Editor’s note: Derek Collison, CEO and founder of Apcera, is a software industry veteran and pioneer in large-scale distributed systems and enterprise computing. He has held executive positions at TIBCO, Google and VMware. In this article, he shares his technology and leadership lessons learned during his stints at these industry giants as well as a view of the future for Apcera’s cloud application platform.
Earlier in your career, you were CTO of cloud products at VMware. Please share some of your insights and lessons learned you believe are important advice for how CEOs and CTOs (or CIOs) can work together effectively.
Derek Collison: Many of the lessons I learned at VMware and my reactions to them have changed since my time with the company. However, one axiom that continues to stand the test of time is the need to connect the technology to business value. Going into VMware, I was a very technology-focused person. But I learned quickly that if the CEO’s business values are not in sync with the technical thoughts of the CIO and the CTO, that’s where things can break down.
This lesson — connecting our technological knowledge to a company’s business value so that customers are not only satisfied but also set up for long-term success — has carried over to my leadership at Apcera. It’s very important to understand your customers’ pain points deeply and remember not to get too far ahead of what a customer is really looking for. It’s a balancing act. You need to meet them where they are and future-proof them at the same time.
At VMware, you designed, architected and built Cloud Foundry, the industry’s first open Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) product. What challenges did you encounter in designing a “world’s first” product that you didn’t anticipate?
Derek Collison: The notion of a PaaS, or of accelerating the deployment of applications, existed before we created Cloud Foundry; it just existed in a very small footprint of only certain programming languages and only on cloud-based platforms. We tried to bring that concept to the more traditional enterprise. The challenge wasn’t technology, per se. VMware was an extremely successful company driven primarily around closed-source intellectual property. Others and I were pushing back very hard on this approach saying, “This is a new model, we have to open source this thing completely.” To this point, our challenges with Cloud Foundry weren’t technology based; they were all cultural within the company, and we were challenged to change the perception in the company that competition was OK and open source was the right path for this particular platform.
With that in mind, now that you are CEO at Apcera, what leadership aspects do you think are the most crucial for managing and leading a company through innovation and through situations that aren’t expected?
Derek Collison: Today at Apcera, I’m still learning daily how to manage and lead the company through rapid growth. Apcera has an incredibly broad technology offering that by design took us a long time to develop. When we were designing the platform, we put stakes in the ground about where we thought the market was moving. One of the biggest things people look to leadership for is reassurance that the company made the right bets.
I want to keep our team focused on where we’re trying to go, even if we can’t get it done in a week, two weeks, a month or three months. It has taken us years to get to where we need to be. Because of this, I believe our team is looking at leadership to ensure patience. Patience comes in all forms, whether it’s delivering technology, getting customers, securing funding or any of the other aspects of a successful company. All of these things require patience, but you can’t put your head down too long as the landscape is changing quickly. Timing is everything.
What was your original vision for founding Apcera? What needs were not being met in the marketplace that your company uniquely addressed?
Derek Collison: The technology I worked on before Apcera was trying to solve a single laser-focused problem — how can we empower developers to deploy things faster into production? We succeeded. However, it was the wrong problem to solve. When you look at platform technology, what it really has to try to solve for is how to make things easier and foster innovation while retaining trust.
This is why I started Apcera — because of the understanding that you can’t bolt solutions on top of others to solve for risk, trust and security. You have to flip everything upside down, go into a hole — which we did for over a year — and bake a lot of this stuff into the foundation where it’s transparent. This way you get the speed and enable innovation, but you also get the security, compliance, governance and all the nasty words that aren’t supposed to be said along with “speed” and “agility.” You get them baked in from the beginning. That is what makes us different and puts us in a good spot. You can’t fix this problem in a weekend.
Please describe a situation that caused you to change Apcera’s direction in product development or caused a delay to market. What is your top advice for startup CEOs on how to manage and be an effective leader in such situations?
Derek Collison: I’m very proud of the fact that we have not done any significant company pivots. We’ve wiggled, but we haven’t really pivoted from our core, the founding of the company and what we are here to do.
One of the things I’m good at is seeing things a little bit before everyone else; and I’m usually faster to pull the trigger than others might be. I saw the writing on the wall around the idea that we need a packaging format for complex workloads. A company called DotCloud saw the same writing. They actually pivoted and came out of the woodwork from being an early PaaS provider to something everyone now knows as Docker, which is a packaging format for complex workloads. I went to the team and said, “Hey, this Docker thing is going to be big; we need to support it.” They kind of looked at me and said, “What? No.”
When you put together a team of extremely intelligent and diverse, opinionated people — which is what you want — it’s not good enough to say, “We need to do this,” because they looked at me and said, “No, we don’t.” The lesson I learned was you continually have to invest in convincing people.
Once the team decided Apcera needed to go this direction, it took us two weeks to be able to run Docker images. That is a testament to the design and architecture of our platform and the talent of our people.
Now that Apcera is in the marketplace and growing, please share your experience and advice on how CEOs need to change some behaviors or mindsets to focus on growing their company. Is there a pitfall that they need to be aware of in this area?
Derek Collison: Entrepreneurs, founders and founder-CEOs are all usually very good at understanding problems that aren’t being currently solved and the market opportunities that exist for novel solutions. The ones who are really good, though, understand that whatever they see coming, even as they start getting into the motion of putting a product out there, there’s always going to be a percentage that they get wrong. You always need to adjust as you go.
CEOs have to be extremely agile and able to adapt to answer the question, “What did I miss?” That investment, especially for technical founders and CEOs, is in the customers: getting in front of them, listening to them, hearing what they like and, more importantly, what they don’t like about your solution is very critical.
You also have to understand where the timing is on the market. You have to ask: “Is the customer resonating with what I’m saying? Is it too early for them? Did I miss it?” Not being extremely fluid and agile, or ignoring customer feedback, are big pitfalls that technical founders can make.
Who is a software industry leader that you admire, and why?
Derek Collison: I was always an admirer of Steve Jobs – for his vision, not necessarily the way he went about things. I put Elon Musk in a similar category. Also, working at Google, I was a big fan of the way Larry Page and Sergey Brin always thought differently about problems and their solutions. I think what they’ve done that’s so amazing is realize the great leader they have in Sundar Pichai and have said, “You run this.” Sundar has a really good balance of leading and being firm but not having to yell at everybody to accomplish it.
You are considered a pioneer in large-scale distributed systems and enterprise computing. Please share your advice for enterprise buyers over the next 12 to 18 months. Considering the amount of change currently taking place in technology but also their need to gain competitive advantage, what is the biggest pitfall they need to avoid in their purchase decisions?
Derek Collison: Everybody wants to go faster. Massive vertical industries — healthcare, automotive, energy — are all being disrupted at a rate we’ve never seen before. Sitting still is not an option. How do you move fast in a trusted way and what technology pieces and partners can you take on that journey with you? There’s not going to be only one choice, there are going to be lots of them.
My advice is when you’re looking at technologies you should ask yourself, “What’s the holistic view of the technology, not only in the speed and agility part, but the de-risking and trust parts?” Recognize that everything around you is changing so fast that you have no option but to try new things, adopt and adapt. Figuring out how to de-risk this additional complexity should be a driving force as well.
For buyers considering Apcera’s technology, please share one or two important aspects about how it is evolving to address customer needs/expectations over the next two years.
Derek Collison: We put the trust anchor around our multi-cloud platform that specifically manages four important things: (1) workload composition (2) workload resource management (3) workload scheduling and placement and (4) workload connectivity and communications. These four parameters define what a true trusted cloud platform is, and we have spent a tremendous amount of time from day one building them into our base platform instead of just bolting them on.
I think 2016 is going to be a pretty exciting year for us at Apcera because people are starting to care deeply about security, policy, trust and governance — not just innovation, speed and agility. We’ve done the massive amount of investment in time and energy around the technology to be ready for this future, trust-required IT landscape.
It’s always difficult to not run out too far ahead. My job is to be at least two to five years out in terms of trying to visualize what’s on the horizon. Machine learning, IoT, the number of connected things that people will want to control are all going to explode at such a rate that people will fail to understand until it has happened. The companies that invest in this early on will be in a very good position. It’s all based on timing.
Derek Collison is founder and CEO of Apcera. An industry veteran and pioneer in large-scale distributed systems and enterprise computing, he has held executive positions at TIBCO Software, Google and VMware. At TIBCO, he designed and implemented a wide range of messaging products including Rendezvous and EMS.