Despite all the stereotypes created by the media, becoming a successful developer in Silicon Valley is really hard. Only the best programmers, the one able to build valuable connections and to give visibility to their achievements are able to get a well paid job in the top companies or to receive investments for their startup. Now, on top of those difficulties, imagine trying to build a product and an associated reputation without leaving the beautiful Italian island of Sicily. The task becomes almost impossible. Salvatore Sanfilippo, the author of Redis, did it! From a small Sicilian village Salvatore created one of the most popular component of the modern web, and he built solid relationship with people and companies in the field. Salvatore doesn't like to brag about his accomplishments, but I believe he is a very special person with an exceptional talent. If you are not in the field you might not appreciate how extraordinary his story is, and might not know that the software he created, Redis, is a fundamental component in the toolbox of every web developer. I asked Salvatore a few questions in order to better learn his story and to share it with everybody who is interested in learning from it. Buona lettura.
Franco: Hi Salvatore. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your interesting professional story?
Salvatore: Hi Franco. My profession is more the result of my long time passion than anything planned: I started to write simple programs in BASIC when I was about 6 years old, since my father was an home computers enthusiast in the early 80s. I kept my passion for computers as an hobby for a long time, but eventually when I was 20, I dropped out of the university, where I was studying architecture, and started to work in a security company. During this time I wrote my first open source software, "hping", and worked at the TCP attack now called Idle Scan. IT security suddenly became very different when money arrived in the field, and I felt an urge to change, so I started to get addicted to programming languages, writing a few things in kernel space, and eventually I joined LinuxCare Italy for some time. Later the "web 2.0" started, and here in Italy there was a lot of talking about this among bloggers, but nothing developed within Italy. Together with my friend Fabio, we started a company and created two web 2.0 services similar to the ones that were very popular in the United States, and thanks to a partnership with Telecom Italia we had quite a bit of users. A few years later, we decided to build our third product, a real time web logs analyzer. Traditional DBs were not suited for the task, so I started to work on Redis, and eventually it became my first occupation, thanks to the sponsorship of VMware first, and Pivotal later.
Franco: I’m sure you had several opportunities to move to the US, therefore I assume you live in Italy by choice. What are the benefits and the compromises you experience by working in Italy rather than moving to the US?
Salvatore: It's really a multidimensional thing with many competing factors... The US technological ecosystem is incredible, and also it feels so "easy" for things to happen there. There are many people that are confident they are able to do outstanding things: this is something that's lacking here in Italy, where most people start assuming they'll fail (so they won't start something new at all, most of the times). However at the same time here there is a good quality of live, especially if we talk about the 99 percentile quality of life: most people in Italy can experience a decent life, with the government assisting you in the bad moments as well. Yes, the same government that's too heavy to let companies have a friendly ecosystem. Moreover my wife and I believe that for our parents to experience their grandchildren is extremely positive, so it's not easy to go away. We don't like everything about Sicily and Italy by the way, however I also feel there is a cultural mismatch between me and the US approach to certain things. I feel like what somewhat makes things complex to move and evolve fast here in Italy, is also the same thing that works as a good reference for people to understand what's good and bad for them in an intuitive way. However maybe in the future we may eventually move... either to the north of Italy, or to London, who knows.
Franco: What role do Italy and the Italian culture play in your professional success? Do you think your story could be replicated or is it the exception that confirms the rule?
Salvatore: The Italian culture is a big part of the things I try to make. One of the main characteristics of stuff I make is that they are "strange", don't resemble how a given problem was solved in the past, and I believe that this is a common Italian trait. Also I try to make things that are simple, but trying to get the fine details right. I believe that the process of writing software is not very far apart from creating a new pair of home made shoes, and I should not be the exception, even if actually in some way I am. The Italian millenarian culture of design, simplicity, taste, and care for details, can be leveraged in order to compete in a technological world. However this does not happen because of other issues: lack of optimism, investments, high level formation, complexity in starting a business, and lack of a "framework" for technology to be created and exported similarly to how fashion is, for example.
Franco: You have always been involved in open source projects. Can you explain to a non-technical audience why collaborating to an open-source project is not only fun, but also a great way to grow professionally?
Salvatore: Open Source is like a movie people don't pay to watch, but that you can potentially act as the main character. This provides a lot of visibility. However for Open Source to work, it should be high quality as commercial software, and it must be maintained and developed for a long time. OSS is like other businesses: overnight success is an illusion, what is behind that is years of work. This visibility as a side effect provides the ability to get a better position in an IT company, to get funding if needed in order to start a company, and so forth. It is unlikely for OSS that is developed in a "casual" way to really turn into something big, but if the point of view is "my users are my customers, whatever they pay me or not does not matter", companies start to use your code, and your code eventually starts to be part of their business value. They'll end up trying to pay you so you don't stop. However it is also true that there is no simple business model that scales outside the "fine salary", since a product-based business is hard, and the easy solution is to sell services, which is risky and involves having a certain amount of people working for you and so forth. If the goal is to make money, there are definitely much simpler and effective paths for a programmer...
Franco: Until recently, the open source approach was perceived as being in competition with business. Now things have changed and open source is recognized as an integral part of any hi-tech project. What are the reasons for that transformation and how do you see the role and the opportunities of open-source in the future?
Salvatore: I've the feeling that business adapted to be OSS friendly as a physiological response. Business started to be against OSS since it was perceived as an issue. Eventually in a direct fight business lost, since it was an impossible task to win the battle in some way: things which are free, often high quality, well documented, with large communities, are not trivial to compete with. Moreover the developers mentality changed towards OSS, and managers started to fear the vendor lock-in. So business people realized that by providing OSS software that becomes popular, they still have the ability to generate revenues with the larger organizations using the software. However to say "our software is open source" does not mean everything is as free as Linux is, for example. It's a matter of development model, ability to find informations without paying, and exact licensing details. There is often a bit of a tension between selling services, formation, and PRO features, and having a truly free development model.
Franco: What recommendations do you have for young people in Italy that are passionate about technology and are looking for opportunities to emerge and build a career as professionals?
Salvatore: My advice is to use the moment when they are still young enough for parents to be willing to pay for their bills to build things. Your parents are your first VCs, they are investing into you in a moment where you are full of energies. Other advices: don't study forever, put an hard max number of years to your specialization. Finally, don't believe you have something less compared to people in the UK or the US where you see a lot more going on. It's not a matter of better or more competent people, so a good strategy would be to try to create new things without copying what others are doing.
I would like to thank Salvatore Sanfilippo for taking time to answer my questions. If you have more questions for Salvatore or for BAIA , please feel free to contact us by leaving a comment below.