Software & Web Development

In London, Pivotal's labs brew disruptive effects

It’s early April with the rain showers of Disney song cliché present and correct. The labs of Pivotal in Old Street, London are full of developers wearing T-shirts and those Cybermen headphones that seem to go with the job. The kitchen is full of sweets, snacks and more drinks options than you might see in a supermarket. This, together with 17 other lab sites Pivotal has around the world, is software engineering today.

Pivotal’s an interesting case: the maker of open-source cloud developer platforms designed to provide Silicon Valley-like disruptive thinking to enterprises. It remains one of the most important yet least well understood companies in technology but, such is the firm’s success, it is moving across the road to a much bigger building designed to showcase its talents.

I’m here to meet Alan Coad, the appropriately named VP and GM for EMEA at Pivotal. The company is San Francisco headquartered but has made a major commitment to the UK, acting as perhaps the most grown-up company in the capital’s Tech City hive. Formed in its modern iteration by a spin-out of EMC in 2013, Pivotal is a platform provider but one that features close collaboration between platform provider and customer.

“Our role is to distil the business benefits and find people willing to go on the journey with you,” says Coad, a Waterford-born Irishman who talks enthusiastically, discursively, extensively and at a rapid clip, and who has run his own startups.

Part of that ethos, Coad says, is to work with microservices, the automated and decentralised approach to architecture that is winning increasing favour. The company’s CEO, following the departure from the day-to-day role of former Microsoft executive Paul Maritz, is Rob Mee, a founder of the original Pivotal Labs and a man who, Coad says, “shaped Google’s software development process”. Mee is also known as an advocate of Extreme Programming or XP, a tributary to Agile where code is constantly and continuously examined, and pair programming where two coders work side by side.


The Tesla effect

He says that Tesla is emblematic of the kind of change in the air for forward-looking firms.

“They’re a car company but probably a bigger battery company and an even bigger software company. We looked at today’s big disruptors and said, let’s deconstruct their success. The first element is they build software differently – Agile and test-driven development. Some people would look at two people staring at the same line as code as inefficient; we see it as making it work first time.”

“Empathy is probably the biggest attribute that we have in hiring developers,” Coad says. “Amazon realised the resilience needed to be in the software [not just the] racking and stacking. We recognised that the centre of the universe is the developer. [Pivotal leaders] looked at AWS and said it’s a fantastic innovation but its proprietary top to bottom. If Netflix is built on Amazon and Amazon then enters the video market there’s an imbalance. Paul Maritz realised that we needed to create an open version of AWS to sit above the cloud.”

That’s Pivotal’s CloudFoundry platform and while a platform like AWS might represent a good fit for many startups, Coad sees Pivotal playing its biggest role among large, mature businesses that need rapid change and an injection of the Silicon Valley mentality. About 80 percent of Pivotal’s business today comes from large enterprises where once the balance was 85 per cent in favour of startups.

“Banks are begging to play with public clouds but commercially they want their own private clouds,” he says. “They want five-nines availability and the enemy of that is change, and the thought of pushing out new software every month or every day is scary. It’s like in banking today where you have [new UK banks like] Atom versus the incumbents who need to create speedboats around the super-tanker.”

The third way for them is a private cloud on CloudFoundry, he argues, but this change in mind-set will also involve moving away from the attitude of viewing software development as a resource best left to third-parties.

“That’s not an offshore task,” he says. “Europe has spent the last 20 years outsourcing core competence so they have to relearn development.”

It also means adopting a bolder stance that means moving development focus away from merely being digital adjuncts to core products and services.

“There’s a correlation between apps that are glorified brochures and have very low user ratings in the app store,” he says. “But the apps we love, like Uber, incorporate real-time data feeds, interact with us and offer highly relevant services.”

Pivotal remains one of EMC’s many federated businesses and Dell, of course, is in the process of consuming that line-up but Coad plays down talk of uncertainty and tricky positioning saying Pivotal has had light exposure to the ramifications and has operated as an independent company within the federation.

The opportunity is much larger than the disruption anyway. “We’ll bring Silicon Valley into your organisation,” he says.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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