Pivotal Labs & EMC: The Future?

A quick disclaimer: I know of the Pivotal guys only through working alongside the Singapore crew (including several imported SF Pivots) before they moved to {new context}. This is my personal uninformed opinion.

The news broke late last week about the acquisition of Pivotal Labs by EMC. A chorus of wtf echoed around the internet.

The standard worries broke out:

“Everyone will leave”

“The founders will be out in 2 years”

“What about my beloved tracker?”

I’m gonna concentrate on what I think everyone is missing, and what I presume is the main reason for their sale. Net good for the world.

EMC is clearly making the IBM/HP move, hardware is becoming super-commodotised, so they are diversifying into an enterprise services model.

There is of course the chance that Pivotal will be absorbed, dissipate and cease to be Pivotal in the same way. However my hope is for an outcome much better than that. We, in the startup industry, have been benefiting from the lessons of agility in programming and excellent frameworks like Rails, letting us build quickly, test our software and act like engineering professionals even in tiny teams.

The Dirty Truth

I worked at Accenture for four years, although I wasn’t part of any engineering teams while I was exposed to the multi-million dollar engineering contracts.

The truth of the enterprise software development world is that they outsource to either low-cost locations and/or low-skilled/paid workers. Any investment is done by wrapping the engineering functions in a professional wrapper of project managers. This keeps the client somewhat happy, but results in mostly crappy software and a demotivated engineering team. They often don’t even use version control.

This is the opposite of Pivotal Labs. Their process is rock solid and focussed on deliverable, well-engineered software delivered in an iterative manner. All delivered by strong engineers with good communication skills.

Despite this a ‘big company’ would likely be wary of hiring a ‘small company’ like Pivotal Labs directly, however hiring software engineering from the people with whom you’ve been spending millions of dollars of physical storage and supporting software is much easier for a lay-person to do.

The Future

Imagine a world where talented engineers with a rock solid process get to work on enterprise level software: online banking, government systems, HR systems, accounting systems. That’s a good world right?

Pivotal’s mission is also to educate as they build software: their relatively high-cost is offset by the training they provide to the teams in which they embed. They also educate clients in the best way to effectively engage with software engineering. If you hire them as an outsourced system integrator you’re doing it wrong. Imagine EMC/Pivotal ‘infecting’ big business with the process used in the world best engineering teams.

It’s a better world for consumers of the ‘enterprise-y’ products. It’s a better world for clients who are deeply involved in product decisions on a regular iterative basis. Most importantly it’s a much better world for the engineers in these companies: potentially rediscovering a passion for engineering elegant systems.

This is what I hope for. We shall see.


2012