Just about a year ago, tech industry legend Paul Maritz stepped down from the CEO role of Pivotal — a little-known but tremendously influential software development startup spun out from EMC in 2012.
For Rob Mee, the man who replaced Maritz as CEO, it was a kind of a “Once and Future King” scenario — A quarter century earlier, Mee was the founder of Pivotal Labs, the company that EMC bought and that would go on to form the core of the current company.
That may explain how Mee has hit the ground running.
Since Mee took the reins, Pivotal’s core Cloud Foundry business has doubled its annual revenue run rate to $200 million. And the company has snagged a $253 million investment led by Ford, with participation by Microsoft, in a deal valuing the company at $2.8 billion
This week, Mee will enjoy an anniversary party of sorts, as Pivotal holds its SpringOne Platform conference, where 2,000-plus developers will descend upon Las Vegas to discuss the very latest in the best ways to build the software that increasingly runs so much of our world.
It’s not quite a victory lap, given that Pivotal is still a privately-held startup. But after years of moving quietly as a secret power that helps Silicon Valley’s most well-known companies, Mee and his company are on the cusp of wider recognition, and many hope, moving closer to an IPO.
For Mee and Pivotal, though, it’s been a long, weird road to get here. It’s a story that goes back to the earliest days of companies like Google, eBay, and Twitter, and how those companies had to learn to get their groove on.
The beginning of agility
Mee founded Pivotal Labs as a tiny software consultancy in 1989. At first, by Mee’s own admittance, there wasn’t anything particularly special about his work with clients, helping them build software in the earliest days of the PC.
“I wasn’t a born leader, or a born entrepreneur,” Mee says.
It was in the late nineties, when Mee became a visible figure in a rising philosophy of software development called “Agile,” that the Pivotal of today really got its start.
Agile promotes the idea that developers should work closely together, quickly iterating on new code and solutions collaboratively. The faster you put out code, the better-prepared you are to solve new problems in real-time.
“Change is inevitable, that’s the only constant,” Mee says.
As the PC started to infiltrate offices everywhere, so too did the market for first-class software. Programming was moving from the margins into the mainstream, and as it turned into bigger business, big, expensive software projects kept failing because companies didn’t have any guidance on how to move as a team.
“In those days, people didn’t need to develop software with any kind of methodology at all,” Mee says.
And so, amid the dot-com boom and its aftermath, Pivotal was called into early-stage tech companies like a still-young eBay, to help teach them better, more productive ways of programming. Venture capital firms brought their portfolio companies in to learn Pivotal’s secrets, and word of mouth spread.
Then, in 2003, an ex-eBay executive landed at Google. And, remembering the excellent experience he had with them, he called Pivotal in to coach teams at a still-pre-IPO Google.
What Google had to learn
Mee is reluctant to share too many details of what Pivotal did at Google, given that it was a long time ago and both companies have changed (and grown) a lot since those days.
But he does say that Google’s experience is pretty illustrative of a problem faced by a lot of companies, even today. Pivotal Senior VP Edward Hieatt, who’s been with the company since early days, described working with these tech companies as “brilliant people working individually.”
In other words, any individual Googler was exemplary at their job, but they struggled to come together to answer questions around who’s responsible for what, or the overall direction of any given product. Mee describes Google at that time as “ripe for a little more discipline.”
That’s where Pivotal Labs came in, for Google and lots more customers besides.
Hieatt describes Pivotal Labs’ chief product at that point as a “cultural exchange program.” Instead of just doing the work for you, its employees (who call themselves “Pivots) actually mentor its customers through the process of learning the Agile mindset.
In those days, that meant Pivotal would send contractors to hunker down in your office, making themselves part of your team — contributing not only code, but also coaching on how to work better and deliver higher-quality products.
Then, once you’ve internalized everything they have to teach, they leave, and you (ideally) keep working the way they taught you, plus whatever spins on it you think it needs.
“Once you’ve internalized it, you own it,” Mee says.
Spinning in, spinning out
Pivotal kept growing, working with tech companies large and small. By 2009, Pivotal had a pair of contractors embedded with Twitter. And Twitter loved them.
“The Pivots joined Twitter at a time when our service was straining under its on popularity — their contributions toward a more predictable, measurable and scalable direction were significant and appreciated,” wrote Twitter cofounder Biz Stone in a 2009 blog entry.
All of that love was enough to earn Pivotal the attention of EMC, the tech titan of the business software world, which purchased Pivotal and its 200 employees in an all-cash deal in 2012.
At first, not much changed, Mee says. He was still in control, and Pivotal Labs was still continuing their same work with customers.
“We were really left alone for about a year,” Mee says.
But then, in 2013, EMC dropped a bomb. They’d be spinning out a new company, called Pivotal Software, with Pivotal Labs as the core of the business, General Electric as a major investor, and Paul Maritz — an industry legend, most recently the CEO of EMC subsidiary VMware — as its chief executive.
Running with a legend
Mee says that despite no longer being in the CEO’s chair, working with Maritz was a dream. Maritz worked with Mee to understand what Pivotal is, does, and what makes it tick.
“It was very easy, because it was Paul,” Mee says. “He listens to the people who work for him.”
Maritz brought with him 1,000 additional employees, mainly drawn from EMC and VMware, bringing the total headcount up to around 1,250. More importantly in the long run, the new structure also brought a new mandate to take VMware’s Cloud Foundry technology — a buzzed-about software-building platform that developers loved — and turn it into a real product.
With Maritz handling the business operations, Mee went heads-down on the technology, focusing on making Cloud Foundry a product that better reflected Pivotal Labs’ philosophies on how software should be built. That meant a platform that allows for pushing out lots of code, quickly.
“‘I’m going to disappear for a while into this technology and this team,'” Mee remembers telling Maritz.
And so he did. Until Maritz stepped down from the CEO role in 2015 (though he stayed on as chairman of Pivotal’s board of directors). Mee says that he was enjoying his new tech-focused gig, but says that when the CEO job was offered to him once again, passing up “the opportunity of a lifetime” was “out of the question.”
He also notes that while Maritz is out flying around Africa doing charitable work these days, Maritz periodically flies back to Pivotal’s San Francisco office to offer help.
Under Mee, Pivotal has really refocused on practicing what the company preaches.
The company prides itself on maximizing productivity by minimising distractions — the Pivotal Labs teams that work with customers often only have one meeting per day, at 9:06am (yes, exactly), so they can spend the rest of the day working.
Similarly, programmers take turns on “interrupt” duty, making themselves the ones that other people can bother with questions so the rest of their teams can just sit down and work on their projects.
It’s a culture that Ford CEO Mark Fields absolutely fell in love with, which led to the car company making that huge investment at the $2.8 billion valuation, with Microsoft tagging along.
Mee says that the time is right for Pivotal because, just like the late nineties, there are lots of companies that need to learn how to deliver better software, even as smartphones, connected cars, smart thermostats, and every other internet-connected gadget become more central to our everyday lives.
Recently, Pivotal hired a new CFO in the form of ex-Morgan Stanley banker Cynthia Gaylor, though an IPO isn’t on the table right now. And the company is boasting of huge growth in the Pivotal Cloud Foundry business, and its associated Pivotal Big Data suite product.
But for now, he’d like to focus on getting Pivotal’s profile a little higher and the business a little stronger before he even thinks about an IPO for the company. After years of relative obscurity, it’s time to take the spotlight.
“We’re not that well known, right now,” Mee says.