Online Extra: The Bad Boy of Open Source

Marc Fleury talks about why he's vilified in certain software circles, and whether he's really putting JBoss on the block

Microsoft (MSFT ) Chairman Bill Gates may be the most hated man in open-source software circles, but Marc Fleury could come in a close second. As chief executive of JBoss, a company that makes so-called middleware software, which connects disparate programs, Fleury is a pioneer in spawning viable businesses from free software. But he's also alleged to be abrasive, paranoid, controlling, and a credit hog.

Still, whether Fleury's critics want to admit it or not, JBoss is a formidable force. The small company has distinguished itself as a leader in the open-source movement, which is steadily spreading from the popular Linux operating system to include open-source alternatives to nearly every tool companies use to run their businesses. The success of open-source companies like Red Hat (RHAT ), MySQL, and JBoss has made big software companies rethink their businesses, and has spurred the creation of dozens of me-too startups hoping to cash in on the trend.

But it hasn't made Fleury many friends. He chalks that up to jealousy -- and critics could get even more jealous if rumors about his buying JBoss end up up a reality. Oracle (ORCL ) and JBoss were very close to a deal in February and sources say other companies like Red Hat and Novell (NOVL ) have also been taking a look at the company. Fleury talked to BusinessWeek Online reporter Sarah Lacy about life as the bad boy of open source, and the widely held contention that he's shopping his company around. Following are edited excerpts of the conversation.

You're a very outspoken, blunt guy and I hear that radiates through the culture at JBoss, and people are known and encouraged to speak their minds.

That used to be so almost to a fault. We're a small company and not necessarily liked by the industry -- be it the open-source developers that don't make money and are jealous, or guys who make a lot of money and we jeopardize. We come under a lot of attack. The environment is stressful.

The second point is that no one has written an MBA book about how to manage an open-source company. You have to evolve rapidly. Because we were born on the Net, as a company and a culture, ideas tend to flow very rapidly. You have to stay on top of what are good ideas. This week I got pissed off at one of my developers because he was being irresponsible by just throwing out extreme ideas, because it doesn't cost him. He doesn't recognize it puts stress on collective opinion-forming. I said, "Everyone has a voice -- if you want to keep it that way, use it wisely."

Why is JBoss so hated? If a lot of it is jealousy or companies feeling threatened by you, why doesn't MySQL, also a successful, growing open-source company, get that?

It's true, although if you dig in MySQL you'll find some of the same violent opinions. We've broken a few urban legends and myths: The myth of the free developer, that free software equals free developer. It's not true. This software is created by humans -- and very talented ones. These guys chose to write open-source software.

Back in 2001, I was desperate to make a living, and no one was paying for that. I am very proud to provide the best place to work for 60 developers and 30 absolute superstars, but that doesn't go without breaking eggs. When you make money and you talk about money, you're going to have some violent opinions thrown back to you. Linux was cute, because they have a penguin for a mascot. I don't make a very good mascot. If we had a possum, we wouldn't have any problem. From the get-go we did not expect anything except pure hate from these players, and that's what we get.

Does it matter to you personally?

Ultimately the customer settles the score, but on a personal level, how do I react to it? I was a little taken aback. I always felt I was on the right path and the right mission and felt right about it, almost in a karmic way. And so at first I didn't understand -- why do I get this back from a minority? I continue to rationalize it. The downloads are strong, the business is booming, and this is just the tyranny of opinionated minority. Really what it results in is I disassociate Marc Fleury the face of JBoss from the guy who runs the company. I'm fine with the dichotomy.

At a company level, is any publicity good? Yes and no. We've been smart, shrewd, aggressive and in-your-face. We're growing in spite of the rest of the industry trying to kill us from Day 1. That bad boy image actually gave us a lot of traction in the beginning.

Many, many people in the investment banking and software industries say you are actively shopping the company. Is that true?

It is absolutely not true. I have not been on a for-sale path. It is not my ambition. That being said, as a hot startup, you always have people knocking on your door. Make no mistake about flow of inquiries: It's incoming, not outgoing. We have been approached throughout our history -- that's the nature of every successful startup.

But have you entered serious negotiations?

I'm the chairman of the company, and that to me means two things. One is legal, and one is personal, and they are not incompatible. My fiduciary duty is to maximize value for shareholders. I do take that personally. The second concept goes back to my first time writing JBoss. I had energy you wouldn't believe. To think I would just want a payday now, when I had that passion and was working for free in the beginning. My wife was pregnant with our first kid, and I was writing free software. So make no mistake about my allegiances or passion.

We talk about the freedom of software and are making a living at it, too, but our integrity and allegiance lies with the business of open source. That said, it is my fiduciary duty to look at every approach. Everything I judge is in terms of what's good for the company, and it goes through that filter.

What do you say to people who claim you are trying to flip the company and go sit on a beach somewhere?

To be brutally honest, one of the conditions to me selling to anyone is we remain whole and I remain the boss. In the event that there were any truth to the rumors, I would have fought tooth and nail to stay. I am in fact deathly afraid of being removed from JBoss. I was afraid of bringing [venture capitalist] David Skok in, to the point of legal paranoia. I have a bulldog of a lawyer who understands exactly how I feel and think about this. I have been burned in the past by not having control and I don't want to repeat that ever in my life. I'm the glue to this company on many levels. If I leave this company, it won't be the same.

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