Willem Maas

Q&A with Lightbend’s CEO Mark Brewer: Getting Market Insights at a Microservices Tools Vendor

Mark Brewer is CEO of Lightbend. The Lightbend Reactive Platform makes it easy to build software applications that are massively distributed and reduces the headaches and risks associated with managing Microservice-based apps in production.

You and your team obviously know your market inside and out. What has customer research told you that you didn’t already know?

I definitely have experienced this sort of we know it all attitude inside of a company and decided that the best way to get to the bottom of it or test that theory, I suppose, was to bring somebody in from the outside. To some degree, that’s what we were doing when we asked you to help. It was more about we know our market in the way it is currently – especially at the tip of the pyramid, the companies that really are early adopters of our technology, our early users. What we didn’t know was, what’s the direction of the enterprise and where do we think it’s going to end up? Is it going to be something different? For example, we don’t know yet if companies are going to just easily choose or default, I should say, to deploying their new microservices-based applications in the cloud, or if they’re going to expect to still operate them themselves and have full control or even partial control over where they’re deployed and how they’re managed. There’s still a debate there and it’s not just us that’s asking the question. It’s everybody from Microsoft to Oracle, IBM. All the big vendors are struggling with this too.

Back to your question, internally, we discuss it, we test it. Ultimately, somebody makes a decision on, “Okay, what’s the next step? Do we just move forward, or do we have to go get more core data?”

If the decision is to get more data, how do you go about that?

It varies. It could be let’s go to talk to more customers, bring in an outside person. Or let’s talk to some other vendors who might have better insight.

We also do surveys. I think we’re doing two a year now, and we’re trying to do more. But these are surveys about different topics, and we’ve got really meaningful feedback, but also a significantly larger response rate than what most people expect. We have  passionate people using our technology. They want to share what they’re doing. The most vocal ones are frequently the ones that know they’re doing something different than the norm. They don’t fall into the, “We’re just like any other enterprise,” right? And so we had to ask ourselves whether or not the data we were reading really was telling about the larger enterprise, or was it just the loudest voices? And the loudest voices happen to be those that are pushing the envelope and not doing things the typical way? And I think we concluded that it was the latter. That we were actually drinking our own Kool Aid, or whatever you want to call it.

We also have two new product managers and their primary job is to go out and talk to customers and get feedback directly.

But there are times when I like a non-biased, somewhat independent person to do the surveys or interviews with the customer because the answers are going to be different if they know that you’re an independent. The data always seems to be drastically different than when you have an internal person do it.

So the upside to using an independent researcher is unbiased feedback. What’s the downside?

Possibly time to get somebody up to speed, just to educate. There really is no other downside because as long as the feedback comes in a form that can be consumed – documents, and maybe a conversation – then it’s just as good if not better than if you’re doing it yourself. I think that’s how you have to look at it. The downside of not using an external one is greater than the potential upside in doing it internally. The upside of doing it internally is not that significant.

Most of your products are available in a free, open-source version and a paid, enhanced version. What’s been your experience with understanding the user’s upgrade decision?

One of the ways we get direct feedback from paying customers is services. Our support, training, and consulting are all delivered by people who are involved in the product. They’re very close to the engineering team, and so feedback goes direct from that communication channel into the engineering department.

What we don’t get from our services team is feedback from the people who just use our open-source technology but don’t actually buy it from us. There are reasons why they’re not a customer. Maybe they decided that the technology was good for certain purposes but they weren’t going to use it for their big mission critical projects and therefore stayed with something else. Chose Spring or something else. That’s the kind of info I really want to understand. Why did somebody actively choose to stay with Spring?

Most companies that are open-source based just don’t think of it that way. We think of, “Well, I really want to understand why the person did buy. What was the driver of that purchase?” I do want to know that, but what about the thousands who didn’t?

Focusing on the rest of the pie, not just the slice of pie you have right now?

Yeah. That’s an area where I think internally you can get there if you work hard at it. But it’s not only going to be harder to find those people and talk to them, your natural tendency as an internal person is to say, “Well, they just didn’t get it. Or the technology was above them.” We’ve said that sometimes. Whereas if you have a non-biased person, you’re not going to pre-judge somebody that way.