Sequel: Snowflake CEO Bob Muglia modernises data warehouses

Snowflake Computing CEO and former Microsoft president Bob Muglia is going back to his SQL roots

Bob Muglia had one of the best views from inside a software juggernaut when he embarked on a long and successful career at Microsoft just as the company was extending its lock on the desktop to servers. There, he helped make Windows NT, SQL Server and other tools staples of the datacentre.

“I saw the good, the bad and the ugly,” he says over a transatlantic phone line connecting London and Menlo Park, California. “At Microsoft I was in the server business when there was no Microsoft server [product] business and remember very vividly the Office guys telling me they had no interest in NT because they were storing their data on [Novell] NetWare.”

Microsoft was very soon to do to Novell and others what an angry hammerhead shark might do to a particularly annoying stingray but “the ugly” was being one of the 12 executives “skewered” by Department of Justice lawyer David Boies in the epic antitrust suit. Muglia says he got off lightly: he was the last witness, it was a Friday, the judge was already convinced of Microsoft’s guilt… and he wanted to go fishing.

“Microsoft didn’t do everything right but it did a lot right,” he says, but “the bad” is recalled as some arrogant decisions where the eye strayed from the needs of the customer. Pausing development of Internet Explorer was one example, playing hardball against open source (including Steve Ballmer calling Linux “a cancer”) another.

“The minute you start thinking about anything else but the customer you can get into trouble, he says, arguing that Microsoft’s choices essentially led developers on a pleasant road to Android.

After a 23-year stint, Muglia left Microsoft in 2011 for what sounds like a dispiriting couple of years at networking giant Juniper, trying to build a software business while enduring eight quarterly budget cuts and five layoffs in nine quarters.


It’s snowing data

For the last two years he has been CEO at Snowflake Computing, a Silicon Valley cloud-based data warehousing startup that has generated plenty of buzz and plenty of funding – over $200m so far. While Bill Gates attempts to stop malaria and Steve Ballmer tries to map US government spending, Muglia is still operating at the sharp end of the tech industry. Why?

“My simple thing is I’m not done… I’m not young but I’m not old enough to be put out to pasture yet.”

He says he likes building products and teams and Snowflake’s architecture attracted him to join when the code was still in alpha. He says that he had already seen that the shift to cloud was the equivalent of the PC-to-minicomputer transition decades earlier and he wanted in. Data warehousing represented an opportunity: a large ($15bn says IDC) market that was ripe for disruption. The opposition is older products such as those from Netezza and Teradata but he says Snowflake is also attracting business from companies that have tried to apply Hadoop to the problem and couldn’t make it work.

These are testing times for the Hadoop community. Hortonworks’ shares are depressed and Cloudera’s imminent IPO is shaping up to be a lot smaller than some watchers had expected. The problem is simple, Muglia argues.

“What’s really happening with Hadoop is it’s just not working… companies are struggling to implement and there aren’t a lot of happy customers out there. It’s hitting a wall.”


A sequel squared

Oddly enough, Snowflake represents something of a belated sequel to the early days at Microsoft for Muglia: a full SQL relational database that looks exactly like that – same interface, same commands – but promises the ability to operate at massive scale because the architecture is all new and purpose-built while others are decades old.

I suggest that one small wrinkle might be that name that, in this strangest of times, has become a pejorative term for sensitive liberal thinkers. But Muglia says he’s not bothered and has no plans to change it. “It’s an easy to recognise name, it’s very friendly and easy to translate,” he says.

Today, Snowflake has 180 people and is trying to establish a European presence with a UK office. It’s “small but growing incredibly fast”, he says, and, pushed, he compares its progress to a lite version of Microsoft in the early 1990s – a time when not much went wrong for the Redmond company.

He says he harks back to what he learned about hiring and supporting customers and partners from those days of rapid growth. An IPO might come along one day but for today he is focused on solving a problem customers care about – and having the good without the bad or the ugly.


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