Interview with Kasper Skarhoj at the DTU, 12th May 2011

During my stay in Denmark I took the opportunity to interview one of the lead figures of the Open Source scene in Europe. Kaspar  Skårhøj created Typo3, one of the best enterprise-level content-management-systems around and the most popular in Europe.

I met Kasper at the Danmarks Tekniske Universitet where he is a part-time eLearning-coordinator (glad for this similarity ;) )

Questions for Kasper:

1.       Riepl: Stunned by the beauty of this city, let me start with this question: Is there any place you’d rather be in the world other than Copenhagen?

Kasper: Copenhagen is a great place for kids to raise, California would drag me over, if I have something useful to do there but we have a house, we have kids, we have many ties in Copenhagen and I like the city (laughing) – maybe a western country with a great climate would be interesting.

2.       Riepl: Did you have a background in usability-engineering when doing the concept of Typo3 or did you just do it by intuition?

Kasper: intuition, I assumed that if I did it in a way that I would prefer, other people would like it too. But TYPO3 has been bashed a little because of its’ usability. I thought if I would put my logic to it other people would find it logical as well – I didn’t think that people wouldn’t think like me (laughing). I assumed – like other engineers that have a lot to learn in the respect of usability – that the way I did it was great but I have come to realize that other people think differently and that has always been a challenge.

3.       Riepl: Have you ever heard the argument that Typo3 is too complex – and how do you react?

        Kasper: Arguments could also fall in other different categories like: TYPO3 doesn’t look sexy. You hear this often nowadays that everyone is used to nice mac-feel looks of web-applications and there are other CMSes out there with more sex-appeal. To some TYPO3 looks like and old system – which it actually is because it has its’ history. Regarding usability – we say that if you have an editor that only edits once every three weeks – that is the limit. If you work with it more often, let’s say more than once a week then you will have no problem and you will start to love the system because of its’ logic. Usability is something where people need some explanation to get started – but once they get the training they love it.

4.       Riepl: I often get the argument that Typo3 is so complicated but often this refers to the installation-process and customizing-process.

Kasper: This is something that we will never solve. You get so much functionality with TYPO3 and you can‘t make that extremely simple – it is not possible with all the features. But many things have been done in the last version and years and is currently being done in enhancing the looks of TYPO3 – there are people now that care about this – back in my time it was only me with an engineering-mind.

5.       Riepl: Hundreds of new media agencies are using Typo3 for websites. Have you ever tried to imagine the sum that they have made over the years using your product? Do you have figures on that, and: have you ever regretted open-sourcing it?

Kasper: No, I haven’t really tried to imagine. Sometimes I met another developer doing a lot of TYPO3-work in the community that shared such a concern with me but if you begin to think too much about it you could get a problem, but I don’t see it as a problem – money is not everything. The reason I don‘t want to think about it is, it becomes more and more difficult for me to hold on to that  freedom in this view of life that money is not the most important thing. What is important is to do what I love to do. In terms of job and life-situation I try to position myself that I do things that are extremely interesting where I can impact a lot of persons in a positive way and which is meaningful to me and I can still make a living. I am not saying that this is true for others, it is just true for me.
To be honest, because it is Open Source people should not be able to make money by selling the software but by building a service on top of it. And if the market mechanisms work correctly, people are competing in selling this service. You sell the knowledge of how to use the software. Assuming that the theory is right, people are making money because they are good implementers.

Riepl: You stay away from the thought how big the system has become?

Kasper: Yes, I can‘t use that for much, it will give me untrue impressions of my own role and importance – what happens that a guy like me easily becomes a celebrity. What I found is, because of this status, they are reflecting that you are something special but I think of myself just that I am the guy that started out TYPO3 – it could have been anyone – I feel thankful that I was the guy that got to do this – I am grateful for that – it is cool! But it doesn’t make me someone special. The problem is what everyone else reflects back to you – you might start to believe it but this is not very useful because it is  not the true condition of who you are – it is what people around you think. It is difficult to keep these impressions away.
I am proud of the product and of course I would like to see TYPO3 eventually win (laughing). I hope it is useful to people and will help organizations and private companies.  I also appreciate all the fanletters that I have got – so thank you everybody!

6.       Riepl: Do you have current numbers of how often the system is used at the moment?

Kasper: I haven‘t counted it myself but what I have heard from my marketingfolks that do some crawling out there is that they can confirm 250.000 websites and they add about 250.000 for intranet-websites to that figure.

Riepl: Do you know how many installs of the system are in Europe?

Kasper: No but probably many more in Europe then elsewhere, TYPO3 is much more European than American for example. That is an interesting thing actually. I don‘t know why but it could have to do with how the system is constructed that appeals more to the mind of European developers and of course Open Source is so much more popular over here.

Riepl: Due to my experience in the United States I found out that many American companies are not too fond of Open Source products even though the movement came from over there. Bringing it back to a small company trying to implement an Open Source system it often comes down to the fact that due to the Open Source thought that the software itself is free and only the service counts nobody believes you when you show all the functionality the system has – many think there has to be a catch to that. This is such a different way of thinking, maybe they are not quite ready for Open Source yet.

Kaspar (smiling): yes, I think you are right, we get that explanation too.

7.       Riepl: To which extent are you still involved in the project?

Kaspar: I go to most conferences in Europe, snowboard-tour in Europe, developer days in Europe, I will go to the TYPO3-conference in San Francisco this June – so generally I am visible in the community when there are some events, I don’t do any development on the project anymore, I think my last commit to the core was one-and-a-half years ago and I only did it because I worked for a client and he needed some functionality. This is all on purpose and has to do with my official good-bye from my developer-leader-role I think three years ago I handed over that responsibility to someone else, but what the community still needs and what I like to do also is to keep the social contact and the fact that I stay around also means that people feel that I still appreciate what they are doing – so hopefully this is still motivating for people to know that the grand-old man is still around.

Riepl: You still get pre-releases first-hand?

Kasper: No, I don’t. But I think it is great what they are doing, and actually my stepping down was really important. In the end it was good for TYPO3 as a product because it meant that somebody else came and took this to a new level – and I really mean that. Because the core-team during my time was small and I had to know everything that was happening. I couldn‘t accept that somebody else would do something without my knowledge. I had to either totally release my hold on TYPO3 and leave it over to someone else or keep doing it– this is the price you have to pay when one guy like me develops this system from the bottom up – that this type of control  is a part of what you have been doing all the time you cannot imagine not doing it. So even though people would say – “take it easy, let someone else contribute too” – it is so difficult you can’t imagine. And this is why when I said now you folks go with it – now we have a core-team of 30 or so – they have an amazing way to collaborate that still insures that we still have a good quality – I was never able to do that. So that was important in terms of development. But of course the problem was in terms of leadership. I think the community has been suffering a bit from the fact that I stepped down because there was all the „so what now?“. It is like Steve Jobs will someday leave Apple and it will effect the stock-price. The same for TYPO3 – people felt insecure, they felt sad – „what now“ – but after some time they got used to it and they realized that it is not that bad.

Riepl: Did your family encourage you to that step?

Kasper: Absolutely, my family always encouraged me, my wife has been a great help and has always been supporting everything I did even though it was hard for her back when I was developing TYPO3 – of course I didn‘t have kids back then, she had to accept that I had to work late hours – she also saw that the last years before I stepped down that I really had problems motivating myself and finding my place in all this and that was frustrating for her too to see how I was agonizing over it but she has always been very patient.

8.       Riepl: For non-technicians – where do you see the future of Typo3? You already started to answer the question earlier – it should be the winner some day – but what is your opinion in general.

Kasper: Actually I never plan ahead too far. I let myself roll wherever the wind takes me. This is how TYPO3 has been born, I never had a strategy – I only had an idea. I wanted to come up with a system to serve Christian churches and I ended up with a system serving a lot of enterprises because it was so powerful. Many small organisations had a hard time using it because it was too advanced. I didn‘t claim for that. I made TYPO3 for what I thought would be cool and it turned out as a powerful enterprise-system.

To summarize, TYPO3s place in the future is to stay a powerful free enterprise-cms for those who need it – that would be many organisations – non-profit as profit alike.

 

9.       Riepl: Although there are always specific arguments for implementing different CMS-systems like Joomla, Drupal or even WordPress, what would your arguments be for using Typo3?

Kasper: I am not very good at answering this questions because I don’t know the other systems. The expertise lies with him who knows all the systems. On the surface there are obvious reasons that make the systems different like WordPress being a blog-software and Drupal has become very widespread in the States because of its’ looks, it has even more installs than TYPO3 but in terms of technical features and enterprise-level, TYPO3 is more advanced than Drupal.

10.   Riepl: When, meaning at what time of development, did you first think about open-sourcing your product?

Kasper: I was an internet-startup like many others in the late 90s and wanted to build a CMS in order to sell it, mostly because I met a guy that looked at it and said we could make money with it. So we actually had a company. The reason I left was that the company did more Flash and I was more interested in CMS. So we just split and I got the rights to TYPO3 and he got the rights to the rest. And then I also knew at that point  that I was not the guy that wanted to have  other people do the programming – I wanted to program myself and I also hated the fact to push something out prematurely if you wanted to sell the software. But we would have had to do that – otherwise you couldn‘t make money on it – selling it while it was not finished would have meant to support old stuff. So I thought I would have had to finish it until it was perfect – you have many naive ideas when you are young (laughing). But this is how I thought so I left the company and I said ok, now I will finish TYPO3. And when I have done that I want as many people as possible to benefit from it, I want to use the software and and I will opensource it. Why not make it Open Source and it won‘t hurt me, I have my customers and if others will use it also, that’s fine! I don‘t want to try to sell it and build a company again – this is when I realized that Open Source would be a great way for me to obtain exactly what I wanted which was that TYPO3 would be a benefit to as many people as possible. 

11.   Riepl: There are many arguments that speak for Open Source: what are yours?

Kasper: Definitely the freedom to customize something to my needs – that is one I reflected on since I began – I was annoyed so much to ask a vendor by using their ticketsystem – “could you please integrate this functionality” – and not being able to do it by myself. If I had the source I could contact someone or make some modifications to suit my needs – that is a powerful reason. As a customer it is also important to be independent from the vendor. What happens so often is that a company will lose interest in their product and discontinue it and then that’s it – you won’t get any more support. Open Source is freedom to change the software and freedom from a specific vendor.

Riepl: … and maybe also quality as an aspect?

Kasper: You can see this from different perspectives. TYPO3 has a rumor of being of high quality but you might also find Open Source software that isn‘t. Even though I love Open Source I switched to MacOS a couple of years ago. This is a different kind of quality – it is the quality of not having to care about basic stuff. Switching from Linux to MacOS for me was getting out of the desert to pure luxury. I am not saying that Linux is bad quality, but at that point in time I needed not to worry about basic things anymore. I don‘t want to spend time on creating nice looking buttons as a programmer and – that’s where Macs have high quality – they coat you in luxury all the time – I am still a human being who likes luxury (laughing).
I really liked Linux when I was developing but I also got into video-editing and that wasn’t so easy on Linux – so actually quality has many aspects and parameters.

12.   Riepl: Have (and how have) you personal values led to the idea of opensourcing your product?

Kasper: I was not so interested in money as in leading a life that was fulfilling for me, so that was definitely guiding. I also traditionally couple the fact that I did TYPO3 as Open Source with my Christian faith. That means that I really think that the purpose of my existence is to also bless other people. This means that this makes their life easier and more pleasant. This is where I realized that I liked programming a lot and I would also spend my life with that purpose of doing nice things to other people and how can I combine that? It turned out that now that I have great software I could share this software with other people as Open Source and at the same time have fun creating it. So a part of me that doesn‘t have a problem with sharing something of value comes from my faith – I don‘t want material things to be number one priority in my life – that’s pretty much my personal values that shines through there. On the other hand I have also been clear a few times that I am not “Mother Theresa of software” – I do this because I love it – not because I have been told by God to do it. Creating TYPO3 gave me energy and it gave me purpose. I got something out of it for myself – I felt recognition, I solved my own problems – there are so many things that drove me to do it. And then, sharing TYPO3 for free and thereby blessing others was like a nice “side effect”. I hope that will inspire other people because we can all very easily share what we have already got! But alone helping other people is very seldom what drives us – you need to receive before you can give.

13.   Riepl: What impact do you think Open Source generally speaking has on society? The evolving of platforms like Facebook, Google Apps, etc. which are based on Open Source technology have made many possibilities of communication and using free software available to society. Has this in your opinion helped to advance it a little by continuously transporting the thought of sharing?

Kasper: I definitely think that is has played a role on many levels but I don’t think is is more known by the common man – there is a lot of free stuff on the internet but they don’t know the name Open Source necessarily – but if you explain it to them it can be  easier to understand – they can understand that money is not the only currency in the world – there can also be reasons for a business model to give software away for free -  and make money in other ways – so I think Open Source has played an important part. Also from the Apple-side of things there might be an effect that the Apps-Store has a lot of free stuff – people are educated to thinking that there a many different models of  pricing – in the past everything had to cost US$ 50,- at least as a shareware-license and up to many thousand dollars – now you have many inexpensive tools.

Riepl: … sometimes people say that if it doesn‘t cost anything it is not worth anything.

Kasper: Yes, that is a problem – I still feel this. I have been thinking about this a lot. Not only don’t we get any money for selling it – we also get the prejudice that it is not worth anything – two obstacles. Sometimes here at university we would say to our teachers – hey we will come and record your lecture for free – no-one calls us – I am beginning to think that we should put a price tag on that (laughing). I expect that people nowadays are more likely to be open to the possibility that free stuff can be worth something.

14.   Riepl: With social media products (Google Docs and Mail, Live from Microsoft, etc..) big companies are giving away interesting incentives to become their customer – Microsoft starts open-sourcing (educationlabs.com), Google open-sources many products – how does this relate to the Open Source-thought in general – have the companies discovered their obligation towards society?

Kasper: I don‘t think they feel an obligation – it is the best solution business-wise.

15.   Riepl: With the social media revolution many companies have started to implement or make use of Open Source software integration software into webservices and commercializing these again – the boundaries of Open Source (Alfresco, Sugarcrm,..) and commercial software has become very narrow – does this lead to a loss of trust in Open Source? What is your opinion?

Kasper: Open Source is a license for the software. The reason why people can make money is that they sell a service on top of the software. In this case it is important that when people get TYPO3 they also get the freedom to change the vendor or consultant – that is the freedom that is important.
Maybe there are some problems nowadays that they couldn’t foresee with the GPL that the value is not only in the software but also in the content that is captured in the software. Originally you assumed that software was downloaded and executed on your own computer but they didn’t foresee that people would be using Open Source software over the internet – so for instance if Facebook runs on Open Source – you still have all the data that runs on their server and you don’t have control over that anymore. I think that the GPL version 3 license has somehow done something about that. But to be honest – I am not engaged into thinking too much about this  – for me GPL was like for so many other programmers – they needed licences where they don‘t have to care about all the legal stuff so I also chose GPL.

16.   Riepl: You have heard of Moodle being an elearning-coordinator at DTU. Has the thought ever been carried to you regarding the development of an interface between Moodle and Typo3 (LMS and CMS)?

Kasper: No, no one has asked me so far, I have been thinking about that myself but I don’t know Moodle too well. I have been thinking, now that I have developed some elearning-stuff with TYPO3 that Moodle is probably the right platform to go with if you want a course with all the interaction with the modules that are available for Moodle – there might be something that TYPO3 does that Moodle is missing – so bridging the two – I guess, probably I would like to do it but I need to know some more and get a vision myself.

17.   Riepl: Digital inheritance, Social Media, Open Content – do you think there should be some sort of (social) responsibility for companies with (online)software-products that manage content?

Kasper:  I haven‘t thought too much about this but I would say that what people upload – it is their responsibility to check. If you upload pictures to Facebook you should probably check the licenses – as far as I understand Facebook asks you to sign a contract that they can use the pictures as they like for example. As long as people know this – these are the rules and they have to play by them and if they don’t like them, they don’t have to use the system. On the other hand I can say that I had people writing me that they have a post on a TYPO3-mailing list which they would like me to delete because „I am applying for a job and if they google my name they see this post…“  – and I say I just can’t help you – just imagine if thousands of people that post to the mailing list want their posts to be deleted – I can’t handle that and I won‘t – because it just is how it is – there are so many things that are on the Internet you just can’t control and that is part of the game – I would rather like people to realize that today you can’t control what people will know about you – that is part of reality we have with the Internet – so rather deal with it than fight against it.

Riepl: Thank you for the insightful interview

 

Typo3: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasper_Sk%C3%A5rh%C3%B8j

Kasper Skårhøj: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasper_Sk%C3%A5rh%C3%B8j