Adam Wiggins on Heroku’s Pivot, Building a “Washing Machine” for Web Developers, and Joining Salesforce.com

5/24/11Follow @wroush

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the valuable usage, measured by our ability to acquire customers and how much they would be willing to pay, was on the platform side.” Lindenbaum engineered a three-month transition under which all users of the Heroku Web editor were moved to a new site called Heroku Gardens, while the new Heroku.com, which debuted in January 2009, was a pure platform, running code developers had written on their own.

Well before Salesforce.com came sniffing around, it was clear that the pivot had been a wise move. “The new platform was very sticky,” Wiggins says. “Users kept asking us for more capacity and scale, and that was an indicator that we were on the right path”—so much so that the company eventually decommissioned Heroku Gardens. Meanwhile, in order to scale up its own organization, Heroku brought over most of the old Bitscribe team.

But what has Heroku become, exactly, and how is it different from any other hosting service? Well, for one thing, the company outsources all of the actual processing to Amazon— “We have never owned a piece of physical hardware, not once,” Wiggins proudly asserts. Aside from that, Heroku supplies lots of labor-saving tools, plug-ins, software modules, and services to Ruby on Rails developers, such as custom domain names and SSL for secure Web communications, as well as easy integration with third-party services such as Chargify or Recurly for managing subscription billing, Panda Stream or Zencoder for serving mobile video, or MoonShado for apps that need to send SMS text messages.

“It’s the difference between a bucket of soapy water and a washing machine,” says Wiggins. “With a washing machine, you don’t get in there and deal directly with the washing of the clothes. You have less control, and sometimes that’s a problem because things need to be hand-washed. But the 90-percent case is that you just want to dump your things in there, pick a setting, and come back in an hour.”

I asked Wiggins whether he thought Paul Graham and the other Y Combinator founders admitted Heroku to the incubator because they had some inkling that having access to washing machines would make life easier for virtually every subsequent Web startup to go through the program. He laughed and said no. “Honestly, I don’t think they even completely understood our idea,” he says. “And to be fair, we didn’t either. We had a prototype and some technical design ability. They were investing in us, not the product. But certainly it proved to be valuable.”

For startups—or even larger businesses—the main advantage of an application deployment platform like Heroku, in Wiggins’s eyes, is that it lowers the cost of mistakes. To achieve continuous deployment and get the customer feedback you need to make your product better, you have to push code fast, and “the faster you work, the more bugs you will create…there is no way around it.” Traditional software development deals with that by imposing heavy quality-assurance processes, in a mostly vain attempt to ship defect-free software. Under the continuous deployment model, by contrast, “you just let the mistakes happen, but you make it so that you can correct them easily.”

Given how deeply that philosophy runs at Heroku, quite a few people were surprised that the startup would want to be part of Salesforce.com. The San Francisco-based giant was certainly a pioneer in cloud computing—it took the lead in customer relationship management software by putting all the moving parts in the cloud, so users didn’t have to run any software locally—but it’s no longer what you might call a nimble or lean organization.

But Wiggins argues “their vision has a surprising amount of alignment with ours.” Ultimately, he points out, both Salesforce.com and Heroku believe business software should be … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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