Interview with Shaun Walker – Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of DotNetNuke Corporation

Shaun Walker is the Co-Founder and CTO of DotNetNuke Corporation. In this interview, Shaun took some time so share with us his thoughts about how the product came to be, where he sees it going and some insight into his background. We hope you find it an interesting read.

With that said, here's the interview.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background.

My name is Shaun Walker and I am the Co-Founder and CTO of DotNetNuke Corporation (DNN) and the creator of the DotNetNuke open source project. I started my professional career in 1992 as a

Shaun Walker Shaun Walker

software developer and have worked in a variety of different software disciplines over the years including development, architecture, project management, and product management.

My first experiences with software development were in elementary school on the Commodore 64 and later on IBM PC’s and mainframes. My first professional experience was writing accounting and payroll software for school districts and municipalities on the DEC VAX/VMS environment using VAX BASIC. In the mid-nineties I made a switch to the Microsoft platform and gradually developed my skills writing desktop, client/server, and web software. In 2000, when Microsoft came out with its next generation platform, the .NET framework, I knew I was going to have to upgrade my skills so I downloaded a sample application that Microsoft had made available called the IBuySpy Portal and I proceeded to add a bunch of additional functionally to it over the next 2 years.

Can you tell us about how the idea of DotNetNuke was born?

My original idea was to create a web application for amateur sports clubs to manage their own team websites.  The idea was that the application needed to be simple and easy to use for non-technical folks and it needed to have the ability to host many different team sites from the same web hosting account (which is now referred to as a multi-tenant architecture). After working on the application for a couple years in my spare time, I concluded that I wasn’t going to be able do anything commercially with it due to the other commitments in my life. I also realized that most of the features I had created were applicable to not only sports organizations, but also to businesses, non-profits, etc. Essentially I had created a general purpose content management system. And since I had some experience with open source software in the past, I decided the best way to get value from the effort I had invested was to release my application as open source (this decision was made in spite of the fact that Microsoft was openly and publicly opposed to the open source software movement at that time). I packaged up the source code and posted it for download on December 24th, 2002. And the rest is history.

When & how did the DNN Corporation come about?

From 2002 to 2006 I managed the open source project through my personal consulting company, based in British Columbia, Canada. In late 2003, the Web Platform and Tools group within Microsoft actually recognized the value of the work I was doing and offered to sponsor me for a year, which led to my pivotal decision to quit my full-time job and devote my full attention to the open source project. By 2006 the project had grown substantially with millions of downloads and hundreds of thousands of users, and I decided that it was time to get serious about creating a suitable legal entity to ensure the longevity of open source project and be the official steward of the DotNetNuke brand. DotNetNuke Corporation was incorporated in September 2006 as a U.S.-based company and Scott Willhite, Joe Brinkman, and Nik Kalyani joined me as co-founders. The first order of business was to establish a suitable revenue model which could provide the project with adequate resources to continue to grow and expand its footprint.

Over the years, DNN has seen a lot of competitors come and go, what do you think has helped the product maintain its popularity?

DNN has maintained its popularity by adhering strongly to a number of core principles. First, our software is available under a standard MIT open source license which provides the maximum freedom in both commercial and non-commercial environments. Second, the platform is architected in a highly extensible manner which allows third party developers to customize the application and add their own functionality. Third, there is a large ecosystem of third party ISVs building skins and modules, as well as System Integrators and Web Agencies who have based a significant portion of their livelihood on implementations of the DNN platform for customers.  And last but not least, we have been able to successfully maintain the fine balance between the free open source community and the needs of commercial businesses.  Our commercial product edition provides us with the resources needed to continue to innovate and build on the product and ensure the longevity of the free open source platform.

What led you to take DNN to the enterprise level it’s at today? What factors contributed to its success?

A common phenomenon for many open source projects is that they get adoption by software developers within large enterprise environments. This is largely because the cost and licensing is not a significant blocking factor as it typically is for commercial software applications. Once the open source software is utilized in these environments, it typically starts to evolve very rapidly to support some of the advanced functionality and more sophisticated use cases that exist in the enterprise. So rather than the software vendor having to “push” its product into the enterprise, open source software tends to experience a “pull” from enterprise users as they try to utilize it in a variety of scenarios. This results in the software adapting to meet the specific needs of enterprise customers and ultimately becoming an enterprise level solution.

The factors that contributed to the success of DNN in this regard was:

  • the MIT open source license,
  • the extensible architecture which could easily adapt to new use cases,
  • the availability of high quality commercial third party extensions which enterprise customers could immediately take advantage of to fulfill their business objectives,
  • and the presence of DNN Corp as an official steward and legal entity behind the open source project

How does the open source philosophy tie into how DNN operates as a company?

We prefer to operate under a philosophy that we refer to as the “abundance mentality.” This is simply defined as a belief there are enough resources and success to share with others. One of the fundamental ways in which we live and breathe this philosophy is by making our software available under a highly liberal open source license. However, it does not stop there. Every program or service we offer is intended to be a win/win with our community; we feel that the collective success of the various members of our ecosystem ensure our own success as steward. As the number of users and businesses utilizing DNN increases, so do the opportunities available to everyone. In economics terms, we do not believe in a zero-sum game; rather, we believe that as the ocean rises, all the boats will rise with it.

What do you consider the biggest achievement over the years for DNN?

For a software application to exist for ten years and continue to be highly relevant is definitely a big achievement in our opinion. DNN has been able to achieve that by being well-entrenched in a very dynamic and growing market sector, and by constantly investing in product innovation that allows us to adapt to the latest technology trends. This would not have been possible without our other big achievement, which is raising venture capital from some of the most reputable investment firms in the world.

The biggest failure?

Hindsight is 20/20. It is hard to categorize anything as an absolute failure as there are always important lessons to be learned from every mistake. That being said, I do believe that there may have been some benefit of incorporating DNN earlier in our evolution, solidifying a scalable company structure behind the project, and accelerating more quickly with the addition of more key resources. And another regret, which I believe is a common one for any serious entrepreneur, is not recognizing and capitalizing on emerging trends or opportunities earlier.

What do you see as the future of the product?

DNN continues to invest in product innovation and quality so that we can serve our diverse and rapidly growing customer base. Specifically, we are laser-focused on providing business solutions that enable customers to take advantage of the most significant and disruptive industry trends around cloud computing, social collaboration, mobile devices, and managing big data.

What separates it from the competition?

Our open source license, our large ecosystem of commercial ISVs and Systems Integrators, our focus on developing best-of-breed functionality for social communities and collaboration, and our modern cloud infrastructure allows us to differentiate ourselves from the competition.

If there was one thing you could have done differently, what would it be.

It is hard to pinpoint one thing that I would have done differently. Life is not a straight line; it is a winding path full of many unexpected surprises. I think it is important to plan, but it is equally important to be able to adapt. From a business model perspective, we learned very early on that there is no blueprint for how to successfully combine an open source software project with a commercial software business. So you need to be prepared for some experimentation and education in real-time as you pursue your goals. At the end of the day, all I can advise is that you stay true to your core values and trust your instincts.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

In five years’ time, I hope to see that the DotNetNuke platform is just as relevant and innovative as it is today. I see our product lines expanding to include more specialized solutions that solve specific problems for customers. Our footprint in the enterprise will expand significantly and I see our customers having a more intimate relationship with the corporation as we get deeper into the business of providing cloud infrastructure. On the product side, we will have a very comprehensive story around mobile and social, and I am sure there will be plenty of exciting new industry trends that we have not yet even anticipated that we will need to adapt to so that our customers can take full advantage of them in their business.

Thanks for your time today, Shaun

I appreciate the opportunity to share the story of DNN with your readers. Hopefully it will inspire them to pursue their dreams but also realize that opportunities sometimes reveal themselves while you are busy making other plans.

To learn more about DotNetNuke, visit their website: DotNetNuke