Today, Microsoft is announcing tha
t it’s releasing PowerShell, its immensely popular tool for automating and managing Windows servers at large scales, to open source, complete with a version for the free Linux operating system.
If you know Microsoft’s history, that’s a little surprising. As far back as Bill Gates’s “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in 1976, Microsoft has seen software as intellectual property and a commercial product to be sold. Linux, which uses the open source model by which anybody can view, modify, and contribute to the underlying source code, is the exact opposite of that model, and was considered a major threat to Microsoft Windows in the 1990s and 2000s.
The new approach reflects of Microsoft’s revamped priorities under CEO Satya Nadella, and an acknowledgment at how popular Linux has become in corporate data centres. Microsoft has to embrace Linux because that’s what customers want, and it’s done so across the company, even making its own version of Linux for a specialised purpose.
But there’s a new example that truly shows how far Microsoft has come: The company now has a VP of Enterprise Open Source.
Wim Coekaerts, a 21-year Oracle executive and longtime Linux community leader, is now the executive in charge of making sure that people know Microsoft is now more interested in friendship than technological imperialism.
“We want to show the world that we’re great players in the open source area,” Coekaerts says.
Earlier this year, Coekaerts met with Microsoft executives Scott Guthrie and Mike Neil in a Seattle-area Starbucks.
At the time, Coekaerts was leading development of the free, open source Linux operating system at Oracle — a role for which he been hand-picked by legendary Oracle founder Larry Ellison about ten years before. It made him a major player in the Linux world.
Meanwhile, Guthrie is the head of Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s increasingly important and revenue-driving cloud computing platform, with Neil as one of his top lieutenants. Despite Microsoft’s many moves around Linux and its associated tech in the last two years, the titan is still repairing its reputation in the open source world.
So when Coekaerts, Guthrie, and Neil talked over coffee, Coekaerts was surprised to find that they actually had a lot in common, including their love of open source. Combined with the realisation that he’d never really worked anywhere other than Oracle, he found himself receptive to what Microsoft was saying.
It resulted in a job offer: As of April 2016, Coekaerts, is officially Corporate VP of Enterprise Open Source at Microsoft, what he calls his “second career” after more than two decades at Oracle. And later in August, Coekaerts will be keynoting the LinuxCon mega-gathering of Linux fans worldwide, representing his new employer.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened,” Coekaerts says.
Being a good neighbour
Upon arrival to Microsoft, Coekaerts was most impressed with how much open source was being used at the company every day. It was literally his job at Oracle to know what the competition was doing with open source, and still he was caught by surprise.
“I lived in an open source world,” Coekaerts says. “If I’m not aware of it as a Linux person, I expect others won’t be, either.”
Beyond just big-name open source releases like the .NET Core programming frameworks and the Xamarin cross-platform development tools, Coekaerts says that Microsoft employees are constantly using and contributing open source code.
Now, his job is to spread the word and make sure that Microsoft stays a good citizen in the world of open source. In a technological sense, that means pushing Microsoft to embrace new open source technologies when and where they make sense, while giving back to those communities.
“We’re in the business of providing services and technology to customers,” Coekaerts says. If Microsoft’s customers want to use open source technologies like Docker and Mesosphere, which help developers manage servers and software at tremendous scales, it needs to be in the open source business, too.
Coekaerts says he has his work cut out for him around making sure everybody else sees what he now sees at Microsoft, but there’s still been some big progress. Before, it was difficult to attract open source talent to Microsoft, because of its legacy. But as the company opens up to change, talent is starting to come in with less coercion.
“We’ve started hiring open source developers,” Coekaerts says. “You don’t [have to] spend a lot of time bringing them to Microsoft.”
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