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Strategic Directions | Feature

KualiCo as a Driver of Open Source Development

A Q&A with Joel Dehlin

KualiCo CEO Joel Dehlin reflects on the company's first 8 months operating as a for-profit that offers Kuali as a cloud service. KualiCo continues a rich tradition of higher education community involvement in open source while becoming a new driving force for Kuali product development and marketing.

"Instead of passively relying on the community for open source, KualiCo is a driver of open source." — Joel Dehlin

Mary Grush: You launched KualiCo just this past fall. Could you give us a brief reminder of your broad goals in starting KualiCo, especially in light of how community based Kuali has always been?

Joel Dehlin: When we first started KualiCo, we did an extensive Q&A with the Kuali community. There were three main things that the community told us were necessary in order for Kuali to be successful going forward. First, there needed to be stronger leadership that could both make hard technical decisions as well as market and sell Kuali. Second, they wanted us to create a self-sustaining entity to manage the community and the creation of the Kuali suite of products over time and into the future. And third, they wanted to make sure Kuali would always stay dedicated to open source.

Grush: KualiCo has been in operation for about 8 months now, as a for-profit company. How has the operation of KualiCo as a commercial company changed the nature of open source development of the Kuali suite of products and the participation of the higher education community in that?

Dehlin: We continue to be an open source company, and we encourage people to check in code, but instead of passively relying on the community for open source, KualiCo is a driver of open source. So, most of the development is now being done by the company.

To be clear, open source is a key, long-term, strategic differentiator for us, with the knowledge that times are changing. Instead of the majority of the development work being done by the community (as was the case historically) the larger proportion of development will be done by the company, going forward. But we will continue to involve the community, encourage them to make checkins, and continue to make all the Kuali code available.

Grush: And that's the Kuali code base you are speaking of. Will the company keep other code as proprietary? I know for example, you had mentioned that code directly relating to hosting would be proprietary.

Dehlin: The only code that will be proprietary will be certain pieces that allow us to compete as a hosting provider — so we're keeping the multi-tenant code proprietary, and some automation code will also be proprietary. This is all code that the schools would not care about; only our competitors might care about it. Kuali code, including any new features we work on, will definitely be open source, as always.

Grush: In the few months since you committed to forming and leading KualiCo, what other goals have emerged?

Dehlin: After solidifying the three very broad goals I just spoke about, and after putting the leadership team together and talking to the Kuali Foundation executive board, we set four more specific — and very important — goals.

The first is, we want to be very focused on great design. We hired interaction designers who are top-notch and could work at any of the major consumer companies if they chose to. Their designs are amazing — Kuali products are beginning to look and interact so much better than they ever have in the past. It makes an incredible difference to have very well-designed software.

The second is, we are committed to a complete suite; all of the different components of an ERP system for education institutions. We don't have every one of the pieces yet, but we are definitely making the right kind of progress towards achieving that. Of course we already have finance, we already have research administration, we have continuity planning…  we're working diligently on the student information system (in fact that's a whole suite of services there)… and we are working towards the overarching goal of finishing out what will be a comprehensive Kuali suite.

The third goal is that we want our software to be the safest choice — stable, secure, scalable, and open source. We see our cloud offering as a very safe choice for institutions: Especially because it's designed for higher education institutions, it's not a business package that you have to retrofit to install. And our development has focused on making this software super-secure and stable. And unlike any other cloud options, institutions that choose Kuali cloud services have the best exit strategy because they have perpetual rights to their data and the software needed to make use of it.

And the last, and still very important of these goals is that we want Kuali to be affordable. We will have a sustainable business model for KualiCo, but we won't be the company that offers you a product that is a hundred million dollars to install! Of course, because it's open source, any institution could run their own version of the Kuali software, but we want schools to choose us as a more effective and efficient choice — and use their staff and resources to work on higher level, more strategic things, like big data, and analytics, or custom software development.

Grush: I noticed something on one of the KualiCo blogs, that I think might be an operating principle that could differentiate the company: KualiCo is developing software and distributing software updates based on "continuous delivery." Could you tell me a little about that?

Dehlin: Sure. Core to and underpinning all of the four goals I just mentioned, is our development methodology, which is called "continuous delivery." The idea is that we are continually adding value to the products. So, when a bug is reported, or when an issue comes out, or when someone requests a new feature — when there is some new value that we want to add, we are doing that all the time. In the same way that Google or FaceBook add new value on a continuous basis, we are adding value continuously — not just as part of infrequent new issues of the software. So, that means you'll see updates not on a quarterly cycle, or an annual cycle; rather, you'll see them literally all the time.

Grush: You have a blog that outlines KualiCo's recent development work. The blog details several projects — there are too many to discuss in this Q&A, but is there one you'd pick as very important right now?

Dehlin: Yes. We're about to finish Curriculum Management, which is the first module of the Student Information System. We'll be introducing that in July, so we'll be talking about it more at AACRAO Tech in Austin. It's highly configurable, and it's mobile. It's fantastic, and people who have seen it are very excited about it. 

Grush: Kuali software has always been "created for higher education" and higher education friendly. Do you see the Kuali suite as becoming the "go to" products for the higher education market?

Dehlin: To get there, and to get that kind of recognition, I think that we need to have the whole suite. So far, the number of schools talking to us, and reaching out to us, has been extraordinary. But we do need a little more time under our belt — this company was formed just this past fall. But we've made great progress toward that important goal of a complete suite. For example, we've delivered our first module: We completely rewrote Ready, our continuity planning product, from scratch. We did that in only 6 months, and the new version is fantastic. It's well-designed, it's fully multi-tenant, it's drag-and-drop, and it's mobile… This is an excellent example of what we can do. Given the capabilities we've demonstrated as a company, I'm very encouraged that we can attain all our goals.

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