Linux for Suits - An Interview with J.P. Rangaswami

The world's best suit rolls up new sleeves.

J.P. Rangaswami won't be defending his title as CIO of the Year, because that's no longer his job at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, one of the world's leading investment banks. But he still works there—harder than ever, from what I could tell when I ran into him at the latest Reboot conference in Copenhagen. (He lives in the UK, when he isn't traveling the world, looking for ways to reconcile the leading edge with sturdy infrastructure.)

At Reboot, J.P. gave a knockout keynote address, in which he volleyed back a number of ideas I have also been lobbing over the Net and here in Linux Journal. As always, he enlarged those ideas considerably, while adding many new ones of his own. Here are a few:

People are not assembly-line things. What makes us different is that we are different. And to try to create standardized norms of us is where evil starts stepping into organizations. It's building hospitals where you centralize ill people. Very clever, right? Why would people do that? You know many people die of exposure to illness while they are ill? The last place you want to spend any time is in a central hospital. That place is a production of industrial thought, not human thought....

This capacity to bond was denied us because of the divide-and-conquer garbage that we were exposed to, probably for the last four or five hundred years—and made a lot more sophisticated through the any-color-you-want-as-long-as-it's-black assembly-line-production-factory approach to humanity. And it doesn't scale. It doesn't work....

If you go to many Eastern countries, identity is not about who I am, because the I is very unusual. Identity is about what I belong to. Identity is a statement of the community that I belong to. Identity is a statement of things that I will associate with me, that empower me as a result of belonging to something....

There are many things you can use identity for. But if you understand that even a passport, three hundred or four hundred years ago, used to say, “I know this person. Will you please look out for him.” Not, “These are his permissions and these are the things he can do and this is what he needs a visa for.” None of that stuff. It was elective to say, “Since I know you and I know this person, look after this guy. He's a good guy.” It was a trusted domain-type statement. And then also to say, “If he needs anything, if he's ill, if he needs some food, if he needs shelter, help him out.” That's what the passport used to be. Look what it's become. And we've allowed this to happen. We've allowed things to be taken away from us, rather than saying, “Let's build new things.” I only want us to get back what we had....

The first death is device lock-in....Can you imagine me telling people, “You cannot use your own pen”? Or, “You can't use your own voice.”

Afterwards, I thought it would be fun to continue the volley in the form of an interview. Here it is.

Doc: Are (or were) there any other CIOs like you? Meaning, ones that embrace open source, DIY-IT, re-usability and disruptions you know are going to be more constructive and stable in the long run than the technologies being disrupted?

JP: I think there are many others, but I had some advantages. One, given our size and shape, innovation was an imperative rather than a nice-to-have. Two, we have some very talented people working in IT at DrKW. Three, we had management commitment and buy-in, which also goes a long way. So, it was easier for me to do this than for many of my peers. Other CIOs that come to mind are Al-Noor Ramji at BT (who, incidentally, hired me at DrKW!), Tom Sanzone at Credit Suisse and David Yu at Betfair. David is now the CEO at Betfair, which is going some.

Doc: You are widely regarded as the best CIO in the world (and have won awards for that). Yet you moved on to another job at DrKW. How come? And what does that say for the CIO job in general?

JP: Well, I'd done five long years, and I needed a fresh challenge. My lifeblood is in innovation, so it made sense for me to join our Digital Markets operation—a bunch of very tech-literate and tech-friendly people, who have done wonders in actually using Web 2.0 tools rather than talking about them.

Doc: What is your new job and what is it about?

JP: I'm the Head of Alternative Market Models in our Digital Markets unit. Simply put, my role is to take our learning in Web 2.0 from the enterprise to our customer base. There's a high involvement in technology as a result, so I can continue to work with my erstwhile colleagues. And it's refreshing.

Doc: What are less-recognized but important trends you see happening with (or coming from) open source? Or with Linux in particular, since we center our focus on that platform?

JP: I see three things against a common background.

First, the background. People have finally come to grips with the fact that open source is about commoditized infrastructure and not about communism. In fact, open source is more secure than proprietary architectures, and that really helps us take advantage of Moore and Metcalfe effects. It helps us get away from the traditional full-of-holes and insecure arguments and gives us a sound business basis for doing it.

One is a shift in scope and breadth: Linux is about ecosystems and not vertical stacks, which changes the way we manage our portfolio.

Two is a shift in time: beta now means live. We have learned to bring iteration into our processes—something that we needed to discover was the value of democratized innovation.

Three is a shift in workforce location: adoption of Linux and open-source principles really helps us work better with a geographically dispersed workforce; Linux is ubiquitous, it engenders faster and cheaper localization and is easier to support on a global basis than any proprietary architecture.

By the way, I'm also intrigued by where NAND RAM is going, Robson and so forth, and watching very carefully what that means for us in years to come.

Doc: You've talked about technologies or practices that you consider dead or terminal. DRM, for example. Device lock-in. Yet, major vendors such as Apple, in spite of their embracing of open source, remain very committed to both DRM and device lock-in. The iPod, while a brilliant technological and marketing achievement, may now be the world's largest and most successful silo, combining both DRM and device lock-in. Is there any hope that these companies will get clues from leaders on the customer side like yourself?

JP: As people recognize the sheer cost and inefficiency of DRM and device lock-in, I think this will change. Right now, everyone's used to levels of lock-in at the device, but as I said at Reboot, things are changing. Generation M will resist and the market will drive vendor behavior. Generation M is predisposed against lock-in, unlike our generation. And things will change. Like the phone example. First, you rent a black phone from the phone company; then you buy a color phone, but only from the phone company; then you buy any phone from anywhere. If iPod and iTunes want to emulate Polaroid, that's their call, but I have faith that they will see the light. And it won't take 100 years like with the phone companies. It will take maybe three years.

When generation M goes to work, those people will have their pens and their computers and their phones and their cameras. Not company-issued ones. And we have a job to do to pave the way for them, which is where identity and authentication and permissioning and walled-garden arguments begin and end.

Doc: I've talked and written about the “because of” principle, which says you make more money because of infrastructure (such as the Net, Linux and the LAMP stack) than you do with infrastructure. I discovered that principle by following open-source development, by the way. You recently responded on your blog (confusedofcalcutta.com/2006/06/09/four-pillars-because-of-rather-than-with-a-very-provisional-post), framing the “because of” principle in terms of chronology. For example, you say companies shift over time from “with” to “because” strategies. So here are two observations I'd like to get your thoughts on.

First, there are lots of “because” companies that seem unaware of that fact. The infrastructural code they use is just cheap or free building material. The big Web-based companies, from Amazon to Google to Yahoo to Akamai, are “because of” companies. They make money because of Linux and Apache, not with those things.

JP: Yes. “Because of” companies tend to avoid understanding what they are largely as a result of misconceptions: “Because” doesn't have buzz, “because” doesn't have innovation and so on. “Because” has a bad name. In the UK we have a phrase: “Where there's muck there's brass”, which roughly translates to, “There's money to be made in cleaning things up, in providing basic services.”

Open source is all about commodity and infrastructure, so we understand that. I think you will find that Warren Buffett invests primarily in “Because” companies. Someone should do research on the split between “because” and “with” in Berkshire Hathaway's portfolio.

Follow the money. “Because” companies will make money because “with” companies need them. “Because” is actually lower risk, smooths out kinks, creates annuity returns. “Because” is safe. It just takes time for us to understand that.

As you say, many of today's technology leaders would not exist if it weren't for “because” companies. I don't see Linux or Apache screaming like the telcos for their share of the dough; nor do I see FedEx or Wal-Mart scream. There is good money in “because”.

I also think that there is no such thing as a “because” vacuum. If no one invests in a “because” space, and people are scared of the upfront investment, then the “because” community will innovate to find a new way. That's what happened to fixed-line and mobile in the developing world.

This year, even before he took up his new job at DrKW, J.P. took up blogging. You'll find his posts—often long, always thoughtful—at confusedofcalcutta.com.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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Al-Noor Ramji - another view

Anonymous's picture

Al-Noor Ramji is a showman and a charlatan. He stuffed BT with cronies who owe their careers to him. Most of the IT development work has been shipped offshore. Soon TCS and Infosys will have a nice neckhold on BT. Worst of all, his methods aren't actually any good. Agile isn't relevant to a corporation whose IT workload is mostly systems integration and process design. Al-Noor Ramji was sacked by Qwest with a job title of Technical Adviser. His top priority has been to make himself unsackable at BT.

Al-Noor's vision is to peddle the nonsense that the world is going faster and faster, and only one man can save us from the dizzying pace of change - Al-Noor Ramji.

What are talking about...?

TGS's picture

What on earth are you waffling on about?

I couldn't really care what your personally feelings are towards Al-noor Ramji; however - you've completely undermined any logical argument by slating Agile development processes. They're not a 100% fit for everything, but you get better results than the stacks of powerpoints, visios & pdf files that you're undoubtedly familiar with & obviously use to hide behind when the work needs to get done!!!

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