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

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big impact on what we were making,” says Wiggins. The gig lasted four years, from 2000 to 2004—long enough to bootstrap the company to “millions a year in revenue,” Wiggins says. (Irvine, CA-based TrustCommerce is still around today.)

Wiggins and Henry liked working together—Wiggins describes the friendship as “yin and yang, where one person has this crazy creativity but on their own they tend to go off into the weeds and not have focus, and the other is a more structured thinker and organizer.” (Henry is the crazy one and Wiggins is the structured one, in case that wasn’t clear already.) But the pair would collaborate on two more ventures before they finally hit on the idea for Heroku. One was a competitor for XDrive, the early cloud storage services. Next came Bitscribe, a business process consulting firm. Without really intending to, says Wiggins, that company wound up with a staff of 20 programmers, helping clients build systems to manage shipping, receiving, and logistics. [Corrected 5/24/11 3:00 p.m. PDT. An earlier version of this paragraph stated that Wiggins and Henry started X Drive itself; in fact they started a competing service.]

Three very important things happened at Bitscribe. First, Wiggins and Henry hired James Lindenbaum, another hacker-entrepreneur who would eventually become the third co-founder at Heroku. “Orion and I had this long working relationship and James folded into that really quickly, and we found that the three of us were a really tight unit,” says Wiggins.

Second, Bitscribe started using Rails. If Ruby, an English-like programming language dating back to 1993 or so, had been conceived to help make being a developer fun again, then the Rails framework—which consists of modules for quickly building common website components such as e-commerce shopping carts—made programming in Ruby much more systematic. Rails “encodes best practices about how to ship software quickly and at low cost, in a way that fits the needs of customers,” Wiggins says.

Together with emerging ideas about agile software development—which emphasize continuous experimentation and revision over exhaustive design and planning—Rails programming offered a methodology for building not just software, but whole companies, Wiggins argues. “It was very empowering and unifying for everyone to have a set of first principles from which you could drive successful products.”

Third, the Bitscribe team got very tired of spending so much time in data centers, setting up servers for their consulting clients. “We’d spend two months building a [software] project and then 6 weeks getting it deployed,” Wiggins says. For the clients, this was usually a one-time transaction cost, but for Bitscribe, “we were deploying new projects all the time, and it just seemed so costly and repetitious and error-prone. And when we were done, we’d want to hand maintenance over to the client, but they wouldn’t have a strong technical staff that knew how to administer a full LAMP stack” (meaning Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl—the basic operating system, Web server, database, and programming tools needed to run web applications).

Fast forward to mid-2007. Just as Ruby, Rails, and agile software had come along to make programmers’ lives easier, there was now an option for avoiding the hassle of installing, owning, and maintaining Web servers, in the form of scalable, metered cloud computing utilities such as Amazon Web Services and its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). “So you had all these trends emerging right around this time,” says Wiggins. “Ruby on Rails, and EC2 and this great team at Bitscribe and this specific [server management] problem we had identified. We said, ‘This is a perfect entrepreneurial opportunity, we should take it.'”

Wiggins, Henry, and Lindenbaum extracted themselves from Bitscribe and spent the summer and fall of 2007 building the first version of Heroku. But “what we started working on was a little different from where we ended up,” Wiggins says. The original product was designed as a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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