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Last Updated: March 17, 2008: 5:06 PM EDT
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The socialist state of ThoughtWorks

Roy Singham adores Hugo Chavez and thinks China is a model of good governance. His biggest fans? Corporate America.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

(Fortune) -- Roy Singham wants you to know that ThoughtWorks, the Chicago-based software company he founded 15 years ago, and where he is now chairman of the board, is a growing and profitable enterprise and not a socialist collective.

But he also makes it clear in everything he says that what he really wants to do is change the world.

"As a socialist I believe the world should have access to the best ideas in software for free," he says. "My goal is a technically-superior infrastructure to solve the world's problems."

His vehicle for effecting world change is a 1,000-person software consultancy that's growing at the rate of 20% to 30% a year, has outposts around the world, and a client list that includes Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), Oracle, major banks and media companies such as The Guardian in the United Kingdom. (See correction at end of story.)

And his software is almost as revolutionary as his rhetoric. ThoughtWorks' chief scientist, Martin Fowler, is a legendary programmer who helped create the so-called Agile movement, which aims to speed code-writing with a process of multiple iterations. ThoughtWorks is breaking new ground in large-company software programming by simultaneously embracing Agile methods, the newest tools (the Ruby language and the Ruby on Rails framework for writing web applications), and radical forms of corporate organization.

"We fight against the idea that programming is a commodity and the best way to manage it is in a factory process," Singham says. His programmers work only in small groups. In Bangalore, one of ThoughtWorks' many international outposts, 200 employees work in one big room so they can communicate freely. "We want to be the flattest company in the world. The janitors in China should be the strategic equals of the CEO on Chicago."

Although ThoughtWorks is not run as a socialist collective (Singham personally owns 97% of the common stock of this private company and isn't inclined to share it), it might remind you of one.

The company practices "as much transparency as people can tolerate," Singham says. He once considered publishing everybody's salaries - but thought better of it. Any employee can contact him or CEO Trevor Mather at any time. They take care not to hire "bigots, sexists, or homophobes," though Singham jokes that "we have been accused of disregarding our mantra of diversity by not hiring socially-ignorant people."

Singham believes his company's culture is its most valuable asset and a major reason it's has been growing rapidly for the past five years - even in the industry's darkest post-bubble days.

"How do intellectuals collaborate in the 21st century?" Singham asks, then answers his own question: "Self-organizing in small teams, poly-skilled, decentralized, non-authoritative. Libertarians and socialists agree on this, ironically."

Singham is refreshingly candid about his struggle to reconcile his politics with his approach to business: He wants software to be free, but he also insists on getting paid for his work. "So there is a contradiction to what I'm saying. But I dream of a day when a Rwandan clinic can have free access to world-class software."

Adds CEO Mather, who is not a socialist but shares some of Singham's revolutionary fervor: "We're not here to optimize returns for shareholders, but to change the world of software."

Although he is press-shy, Singham is not afraid to address current affairs. He's a big fan of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, for example, and has no compunction about calling it a "phenomenally democratic place." He especially likes its national commitment to free open source software. He also looks to China, where ThoughtWorks has a growing operation, as a model for governance. "China is teaching the West that the world is better off with a dual system of both free-market adjustments and long-term planning."

He adds: "I think the left will be reborn in this century."

But the weapon he knows how to wield best is software code. "A huge percentage of the value created in society over the next 25 years will come from software," he says. With ThoughtWorks' radically streamlined processes, Singham thinks it can help the world move more quickly toward social justice.

What do his customers want? These days, it's all about Web 2.0 technologies, sticky content and online communities - as fast as his software tools can deliver it. ThoughtWorks recently built a customer-oriented social network for Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500) that went into production just six weeks after the idea was proposed. Even major banks are asking ask how they can get Facebook-like features.

A socialist creating social networks. I don't run across one every day, but I guess it's apt.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that The Times of India is a Thoughtworks client.  To top of page

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