent pool to build and support these open source solutions deep enough to maintain continuity in staff skills?

There is, as with any great argument, a kernel of truth in this item, but it is wrapped in a thick, low-calorie, blanket of misdirection, like a corndog at a state fair.

So, should you be concerned about staffing your open source application? You should, to the extent that:

  • the skills required to understand and maintain it take a long time to learn, and
  • the skills required to understand and maintain it are in short supply.
  • Note that you have reason for concern only if both conditions occur: the skill must be both difficult to learn and in short supply.

Timmy sees that, compared to proprietary toolsets, people with prior experience with open source tool sets are fewer and farther between, and leaps to the conclusion that there is a skills provision risk.

However, the skills necessary to work with open source geospatial applications are either easy to pick up quickly, or transferable from other domains.

  • PostGIS: Already worked with Oracle Spatial or ArcSDE’s “new” spatial SQL feature? You already know PostGIS.
  • Mapserver: Learn the .map file and you are good to go. No harder than picking up enough AXL to be useful. Budget a couple days of learning time.
  • OpenLayers: Already worked with Google Maps? You’ve got the concepts down pat. You’d better know Javascript, but that’s a transferable skill and you’ll need that for any non-trivial application.
  • Geoserver: Point and click through the interface. Do you known enough to deploy a WAR into production? If you installed ArcIMS, you already do.

The slight disadvantage open source has in providing decent tutorial-level guides for new users is offset by the advantage in access to a very helpful user community and direct access to the development community.

Summary: No matter whether you’re building on ESRI or open source, if you are building something complex your staff will have to learn a few new skills. Their prior experience with core concepts like programming and IT will serve them well in both domains, and the learning curve will be no worse either way.

Caveat: It’s possible Timmy is talking about people who will only learn a new skill if force fed it through a training course, and even then will only retain 50% of what they are taught, who write point-and-click recipes and stick them up on their cubicle walls, who think that “re-boot the server” is a genuine solution. If those are the people whose “skills” he is worrying about, I can only say “go with God, Timmy, peace be unto you, you have larger problems than proprietary vendor lock-in”.


I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last month re-doing three web sites:

Some of it, like the PostGIS site, has been easy, simply re-skinning the existing content (though I’m anticipating reworking the content there to make it more newbie friendly and harmonized). Other bits, like the uDig site, are brand new, and include some big additions like a gallery of projects using uDig. And the Refractions site includes piles of new content like case studies, that have taken many days to write up. And I’m only about 50% through my list of candidates.

PostGIS users will find this nugget in the Refractions site fun: a potted history of PostGIS.

Timmy's Telethon #0

In the comment thread at James Fee’s posting on building an open source application in an “ESRI” shop, “timmy” provides the most complete laundry list of incumbent vendor objections to open source I have seen in some time.

The list is far too comprehensive to do in one post, so I’ll do them one at a time.

As a general note, many of the items are not really specific to open source or geo-spatial – they could be used by any incumbent market-leading vendor to attack a smaller competitor.

There is also an apples/oranges thing going on here, since the default GIS vendor (ESRI) is at a different point in the technology adoption cycle than open source. Open source can’t strongly appeal (yet) to conservative late adopters, and ESRI is finding it hard (at the moment) to appeal to technically savvy early adopters. (Technology book recommendation: Crossing the Chasm is a must-read for anything thinking about the software market.)