July 27, 2020

A Journey from Enterprise to Open Source

We started Datical with a simple goal: make Liquibase easily adoptable by large enterprises. Long story short, we achieved that goal. After seven years of finding our way and really hard work, we counted many of the world's largest companies as our customers.

2012-2019: The Datical years

During the Datical years, a lot had happened around us. DevOps, while certainly not new in 2012, had caught fire. Release automation had flourished and the prevailing attitudes about database automation and the use of open source software in companies of all shapes, sizes, and verticals had shifted from doubt and distrust to optimism, experimentation, and adoption.  

Daticals in 2016ish

We sensed there was an enormous opportunity for us to broaden our horizons beyond our traditional enterprise customers by embracing the full spectrum of Liquibase users and the Liquibase community. In 2019, we set our sights on providing an experience that was free and easy to start using and that allowed for easy growth as your needs changed — a continuum from early experimentation to lights-out Continuous Deployment.

New world view

The idea of shifting our strategy was thrilling. It was also terrifying. We had spent seven years building an enterprise software company from the ground up. Marketing, sales, product, and support were all geared for the workings and expectations of huge companies planning large scale deployments for major cost savings. Changing all of that, heck, changing ANY of that was daunting. While we serve huge companies, we aren’t a huge company in our own right. There’s not a lot of fat in anyone’s schedule. We have plenty to do to fill each week to bursting. Expanding our relatively narrow world view to an honest to goodness WORLD VIEW was scary for all of us. While we knew it was a huge opportunity, I was concerned that our folks would be overwhelmed by the prospect. I know I was.

A Friday lunch speech

I was a theatre major in college. (You can tell because I spell it with an “-re” instead of an “-er” at the end.) Though I haven’t been on a stage or a screen in a non-tech conference capacity in more than a decade, whenever I get a chance to perform Shakespeare in front of a group I take it. So mustering a small force to take on a herculean challenge could only lead to one thing: a live reading of the St. Crispin’s day speech from Henry V at our weekly Friday lunch meeting.

Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia

There’s a reason the speech has its own Wikipedia entry. There is no better statement of the power of a like-minded, impassioned, committed group of individuals. Such a group can become so much more than the sum of its parts as it did that day when the British defeated a far larger French force. That kind of experience is why I love startups so much and always come back to them. The prospect of a small group building something new that has value to a lot of people is my siren’s song. Whether my reading of the speech had the intended effect on my Liquibase family is for them to say, but I certainly felt better about it.

The power of open source communities

However, in this case, I had it all wrong. Turns out it’s not about a small group overcoming a huge challenge at all. We aren’t outmatched. We aren’t a scrappy group of doers trying to take the weight of the world on our shoulders like we had with our previous “enterprise-only” focus.  What I found out quickly was that the power I ascribed to small groups had nothing on the power of an open source community.  

The community is quickly becoming integral to everything we do. They have extended and created incredible, inspiring things with Liquibase. They have used it on an amazing scale. They are eager to talk about product direction; to consult on architecture and implementation, and to give feedback on sloppy mockups and wireframes that capture the seed of an idea. They report bugs. They fix bugs. They’ll beta test builds and help each other out on the forums and our Discord channel.

It wasn’t just a wider, deeper audience of customers to delight. It was an extension to Shakespeare’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Enterprise development vs. community-driven development

In enterprise software and community-driven product development you have a lot of the same conversations up front as an input to your roadmap. The departure comes in after that direction is set. With Enterprise software, you design and build the thing. You dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. You work in some user acceptance testing when the customer is able and open to it, but mostly the burden is on you to get everything right the first time from conversations that happened a few weeks to months ago. You are selling more than software. You are selling confidence.

It is a pretty involved process with a very low tolerance for the inherent messiness of iterative building and the ever more rapidly shifting landscape of IT. As a result, you end up waiting until your design or your product is polished and presentable and you hope that you made the right decisions along the way. Redirects become more costly and delivering an acceptable working solution can take longer as a result.

Fast, frequent feedback

It’s a totally different story with community-driven efforts. Fast, frequent feedback is what is emphasized. The community is more tolerant of something being a little rough if it provides enough detail for them to respond to and get excited about. They regularly ask to work with early builds of things to better understand them. As a result, they help us chart the course to a solution that will be of maximum value to them and everyone else that uses a Liquibase product a lot more quickly.

Less perfect, more transparent

I have had to retrain the perfectionism reflex associated with enterprise product planning. It’s been a huge but satisfying undertaking. That’s not to say that I don’t still do all the things necessary to nurture the confidence of our enterprise customers. I absolutely do. But now the numbers are on my side and my trust is in the power of a much larger group.

“All things are ready, if our minds be so.”

-William Shakespeare, “Henry V” Act IV, Scene III

The hardest part has been the shift in mindset to become more open. Being transparent early and often throughout the process still feels unnatural to me at times. But when I am open to the process and transparent in all phases of product development, the outcomes have more than justified that discomfort. Now instead of worrying about whether something is “ready”, I think of another line from Henry V: “All things are ready, if our minds be so.”

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