Joining Posit’s Polyglot Data Science Mission

open source

Wes McKinney


November 6, 2023


TL;DR I am joining Posit today as a Principal Architect where I will advocate for the needs of the PyData ecosystem in Posit’s work as well as continue advancing critical open source initiatives to accelerate progress in the polyglot “Data Science without Borders” mission.

In this post, I will review some of the back story of how I got involved with Posit (known formerly as RStudio) and why I’m betting on the company as a major player in the data science world.

Early Connections

I first met J.J. Allaire and learned about RStudio in May 2012 (which feels like a lifetime ago) at the R/Finance conference in Chicago. J.J. had spent the last several years working with Joe Cheng to build a new open source IDE for R, but the project had not yet developed into a business. A year earlier, I had taken leave from my PhD program to spend a self-funded sabbatical year working on pandas and writing my book Python for Data Analysis. It was still just the beginning of our journeys as open source entrepreneurs.

At that first meeting over 11 years ago, J.J. and I bonded over a shared passion for increasing the use of open source software in data science and statistical computing ecosystems, shifting mindshare away from popular closed source systems like MATLAB and SAS. From that perspective, the R and Python communities had a lot more to gain from collaborating with each other (and thus united against commercial or closed source alternatives) than competing (other than in friendly or constructive ways that would promote innovation and progress). It wasn’t clear yet what form future collaborations might take, and of course a more pressing problem at the time was figuring out how to increase the scale of our open source contributions while making it financially sustainable for ourselves and our families.

2012 was also an eventful time for the Python community. I founded DataPad with early pandas developer Chang She, and Travis Oliphant and Peter Wang founded Anaconda. This was also the year that the IPython notebook emerged and the nascent data science ecosystem started thinking more about cross-language standards to enable multi-language interactive computing environments.

Building Open Source, Sustainably

I have written and spoken at length in blog posts, conference talks, and podcasts about my personal path as an open source project and community builder and the challenges around the different funding and support models. I recently detailed how I pursued support for Apache Arrow in my blog post announcing my transition out of my full-time role with Voltron Data. Building open source sustainably over a long period of time is difficult, and I’ve found that when I meet with other open source developers we often spend much more time talking about project sustainability, funding strategies, and maintainer burnout as opposed to technology problems we want to solve or other aspirational project goals. A great book on this topic in general is Nadia Asparouhova’s Working in Public.

When we announced Ursa Labs in 2018, I wrote about the “traps” associated with different open source funding models. This includes consulting contracts, depending on a big company, or raising venture capital. Conflicts often emerge pitting the interests of the open source projects and communities against the need to generate revenue and become profitable. Posit is a rare example of a company that has managed to build a commercially successful business while maintaining a healthy relationship with the open source communities that it supports. This has not been an accident, and I think there were a few key early factors that put them on this path. First, J.J. had been successful early in his career creating the popular ColdFusion web development framework during the dot-com era, and as a result he was able to work in “bootstrap” mode on the RStudio IDE for several years to avoid an unhealthy dependence on venture funding. Second, he brought in a trusted business partner, Tareef Kawaf, to grow the revenue-generating side of Posit’s business, enabling J.J. to maintain a mostly technical focus. Lastly, Posit recruited R community leader Hadley Wickham to become its Chief Scientist in late 2012 to spearhead the company’s open source developments and to make sure the company would be a consistent force for good in the open source community.

As I explored different funding strategies for Apache Arrow development starting in 2016, J.J., Hadley, and Tareef were essential advisors to me as I navigated the complexities of launching such an ambitious new project. When Hadley and I created Feather in early 2016, we discussed ways for the R and Python communities to work together for the benefit of the whole open source ecosystem. To do that, we knew we needed to develop new language-independent computing frameworks like Arrow and interoperability standards like the Jupyter kernel protocol which could enable the development of portable infrastructure for data science.

In early 2018, I reconnected with J.J. and Hadley to explore partnering with Posit (then still RStudio) to financially support Apache Arrow development, ultimately leading to the creation of Ursa Labs. During these meetings, J.J. shared RStudio’s aspirations to become a Public Benefit Corporation (which it ultimately did in January 2020), adding its “open source data science for public good” mission to its corporate charter. Another aspiration was to expand its software efforts to the Python ecosystem and beyond. RStudio made good on this in July 2022 by becoming Posit, reflecting its larger mission as “the open source data science company”. I believe the company’s mantras of technical excellence, sustainable growth, and supporting the public good position it to be a force for progress and innovation in the data science world for many years to come.

Posit, Day Zero

For the last 8 years, I have been focused on building and growing the Apache Arrow ecosystem and some related projects like Ibis and Apache Parquet. This has taken place in multiple corporate auspices (Cloudera and Two Sigma), a not-for-profit industry consortium (Ursa Labs), and most recently a venture-backed startup (Voltron Data). Lately, my work creating Apache Arrow and Voltron Data and getting them off the ground had reached an inflection point where I felt that I could safely step away from my full-time CTO role. As I considered how I could best position myself to continue making an impact in the open source data science ecosystem for a long period of time, the choice was obvious.

Multi-language technology for data science has come a long way since my initial forays in open source in 2009 with pandas, and in many ways it still feels like we are just getting started. I wrote at length about the themes of composability, modularity, and reuse for data systems, and we’re seeing many of the same trends in the more general space of interactive computing. Just as Arrow has brought about a unified cross-language computing layer for data analytics, projects like Jupyter and more recently Quarto have had a similar impact on interactive computing and technical publishing, respectively. Only ten years ago these projects didn’t exist, and today we have already begun to take them for granted.

At Posit, I will be wearing two hats: one as a software entrepreneur contributing toward the company’s continued sustainable growth, and the other as an open source developer, where you’ll see me continue to support the PyData and Arrow ecosystems and the emerging Composable Data Stack. I’m excited to see what comes next.