by Swapnil Bhartiya

How Docker’s new CEO plans to manage the company’s growth

May 03, 2017
Cloud ComputingLinux

Steve Singh has three priorities for Docker: innovation, customers and talent.

Docker has appointed Concur founder Steve Singh as the company’s new CEO. Singh succeeds Ben Golub, who has taken a position on the company’s board of directors, where Singh serves as chairman. I talked to Singh to learn more about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Managing growth

Singh sees the container technology provider facing the same challenges that any company at this stage would face — being able to manage the growth of the business.  He has set three priorities for Docker: innovation, customers and talent.

Innovation: “If you look at history, great enduring companies especially in the technology industry are always innovating ahead of the market. They are always innovating ahead of their customers. Innovation is an area that I want to make sure we have really substantive investment at Docker, both in the open-source community and in the products and services that we build internally then deliver to our enterprise customers.”

Customers: “I want to make sure that we, as a company, invest in building enterprise applications and services on top of the core Docker platform, and also expand our capacity to reach enterprise customers, to serve them and to have long term relationships with those enterprise customers,” said Singh.

Talent: Under Golub’s leadership, Docker grew from a 15-person company in 2013 to over 330 employees, and Docker is hiring aggressively. Singh is standing on a very strong foundation and he plans to further strengthen it by creating an environment that attracts and retains the very best talent in the world, whether in engineering or sales, or customer service and so on.

Focusing on these three priorities, Singh believes, will lead to Docker towards its ultimate goal of serving a broader market area.

Docker is being used not only by traditional companies to modernize their services, but it’s also creating new businesses. In many ways, Docker is trying to do with Linux containers what Red Hat did with Linux kernel — create a platform to enable others to innovate on top of it.

“There are over 400 enterprise customers that are using Docker to not only run their mission critical apps but also for a lot of their own innovations that they are building in a micro-services architecture,” said Singh. “That’s why increasing investment in innovation is very important because there is a massive opportunity to drive more value for the enterprise customer, in particular.”

And the investment that Docker is making to better serve its customers will also find its way into Docker’s open source initiatives. We are seeing that already. Docker has open sourced some really critical pieces of technology and made it modular, which allows the ecosystem to not only have more engagement but also more say.  

Kubernetes vs. Docker

If you talk to Docker users, you will hear a familiar refrain: They all love Docker containers, but some of them are betting on Kubernetes instead of Docker’s own orchestration technologies. That’s critical because Docker doesn’t make money from Docker containers; they make money through products like Docker Swarm that compete with Kubernetes.

When I asked Singh about the increasing threat from Kubernetes, he said, “First of all, we deliver a broad platform for application development, management and delivery. Kubernetes is a project, and it’s just one piece of that broader platform that we deliver, the orchestration piece.”

He also highlighted the value of competition. “Competition in my view is a good thing for the world, the more competition there is, the more it pushes all of us to be better,” said Singh. “We’re no different than anybody else, we’re going to push ourselves to go innovate faster than anybody else in the world.”

However, there is no place for locking users into Docker technologies. Singh pushed for open source at Concur and he is pushing for the same approach at Docker. He embraced the idea that if Docker’s customers want to use the Docker platform and Swarm as their orchestration layer, the company will obviously continue to invest in Swarm. But if they want to use the Docker platform with Kubernetes as the orchestration layer, which some customers do, Singh says that’s ok too.

“We can’t take a posture that says we are kind of a community and then not embrace what people want. And so, our view within embracing the entire ecosystem. Ultimately the customer gets to choose,” said Singh. “CIOs around the world not only are they looking for great value, they are looking for the company that’s actually defining the innovation curve and defining where this platform needs to go.”

Moving to microservices

Singh comes from a very strong developer background. He started writing code on Apple Lisa, long before most of the people who currently work on Docker were even born. Decades ago he figured out how to not only build services for enterprise customers but also how to market them to enterprise customers.

“Concur was actually at the forefront of a lot of those changes,” Singh said, referring to the shift to microservices. “In fact much of the Concur architecture is a microservices architecture.”

“This is the very same thing that Docker is focused on, so it’s an opportunity to bring that experience to the Docker opportunity,” said Singh.

The movement towards a microservices architecture requires a development framework and development platform that enables users to be able to manage their existing legacy applications. Customers want to be able to create new applications, whether it’s in a microservices model or not, and then they want to be able to connect all of these applications and services together into whatever logical format that they need.

According to Singh, “Docker delivers that set of services and my feeling is that this is an opportunity for us to marry some of my experiences around building an enterprise company that was in fact cutting edge (and prior to cutting edge) in microservices, to the core platform that Docker offers.”

How sustainable is Docker?

There is a saying in India, ‘the tree that bears fruit will be stoned.’ In other words, being a leader is perilous. 

Can Docker sustain its position as a revolutionary technology company? “Look at the success that Docker has already seen across the 400 enterprise customers who’ve embraced us. These are some of the biggest companies in the world including ADT, VISA, GE, Northern Trust and MetLife. These are organizations that are running their mission critical apps on us. So, I would say that the first proof point is that we actually have a solution that is helping customers derive economic value.”

Singh said that as Docker builds on its enterprise capacity to sell, service, market and to support we will see that the number of customers who embrace Docker will be measured in the thousands, tens of thousands. “The reason I’m here [at Docker] and the reason I’m excited is that I think that Docker can be a transformational global technology company, delivering applications and services and help others build applications and services. I see nothing that says that that can’t happen, so we are committed to building that company.” He even went as far as saying that over time we will see Docker become a public company.

Here it should be noted that Singh co-founded a company that was acquired by SAP. So he also brings in great experience in that kind of transition. What are the chances of Docker being acquired under his leadership?

“At Concur, we built a great billion dollar plus global technology company and at one point it was acquired because somebody else, in that case SAP, saw the value in the business and wanted to take it to the SAP scale,” said Singh, “Now, could that happen with Docker? Possibly, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to go build a scaled global organization.”

Value of open source

Docker is largely an open source company. It has created a very vibrant open source community around the project. But open source is a development model, not a business model.  And it’s hard to make money around open source.

Singh takes the position that not only can Docker “build a great commercial company” around open source, but that “the open-source model is the framework of the next generation of technology companies.”

“The reason is simple. As you open up the stack, you give others the chance to add value. Now you have millions of people actively involved in the development of your platform. You give them an opportunity to actually add the value themselves and then they monetize that value. When you do that, you’ll always innovate faster than anybody else can.”

He pointed out that Concur is also an open platform. “Obviously,  open source is something I pushed in very heavily and the reason for it is when you open up the platform, others command value. You really start to make a more robust solution to solve a broad range of customer needs,” he said.

“In my view, open source is the technology model of the future. You and I both know that you can point to whole bunch of companies today that built their businesses on open source. They just don’t share with the community. We feel like we can do both.”