URL: http://www.wideopen.com/upside/853.html


Date: 5.3.2000
Writer: Sam Williams
Location: San Francisco

Open Source University Teaches Ways of the Web

Upshot: "We think that a lot of the ad hoc, nasty Perl code out there wouldn't have been written or would have been written in a beter way if people had access to this training."

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When MIT computer science professor Philip Greenspun founded ArsDigita Inc., an open-source software company specializing in the development of Web-based applications and utilities, he viewed it as a chance to get away from the intense environs of the MIT campus.

"There are so many other things I wanted to do," he says. "Even now, much of my time is spent figuring out how to hire other people to take over my current duties."

Nevertheless, as an instructor with his own highly developed attitudes and opinions about software development, it shouldn't be too surprising that Greenspun the CEO would share many similarities with Greenspun the professor. Sixteen months and more than 100 employees later, the company has emerged in Greenspun's image as a unique melange of open-source accessibility and ivory-tower elitism.

Looking back, Greenspun doesn't see how it could have turned out any other way.

"The software industry seems to attract a lot of people who don't have very much aptitude for it," Greenspun says. "We're just trying to lead by example. We want to do the best work that a group of MIT and Cal Tech nerds is capable of doing."

The line between academia and the open-source development community has long been a blurry one. During many epochs of late 20th Century the two cultures have become so overlapped as to be mutually indistinguishable.

Academic escapes
Still, tribal distinctions do exist. For all the talk about peer review, contributor lists and other analogs to the traditional scientific research process, the most successful open-source projects of the last decade -- Linux, Apache, Perl, etc. -- have flourished due, in large part, to a near-limitless supply of college dropouts and fizzled Ph.D. candidates.

Talk to leading open-source developers and you'll find that most became involved in their current projects as a way to escape the rules and rituals of academic life.

For the record, Greenspun doesn't gloss over the shortcomings of academic life, at least from a software developer's standpoint.

"In academia there definitely isn't much pressure to get the job done," he says. "It's more important to claim credit and write about it, so you can advance with the bureaucracy."

In fact, it was his own efforts to expand his horizons that led Greenspun to create ArsDigita in the first place. What began as a sideline hobby, amateur photography, eventually turned into photo.net, a community website averaging 1 million hits a day.

In the course of creating the site, Greenspun developed and fine-tuned many of the features that would become the nucleus of the ArsDigita Community System, the GPL (Gnu Public License)-compliant module of Internet utilities, site-management tools and enterprise applications marketed by ArsDigita.

While such development went on outside the confines of his MIT position, Greenspun says the tabula rasa nature of the Web medium motivated him to integrate it into his classroom work. By the end of 1998, he had put together an online book on Web development.

Development and design awards
Since then, ArsDigita has taken up the bulk of Greenspun's non-MIT activities. Officially the company is two entities, ArsDigita Corp., developer of an open-source platform for Web community-building tools, and ArsDigita Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers training and awards for best site design.

Last month, ArsDigita Foundation created a stir within the Web world by announcing the ArsDigita University, an online educational program that will give 30 prospective students a chance to complete a tuition-free version of the standard four-year MIT computer science curriculum in nine months.

Although the program isn't accredited and offers no degrees -- yet -- Greenspun sees it as a way to get traditional engineering principles out of the classroom and into the minds of as many Web developers as possible.

"We think that a lot of the ad hoc, nasty Perl code out there wouldn't have been written or would have been written in a better way if people had access to this training," Greenspun says.

While such comments might seem elitist, especially in an era in which software development is becoming more open to nontechnical individuals, Greenspun considers it more of a conservative view.

"We're not making any profound statements about what type of education a programmer ought to have," he says. "We are saying that the MIT-Stanford computer-science curriculum is the best foundation you can have for becoming a professional programmer, though."

To help drive home that fact, the ArsDigita side of the company has instituted its own educational qualifying exam. In order to work for the company, incoming programmers must first undergo two- and three-week "boot camps" offered in various geek meccas such as Cambridge, Berkeley and Pasadena, or prove their skills by solving a collection of online problem sets posted on the photo.net website.

Sample problem sets include building a family tree database, including photos and multiple security settings. While not the most difficult task for experienced Web masters, they do help separate the wheat from the chaff according to Michael Yoon, ArsDigita's chief technical officer.

"You have to do the problem set before we'll even talk to you," Yoon says.

Bring on the challenge ? and the check
Despite the fact that many most open-source programmers fell into their craft as a way to evade problem sets and classroom study, Yoon says many applicants welcome the challenge. The fact that those who clear the hurdle also earn an automatic $10,000 signing bonus doesn't hurt either. "We haven't had to use any recruiters yet, and we already have 90 engineers," he says.

Again, despite the elitist overtones, Greenspun sees the application barrier as an objective tool. In addition to weeding out the slackers, it gives programmers who might not possess the necessary degree a chance to prove their skills -- a hacker civil-service exam, if you will.

Greenspun needs to look no further than his own CTO. Yoon, a former Harvard English Literature major, says he didn't begin coding intensely until after college when he worked a succession of consulting and software design jobs.

"At the time, the company had only six people," Yoon says. "When I found the problem set, I went off and did the problems on my own. It wasn't that hard if you've done any significant type of Web programming. At the same time, it's hard enough that you feel like all the people who work for the company are capable of a certain level of proficiency."

"We're not taking poets and turning them into programmers," Greenspun says. "We're taking people who have done an extensive amount of programming and turning them into Web developers. We'll use the university as the place to turn the poets into computer scientists."

The first step
With a limited budget, $1 million, and a limited class size, the university's goals are well-defined. Rather than turn it into some missionary school, spreading the MIT-design gospel to the great unwashed mass of amateur developers, Greenspun prefers to see it as one of many steps. Whether other institutions and companies will follow the ArsDigita lead remains to be seen.

"Reforming the whole world of software engineering is too big of a challenge," he says. "We can set some standards, but even then we can only have so much say in whether those standards survive."

At the same time, Greenspun says, his company refuses to "imprison" its knowledge. Going back to his earlier complaint -- too little time and not enough talent -- Greenspun, who recently passed the ArsDigita CEO title on to Allen Shaheen, co-founder of Cambridge Technology Partners, sees education as the best way to free up more time for both himself and his company.

"Like I said, I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to spend all my time," he says. "I want other people to carry on with the education effort, but if that means I have to stick around and give it a push, I can do that."
 

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