Having worked with such database legends as Mike Stonebraker at Berkeley in the 1980s, through to working on Oracle databases and kicking off the first ‘true’ Hadoop specialised Big Data company with Facebook, Google and Yahoo luminaries, Mike Olson is a true Big Data visionary.
Mike Olson sat down with ARN to discuss how he founded the leading Hadoop company in the world, the future of Big Data and the Internet of Things and the social change it can reap.
Tell us how you got started in IT...
Born in Minneapolis, raised in KC Missouri. Dad worked for a hospital firm. I still consider myself to be mid-western. I don’t know what the Australian equivalent is, but we’re nice people. We work hard, we’re honest, and not very full of ourselves. I go back every year visit my family, I still love it.
When I was growing up, my stepdad bought an Apple II computer. Serial number 125 – built by the Steves in a garage. That’s how I learned to computer program around 1976-77. I knew that I wanted to go to college and study electrical engineering, so I applied to the University of California, Berkeley and a few other schools. It had (and still has) a great engineering program, and, most importantly, they were a long way away from home. That was 1979, I’ve lived there ever since.
During your time at Berkeley, you worked with some of the early legends in your field, how did that come about?
Well I got a summer job working for a guy called Bob Fabry, so I was working on the Berkeley Unix Project, but in no interesting way. Just making tape backups and whatnot.
Coming up on 1982, I was a good hacking in the labs kinda guy, but a middling student. I was worried about declaring a major so I decided to save my money and take off to see Europe in the spring. I told myself id be serious when I came back, declare my major and get serious.
I ran out of money during my European travels, I happened to be in Amsterdam at the time. I was too embarrassed to call my parents and ask for help, so I got myself a job in a Mexican restaurant cooking. It was a fantastic city, I was having a fantastic time, and I ended up staying until 1985.
A Mexican chef? That’s quite a detour, right there…
Yes, I did go back and got a job with a database company with some friends in 1986. In 1988 I finally went back to Berkeley as an undergraduate – my boss basically forced me. She dragged me down there to meet Mike Stonebraker, and he gave me a job.
So from 1988-1991 I was working on the Postgres database – its well known these days, Stonebraker’s own version of Ingres. He convinced me to stay around and get my masters, which I got in 1992. I stayed one more year to get my PhD when Stonebraker recruited the entire research team, except me, to work at Illustra. I was doing my PhD and finally realised I didn’t actually like research – I liked my team. So I dropped out of Berkeley for the last time.
I joined his company, Illustra, in 1993. That was bought by Informix in 1995. Bumped around at Informix for a bit, then ended up at BerkelyDB, a company my friends started in 1998. After eight years of success with no outside investment, before Oracle acquired it in 2006.
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So you have this extensive background in databases, how did you make the transition to Hadoop, and ride the Big Data wave?
I met some key people: From Facebook, Jeff Hammerbacher, who was driving their data strategy; Yahoo’s Amr Awadallah, who was running all their Big Data back end infrastructure, and Christoph Bisciglia from Google doing their evangelism and new systems management.
All three of them were really excited about Hadoop, and so we banded together to form Cloudera. Our timing was really good. Before anyone else had realised that Hadoop was going to be a big deal, we kind of got everyone that was really thinking about it together in one room.
We took our initial funding round from Ping Li, at Accel Partners. He had decided he wanted to back a Hadoop company, and he really was the only investor thinking that way.
Then the global financial markets totally cratered. Which sounds like a bad thing, but it wasn’t for us. What it meant was nobody could raise venture capital for anything – for a good 12 months. We fortunately already had $5 million dollars in the bank - we were off to the races, we had no competition at all. It basically gave us a year uncontested to get to know customers, to explore our strategy, and to build the product. But it has been an absolutely unbelievable 7 years.
From there, our story is reasonably well attested – lots of growth. Only one time in your career do you get a chance to do something like this, I just think we were incredibly lucky to be where we were, when we were, and to have seized the opportunity.
The change in the industry over the past seven years has just been breathtaking.