It’s been an impressive time spent at MongoDB World this week in New York City, the home of the NoSQL vendor’s headquarters. We’ve seen how MongoDB is maturing in its position as a serious enterprise seller, how it’s taking on Hadoop with its own Data Lake offering, and explored some very interesting customer use cases.
However, no trip to MongoDB’s user event is complete without a sit down with the company’s CEO, Dev Ittycheria. Last year I expressed an opinion that MongoDB was becoming increasingly confident as a company, it was very sure of its position in the market. And this confidence has only increased over the past 12 months, with Ittycheria stating:
I think three, four years ago, it wasn't clear who the winner of the NoSQL market was going to be. We were ahead, but there were other people who were within shouting distance. I think that's become very clear who the winner of the market is.
Part of that is down to MongoDB’s IPO and its financials being made public, with pretty stellar growth year on year. However, there’s another element to this story that shifts away from the revenue, or even the product - and that’s the changing nature of how MongoDB engages with buyers. Ittycheria was frank about the fact that these conversations are maturing and MongoDB is increasingly being used as a core platform for enterprises to run mission critical applications, not just for small, greenfield projects. This is also being reflected in deal-size. He explains:
The nature of the conversations with C-level stakeholders has changed. In the early days when I was here it was more about trying us for a tertiary project or tier two workloads, to kind of dip their feet in the water get a feel for this new technology. Now it's about looking to re-platform off relational for, say, really mission critical trading applications, billing applications, mainframe offloads, so on and so forth.
So all of a sudden, the tone and tenor and the level of meetings we are having are a lot higher. Before it used to be more department level. Once in a while we’d meet CIOs. Now we're meeting with C-level people who really want to understand our strategy so they can map their strategy in the context of ours.
This year we also had almost 600 companies who were spending $100,000 a year with us, as a minimum. So when you think about $100,000 a year, that's no longer a science project. That something that has to get justified. That means that they're really running mission critical workloads on MongoDB.
However, there is a theme emerging around the product too for MongoDB. And it’s formed out of the company’s roots, where it’s focus was making a NoSQL database that was so easy for developers to use, that it was the obvious choice. As we’ve noted time and time again, MongoDB is extending this to other areas and is becoming a strategic ‘as-a-service’ data platform.
Whether that’s Stitch for the front-end management, or Atlas for a cloud-based database, or the recently acquired Realm for mobile development, MongoDB is no longer just a database. However, this means that MongoDB also has to mature in its approach to market. What do I mean by this? It has to not only be a useful technology set, but it has to be an authority on data-as-a-service in the enterprise.
Data is the one area that we hear time and time again that buyers are struggling with. If MongoDB can become a useful adviser and solution provider to that, it’s on to a winner. But that also requires extending itself beyond its beloved core (the developers). On the product side, Ittycheria said:
So we're broadening our footprint across the data layer, we're adding functionality at the app layer. And we're also adding functionality at the client-end between Realm at the mobile database and IoT. And so essentially, we're moving up the stack and broadening the stack.
Spot on. And all of the investments MongoDB is making are focused on the key aim of making it easier to work with data. Ittycheria added:
I'd say, I think we've been pretty prescient in terms of knowing what customers wanted, in terms of understanding what customers need, making their lives easy, getting infrastructure out of the way.”
Let's say, we kind of work from the outside in. And so when we listen to our customers, the end users, what they basically say is that they love working with MongoDB because we make it so simple to work with data.
Our MongoDB query language is so expressive than anything else that they can use it for, they will. And so what they're saying is, are there other ways that we can use MongoDB to more easily work with data?
And much like we made a bet with Atlas three years ago - that bet has paid off really well -we think we're planting seeds for the future that these will be big businesses. For example, I think the Data Lake, we started seeing people saying, “Boy, this MongoDB query language is so easy, why can’t I use this for other things?”
And you know, I don't want to publicly commit to any kind of traction, but I would think these investments are also very important.
Work to be done
However, as MongoDB has grown and grown, it inevitably faces a couple of challenges, according to Ittycheria. One is around scaling, especially with regard to maintaining the culture of the company that has made it what it is today. This also means attracting and retaining the right talent.
The second challenge is more nuanced and it involves recognising where and how MongoDB can extend this ‘data-as-a-service’ model and then facilitate the messaging around that, so that it’s inclusive of a wide range of users across the enterprise.
On the scaling, Ittycheria said:
We're growing so fast. About a third of your employee base is new every year. Every office is bulging at the seams. So you're trying to add all this capacity. Then, do you have the leadership talent to absorb that capacity? So we have a lot of first time managers who are going from an individual contributor role to a leader role. It’s a very different perspective to manage a team than just managing yourself. So we are helping people develop their leadership skills and we're expanding into new markets - we opened an office in Dubai, we opened offices in Latin America, we're expanding to Asia.
So just making sure we retain the culture. And you know, for us, the biggest issue is just keeping the bar high, right? So at the end of the day, our most important asset are the people who work for us. They come in the morning, and they leave at night, and you hope they come back the next day.
We put a lot of premium in recruiting the best talent. So that's what we spend a lot of time on. I don't spend as much time worrying about what the competition is doing. We try and work backwards from, what do our customers want? What do you think they're going to want next? Rather than trying to respond to everyone.
On the second point, around extending ‘data-as-a-service’, Ittycheria is all too clear on the challenge data poses for the enterprise. He explains:
In terms of the long term, we want MongoDB to be the best platform for people to build modern applications. The reason why the data layer is so important is that, if you talk to developers, their biggest challenge is with data. How do I get data in the right place? How do I make sure it's accurate and up to date? How to manage data flow? How do I synchronize the data? That's the at the end of the day what developers spend the most time on.
So the degree to which we can make our platform more and more easy to work with data, more and more people will come to use our platform. And I think that's what we've seen over the last couple of years, the recognition of that.
It’s no secret that I think MongoDB has played a smart game in the NoSQL market. It recognised that for longevity and growth it needed to extend its purpose beyond simply being a database. By positioning itself as the vendor that makes data use in the enterprise ‘easy’, that’s far more compelling. My only word of advice would be that MongoDB now has a bit of a tightrope to walk. What sort of company does it want to be? One that is seen as a developer’s favourite technology? Or one that’s seen as a serious, strategic, enterprise authority on data? There’s probably room for both, if it’s clever. But that means a very careful go-to-market strategy needs to come together that reflects that. What I will say though is that Ittycheria gets it and this is a company that has been smart in its approach to date. The next phase will be an interesting one to watch.