Technology Leadership for the Common Good

“I am relieved.”  That lovely double entendre is what Captain Pike said to Captain Kirk at the end of last summer’s most excellent reboot of the Star Trek series. I am likewise relieved to have been relieved of my long time post as President of ISC by my good friend and long associate Barry Greene. I continue at ISC as Chairman and Chief Scientist, which is the equivalent (to me) of escaping to the candy factory. When ISC was smaller, this was the half of my job I loved most. With ISC at almost fifty employees, this has been the half of my job that I just had no time for – until now, that is.

One of the first things to bubble to the top in my new capacity of being able to think long-wavelength thoughts without interrupting myself with a lot of short-wavelength fire fighting is the age old question, why are we here and what does it all mean, anyway?  ISC has existed in various forms since 1995 or so. The long list of things that we do and must do to keep the Internet and the global information economy humming seems obvious to everybody (although maybe it would benefit from enumeration) but the thing that’s less obvious is what ties it all together – what’s our “mission”?

Let’s walk through some of it.

In any venture great or small there are always things that have to be done and done well but which aren’t fun, aren’t anybody’s job, and don’t get done unless somebody goes above and beyond the call of duty and does them anyway. If you live with family or roommates you probably know who it is that refills the ice trays in the freezer and it’s probably always the same person. In my life and in my career I am usually that person, and in the global information economy, ISC is that company. What ISC does is nothing more or less than the sum total of “whatever it takes to keep the Internet running smoothly and the global information economy growing robustly.”

Most often ISC’s work is in direct support of the Internet infrastructure, and most of that has been focused specifically on the Domain Name System (DNS). For example we operate a root name server (F-Root) and we publish the BIND software that runs 85% of the other name servers on the Internet. We also participate in the DNS standards process at the IETF whereby new features like DNSSEC are considered and developed. Nobody asked us to do this stuff, unless you count Jon Postel (R.I.P.) asking me to run a root name server all those years ago. The mission seemed obvious to us and so we undertook it. “Somebody has to do this or it won’t get done, done well, and done without capture by commercial or political interests.” That’s us: ISC. And the name of the software we provide for DNS is: BIND.

I could offer other examples beyond DNS and beyond Internet infrastructure but let’s work with this single example for now. And when I say that nobody asked us to do this stuff I also mean that nobody offered to pay us to do it, either. And while I won’t disparage voluntarism in any form, what I mean by “do it well” requires that it be somebody’s day job, something they are paid to do, so that they don’t have to use spare time for it or take time away from their families to do it. Figuring out how to get people to pay for “the mission” has been job #1 for me as long as ISC has existed. Some readers may remember that I used to do this work without getting paid for it, but that was just personal passion not professional sustainability.

ISC’s methods of funding aren’t at all unique in the open source field. We give away our software with the BSD license which is maximally free and so anyone who wants to use our software, customize our software, re-sell or re-license our software (with or without enhancements) in binary form or source form, can do that. The only things you can’t do is remove our name or copyright, or sue us if you use our software and something bad happens. What that means is, free. No money comes to ISC in exchange for the use of our software. And we do this on purpose because only with a really strong piece of software at the center of the DNS infrastructure can we be sure that the system keeps running smoothly and the global information economy keeps growing.

The way we leverage some revenue out of our free software is that we’re the experts on it, so companies who want support or customization for our software know that they can come to us. While we are a nonprofit charity, we own 100% of a fully commercial subsidiary who enters into normal commercial agreements with customers who love our software because it’s great rather than because it’s free. This system isn’t foolproof but it has worked pretty well so far. So, if you’re within the sound of my voice and did not know that ISC offers commercial support and customization for BIND, please consider using us!

The key takeaway from this post is that making money is a means to achieving our goal, not the goal. The goal to keep the Internet infrastructure running smoothly and to keep the global information economy growing with the money we make or receive as donations. Any donations made to ISC are tax-deductible. We have membership forums where interested people and companies can support our work while also helping steer our technical direction. In all cases we’re garnering support both in the form of business intelligence, technical guideance, and money, because we want the Internet to work well. We have no shareholders, we cannot “go public”, our reward beyond our paychecks is just the satisfaction of that mission, well achieved.

During my years at ISC I have traveled the world and met seemingly everybody and have hired a lot of the smartest people in the industry. Not just software people but also operations people, protocol people, business people, security people, even hardware people. Whereas I was once the “wiz kid” I now stand in awe of the talents around me. ISC has achieved market dominance in the DNS and DHCP fields and has market prominence for our work in I.T. security and for our operational depth, breadth, and excellence. This has gone on a decade and a half and the trend is accelerating as we grow.

I say this not just out of pride but because it means something, something larger than the sum of its parts, and I’ve been puzzling over what it is and how to describe it. Like any company full of really smart passionate people who achieve success because their approach was at first disruptive and then widely emulated, ISC has shaped and continues to shape the industry. Other market entrants stand on our shoulders and they work within the context we’ve established. This is Technology Leadership.

But whereas the same could be said of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and other strong companies full of smart passionate people who have steered or shaped or created industries, ISC has no shareholders, and our fundamental motive cannot therefore be to increase shareholder value. We do what we do because we want the world and the industry to be a better and brighter place. Our rubric for success is The Common Good.

So it’s not precisely a mission statement or even an elevator pitch but it’s at least a tag line that goes a long way toward explaining at a high level who we are and what we do and why we’re here. And since my title change from President to Chairman and Chief Scientist means I’m about to get a box of new business cards, I’ve asked that the new cards explain for the first time that ISC’s raison d’être is: Technology Leadership for the Common Good.

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