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Spiceheads keep Austin weird at IT's Comic Con

I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

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Sysadmin blog Spiceworld 2012* was in Austin, Texas. I spent my time there grilling vendor reps at the booths, talking to attendees and collaborating with Spiceworks employees. I'll save the article on "what's new in Spiceworks" as well as the feeds and speeds for later, after I've done some compare-and-contrast in the lab. Instead, I bring you a look at the Spiceworks the company.

Your spicy, revenue-generating brain

Spiceworks offers powerful IT-enablement software for free – a helpdesk ticketing system with software/hardware inventory, cloud inventory and now mobile device management. Vendors can (and do) build plug-ins to extend the "single pane of glass" functionality. In short, they have a very sexy carrot to dangle in from of the sysadmin masses. Spiceworks make their money by building a community of users (2.2 million to date) who represent a significant fraction of the SMB IT practitioners in the world. If you use Spiceworks, you are the product.

The community Spiceworks has created gives vendors the means to conduct surveys and various other forms of market analysis against this avid and vociferous community. Spiceworks makes money, vendors learn how to target and tailor their product more efficiently and sysadmins get software that does ever increasingly neat stuff for free.

Few people I have talked to have any cause to dislike Spiceworks. They are under no illusions regarding the business model: they understand how it all works. They participate knowingly, willingly and even gratefully. Almost everyone at this conference is unnervingly passionate about the company; the staff, the users and even the vendors cheerlead and evangelise.

This enthusiasm from vendors was initially hard to get a handle on. Some of these companies offer paid products which compete with Spiceworks in one area or another; why are they so pumped about Spiceworks? The answer lies in the market visibility that the Spiceworks community provides.

Vendors simply do not get honest and passionate community engagement with this level of technical detail and long-term commitment to problem resolution anywhere else. The Spiceworks community is a highly skilled and willing focus group 2.2 million people deep. The quality of the feedback is so valuable it can only be compared to a handful of other communities online, The Register's beloved Freeform Dynamics-queried commenttards among them.

Falling in love with a Spicerex

The community presence at Spiceworld is over the top. Many Spiceheads have arrived on their own dime. In truth it feels a lot more like a comic con than an IT convention: there is an air of leisure time being spent. This is not merely trudging through a vendor conference, learning and training on tomorrow's product stack.

What is truly unprecedented to me is to discover that Spiceworks staff are equally enthusiastic. Despite the entire company burning the midnight oil for weeks to get ready for the event, I would constantly see eager Spiceworks staff stop random conference attendees in the halls; they were busting out just-written code for some feedback and modifying it on the fly.

Here is a company full of people who are playing on the same team. Staff at Spiceworks (the CEO included!) appeared unafraid to get up on stage and sing karaoke in front of every single one of their coworkers. These people are confident they won't be punished for having fun, or for taking an orthogonal approach to problem resolution. With this atmosphere, they have collectively managed to put in the incredible effort it takes to organise and run conference with a smile on their face. They seem to truly enjoy their job.

The consensus among conference attendees is that Spiceworld feels like having wandered into a nascent example of the legendary "Google working environment – a corporate culture hard to build and harder still to maintain. The founders of the company are keenly aware of the difficulty in perpetuating such an atmosphere and devote a great deal of effort to maintaining and preserving it. I am more than a little jealous.

This isn't to say that Spiceworks is a bastion of all that is good and right in the world. No organisation is perfect, no leader without flaw and no community without its disruptive elements. I could probably spend the rest of my career poking holes in their offerings and approach; just as I could with any other vendor.

Spiceworks is, however, mature. It has survived the start-up phase, made it to profitability, and has done so without giving up the very things that built the community which powers it. Spiceworks isn't about the software. It never really was. Spiceworks is a business-oriented social network for systems administrators, and at 2.2 million active users, it is now a community both vendors and other IT pros cannot ignore. ®

* I often wonder about the line between shill and journalist. I have taken a junket from Spiceworks; they flew me down to Spiceworld 2012 because I said nice things about them. I accepted because the Spiceworks software is important to a great many of my readers. I hope that I was able to report what I have seen honestly and without bias.

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