Fast is not enough

I’ve been advising a startup on the data transformation space. As part of this, we re-wrote the core engine in Clojure. The new version is, at the worst case, 16 times as fast in the same hardware, and in some cases over 200 times faster. And it does it with a fraction of the lines of code.

We did this in under 3 months of part-time work. We couldn’t focus our entire attention on it, as we had other concerns as well - I was involved with general team and management tasks, and the second developer was helping on other internal projects as well. To further raise the bar: we had to keep it functionality-compatible with the current version, so I had to get acquainted with the existing feature set, and it was the other developer’s first Clojure project.

Clojure made our lives so much easier. But this is not a post about why Clojure is cool.

I’ve been arguing about why they should open source anything that is not enterprise-specific, including this layer. There’s many advantages, which I won’t go over right now, but there’s also a looming threat.

Layers are getting commoditized faster and faster. More and more, there is demand for people who are good at wiring things together (beyond the gem install hairball approach), or tools that help with that wiring.

I suspect that’s a big part of what’s driving how many companies like Seldon are going open source-first, or how Unreal opened their code as a way to compete with Unity.

Remember: This rewrite took about 3 man-months, with our attention pulled in multiple directions, while we strove to remain feature-compatible with the old engine. You have to assume anyone else who has the technical chops but doesn’t have that baggage can do it as well. Do you want to be disrupted by some motivated, random person who thought what you were doing was cool, but neither needed your entire feature set nor wanted to be shackled to your cloud version?

Better to commoditize yourself before someone else does it to you. You get to have a say in how it happens, use it as fuel to propel you somewhere new. And you get to tell your customers “if you think what we give away is cool, you should see the part we charge for”.


Ricardo J. Méndez