THE MIND BEHIND DATA
Michael, also known as Monty, is praised as the brilliant technical mind behind MySQL.
Once the guarded domain of scientists and engineers, data is now ubiquitous – a feat in which Michael Widenius had a big role to play.
Moving deeper into the 21st century, one thing is increasingly clear – data governs our world. With the current demand for interconnectivity integrated into our daily lives, there is an enormous amount of data being generated. From placing advertisements to informing large-scale financial decisions, data is being used and analysed by thousands of individuals and companies to chart out trends and future plans of action. Data science is now a buzzword, and encompasses a wide array of topics ranging from statistics to business analytics, big data, and data mining. The sheer volumes of data streaming through the Internet have necessitated innovations to host and access data. Early data hosting models were clunky and difficult to use for non-technical users, but all that changed in 1996 when programming prodigy, Michael ‘Monty’ Widenius released the first version of MySQL. By giving users a graphical interface to store and access data through the Internet, he effectively ushered in a new era to the Information Age.
As a child growing up in Helsinki, Michael had a close affinity for the outdoors and was interested in animals and nature. He admits that one of his earlier aspirations was to be a hunter in Africa, but hunting poachers rather than animals. Over time, his interest began shifting to the world of computing, sparked by his first experience with a programmable computer at the age of 14. “I noticed that while others thought it was complicated, I found it very easy and fun to use,” he recalls. Michael’s interest was piqued and he later bought his first microcomputer at the age of 16, with his own savings. Michael quickly became absorbed into the world of programming. “Three hours of programming can feel like minutes – just like reading a really good book,” he says, “Or like playing a video game. You know when you start a game and boom, it is three hours later? That is what coding is for me.” While his peers went to parties and other social gatherings, Michael spent his time at home, learning the ins and outs of his computer. In his opinion, programming is not something that you can just learn. The best coders and hackers spend lots of time each day honing their skills for years. “This is not something that most people like to do. Most people would prefer to have a life,” he laughs. Upon joining the Helsinki University of Technology, his skill with computers was immediately apparent. He spent most of his time working while still studying. Two years into his course, he noticed that there was little more that the university could teach him, and that he was already earning as much as he would after graduation. Deciding that his effort was better spent on taking care of his family and building his Unireg (a collaborative research project involving cross-country research centres) data project, Michael made the bold move of quitting university at the age of 19.
A New Data Paradigm
In 1980, Michael ran into a hurdle that eventually proved to be quite fortuitous. He needed to increase the memory capacity of his computer, but could not find a single store in Finland that had what he needed. Undeterred, he travelled to Sweden, to the computer shop of Allan Larsson. Through Allan, he was introduced to David Axmark, and the three of them kept in touch regularly, helping each other with projects and collaborating occasionally. Their interactions bore fruit in 1995, when they founded MySQL AB. MySQL is named for My, Michael’s first daughter, and for the SQL (Structured Query Language) interface used to access the database. It initially started off as an extension of his Unireg project which was a graphical application creation tool based on an internal database. While Michael was working at different companies, he made modifications that allowed Unireg to store and analyse big data and generate reports for customers. In 1994, as customers began looking for ways to access their data through the Web instead of downloading reports, he programmed an SQL and renamed it MySQL. With the help of Allan and David, MySQL was released to the public in 1996 and immediately gained applause for its speed, reliability, and user friendliness – part of which was due to the constant integration of real-world customer feedback over the many years of its development. At the time, MySQL was a game changer in the data science industry. Its ability to store, search, and efficiently manage large amounts of data was a huge step up from traditional database methods like Microsoft Excel, whose speed and reliability were affected by data size. This did not go unnoticed by the industry and within two months, MySQL AB was already turning in a profit.
Michael pictured in his younger days speaking at the MySQL Conference & Expo.
Free, But Paid For
Though MySQL was immediately successful, Michael had bigger plans for it – both him and David wanted the software to be free. Unlike most software developers who would utilise their spare time for Open Source projects, Michael and David worked on this full time. Eventually, they released MySQL under a dual licensing scheme – where it would be free to use for an individual, but enterprises would be required to pay for a license.
Michael had multiple reasons for making MySQL an Open Source software. As a small Finnish-Swedish company, competing with the industry giants would be unthinkable without an edge of some sort – and being Open Source provided that edge. The primary reason, however, was that Michael had been using similar free software for most of his programming and development needs. “I wanted to give something back to the community that had helped me so much. MySQL gave me that possibility,” he says. Moreover, being Open Source has the added advantage of being consistently improved by similar community oriented developers who would volunteer to test code, find bugs, provide fixes, and even innovate new solutions. MySQL now has widespread adoption from both developers and enterprises globally. “I am happy that I have been able to help so many companies and developers achieve their dreams. I am especially happy that I was able to do that by creating a company where one customer paid so that thousands others could use the product for free!” he says, smiling.
Michael is an Open Source advocate and constantly collaborates with fellow developers to improve his projects.
An Enduring Legacy
In January 2008, Sun Microsystems, famously known for developing the Java platform, acquired MySQL AB for US$1 billion. While logical at the time, in hindsight, Michael came to regret this decision. In 2009, Oracle Corporation, a software company which sold its own brand of database management systems, entered an agreement to acquire Sun Microsystems. MySQL was a significant competitor to Oracle’s business, disrupting their growth of new customers as well as cutting into their market share. Once acquired, there would be no logical reason for them to continue developing MySQL any longer – a fact that was not lost on Michael. When news of the acquisition spread, many developers began to leave Sun, something that Michael tried to prevent because in Open Source software, when the developers leave, the project dies. Michael started a movement called ‘Save MySQL’ that was supported by more than 50,000 developers and users. The movement was also called upon for help by the European Commission who advised to call off the agreement because of a possible market monopoly. However, Oracle declined. With no way to stop the acquisition, Michael created a clone of MySQL, named MariaDB, after his second daughter. MariaDB is a fully functional Open Source replacement for MySQL, created with the aim of keeping the MySQL project alive in spirit. The MariaDB Foundation, which owns the code for MariaDB, was conceived to ensure that it would remain Open Source for all time, giving a home to all the developers who had worked on MySQL, and subsequently, MariaDB. Michael knew he was doing the right thing, saying, “If I would have allowed Oracle to kill MySQL by stopping all future development, I would have felt that I had betrayed all the people that I had convinced to use free software. This would have caused me to lose a lot of sleep, and I do value my sleep!”
Today, MariaDB is used by leading organisations around the world.
The Ocean Of Investing
Along with the proceeds from the sale of MySQL to Sun, Michael and his friend Ralf Wahlsten decided to use their experience to create OpenOcean, a venture capital firm that focuses on helping new entrepreneurs overcome their initial hurdles. The firm stands out by having partners who are entrepreneurs themselves, with first-hand experience in building a business. Most of OpenOcean’s investments are in early stage software companies that have some track record of their product’s usage. This can be challenging, however, as most investors hope for ten times return on the capital deposited into the OpenOcean Fund. Considering the expertise of the founders, companies that are Open Source, have a large user base, or can provide significant impact globally are preferred for investment.
A Life Of Focus
Despite his work on MySQL, MariaDB, OpenOcean and other projects, Michael still takes time out from his busy schedule to focus on other matters close to his heart. When working from home, it can be easy to get lost in the virtual world, but Michael follows a fixed schedule with breaks for dinner and family time. Free time is usually spent reading or playing games, and on weekends, hosting guests for homemade dinner. This, combined with other hobbies of travelling, collecting comics, and taking care of his many pets, keeps Michael’s hands full. With most of his time devoted to programming, Michael has no plans of changing paths anytime soon. While he does have regrets over the sale of MySQL, he is glad that he was able to save it under the aegis of MariaDB. “At least I learned from my mistake and have ensured that no one can ever buy MariaDB with the rationale that it is worth more dead than alive!” he exclaims. After all, Michael states that his greatest purpose in life is to show others that anyone can make a great business on free software – and how.
An animal lover, Michael spends his time away from his computer taking care of the family’s many pets.
This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 52 - July 2019