By Howard Dyckoff

A new start-up that is also new to Oakland, npm, Inc., has funding, customers and over a million users worldwide.  And it is likely to help make Oakland a center of innovation for internet developers who use JavaScript in their tool box.

The three founders, Isaac Schlueter, Laurie Ross and Rod Boothby, started npm in February and moved to Oakland in March. From their 5th floor office of the historic De Demenico Building, they have an impressive view of City Hall, Frank Ogawa Plaza and the surrounding towers of downtown Oakland.

They insist on listing their company in lowercase letters.  It has to do with the historical roots of their software product, which is an open source project called “npm” as is the convention in the world of Unix and Linux computer systems. They are quick to point out that “npm” is not an acronym although it is understood to stand for ‘Node.js Package Manager’ as a practical matter.

What npm has been in recent years is a fundamental piece of Node.js that is now widely in use for installing and managing all types of internet and mobile software. It has become an emerging standard for the apps we use every day on our phones and tablets.

JavaScript is what creates the pop-up message when you hover over a button or check input fields like phone numbers or zip codes. Their product has become a breakout tool for installing apps on smart phones and computers, with deep roots in the community of open source software developers. That product is a key piece of the popular developer framework for JavaScript, Node.js, and they are keeping true to their free and open source roots.

JavaScript code usually runs in your browser on your computer or mobile device, not a remote server.  This speeds everything up since there is no delay going across the Internet at every step and also can keep some info local to your machine. Node.js provides a way for fast and efficient JavaScript to run on the server backend.  Its widespread use is key to the current business model for npm, Inc.

Many other commercial software companies have adopted Node.js and npm and now regularly request and pay for improvements and new features in npm.  There are large scale, enterprise-class back-end services connected to mobile applications. That steady stream of requested and paid work gives npm a significant financial base and a path for growth.  It also gives them access to a large pool of active developers currently working on Node.js.

CEO Schlueter explained, “In 2013, the npm community experienced a roughly 10x growth in every metric. Around the same time, Node.js and npm had been expanding in the enterprise space.  Companies like Walmart, PayPal, Netflix, and Yahoo! were very publicly talking and blogging about how they were using Node.js, and how npm was often the main reason for choosing Node.  However, this was usually followed up with a list of features that they really needed from npm.”

“I evaluated a few options to get us out of our scaling mess.  My conclusion … was to create a company that could deliver on these enterprise use-cases, and also justify investing … time, attention, money, etc., in keeping the public registry running effectively.  I really don’t trust anyone else to pursue these business use-cases without screwing up the community we’d built, and so the only way for such a company to deliver was if I ran it.”

“We are very confident that it’ll be a success, because we’ve gotten a lot of requests for these features,” Schlueter said, then emphasized,  “but it’s not simply a work-for-hire kind of thing.”

“The company is based on this brilliant idea that Issac came up with and built out,” said Boothby, npm’s COO.  “He allowed it to flourish and mature as an open source project…” Boothby explained , allowing them to start the company with established customers.  “Now there seems to be about 1.1 million users of Node and npm, so getting developers who want to work on it is easy.”

Schlueter and his life partner moved to the Adams Point area, near Lake Merritt in 2010, to be near her Berkeley job.  They picked Oakland as a mid-point since he was working then in San Francisco.  His easy commute by BART led him to seek an Oakland location when he co-founded npm.  Now he wouldn’t consider locating anywhere else in the Bay Area.

An engineer at former Oakland company CouchDB, Mikeal Rogers, and a friend of Schlueter, clinched the Oakland location by suggesting it was becoming a hub of activity in the community of developers using JavaScript.

“He said we could help make Oakland the JavaScript capital of California,” explained Schlueter.

So this is both a tech story and an Oakland business story.  It’s about the personal success of the founders of npm inc and also about the impact of the growing start up and developer community on Oakland.

npm, Inc. supports the JavaScript community by providing the registry where developers publish and share their packaged open-source modules.  Before npm, Inc. was created, this important registry was only supported by good will and volunteer effort, with server hosting provided by first CouchOne and later Nodejitsu.

They recently hosted a free ‘Node School’ where experienced JavaScript programmers helped introduce the Node.js framework to other developers and JavaScript newbies.

“I’m glad we have new businesses paying into the Oakland tax base and that we’re helping to contribute,” Boothby said.  “I’m glad that we are running things like Node School so that we can give back to the Oakland community. I really hope that as we build the business we can bring more jobs to Oakland.”

“For us as a start-up,” Boothby continued, “it doesn’t make sense to be in San Francisco.  It’s too expensive.” He explained that npm, Inc. was only paying $2.40/sq. foot at a great Oakland location near BART vs.  $20/sq.ft. for a a new lease at a comparable office space in San Francisco near BART.

“For us to get from here to a meeting in San Francisco near the Embarcadero is about a 12 minute BART ride.”  Boothby said he regularly bikes to npm from his home in under 15 minutes.

Schlueter also complained about the dust and smell in downtown San Francisco due to constant construction. He noted that although Oakland had a “dodgy reputation,” due to parts of East and West Oakland, throughout the city “there are so many trees and gardens, and it’s so much less congested than San Francisco.”

[Dear Reader – this article gets a little more technical at this point in order to show the importance of npm to Oakland’s growing software developer community and how that may reduce the digital divide.]

Besides his work at CouchDB, Mikeal Rogers is also the founder and organizer of the annual Node Conf tech event. In a YouTube video of his presentation at the recent Front End OPS conference in San Francisco, Rogers said: “Over the past couple of years, there has been an explosion of front-end tools and they are pretty much all in Node.”

In the presentation, Roger shows that Node is growing about 2/5 times as fast as Python or Ruby, languages used to build modern web sites and applications. He drew these numbers from this site which keeps up to date numbers of software packages:

“When you look at JavaScript as a big eco-system,” said Rogers, “it is now relying on Node in the way we rely on there being a browser, almost like taking it for granted.” Rogers added: “It’s a critical piece of the infrastructure.”

All this rapid growth, he concludes, is occurring because the very large number of new programmers that are adopting Node.JS and npm as part of their developer tool kits.  “Front-end tooling is … [used by] new programmers, artists, and people who did not get a fancy computer science degree from some university…. and they are responsible for the majority of the growth actually.”

This is why Node.js and npm may have an impact on Oakland’s digital divide.  Because Node.js is both easy to learn and in widespread use, it is an excellent framework to teach young and aspiring programmers in targeted programs like Black Girls Code and Hack the Hood.

Rogers was at the recent JS Conf technical conference in Florida. He told LiveWorkOakland, “There was a lot of new stuff to see … and you’d be hard pressed to find a talk that didn’t use Node in some way. Presenters were using Node and npm for almost everything without thinking about it… It’s just part of what people do.”

Max Ogden is another pillar of the JavaScript community and runs Nodeschool meetups and tutorials in the Bay Area and across the globe.  “It’s nice to see that more people working at Oakland coffee shops are involved in JavaScript and the Open Source community, building platforms that make people more productive.” He said this is what npm is doing.  “They are like GitHub, that uses open source software and also works to make it better.”

“Node is an interesting technology.  It has an easy learning curve and can do real time collaboration, Ogden said. “It doesn’t require that you have a computer science degree to use it.  Node is good for internet plumbing …. it can be used to build apps with Angular.js and other frameworks. Developers that use npm can get that first package out in just a few hours.”

Ogden sees npm moving to Oakland as good for both the move of tech start-ups into Oakland and also for the development a a thriving community of open source developers.  “There is a small but passionate open source community here in Oakland that does more non-profit work and and has more involvement for the community and the city,” Ogdan said. “In contrast, in SF, events and meetups …tend to be more about recruitment of tech staff.”

“Oakland has a real strong community of JavaScript developers.  Community is a big part of npm’s success,” explained Boothby.  “Oakland locals and JavaScript greats like Max Ogden, Mikeal Rogers, Jessica Lord, and James Halliday have all visited the npm office.”

“That’s why we were delighted to support Max when he wanted to run a event here on April 24th and why we are hoping we can do more events in the near future.”

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