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Lisa Retief, founder and lead developer at Sadalbari

By   |  January 14, 2005

Lisa Retief is owner and lead developer at South African open source software company Sadalbari. Founded in 2001, Sadalbari\’s core products, Zinf, a product-driven case handling framework and eWage, a human resource system, are both in the open source domain. Gavin Dudley spoke to her to find out how things are going and how her clients take to the open source philosophy.

Tectonic: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing OSS software developers in Africa today?

Lisa Retief: Infrastructure and access to computers seems to be the main problem with many African programmers. Many of these people are using equipment at public access points such as schools and universities.

Another big problem is the access to the Internet, especially because so much OSS development activity takes place online and relies on the Net for collaboration. Of course, bandwidth is cheaper and better in some African countries than in South Africa!

Despite this I have found that some of the most successful OSS development comes from people using modems and diskettes.

Africa\’s multitude of languages is also a barrier because much discussion and collaboration takes place in English and other non-African languages.

This is less of a problem when it comes to actual programming code, of course. I am collaborating with Norwegian and Indian programmers where the common language spoken is Java code.

T: Where did Sadalbari come from?

LR: I was working as a programmer at some large corporate companies, but I had an idea to use Java together with OSS and wanted to create a software shop to service this niche market.

I started Sadalbari with no startup capital at all, but I have traded on my reputation for quality work to get this far. A lot of people in the industry have said good things about me and my work, and so I got good referrals at the outset.

Our business strategy is to position ourselves with business and enterprise class software products for CRM and enterprise integration using JBoss and the Internet, itself an OSS platform.

Part of our strategy has always been to invest in good people. We currently have four people in our organisation, and will hire two more people in 2005, but we also have many more people who contribute code with the religious commitment that you often find amongst OSS developers.

Corporates approach us to leave our people on site to do programming, but we specifically don\’t want to do that, although becoming an outsource firm is a constant financial temptation.

At least eight days out of every month I wish I was free of the responsibilities of being a business owner!

T: What products are you bringing to market this year?

LR: The development of Zinf, our case management engine, is ongoing as we add new functionality. It is currently being used as a component for case management systems being implemented in phases by the Namibian Motor Vehicle Accident Fund.

eWage is a human capital management solution: the sort of systems used by most corporate human resource departments to run payrolls, calculate tax, do contact management and monitor leave and absenteeism. It will also offer self-help to employees, such as the printing of IRP5s and so on.

We expect to be offering this product in two forms in the second half of 2005. It can either be installed locally, or run as a pay-per-use web service costing roughly R10 per employee per month.

We have designed it to scale from small businesses up to corporate level, and we are considering making it available free of charge to organisations of less than 10 people.

T: You have made a point of GPL-ing the work you are contracted to do for your clients. How do they respond to sharing their code?

A: Well, the underlying engine for our case management product has been released under a GPL license, but the ownership of all the customised code created for the client, although it is owned by the client, can only be traded under a GPL license.

In many respects this protects the client because they can replace us at any time with new developers because they are not locked in with proprietary coding.

Although clients don\’t always understand the licensing details, they understand \”no lock in\”, and this is attractive to them.

T: And where does that company name come from?

A: Sadalbari is the Arabic name for a particular star. We were looking for something that wasn\’t overused and where the domain name was still available.

The name actually translates to \”good luck of a camel seeking pasture\”. We take this mean that our business has the sustainability of the camel, but that all the lucky breaks count too!

T: Name five favourite pieces of music to work to.

LR: I have hundreds of CDs, but the genre I am listening to right now is insurgent country from bands like Whiskeytown and people like Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams.

T: Don\’t you mean Bryan Adams?

LR: Er, no. Definitely not Bryan Adams.


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