Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce MySQL: the Australian connection

MySQL: the Australian connection

In an age when paper qualifications and certificates of one description or another are touted as evidence of competence, it's refreshing to know that the top MySQL expert in Australia has only been officially certified on a version of the program which came out years ago.

Not that that makes him any less competent. Arjen Lentz, the man who was MySQL's 25th employee and its first in Australia, says that it really doesn't matter in the world in which he operates.

"I'm a MySQL expert and adding the MySQL label to that doesn't add to my stature in any way. I was employee number 25 and if a customer asks me about my credentials, I can mention that. I've never been asked if I am MySQL certified," he says.

Lentz is cut from slightly different cloth compared to the open source people one meets these days. While he is a specialist, he prefers to undertake a career that leaves him with the option of getting his fingers dirty with any task in which he is interested.

That's why, after nearly six years with MySQL, he decided to start his own business, rather than work for another company. "By the time I decided to move on (from MySQL), the company had changed to such a degree that one had to specialise. Really where do you go as a MySQL specialist? I have very diverse interests, and eventually you get hired as a MySQL specialist in a company, and get stuck with all the MySQL work - which I like. But I also like to be responsible for other things," is how he puts it.

Lentz has always been that way, never one-dimensional. He has no formal training in computer science, having dropped out of high school to mess around with computers. "I started (messing around) in 1980-81 when I was 10 or 11 years old. I used the DEC PDP-8 and Apple IIs, then I got my own Sinclair ZS-80. I messed around with MS-DOS quite a bit and before I moved to Australia in 2000, I ran my own software development company for quite a few years."

"I honestly don't remember the initial trigger (that got him messing around with computers). I was already playing with electric engineering and electronics (building/soldering my own little FM transmitters and such.

"Computers at that point (1981-ish) were pretty much a pile of electronics, rather than a black box. So I think it was a natural progression. I also built additional electronics to attach to my Acorn BBC computer, and even some internal things (like static RAM modules, etc)."

His father passed away when he was nine; his mother is still in the Netherlands. An interest in computing does not run in the family though he says one common factor is that both he and two older brothers have been involved in teaching and training, his siblings in schools.

He came to Australia because he had a love interest here, a person he met online in an era when it wasn't at all common. But he was considering the option of moving Down Under for other reasons anyway. "It's nice and spacious. I like a bit of space, a bit of quiet and the relaxed atmosphere. In the Netherlands, the people are nice but it's very, very busy. My overall life attitude merges better with the way Australians deal with life," he says.

"It's just the overall approach. In the Netherlands people tend to get terribly stressed about lots of things. Most people and most places in Australia tend to take things easy. It's the laidback thing, it's very difficult to describe. Just as an example, try and find a clock in this cafe (a Starbucks outlet in the Melbourne CBD). There is probably none. Any place in the Netherlands will have a clock. Everybody's always looking at the time.

"The only reason I'm wearing my watch now is because of the training (he was in Melbourne to conduct a week of training). I put it on the desk in front of me to make sure that we have the breaks at the right time, that we go to lunch at the right time. Otherwise when I walk around in Australia, I generally don't wear my watch.

"I'm renting now in Brisbane and the house is probably 600 or 700 square metres in area. There's space for a vegetable patch and there's a yard where my three-year-old daughter, Phoebe, can play. In the Netherlands, I'd be lucky to get a balcony. And, as it turns out now, Australia provided me with interesting opportunities which I might not have had if I had stayed in Europe."

Apart from the experience that came from running his own software development company, Lentz had also done some consulting and training before he landed in Australia. He applied to MySQL after seeing an ad on the company's website. The interview and screening was done entirely through email. "I hadn't met anyone or talked to anyone over the phone. That was pretty much the common way MySQL hired at the time; these days, there is at least a conference call with several different people and preferably a face-to-face interview with someone in the company.

"They were looking for a technical writer to work on the MySQL documentation. The additional thing was MySQL had just acquired a company named Polycom in Finland basically for the training that that company had developed for MySQL. They basically acquired a training organisation and integrated it into MySQL. There were a couple of trainers and training materials at the time."

His closest company colleague at the time was an Estonian who worked from Hong Kong, eight or nine hours from Australia.

The documentation for MySQL which was available at that point had been written by Monty Widenius and David Axmark, the founders of the company. Says Lentz: "They are both Swedish speaking originally; Monty is a Finn but a Swedish speaker (about 6 percent of the Finnish population speaks Swedish). What they were writing was 'Swinglish'. It was basically English but the grammar wasn't that brilliant. You could tell what they meant if you knew a little bit about MySQL but it needed a rewrite and I've done lots of rewriting. This was the time when MySQL 4 was being developed with lots of new features, so there were lots of new chapters and reorganisation required."

Until this point, Lentz had had limited exposure to Linux and other free and open source software. "At some point in the early 90s, I think I started looking at Linux and I worked indirectly a bit with BSD  but actually did not have a lot of exposure to it. When I joined MySQL I hadn't used Linux that much and actually my desktop for a while was Windows. MySQL (the company) is a very heterogeneous environment, it doesn't matter what desktop you use. Some developers use Windows, some use Linux, some use BSD, some use Macs, some use Solaris and so on. And that is very good overall for the infrastructure of the company and the product. With all the different environments, things tend to get tested better. It ensures that people using a different environment do not get neglected. If you have people only using Windows, or only Linux, you kind of forget about the other operating systems."

He notes a point of difference between himself and others in the FOSS community. "I'm a firm believer in Free and Open Source Software but as a practicality I'm a Mac user as well. I have a little 13-inch MacBook in my bag; the reason I started using that a couple of years ago was that at the time laptops that ran Linux were a bit awkward to travel with - suspend often didn't work, the wireless didn't work and there were a number of problems. So the answer at that point to 'why do you have a Mac' was 'I have work to do'.

"Plus it was a better environment for me than Windows. Now I have lots of things on that laptop that I am comfortable with and some of my infrastructure is Mac-focused, so it's all staying in there, even though, if I booted my machine with Linux, it would work just fine, the wireless would work. I trust Linux, it's just that I am a happy Mac user now. Of course, Steve Jobs is evil and I know it. I'm a pragmatist when it comes to things like this. Some of my very good friends, they still like me, but they think I'm a bad person because I use the wrong kind of software even though I know that it's wrong."

His choice of software doesn't mean he is any less a fan of the GPL. And he has his own analogy to explain the difference between the GPL and BSD licences. "I compare it to freedom of speech that I know of in the Netherlands and freedom of speech in the USA. In the Netherlands freedom of speech is bound by the liberties of people around you; so I can exercise my liberties as long as they don't hurt the people around me. It is not absolute. I can't shout anti-Semitic abuse - not that I would, I'm Jewish myself - or other racial abuse because that hurts other people. I can't shout about religious opinions which hurt other people around me. In the USA you can.

"I would compare the European version of that, or at least the Dutch version to the GPL - the freedoms that you get are bound by the environment in which you operate.

"With BSD, the freedoms, that you have ends with you. It doesn't guarantee freedom for anybody else. If you want something to spread, regardless of the way in which it gets integrated into other applications, then the BSD licence is the way to go."

Lentz' early days at MySQL were extremely enjoyable. "MySQL was a brilliant environment at the time and it's still very interesting. At the time I joined I think there were three salespeople. That was the total sales head count, I think. The CEO had just been hired, about six months before I was. The training department was just starting, I was the documentation team. I was able to speak at conferences in Australia and at user groups. There were lots of different things I could be involved in within the company because it was a small business that was growing. When you are in a business like that there are lots of things to be done, there is really no specialist and you can pick up what you want. I was doing a little bit of a lot of things. I was never a MySQL developer even though I have contributed a few lines of code to a couple of functions inside the server."

In 2004, Lentz took on the job of community relations, which meant a lot of travel. "I did this until August 2006 when the amount of travel became a bit much. My daughter was born in 2005 and I wanted to spend more time at home. So I moved to the support engineering department."

It was shortly after this that the idea of leaving slowly began to grow. "I really needed a long break. Over the period I had been at MySQL, the company had grown from 25 to more than 400 people. That's 16 times as many people, many of whom I hadn't actually met. By the time I decided to move on, the company had changed to such a degree that one had to specialise. I could only be a support engineer - I couldn't also do other things as that was different people's responsibility. You could not pick up things and do them if you were interested in them."

The option of working for other companies was considered, then dropped. "Companies like Google, for instance, are really interesting, but at the very least you have to move to Sydney, and in my case, I probably would have had to go to Mountain View to be involved in the things I would have wanted to be involved in. And in the case of Google, in particular, they use lots of open source, but they're not very open. Internally they're open, so you can talk about it to your colleagues, but externally you're not allowed to talk about anything you're doing. I've noticed that with some friends who work at Google - they can't talk about what they're doing," he says.

"I've become so used to both talking about what I'm working on, and just exchanging ideas with people, and getting extra ideas from that discussion that I decided probably this is not the company I would work for even though it's an excellent company and business as well. This is an example of something I really contemplated and considered, and so I started for myself again. I've done that before in the Netherlands when I was a stupid youngster. Made some money and  spent lots of money - probably more than I earned. So I thought, heck, why not try this again?"

And so Open Query was born. Lentz says the company focuses on training and consulting for MySQL and PostgreSQL in Australia and New Zealand. "We now have 10 day-modules for MySQL (scheduled in sets of 3 days) across 5 cities in the coming months. Recent days in Melbourne were fully booked, proving the popularity of the formula and content. There are also several PostgreSQL training days scheduled. There's growing demand for custom (in-house courses) for MySQL in particular. This makes me very pleased, since Open Query only started in September last year, yet we're profitable and growing. It's also a great endorsement for the use of OSS database technology in this region. And, in fact, it makes Open Query the premier training source for MySQL skills in ANZ, even before Sun/MySQL."

He keeps good relations with the company whose name he was synonymous with for some years. But he doesn't see any possibility of being involved with MySQL in any role. "I could be a consulting partner; I can't be a training partner at the moment because I develop my own training material and i'm kind of like a competitor.

"Whatever type of partner I become, part of any agreement would be that I have to promote MySQL Enterprise and the enterprise offering and pretty much not discuss MySQL community edition and I wouldn't sign that. When I'm wearing my Open Query hat, people often ask me about MySQL community edition and I need to have the freedom to talk about it; I don't like to be obliged to plug something and not talk about something else.

"The same would apply to any other product. I've talked to other companies about doing things with their technologies, various high-availability technologies, but I don't want to be a reseller for the product, I want to let clients evaluate a range of products and help them in anything they select, I don't want to be bound by an agreement. The MySQL partnership doesn't suit my kind of business."

After MySQL was acquired by Sun Microsystems, there was a lot of speculation as to how this would affect the database company. An announcement, recently, that some plugins would be available only to users of the enterprise edition of MySQL - a decision that was reversed - did occasion some fears among the open source community that MySQL was changing.

Lentz doesn't see anything wrong with making plugins available only to enterprise users. "Sun didn't make the announcement, it was a MySQL announcement. From my sources, the people at Sun didn't know about it, it was a plan that had been developed at MySQL prior to the acquisition. A couple of enhancements of the backup systems in MySQL 6 were to be made available only to subscribers of MySQL Enterprise. That was the actual announcement, it was made at a partner meeting at the MySQL conference  so it wasn't a community audience, it was a business audience. Nevertheless, there are always community people listening, and the way in which those enhancements were explained wasn't brilliant, maybe it wasn't even made clear that they were just plugins, but then again one often has to simplify things for the sake of presentation. I don't think Sun was particularly pleased with the announcement. These plugins will now be made free but other plugins in the future may be made available only to enterprise users. It's a valid business decision. it would have also been a valid business decision not to have these particular plugins available free."

He says he would have probably respected MySQL more if the company had come out and said they were going to go ahead with this closed source bit - "it's just a plug-in, to hell with you and we'll just get on with it, it's a valid business decision."

All the money that is being thrown at anything with open source in its name these days reminds Lentz of the dot-com boom, though he doesn't necessarily think that the investments are all going to turn sour. "Just like the first dot-com boom a lot of money is being pushed into projects that aren't going to work out. But that's not necessarily different from any other investment. People make lots of investments and some of them work out and some of them don't - that's the risk they take.

"In some cases, I think people are getting a little silly about open source and with web 2.0-style things. Some ideas are good and may be useful in a larger context and maybe they could be monetised if they are implemented real quick. But just being popular and cool doesn't make something into a revenue stream or a business model. In many, many cases, I have no idea where the business is going to come from. Advertising - putting Google ads on your site - is not a business model. It is a revenue stream and won't last. It is tied to this critical mass that you have."

He is convinced, however, that depending on venture capital at the outset to launch such businesses is a mistake. "What I am worried about, is people having an idea and then chasing venture capital to be able to develop it further. I think that if they could make it ready and take it to market really quickly with minimal resources, they would be in a better position, both in terms of time and financially later on.  Once you take on venture capital, you spend a lot of time dealing with that, rather than getting the product ready. A venture capitalist wants to have insurance in terms of the intellectual property which means you are going to spend a lot of time -  not mucking around with software patents, but just to show the VC that you own this stuff and you can sell it later. It distracts you from getting to market quickly which is the key thing you have to do. It also affects the business trajectory - the venture capitalist wants X times the money, that's what they aim for, they have a timeframe, maybe five years, within which they want to get that much money.

"There are two ways of getting that much money - either by winning a big lottery (floating on the stock market) or getting bought out. You need huge growth in your sales, in your revenue, to get to that point. And it puts the focus more on revenue growth rather than actual product development. First, it distracts you from getting your product to market, then it focuses on sales. I don't think it will necessarily result in a better product. In many cases I don't think it's necessary at all. People are quite capable of developing a very good product and taking it to market without the infusion of lots of money. It distracts them from what the real issue is.

Lentz is of the view that Microsoft has made quite a good fist of the open source model of development. "They do quite a bit of open source stuff now and they are quite open in many respects. Open source is not just about the licence for the software, it's a whole development environment. It is giving developers access to code in a project early on and getting feedback to make for a better end product. Microsoft actually does this extremely well. I'm using Microsoft as an example because everybody uses them as an example of the company that does not do open source. But in terms of product development, they are actually highly successful. They interact with their customers extremely well."

The licence, he feels, does not always fully reflect the development model. "MySQL publishes a product under an open source licence, the GPL. But product development is done in a closed situation. You can grab sources but I'm not sure whether, at the moment, there are nightly snapshots which people can try. These snapshots may break - which sounds scary from a corporate perspective - but developers love things that break, that are new, that have interesting things to look at. And if it breaks, you can do a bug report and the report will find its way into the software in a couple of days instead of in a few months or half a year when you release a binary.

"In some cases, MySQL, for example, has produced new features, which, to put it bluntly, were rather badly designed. And if they had been put out there in a different way earlier, really accessible for people to try, such design problems would probably have been fixed up before they were too far along for people to actually change them. In that sense, Microsoft may be a better player at this aspect than MySQL."

He says that that is just a smart development mode, interacting with your ecosystem. "I don't care in that context whether it's open source or not. Microsoft has done a better job in this particular scenario. Overall, open source development is ideally suited to the rapid development cycle as it allows people to have a look at the code and, if they are able, to not merely provide bug reports but to even provide fixes. In the past MySQL has also benefitted from this. At the moment, they are not using this process very much, they have actually made it rather awkward and difficult to contribute back into MySQL. At the moment it is like a cathedral in a big bazaar, they are like a publishing company; they develop in-house and then publish. and then people can contribute.

"Now this may be playing with semantics but I don't want to contribute, I want to participate. And that is a fundamental difference. Open source is about participation, not contribution. It differs from project to project how this is managed and at the moment, in the case of MySQL, this has diminished over the last few years. As MySQL has been chasing more profits, it has lost some of the other aspects along the way. It has tried to streamline some aspects and lost some aspects of the open development cycle along the way. I think it's also lost some quality because of that. Of course, it can regain all it has lost but it needs to work on that."

Lentz says one does not need to be open source per se to produce good software. "However, having the code out there tends to produce better software because people, either in their spare time, or professionally, do look over it and just try to see how it works. Sometimes it works badly and that needs to be pointed out; potentially that makes for a better product but that only works if the feedback is then picked up. Just the fact that code is out there doesn't make it a better product."


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.