The digital era has exploded in a haze of apps, devices and data led by the oh so common industry buzzwords of mobility, cloud, big data and the Internet of Things. This digital era relies on one key aspect of technology – connection.
However, I cannot help regard the maturing connected world as a somewhat oxymoronic concept – those connections which are so vital, are hard to connect.
One only need look at the many fragmented Gartner magic quadrant sectors to see how the complexity of connection is compounded by the offerings of vendors big and small. There is, however, a San-Francisco based Brit who may hold the open source solution to business connectivity – Ross Mason of MuleSoft.
Sitting in the company’s new flagship EMEA office in the heart of the city of London, Mason told me how MuleSoft was borne out of frustration experienced in his past-life in investment banking.
"I couldn’t find anything that was easy to consume, that my guys could actually work with. It all felt very opaque. There were 7 systems being integrated back in 2001, 7 systems which took €30 million, over 100 people and a year and half to do. It just felt wrong; it felt broken on all sorts of levels. So originally I started with making connectivity easier, starting an open source project called Mule."
Mason’s decision to go open source was based initially on the fact that he was ‘one person trying to take on a big problem.’ The decision to go with open source has not just matured the software, but also added to, and bolstered, the culture and philosophy of the company.
"Open Source is a fantastic distribution model – if you run it the right way. The reason why I went with open source is I didn’t think I could figure it out all on my own, I would have to bring other people in and open source just seemed like the right place to start.
"That was a big part of the philosophy early on; the code was open, the IP was open and so people could actually see what we were doing. It also gave companies a lot of comfort because before open source, if you bought from a vendor, you had no recourse if it went sour.
"[Open Source] has been good for the culture of the company, it has set some values which you probably wouldn’t get in a closed organisation. Developers love to work for companies who have open source, which is one of the reasons why you see a lot of these vendors pushing it because developers are attracted to companies that allow them to work on things."
At this stage in the evolution of MuleSoft, Mason veered off script and bucked the established start-up trend. Unlike many start-ups whose goal it is to develop a feature or product just to sell to a Google-like giant for billions, Mason built MuleSoft as a company.
"I think what made us different [when founding MuleSoft] is that very early on we wanted to be a company. Back in 2007 it was all about open source computing monetisation and people were selling services on the back of open source – that’s not a very scalable business model and eventually it just runs out of runway.
"So we realised pretty quickly that we have to offer real value and then take that value to market. That’s how we evolved and probably why we feel a bit different because we started with that mindset from the beginning – we didn’t stumble across it."
Talking to Mason, while it is obvious he is a Brit, there is no mistaking the slight American twang and the Americanisms (couch) which sneak their way into his speech. Mason’s acquired accent comes from the fact that Silicon Valley is MuleSoft’s home, which was the result of a risk-adverse London tech scene when Mason was founding the company.
"Late 2005, I spoke to VCs in London and basically they were very risk adverse. They wanted me to have so many things aligned that it became clear that there was no way I would raise money to invest in the idea. The US, in contrast had a much better early-stage pool of investors, which of course has gone crazy in the last 10 years.
"They really invest in giving people lots of avenues to explore their ideas, with the bet that one of these ideas is going to explode. They just hope that they will be a part of the one that explodes and defines an industry."
The decision to head to the States made good on its return, with the company recently valued at $1.5bn. The $1.5bn value, of course, lies in the success of MuleSoft’s software.
The software is touted as a platform which changes how businesses connect, with APIs the catalyst for this change. Although reluctant to define the technology, Mason did provide an analogy which many can relate to.
"You know when you call the bank and you have a question for them and it takes forever to get through to speak to someone. You go through the automated process and then get through to someone who asks you the exact same questions you answered in the automated stage.
"That’s because there are multiple systems you have touched when you called that banking service and none of that information is shared between those systems very well.
"We enable those systems to all connect together, and we are by far the best out there at doing that quickly and reliably. The results of connecting the unconnected is that you create much better user experiences, you gain a better understanding of your customer, and you can make your employees much more productive."
In order to connect the unconnected, MuleSoft is driven by an API-led connectivity approach – an approach which not only gives speed and agility to integration, but also frees companies to innovate faster.
"A key component of connecting anything together is the humble API, which you hear banded around a lot – is it a technology? Is it a strategy? Is it something magical? It is slightly magical, but it’s a little bit mundane too.
"It’s literally, very simply, just an interface between somebody who has information or a capability and somebody who wants to use it. APIs provide a channel for those two to communicate in a reliable, machine-readable way.
"Those APIs not only provide channels but they also provide the ability to put a collar around what goes through those systems – it gives you a point of control."
It all sounds rather obvious – connect your systems, improve customer experience, make your employees more productive. So why are some businesses still so slow to integrate – why is phoning the bank still a frustrating, unconnected experience?
"It does seem obvious but the problem with it is that it requires not just a technology change, but a technology plus mindset change. What we are talking about is a change in behaviour.
"IT has always been centralised because technology was a central concern, but in the last 5 years every part of the business now needs technology to run their business – you can’t really centralise it. So we are talking about enabling a new IT operating model where you decentralise the capabilities of what IT has, but you centralise control. That is a much harder proposition for people to get."
According to Mason, the CIOs get this new proposition ‘in spades’, but the trouble starts as you move further down the organisation.
"It’s actually the guys right in the middle who have the hardest time because they are trying to keep the lights on – they are trying to fly the plane and they are being told to change the engines. That’s the big challenge. So transformation will not be a big bang, it will be very evolutionary and there will be stumbled stories and there will be successes."
MuleSoft’s rise in the market is certainly not a stumbled story, but the question has to be asked, and apparently it is asked often, whether a sell-out could be on the horizon.
"It’s funny, I meet a lot of founders who talk about the things they either had too early or too late, but we got lucky and it all sort of fell into place. So when you have that type of opportunity the last thing you want to do is sell out. What we want to do is create the next big software company."
Mason makes it perfectly clear that MuleSoft will certainly not settle for any less than first place in the market, drawing upon the model of success seen by the likes of Cisco and Facebook – two companies in which connecting and connections were at the core of its business.
"Networks existed before Cisco but they were not normalised, it wasn’t easy to connect an IP network together. Their lucky run was that the internet had just taken off in a big way, and they made it super easy for people to connect networks together. Facebook did the same thing with people – social networks existed before but they really understood the value of giving people the power to go and do it themselves."
"I think the next big network play is the application network. Applications don’t connect today the way that people connect to Facebook or networks."
These ambitions of building a Cisco-esque application networking company may seem far reaching, but taking into account the MuleSoft journey so far many would say it is definitely achievable. From the initial software in 2003, to the launch of the company in 2006, MuleSoft now boast a billion dollar value, 500+ employees worldwide and 10 offices and counting worldwide.
With 210,000 developers worldwide using MuleSoft, one thing is for certain – Ross Mason certainly isn’t one person trying to take on a big problem anymore.