A Conversation with Jon Silvers and Jonathan Nolen of Atlassian

Recently, I talked with Jon Silvers and Jonathan Nolen of Atlassian, makers of Confluence enterprise wiki software. We discussed Atlassian’s refreshing approach to enterprise software which emphasizes the core wiki values of ease of use, simplicity, and speed. Confluence is quick to set up, interfaces well with systems like LDAP user directories often used by medium to large organizations, and allows wiki spaces to be quickly created for groups, departments, classes, etc.

We also discussed Atlassian’s forthcoming clustered version of Confluence which will provide redundancy and dramatic scalability for very large installations; and the company’s efforts to reach individual users with the introduction of personal spaces for profiles and blogging in the latest release of Confluence. Atlassian is very focused on keeping the Confluence user interface as simple and intuitive as possible even as new tools are added, and is growing its developer ecosystem by promoting the development of new plugins, and awareness of existing plugins. Thanks to Jon and Jonathan for a very productive conversation!

Jonathan N. Howdy!
Jonathan N. Good call on the Campfire chat. I love this tool.
Jon S. Hi
Stewart M. Hey Jonathan and Jon!
Stewart M. Jonathan, I have to quickly tell you – I’ve been a longtime reader of your blog and was very impressed with how it played a part in your job at Atlassian.
Jonathan N. Thank you!
Stewart M. Sure!
Jonathan N. I was pleasantly surprised too, when it worked out.
Stewart M. It’s a good sign of the changes technology is bringing to how things get done.
Jonathan N. i’ve been so busy lately that the blog has gone radio-silent for about a month. But I hope to fix that soon.
Jonathan N. yes, indeed.
Stewart M. Well, shall we get to the interview questions?
Jon S. Yep, fire away
Stewart M. Firstly, can yo both just give me a little background on Confluence? How did Atlassian get into wiki development, and what’s the thinking behind the product?
Jon S. Well, let’s start out with Atlassian, which was founded by two Aussies, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar. They created JIRA first, our issue tracker. I recall Mike saying that at some point he was looking at different wikis for managing the company knowledge. He didn’t like what he saw, a lot having to do with usability issues. We built Confluence, which has been available for a couple years now. By their nature, wikis are often considered a disruptive technology, but in an organisation in order to gain widespread adoption wikis need to connect with the way people work, the way a person needs to work with information. So, on a feature level, I think one of the most important aspects of Confluence is the interface. Many different types of people in a university setting, from admins to students to IT, will need to access it, so it needs to be able to work for everyone.
Jonathan N. We had seen the power of wikis in their many online and open-source manifestations, but we knew that there were lots of features that businesses would need that were not being addressed by those early open-source versions. Things like real permissionsing, better usability, easier editing, more extensibility, support, etc. We had established a strong sales model with JIRA and we thought that we could apply the same sales model to wikis, and that it would be a naturally complementary tool for the dev teams already using JIRA.
Stewart M. So it sounds like their initial intent was to build something for organizations, as opposed to small groups or “consumer” users?
Jonathan N. It’s definitely true that we focus on the organization. Of course, the wiki has a much broader potential market than dev teams, but they were a natural first target for us and, for better or worse, most dev teams of any size live inside medium to large organizations.
Stewart M. Makes sense – I see this as a very evident trend in wiki development. Most products have been designed for a defined need, then expanded out as they mature.
Jonathan N. We’ve seen that pattern play out many times — Confluence is brought in by the dev team, but then quickly spreads to the rest of the company.
I think permissioning is a key feature for something a medium or large organization is going to use – it was one of the big questions I got when I introduced Confluence as an option for Brown and in a large organization, that usually keeps the dev team/IT people very happy.
Jon S. RE: permissioning. In some ways it goes against the whole wiki and social software theme of transparency, but it’s a requirement in large organisations.
Jonathan N. Right, we know it’s very important. We try to make sure it’s flexible and fine-grained for a large corporate environment without destroying the usability of the system or the openness that makes wikis great to begin with. We try to encourage people to use the principle of most-access, rather than least. Only hide or protect something if you REALLY have to.
Stewart M. I agree – I think it needs to have both, so that the organization concerns are satisfied, but spaces can have different levels of openness.
Jonathan N. but that said, you probably don’t want your organization’s salary chart out there for anyone to see (unless you’re Whole Foods 🙂 ).
Stewart M. very true…
Stewart M. What would you say Confluence offers the higher-ed market specifically and what have your customers told you they like best about Confluence?
Jon S. Adoption of a wiki, or any application, can fall flat on its face unless it’s easy to use and intuitive.
Jon S. So many different types of people in a university setting, from admins to students to IT, will need to access it, so it needs to be able to work for everyone.
Jonathan N. Another benefit is our pricing. Unlike traditional enterprise software, we’ve priced our products within the reach of almost everyone. So you can get all the tools and features that a large organization needs, yet still be within a department’s budget.
Jon S. The interface is always rated very highly. It’s just easy to use.
Jonathan N. The extensibility is another big win.
Jon S. Yes
Jonathan N. Especially in a higher-ed setting, where you may not have lots of cash, but you have plenty of grad students with time.
Stewart M. Your pricing is especially beneficial when we compare it to the cost for course management software. It’s amazing to me that course management software can be 10X the price of Confluence, yet Confluence seems better engineered, has a great interface, and is more extensible.
Jonathan N. Well, the thing to understand is that the software has nothing to do with the price you pay for it. We probably have as many or more engineers working on our product as the thing that cost 10x as much, but what we don’t have are: sales people, long cycles, powerpoint presentations, one-off contracts…
Jon S. That’s part of the company’s philosophy. I think people are tired of traditional enterprise software. Enterprise software has received a bad rap � and deservedly so � for being bloated, impossible to manage or install, and being expensive. We’ve taken a different course in terms of how the product has been engineered so as to give people all the flexibility they need.
Jonathan N. We sell enterprise software over the internet, that can be bought on a credit card and that you can install and start using in less than an hour.
Stewart M. That’s true – I’m a very willing “salesperson” b/c I’ve experienced what it can do…
Jonathan N. The fact that we started in Australia made it necessary to sell differently. We couldn’t send our guys flying over here every time they needed to close a deal, and so that probably kept us out of some very large organizations at the beginning, but now we see those giant companies coming to us anyway, despite our different style.
Stewart M. Also, blogs like mine are (I hope) selling people on the product – which costs you nothing but the time to chat. In my own opinion, the non-sales people approach makes me like a product more, because I can experience it and decide on my own terms.
Jonathan N. Certainly. I’ve sat through my share of painful software demos.
Stewart M. hear, hear
Jonathan N. My quick rule of thumb is this: if I can’t find the price of the software on the website, then I probably don’t want to do business with them.
Stewart M. They just make you hate the product because it’s shrouded in the canned presentation.
Stewart M. What’s ahead for Confluence?
Jonathan N. Well, expanding in scale: we’re hard at work on a clustered version of confluence. That will provide additional redundancy in some applications and additional scale for very large companies. We have customers who want to deploy Confluence to hundreds of thousands of their employees, so we’re trying to make sure they can do that.
Jon S. We’re also increasing our focus on making the system work for individuals. Wikis are great for collective knowledge and collaboration, but we’ve found that many people want their own space which they can choose to give permission to (or not), jot down their ideas, store files, etc. With the latest version of Confluence, we added personal spaces for users to do all this. Internally, we use the personal spaces for blogging. It’s a great way to communicate internally, build a knowledge base, and add some personality to our work. 🙂
Jonathan N. We’re also focused on growing our developer eco-system. We’ve seen lots of activity over the last six months, and we’re trying to keep that snow-ball rolling. And that involves two sides of the equation: ensuring that more plugins are written, but also ensuring that more plugins are used by more people.
Jonathan N. And then there is ongoing attention to the UI. We want to make sure that as we add more features we don’t add more complexity. And we’re also interested in looking at how wikis get adopted inside companies, and then trying to cater to some of those patterns in our default installation.
Stewart M. and I agree, it’s great for internal communication (and quite similar to peoples’ talk pages on Wikipedia).
Jonathan N. generally I like standalone software: the right tool for the job. But personally, I feel like the confluence blogs can provide most of what a standalone blog software can do, and we want to make sure it’s a full-featured replacement.
Stewart M. I think the focus on the UI is very important – not too long ago Steve Jobs said that once you add a feature you have to live with it, so careful attention to what you add is good.
Stewart M. Gentlemen, this has been great! Thank you so much for your time – I’ll clean up this transcript a little, and then I’ll run it by you before anything gets published on my blog.
Jonathan N. Sounds perfect! Thank you!
Jon S. Great. Nice talking and chatting with you.
Stewart M. You too!
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