Blog: Elizabeth Ziph

Elizabeth Ziph is the co-founder of The Linux Box Corporation in downtown Ann Arbor and has over 30 years of experience in the Information Technology industry. Most recently she was Senior Vice President and Director of Information Technology at Franklin Bank in Southfield, Michigan. Prior to joining Franklin Bank, Elizabeth held the position of Associate Director of Information Technology Division at the University of Michigan. She also currently sits on the Detroit Chamber of Commerce Technology Advisory Panel

Elizabeth served as Vice President of Information Systems at Comerica Bank, holds an MBA from New York Institute of Technology and a bachelor's degree in computer science from The City University of New York. She lives in Ann Arbor (30 years and counting) with her husband, daughter, two dogs and a cat.

Elizabeth will be writing about open source software, the freedom it gives its users and its potential impact on the future of computing.


Elizabeth Ziph - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5: What's the culture of your small business?

Do you know what your company's culture is? 

I was invited to be on a panel Sparks' "starting your own business" forum on September 12th,  speaking about "being an entrepreneur" and it got me thinking.   It's a well known trend, that small business owners spend too much time working in the business and too little time working on it. One of the things working on your business requires is consideration of the core values of your business and your culture.  

When Matt and I started the Linux Box we had envisioned a company where not only were employees proud to work but where they also had fun; we wanted to have great staff, not a great many staff members, though we do want to grow the company and by definition that requires increased staff.

What we did not want was to create yet another company where Dilbert reigned supreme. We felt that we had worked in too many places where the employees considered the managers, shall we say, ah hmmm, less than perfect, and themselves their victims.

The culture that evolved over the years is strongly influenced by the folks that had been working with us. Our culture is a living, ever changing paradigm. We learned that since the technology work keeps changing, one of our core values remains continuous learning; our customers were asking us to jump: we learned to say "how high?" while being their advocates – making sure that what we do is in their interest, without wasting their resources. This is the comfortable space where we all want to be.

Above all, just like the code we work on, organizational openness and transparency has been a rule of thumb that works for us. Not only do we make sure that employees know what they get into when they come on board but that they are included in major tactical and strategic decisions. They are encouraged to be part of the solution. They participate in the the setting of goals and the process of reaching them. When one of them had declared that we have "a graveyard of dead plans" we assessed the assertion, looked for root causes, identified remedies and implemented them and developed a process to prevent it from happening again.

I appreciate the opportunity of being the guest blogger on Concentrate this past week. It has been great fun not only for me but also for the team who put a lot of effort into reviewing my posts and editing them. It is a testament to their commitment to making sure that the Linux Box story is told in a way that reflects their pride and I thank them here – I could not have done it with out you!

Post No 4: ISO 9001:2000 Certification

ISO 9001:2000 is a quality standard certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO). Typically, companies get ISO certified because large customers or government require it.Their objective is to ensure that the vendors they work with follow the same quality standards that they do. 

While none of our customers had asked for it, we asked for it ourselves. We did it to ensure that we have quality measures to use in-house—measures that are double-checked by a respected, external organization. We also did it for our customers, to assure them that we continuously deliver defect-free software and services, and are doing so systematically.  

ISO requires demonstrated compliance through measurement and record keeping.  We must define metrics to measure the quality of our products. These records are used to track our progress and develop preventive and corrective actions to help improve our process. Knowing that we go through all these quality assurance steps allows us to be comfortable that we can offer a warranty for our services.  

One surprising fact about the quality system at The Linux Box, and a key reason why it has been successful, is the level of employee commitment. The original idea to pursue ISO registration arose from internal process improvement discussions and was strongly supported by technical staff, who have also been very involved in development and formalization of processes. As a company, we realized that the ISO process could not only help the company deliver better quality services to customers, but also increase our satisfaction and enjoyment delivering them. 

The actual process of developing and documenting procedures was difficult, but complying with it is not. Getting re-certified every year allows us to stay consistent, be proactive, and focus on continuous improvement.

Post No 3: Commercial Open Source Software?

Typically, open source software is distributed for free and closed source software is paid for. There are naturally exceptions for example, Freeware which is free, but closed. Another, less common, way of doing things is something called "Commercial Open Source Software."  

Exactly what commercial open source entails isn't entirely straight forward. Most often, the software is open source, but you still pay for something, to a favored supplier. Different companies have different ways of handling this.  

Some companies distribute their core product and source code for free and also offer add-on features or modules for you to buy.

Other companies manage their distribution cycle to create paid for "premium" or "enterprise" versions. Sometimes only the paying customers have access to regular bug fixes and updates. Other times, the source code for the software is only opened up for old versions and customers have to pay for the latest version.

There are also companies that market their products as open source that just never really get around to releasing enough source to actually make a working piece of software.

The problem with many of these products is that you can be sold on the benefits of open source and commit to using the software only to realize later that you're not getting the benefits of having gone open source.  Commercial open source companies tend to have internal development processes that make it difficult to impossible for community developers to get changes and improvements into the product.  If that's the case, then you may end up having to maintain any changes you have made for yourself.  Commercial open source products tend not to have a very active community outside of the company.

Maybe the most important point is that the key advantage of commercial open source to its producers is some additional vendor exclusivity, or in other words, some freedom from competition with other open-source developers.  That can develop deeper revenue streams, and increase opportunities for investment.  For customers, the risk is lock-in to a single supplier—and escaping vendor lock-in is a key reason to use open source software in the first place. 

So, just because it is tauted as open source software, beware. Not all open source software gives you the full benefits you might expect .

Post No 2: Evangelism & Choice

When companies promote products (and software) it's called "Marketing."

When individuals or organizations promote things like open source software, it's called "Evangelism."  
Historically, evangelism has the connotation of religion, politics, or environmentalism. Its purpose is to convert someone to a new belief system.  
In fact, open source software does warrant some evangelism:  It gives the users freedom to own the software as opposed to having only a limited right to use it. It enables customization of software so that it will do exactly what they need it to do. It promotes the contribution of code,  sharing and cooperation. It builds communities of users and developers.  
In the beginning (and certainly when the Linux Box started), Linux and other open source projects were relatively unknown. There was no budget for promotion so evangelism had to do. One  example of such evangelism is an essay by Eric Raymond called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" that makes a case for the open source model. That essay and other efforts give open source software positive exposure and explain its ideals and benefits. 

People who choose to use open source software appreciate these ideals, but ideals alone wouldn't have convinced them to use open source. Practical considerations do. Ultimately, people vote their pocketbook, not their ideals. The ideal of open source software wouldn't go far in businesses if the results it provides didn't stack up.  

Our experience has been that our customers care about the ability to customize software. They like not worrying about being pushed to switch software because one vendor had been acquired by another. They like having a vendor without an agenda - an objective entity that does not have a stake in one particular product to cloud the decision making process. It is important to them that, with their approval, The Linux Box could contribute the customizations back to the open source community. It gives them further vendor independence and saves them the cost of re-implementing their changes with every upgrade. 

Over the last ten years, open source has become broadly accepted and respected. It has been promoted by large, technology vendors like IBM, Sun, HP, and Google.  This has made our customers feel even better about the open source choices they made. Often, they became promoters themselves. And that kind of marketing is priceless.

Post No 1: So What Do You Do Here?

 At least once a week someone will find their way into our office and ask us the same question: "So...what do you guys do here?"

They've seen the blue, yellow, and white neon "Linux Box" signs or the penguin collection in our windows. Usually they confess to having walked or driven past countless times before finally giving in to their curiosity.

It used to take quite a few minutes to explain what Linux is, that it wasn't china or a furnace, what open source software is, and what do we do and don't do with it.

Many who drop in are just happy to have the mystery solved. A few are disappointed that we don't sell computers and parts; we refer those people to local shops that do. Some work for or own regional companies and end up with a business card and a brochure. We do actually have clients that started as curious drop-ins. Some are looking for a job employing their Linux skills and we've hired a few of them, too. One of the most unusual of the drop-ins was a very sweet person who brought us a gift penguin shaped teapot-and-cup-in-one to add to the penguin menagerie on our window sills.

Our offices have been in the historic Salvation Army building since our founding in the summer of 1999. With this central location, our initial plan was to help consumers and organizations adopt Linux and open source software through training and exposure. We assumed that the only reason that adoption of open source software had been less than enthusiastic was due to fear; fear of not having fall-back if things went wrong. 

We decided that if we were here, to help when things went wrong, people would be less afraid to try Linux and open source software. We thought that our being here would accelerate the adoption rate.

To this end we offered free drop-in services nights and weekends in addition to the professional services we offered. And some people came. The people that embraced open source software in the early days were the fearless enterprising innovators that wanted to tinker with anything new, especially if it was free like our community services during the drop in hours we had offered. They were not afraid of doing things differently and they ultimately became our early customers.  Many of them are still our customers. 

Over time, there were organizations that saw the potential in Linux and Open Source Software. They liked the fact that they could have a program changed to suit their special needs; they liked the fact that their investment in the change was given back to the original developers of the software so that it would be included in the next release and they would not have to reapply it when they upgraded. They felt good about contributing and being part of the solution. These customers adopted open source solutions when it made sense to their organizations.  

And they liked having the Linux Box as a trusted partner in the adoption process. 
The Linux Box does not own any of the software and could remain objective in terms of recommendations. When one solution fails to keep up or is less suited to meet the clients needs, an alternative can easily be recommended. 

These early adopters understood the benefit to their organizations. They understood that they were buying freedom; freedom from software vendors who push them to make unnecessary business decisions; who push them to upgrade; who dictate what release to upgrade to; and dictate when their software becomes obsolete. They did not appreciate it when the vendor of the software they used was bought by a larger fish and they were left without support and forced to shop for a replacement solution. This is an issue that started affecting large organizations too. 

I realized that a large number of American companies crossed over to open source software when the word Linux started appearing on subscription cards for free IT magazines. This started happening in the last 3 – 4 years and with it, our customer base changed; their requirements changed. They were hiring their own Linux Systems administrators. What they needed from The Linux Box was second and third level support. They needed custom software development and software integration. And we were ready. 

Having been doing this for so many years, we have become the experts at it. We still have a number of drop-ins every week or so. By now, our team has honed the "elevator pitch" to perfection, it is very short – we are expert free-software consultants. And the visitors get it.