The world's most popular open source database
Lenz Grimmer is a member of the MySQL Community Relations team at Sun Microsystems. He lives in Hamburg, Germany and has worked for MySQL since April, 2002. Before joining the Community Team in December 2005, he was a member of the release engineering team that is in charge of creating the official release builds of the MySQL server.
Hello Masood, thank you very much for allowing me to ask you some questions, I appreciate it!
Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself? What is your personal background and where are you located?
Masood: I started at Sun as a senior staff engineer with the Java EE Development and Architecture teams. I worked on continuous availability issues and developed mobile telecom services application environments while with the Java Software Group. Some of this work was digested by equipment providers we worked with. Other parts of the work later led to Project Shoal and some to SailFin (although I cannot claim to have participated beyond the early conceptual stages of these last two Sun products — a lot of other capable people at Sun did continue with the work and brought it to fruition.)
In recent years I've managed a team of senior database engineers working on Apache Derby, PostgreSQL and now MySQL. These brilliant engineers contribute to open-source database communities as far apart as Apache Derby (Java DB), PostgreSQL and MySQL, not to mention PHP and more.
I've also worked at Sun as a high-performance and high-availability expert and filed several SMI patents in these areas. I've been involved in carrier-grade J2EE investigations and HPC (High Performance Computing) and HA (High Availability) studies with Sun technology partners in the telecommunications and financial services industries.
And, yes, I'm located in the Silicon Valley, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I usually work form Sun's Menlo Park campus.
So it seems you have seen many different areas of Sun already — what did you do before joining Sun?
Before joining Sun, I worked as a chief architect and an investigator on DARPA-funded projects with a focus on distributed intelligent computing.
As a university student, I did a B.S. (UC San Diego) in applied engineering sciences and a M.S. (UC Davis) in chemical engineering. I received my Ph.D. in Computational Fluid Dynamics under a dissertation titled, "Vortex-Vortex Interactions and Probability Density Function Methods" (UC Davis, 1990). The idea was to model chaos and turbulence using hierarchies of interacting partial differential equations governing fancy probability distribution functions and to solve these equations using heuristics, computers and stochastic methods, and then to validate them all using other direct numerical simulation techniques. Some of the work was done at Stanford, some at NASA-Ames and some at Livermore and UC Davis. After receiving my doctorate, I next worked for China's National Petroleum Company in a very small remote town (named Anda) in China's northeastern province of Heilongjiang, where I taught computational techniques for plant design and helped along with some strategic planning.
The year in China was amazing. I spent the full year reading, teaching, hiking through the countryside, meeting people and traveling.
In the fall, in our little town, farmers would dry vast piles of maze, stretching for miles, in the middle of the main road outside my hotel window. In some winter weeks, in -25 to -30 degree freeze, I remember my beard would freeze, and outside my hotel window, I could watch farmers carrying away slabs of frozen urine from public outhouses for their spring-time fertilization pits. This is some years ago. I'm sure things have changed quite a bit, but I feel nostalgic about the whole place and its amazing, living sights.
After Heilongjiang, China, I returned to the academia and spent seven more years at UC Berkeley where I finished a Master's in Journalism in 1993. I took the 1993-94 academic year off to spend time with my wife and first-born daughter and to visit with my parents in Tehran, during which time I also taught some courses on analysis and design.
When I joined Sun in 1999, I officially left Berkeley but then returned (in 2001, mostly in the evenings) to complete an MBA. During my first phase at Berkeley (1989 - 1999), my academic interests had led me to pursue a second Ph.D. in the Graduate Group in Logic and Methodology of Science (Math, Philosophy and Computer Science), with a focus on the foundations of mathematics, theories of computation, and philosophy, in general. (Of course, I decided to stop my second Ph.D. work soon after joining Sun. There were enough thrilling things to do at work.)
Late during my first stint at Berkeley, I was honored to study philosophy of artificial intelligence with Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus is the author of What Computers Still Can't Do. During the second stint, while with the Haas MBA program, I was privileged to have a chance to spend a full-semester studying with Oliver Williamson, the great Transaction Cost Economist, and the famous author of The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, a great book for those who want to learn about the economics of firms and organizations. Both Dreyfus and Williamson were amazing academic mentors. I only wish I could have spent more time with them.
This is a very long answer but I do not get to reminisce that often and I hope your readers will find at least something useful in these reminiscences.
I certainly found this a very interesting story! Thanks for sharing
it with us. I am always amazed about what you can learn about fellow colleagues
by performing such interviews...
So how and when did you join the Sun Database Group which the MySQL Group belongs to nowadays?
Masood: I started working with Sun's database group in 2004-2005. I had originally volunteered to run a Telecom group at Sun. The senior director of the database group had other ideas for me. He wanted me to run a small group of database engineers based in the Bay Area and to add some senior engineers who could work on Apache Derby and, later, on PostgreSQL.
After the acquisition of MySQL, and along with the rest of Sun's original database technology group, we all joined the MySQL organization to form the larger Sun Database Group.
Yes, the team working on MySQL grew quite considerably after we got acquired! What team are you in and what is your role? What tasks are you responsible for?
Masood: I have the good fortune of being a member of multiple teams, as it is common in our organization.
Furthermore, within our group, teams are formed continuously to accomplish specific tasks, and then, they dissolve. There is a great force of creativity behind all this.
So, it is hard to answer the first question in any simple way, but I'll try.
I'm a member of Mårten Mickos' management team and Jeffrey Pugh's MySQL engineering team. I'm also a member of MySQL's extended management team which brings together a large group of managers from various disciplines and functions in Sun's Database Group. I have led the PostgreSQL and Java DB engineering and business teams, and still overlook the Java DB teams. (Java DB is Sun's distribution of Apache Derby.) More recently, I've also been put in charge of MySQL Dev Tools groups, which consists of the GUI tools group (MySQL Workbench being the flagship product there), the Connectors group and the Docs group. I also frequently collaborate with the marketing and sales teams — either thinking about product strategy or giving talks on products to customers and visitors.
Finally, I'm collaborating with a large number of MySQL-ers, organizing a project that seeks to make MySQL development processes contributor friendly and even more open than they already are today.
Very exciting, I am glad to hear that we're working on ways to improve our relationship with the developer community and making it easier to work with us. I assume this project involves working with many MySQLers that do work from different places all across the globe. How does it feel like working for a virtual organization? Do you see any advantages or disadvantages in this working environment?
Masood: Working globally, in a virtual organization is not new to me.
I used to work globally in the late 1990s and ran a couple of projects with Siemens and Ericsson back in 2000 - 2002 time period, with work focused in Santa Clara, Stockholm and Berlin. It was wonderful work and I loved visiting my Siemens and Ericsson colleagues in Stockholm and Berlin. These are two amazing European capitals. At one point, while on vacation and staying at my brother's apartment in Berlin, I almost convinced my wife that we should buy a house in Potsdam. (Perhaps, I should have insisted harder.)
You probably should have — Potsdam is a beautiful place :)
Who knows — maybe I'll have a second chance!
I also represented Sun in an international standardization body called the "Open Mobile Alliance" leading some of the working groups there between 2002 and 2004. OMA was a mostly virtual organization although we did meet in-person every three months or so. It was truly an amazing standardization body. In the midst of technical collegiality, people demonstrated how they could play politics. OMA proved to be an amazing organization when it came to the distribution of participants from across time zones, companies, industries and concerns. It was a great battleground for business models, technologies and standards for mobile services.
A year later, because Sun's center of database excellence was based in Trondheim, Norway (prior to the MySQL acquisition), I used to travel quite frequently to Norway and work across time zones with my colleagues there. It has really been an honor and a privilege to work in such an environment, the best part of it being the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing colleagues and friends. Our virtual teams certainly had their ups and downs.
However, I think the MySQL organization comes closest to the model of an effective, global virtual organization when considering everything else I've seen.
Sun is primarily a well-coordinated but still distributed operating company. MySQL may be as distributed as Sun but acts more like a whole than the rest of Sun.
This is a cultural issue, and it is embedded in the original DNA of MySQL, which was created as a company, really, after the rise of the Web. Sun was created as a company prior to the rise of the Web but in anticipation of it, and it melded with the Web because of having anticipated it well. So, there are important cultural differences there.
True, and it's much different when growing as a virtual organization
vs. changing an existing company structure to this new way of working.
Speaking of working, what does your personal workplace look like? What do you see when you look out the window?
Masood: When I work in Sun's Menlo Park campus, I see the internal open-space corridor that runs between the campus buildings. This corridor is really a long well-groomed garden that runs in the inside shell of the campus. My current office is right above Sun's Executive Briefing Center, which is a superb complex of demonstrations and meeting rooms for Sun's customers. They have a chance to come in and learn about Sun's technologies and product offerings.
If I'm lucky, on Tuesdays and Fridays, I can join a few others in the Menlo Park campus for a game of soccer.
When working form home, I don't see much of outside. I face the blinds in my office, located in the smallest room in the house. The blinds are usually shut although the window behind them might be open to allow some fresh air. It is a bit crowded. I'm surrounded with bookshelves next to the walls to my right and to my left and behind me. (I should probably put them in boxes and move them to the garage.) I face an iMac on a small table and my back is to the door. When I want to rest, I get up and walk around the block in my neighborhood.
Thanks for telling us about what your workplace looks like. Now could you please tell us a bit more about your work as well? What are you currently working on?
Masood: I work as a manager, and the work of a manager is varied. We can hardly focus on anything at one time. So, before you publish my answer to your question regarding what I'm doing currently, what I'm doing currently has probably changed already...
In some ways, we fill all the organizational and administrative gaps that exist and are inevitable when people come together to collaborate on a mission. We worry about the organization's well-being, survival and growth, by way of which our shareholders' investment should also grow. We are managers in a production house not a trading house. In a trading house, minimal administration is combined with maximal capital. In a production house, more administration is needed to coordinate and direct people and production processes. It may be harder work for lesser pay but it is what drives the economy.
So, as a manager, that's what I do.
If I wanted to be more specific, I would say my managerial focus over the last few years has been to work with people who develop open-source products and volume technologies.
Have you been involved in the creation of the MySQL 5.1 release? How did you contribute to it?
Masood: Not really. As a member of the management team, I was fortunate enough to observe it as MySQL 5.1 release was being prepared. I was keen on learning more about some of the features and some of the development processes and have had the very good luck to discuss them with some of the key engineers, most of whom are now contributing to future versions of the MySQL server.
The acquisition occurred during the time of 5.1's last preparation stages, and my main mandates were to keep track of our Java DB and PostgreSQL investments.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Masood: The people I work with.
What do you do outside working hours?
Masood: When I first met Monty Widenius during the acquisition process, he asked me what my hobbies were. I was embarrassed not to have an immediate answer: "family"? "gardening"? "work"? Yes, I have to admit that I enjoy working. However, if I have any free time, and depending on the amount of free time I have, I would read a book, play soccer, ride a bicycle, ski, take a vacation, visit family (I have family in Iran, Turkey and Germany).
So visiting family seems to be challenging task! How has your job changed since MySQL joined Sun?
Masood: There were ups and downs. The first challenge was to understand the operating procedures, the tempo, the velocity and the vocabulary of managerial conversation at MySQL. These were different from the ones used at Sun. The second, more enjoyable challenge, was to learn about the operating principals of the MySQL business. Finally, the most enjoyable part of it all was to meet and learn about the MySQL people, the vast majority of whom are truly passionate people about what they do. I should add that I've also been privileged to work with Mårten Mickos, MySQL CEO and now Sun's Senior VP of databases. His managerial philosophy has come closest to the one I can espouse and work with throughout my years since I left pure academic work in 1995.
How do you see your work on improving code contributions changing the future of MySQL? What are your future plans with regards to your work?
Masood: MySQL is one of those key technologies of the Web era. MySQL has made millions of people rich and thousands of people very, very rich. It is one of the major functional engines of the web economy.
Thanks to the initial wisdom of David Axmark and Monty Widenius, it is open-source. People can take it and do things with it, and they have. It is a commercial product. Companies can rely on its dependability and develop other products and services around it.
It has been surrounded with the cultural ethos of open-source, community and the long-tail of value networks. Many, many, many businesses rely on MySQL for their mission critical applications.
Given all these attributes, and the fact that of the top 5 world-class databases, MySQL is the only one much of whose development is already in full view of the public, it is a challenge to make it even more open and contributor friendly. So, when we say we want to make it more open and contributor-friendly, in some sense we are only comparing MySQL to itself and setting its own goals embedded in its own history.
For example, there are several principles when it comes to open development:
In measuring MySQL against itself, we want to reexamine how each of these principles and practices are operating within MySQL and draw up a proposal regarding how they can be improved.
In order to do all this, we need to move from existing knowledge, existing systems and existing participants and expert contributors, most of whom are in the employ of Sun Microsystems Inc.
The trick is to find an evolutionary path, where we can figure out how to redraw the map for navigating what it means to do open development, how to have a solid business around it, how to make ourselves and others prosper, and do all this while getting ourselves to a revolutionary place. I believe this is possible, and I'm sure the MySQL team has the capacity and the will to pull it off.
I share your optimism and I am looking forward to the outcome of this
Thank you very much for the detailed answers to my questions, Masood, it's appreciated.
This interview was performed in December, 2008