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Hacking with Nat Friedman

By   |  May 22, 2006

“Want to see a really cool hack?” Nat Friedman asks me. He flips his IBM X60 Thinkpad onto its side and the image on the screen turns horizontal. Then he drops to the command line, changes some esoteric settings, goes back into Gnome, and tilts his machine. The foreground window starts sliding in the direction he tilts it. He changes the angle and the window responds, sliding up, down, left and right as he spins and turns his laptop.

Friedman is the quintessential Linux hacker. He’s been cranking out code for most of his 28 years, and takes the hacking ethos further, integrating it with business and life. His philosophy seems to have paid dividends – at 25, Friedman and Miguel de Icaza’s open source start-up, Ximian, was purchased by Novell for an undisclosed amount, and Friedman became a vice president just days before his 26th birthday.

The path to success all started on an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server while Friedman was studying computer science at MIT. Friedman started chatting to Miguel de Icaza – the famous Mexican hacker – online, and a close friendship was forged. The first time they met in real life was while both were interning at Microsoft, when they hooked up for lunch.

“I flew down to Mexico to hang out with Miguel,” Friedman recalls, talking to me at the South African Linuxworld conference in Johannesburg. “He is an incredibly brilliant hacker. I was graduating soon, and I’d always planned to start a company. In the final days of university, I talked to Miguel about starting a company. A week later I’m on IRC, and I saw Miguel talking to other people, saying that he was starting his own company. I was pissed off! I private messaged him, and he said he meant our company. Of course, yeah, our company!”

Helix Code – later to be known as Ximian – launched at a trade show where Friedman and De Icaza printed 500 copies of their launch press release and handed them out in the lobby.

“Starting the company was a hack,” admits Friedman. “How to get customers, how to get money – that was all kind of fun. It was a game that we were playing; I found that pretty easy.” Running a company as a hack worked – Helix Code secured $2 million in 2000, despite disillusionment in the IT sector with start-ups – and secured a total of $15 million venture capital by the end of the year. Friedman recalls going to the ATM after the $2 million was deposited and getting a statement. “It ran off the edge of the page!” He then tried to transfer the $2 million from one account to another through the ATM, which the system couldn’t handle. Eventually – with a good queue growing behind him – Friedman moved the money in $500 000 increments. A week later they hired a CFO, who banned them from moving millions of dollars around through the ATM.

Helix Code needed a project. “At the time a lot missing from Linux. In fact, everything was missing from Linux desktop,” says Friedman. It was decided that an email client with a combined calendar would go down well, so De Icaza wrote up a design proposition, and Evolution was born.

Friedman says that Evolution wasn’t like a normal open source project at the time. The user interface was key. “I think there are two types of programmers – those who code for users, andlike to affect other people; and the other type likes to build big abstract worlds of logic, APIs, and architecture. They would sacrifice the user interface for cleaner code. One writes out of empathy, one writes to write code. A good coder is both of those. I fall pretty heavily in the user interface camp.”

Helix Code, later Ximian, didn’t stop with the calendar. Ximian Red Carpet was designed as a solution to roll out updates to thousands of machines simultaneously. Friedman contributed to Gnome, and later to the open source .Net implementation of Mono. One well-known Friedman creation is Beagle, which is fast becoming the standard Linux desktop search engine.

Ximian started to consult with companies regarding their Linux strategy, which is where the company first encountered Novell – soon to be its parent. “Starting in 2003, a lot of big old-line companies were looking for growth strategies, including Sun and Novell. Everyone was waking up from their slumber. People started asking us for advice, what we thought of their strategies – one of them was Stafford Masie from Novell [once part of Novell’s strategic think-tank and now country manager for South Africa].

“For us this was kind of fun. I think they started to understand that if they wanted to talk about Linux, they needed to buy this stuff. We were purchased I think because we can help build Novell’s Linux strategy.” Friedman says that he was the first to stand up in front of Novell’s board and tell them that they needed to buy Suse Linux.

Friedman says that he continues to work at Novell not because he has to, but because he wants to. “It’s a privilege to be in a place where can do this kind of work, and have an impact. I’m here by choice,” he says.


4 Responses to “Hacking with Nat Friedman”

  1. Ralph Moritz
    May 22nd, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    Nice article.

  2. richard
    May 22nd, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    mmmm…. I hope I can have an ATM story like that one day.

  3. ig
    May 23rd, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    Look at other people\’s ideas, declare \”I can do that better,\” create fragmentation, hype everything into hysteria using sleazy PR tactics, and then declare \”we invented this\” while summarily dismissing competing projects. This is the Ximian way. Nat Friedman and Miguel de Icaza might as well be Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. And now those two juveniles are running the show at Novell. Sad, sad day.

  4. Tshepang Lekhonkhobe
    October 17th, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    This is a wonderful and truly informative article and thanks for it. I often get surprised that this (you) local reporter often churn out very well-written articles even though the great FLOSS practitioners are located elsewhere, in other countries–being a passive observer gives me the idea that the only \’hero\’ stories regarding SA FLOSS are those related to Mark Shuttleworth.

    I have just one complaint: I quote you saying Friedman is a quintessential Linux hacker, which misled me into thinking that he was a kernel hacker, confusing me into thinking that he\’s among those who developed those kernel features allowing easy external drive mounts and whatnots.

    Any of the following terms is more appropriate:
    * Free Software hacker
    * FLOSS hacker
    * GNU/Linux hacker (bit more controversial but more accurate)


    TAD Lekhonkhobe

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