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Community Spotlight: Alex Porcelli, Guru of Open Source

By DAVID Jenness posted Fri March 17, 2023 10:15 AM

Alex Porcelli

Alex Porcelli is the Chief Architect for Business Automation Manager Open Edition, often referred to as BAMOE. While the IBM Business Automation portfolio deploys Open Source point solutions in its products, BAMOE is the first completely open source product. It encompasses both Decision Management and Workflow capabilities, which are often intertwined in automation applications. Alex is a self-taught engineer, having started programming at 8 years old in his home city of Sao Paolo, Brazil. He ran his consulting company in the 1990s and 2000s, from writing COBOL and working on Y2K to building e-commerce and delivering high-performing enterprise solutions, among other projects, leading to a great reputation in Brazil. After prolonged engaging interactions with the Drools community, Alex started contributing to the Open Source Community in 2007/2008. Eventually, his work caught the eye of Red Hat Platform Architect Mark Proctor, who invited him to join the team.

Q:   When did you join Red Hat and what were the circumstances?

Alex: About 15 years ago. I was already involved with the Red Hat Community, but when I got involved in the Drools project, that's where I got very deep and led me to a full-time position as a Red Hat engineer working on the technology, which is now behind BAMOE.  Once I started contributing to Open Source, I saw that the world was not limited to just my peers in the companies that I was working for; now I had access to people around the globe and this was fundamental to increasing my technology capacity. I’ve had the privilege of working with the best minds in the industry in the Open Source community and that's why I'm very much connected to Open Source world. Because it's a land of opportunity.

Q: What was the project you worked on?

Alex: It was a new parser for the Drools language compiler, using the more modern technology for parsing. I had been contributing for several years to Community projects, but this was the tipping point that helped me decide to join the company. It was interesting, because the Red Hat team at that time had been trying to hire me for a few years. I was running my consulting business and I said, “No Thanks. I'm happy. I don't want all the meetings.” But after five years of being asked, I said, “Well, maybe.”  Mark Proctor, the Drools co-founder, said, “What’s the catch? Why now?” My wife and I wanted to move to the U.S. and see what it’s like. So I said, “Mark, the catch is you relocate me.” We came to an agreement and decided to try living here for three years. Now we are permanent US residents. 

Q: The Open Source world is different from the established Enterprise Software development methodology of IBM.  How is the transition to IBM going?

Alex: Actually, if you look at the numbers, IBM is in the top ranking as an Open Source contributor, like number six in the world and probably higher, because a lot of developers use their private email. Which means that IBM as a company is really well established in the Open Source space. What’s new here is that BAMOE is a product that's fully developed in Open Source.  I think what we bring is a new, different way to think about developing software.

Q: How does it change how we think about developing software?

Alex: It's important to understand that Open Source is more than a way to make source code available. That's the easy part. You get the code and publish it on Github. But it's almost impossible to just publish code and get traction. You need to nurture a community and this community takes a lot of investment from everybody involved. That's what I’ve been doing for the KIE Community over the last fifteen years. It was established about eighteen years ago. First, it is a very transparency environment. You communicate with your users openly, and you have the source code always available to prove you wrong or right.  You have this very transparent relationship with your users in your community. When I joined, there were maybe seven or eight contributors and today we are talking about more than 100 contributors from all over the world. The most efficient way that the community communicates best is through mailing lists.  You send an email asking a question and someone somewhere in the world will reply in this Community, giving inputs or feedback or sharing knowledge.

Q; What’s an example of a question you might ask?

Alex: For example, I might send a question asking for feedback about a feature that we just posted. That's the best value that you have from the community: the feedback loop is the biggest difference in the approach of the traditional enterprise.  We’ll do releases every three weeks and someone will try it and you give you feedback. Sometimes the feedback is “that's great.” But we actually learn more when someone raises an issue. Maybe we missed something or we didn't educate enough about what we were trying to accomplish, but collecting all this information makes our work more interesting, because we are republishing all the time.

Q: This sounds like crowd sourcing at a high level, but doesn’t it lead to some sticky situations?  Do you get paid for making contributions to Open Source software? 

Alex: First of all, in this Community, we are talking about a Project, not a Product.  The Kie Community is not owned by Red Hat nor IBM. It’s a community of engineers who are working on solving problems. I think this is an amazing thing. That's what engineers do. They see a problem and they want to fix it. The open and transparent Community offers resources to all its members. They might offer feedback on a release one week and, in turn, ask for feedback on a particular implementation of theirs the next. This was how I got into the Open Source. There was a discussion about the Drools parser; about particular parts of the language. I joined that mailing list and told them, “What you have sucks.” Then we started to interact. They said, “Well, what could you do better?” I said, “You need to remove this piece of code and start over.” And we got to a point where Mark said, “Why don't you do that?”  So I took the challenge and wrote new code and it worked better. And eventually it led to me getting a job with Red Hat.

Q:  So what’s the difference between a Project and a Product?

Alex: That's a good question. The difference between a project and a product is, first, a project is only on the Community. Drools is a good example. There's so many users of Drools Projects out there and that’s the Community. But a product is the enterprise version of that software, a specific numbered release with all the security and performance that customers need built in, tested, and approved. It has been hardened by the company behind it, and the company has the knowledge behind it to establish bug fixing on your timeline, because you have an SLA when you bought the product. But a project in the Community is where you test new ideas. You don't provide any guarantee that it will work. It’s just a place to collect feedback. Give It a try. See what happens and come back to us to ask questions. That's the difference. And that's a big difference. 

Q: So will you release a new version of BAMOE every three weeks?  Won’t that put pressure on customers to always be migrating?

Alex: We have established a well-defined cadence of releases, in the case of BAMOE, a new release every quarter. First, in every release we bring new fixes, heightened security, and all the things that you need in the fast-paced IT world. But we also bring new features and we keep moving forward. In Red Hat we always brought our customers with us to the most recent versions, now in IBM I don’t expect any difference. But to make this possible you have to have a combination of 1. a time box release, because every quarter you have to do fixes, security updates and new functionality. But also 2. It doesn’t put pressure on the customer. It puts pressure on us to release new software that doesn’t impact any other part of their business. This is why it’s important to have this cadence and this model, so we all just move forward. 

Q: What are your thoughts and hopes for the future with BAMOE as part of IBM? 

Alex: Wow, I've been leading the transition to IBM since the early days when the acquisition was first announced. I was super excited because I’ve followed what IBM was doing in the Business Automation space. And to me, this opportunity to bring the team and the technology to IBM was huge, because IBM understands Business Automation. So what I see is that together, IBM and BAMOE now brings customers Open Source technology. We can establish a new generation of Business Automation technology that is a mix of Open Source and proprietary software and bring the best of both worlds. IBM has been doing an amazing job and there’s so much we can leverage; there’s so much potential, and here I am to make it happen to, to bring together Open Source technology, Business Automation, and AI. What excites me most is how will change the landscape. 

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