LearningStone is known for its fast, reliable and solid software, which runs on the open source framework Zotonic. Architect of Zotonic is Marc Worrell, LearningStone's Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Time for an extended interview, about his own background, why Zotonic is special and how he is making the world a better place.
As early as high school in the city of Bilthoven, the young Worrell loved working with computers. His computer was the Z80, a small device with 64 kb of memory and an 8-bit CPU. With that, Worrell got to work and it wasn't long before he discovered programming. That "puzzling," as he calls it, is his joy and his life.
He was so good at programming that he not only managed his high school’s main computer but also wrote programs that helped with accounting and making school schedules. The school administration loved it. 'We were fifteen years old and didn't have books to learn programming, we just started doing it,' Worrell looks back from his home in Amstelveen, where he lives with his family.
After high school, he chose to study computer science at the University of Utrecht. He further specialized in programming at various companies, and when he wasn't behind the screen, Worrell could be found on the water as an avid rower and coach of a number of high-performing rowing teams.
Worrell became co-owner of the renowned art and innovation institute Mediamatic in 2004, where he was able to develop his vision for digital platforms. That became the community management system Anymeta which made it possible to work on several principles that he could later take with him when he began his next life's work: Zotonic.
Worrell had discovered the programming language Erlang, a language created at the Swedish telecom giant Ericsson that proved particularly suitable for large applications on the Internet. At first, Erlang was especially popular with the creators of chat programs. It wouldn’t take long for the developers of WhatsApp - then a small company - to discover it. Erlang proved suitable for intensive online communication but lacked a framework for developers who wanted to build Web applications. Worrell jumped into that gap with Zotonic and made it available as open source software. With this, he attracted a team of talented developers to contribute to its development.
At first, Erlang was especially popular with the creators of chat programs. It wouldn’t take long for the developers of WhatsApp - then a small company - to discover it.
At the time, around 2011, he met Michiel Klønhammer, one of the later founders of LearningStone. Klønhammer had just sold his own Internet agency, ICATT, and was looking for an inspired and socially engaged developer to join him for his new company. First, Worrell and Klønhammer created MaxClass, the technical precursor to LearningStone and its underlying platform software, the engine used to develop other platforms as well.
MaxClass - later sold to school provider Heutinck - was designed for communication between parents, children and schools with a structure of classes and schools. 'Under the hood of LearningStone, you can still see remnants of this in the programming code. Schools became workspaces. Classrooms became groupspaces. Of course, a lot has evolved in the meantime, but we benefited a lot from starting in the data-intensive school environment,' knows Worrell, who enjoys using Zotonic for systems that help people learn something from each other. That's important to him. 'I just love the fact that people are doing all this training with LearningStone and learning new things. It's nice that technology makes that possible.'
But what makes Zotonic's technology so good? 'It starts with the programming language we use. Erlang can can do a lot of things really fast and all at the same time or ‘concurrent’ as we call it. That was necessary when it was used for telecom applications - after all, a lot of people can make calls at the same time - but now, it’s also necessary on the web.
That's quite unique. 'The classic setup for developing large Web applications is that you use lots of servers, each of which has its own task - and when things get busier you quickly need far too many servers,' Worrell explains. 'Computers that provide a platform have to interact with each other a lot. With Erlang applications, and Zotonic in particular, we need to do that to a much lesser extent. We can set up a new platform very easily. From the administrator's perspective, it is easy because everything is integrated. I can remember that when WhatsApp only had five engineers to keep their servers up and running while it was already being used all over the world. It was amazing. With Zotonic - same thing - less manpower while the systems are still incredibly stable.'
'Zotonic's infrastructure is not that complicated,' Worrell has to smile. 'Less can go wrong than with many other systems. That's why LearningStone's software is so stable. 'When we explain how quickly we can set up a platform and how easy it is to manage, potential users sometimes doubt whether that is possible,' Worrell laughs.
Meanwhile, Worrell is far from the only one working on Zotonic. He describes it as a diamond, being finely cut every day.
Meanwhile, Worrell is far from the only one working on Zotonic. He describes it as a diamond, being finely cut every day. In Amsterdam, for example, there are three companies, Maximonster (the company behind LearningStone), Driebit and Channel.me, that use Zotonic intensively, but internationally the platform is growing rapidly and is now available in 20 languages. Examples include: the Jewish Monument, Open Research of the City of Amsterdam, Kennis Cloud, and Women on Waves. For more examples, see Zotonic's site.
'There is a lot of cross-pollination with the other companies using Zotonic. There is a nice dynamic. 'We actively collaborate with each other, to perfect Zotonic,' Worrell says.
As a programmer, Worrell doesn't just lose himself in the technical part. 'What I like is figuring out a company's question. The question behind the question. Does it have to be a technical solution, or is there another solution that has nothing to do with technology? In answering that question, I also love how my colleagues at LearningStone don't just embrace e-learning but focus on blended learning. 'Not everything has to be digital, but when it is, it has to be good.' he says.
When Worrell is programming, he still enjoys "puzzling" as much as when he was in high school and only had a Z80 at his disposal: solving problems and designing new, useful features.
What is currently coming out of Worrell's high-technology hat? "We've been working hard on LearningStone this year ... we've improved the dialogs enormously, developed a new search function, and we've just developed a new management environment for larger customers. But in the open source collaboration with others, Zotonic in general has also developed quite a bit. Alot of our work is about speed and security - less visible but very important.
"Zotonic is being developed for a world where everything will be real-time. Within web applications, communication is going faster and faster, and parts of your screen are updated so you have much less need to load whole pages.' lectures Worrell. 'It's a bit of a technical back-end story, but the bottom line is that web applications are getting smoother and smoother and therefore better for mobile use, so you don't need a separate app.'
Looking at Worrell's social media, such as his X-feed, one notices that he has a lot of posts on nature and social issues. The world is close to his heart, and that social heart didn’t come from a stranger. His mother was a biology teacher. His father was a city councilman. A social consciousness was instilled in him from the very beginning.
The nice thing is that everything we develop at LearningStone can be used for such a good cause.
For years, Worrell has dedicated himself as an advocate for women's rights. He facilitates the technology of Women on Web - an organization where women can get abortions and order abortion pills. "The nice thing is that everything we develop at LearningStone can be used for such a good cause. For example, we developed a pretty sophisticated e-mail architecture for LearningStone, which is now being used at Women on Web without them having to pay for it. The same goes for Women on Waves, a Zotonic Web site with a lot of traffic (and occasional DDos attacks) that provides information on safe abortions.
Worrell is constantly striving for a brighter world - now, happily, with servers that are perhaps a million times faster than the Z80 he once started with. "I hope to do that by developing better open source technology but also contributing to important social causes. At LearningStone, we are also extra kind to charities - and it's nice that as we continue to grow, we can do that better too.
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