Partners Say New Docker CEO Will Face Growth, Scale Challenges As The Company Matures

Docker, the open source startup that kicked off the container-tech revolution, is entering a scaling phase of its business, one that will challenge the new CEO named Tuesday in some entirely different ways from his predecessor, according to partners.

The appointment of Steven Singh, who previously led travel management software vendor Concur, and for the last eight months has been chairman of Docker's board, signals the pioneering container-tech vendor is looking to reach the next level of sales and channel maturity.

Tim Hohman, CEO of BoxBoat, a Docker partner based in Washington, D.C., said the recent DockerCon conference, held weeks ago in Austin, showcased the degree to which Docker is penetrating the enterprise and competing head-on with some of the existing IT infrastructure powerhouses.

[Related: Get On Board: Docker's Channel Maturity Unlocks The Container Tech Opportunity]

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To succeed on that front, Docker Inc., the commercial entity behind the eponymous open source technology, needs "to scale out their sales force and marketing, scale out their channel, get much more operationally sound," Hohman told CRN, "and they need a leader that's got experience doing that."

Ben Golub, Docker's exiting CEO, whose career has been defined by work with early stage startups, will take a position on Docker's board of directors.

Golub led Docker through a far different, but no less daunting, set of challenges, and partners praised his tenure at the company since 2013.

Aater Suleman, CEO of Flux7, an Austin, Texas Docker partner, first met Golub at a conference several years ago, when Docker was still dotCloud, a Platform-as-a-Service vendor pivoting in a different direction.

"Ben did some of the hardest parts of the job," Suleman told CRN. "Taking a company that didn't exist, and growing it into one of the most impactful forces in the history of our field."

That initial growth phase presented a unique set of obstacles—the next phase for Docker will bring entirely new ones, Suleman said.

Perhaps the greatest challenge awaiting Singh will be countering a growing perception that Docker is in competition with many of the ecosystem partners whose businesses it enabled, Suleman said.

Technologies like Kubernetes, which several of Docker's early partners are now bringing to market, compete with Docker's solution at the container orchestration layer, Docker Swarm. But ultimately Kubernetes adopts the Docker container standard, and the rival platforms are in many ways mutually beneficial, said Suleman.

"A lot of their competition is really co-opetition," Suleman said of Docker and many other startups that have introduced services at various levels of the container stack. "You can't deny the influence and value Docker is bringing to their competitors."

To that end, Singh will need to focus on "strengthening the alliances, and improving the overall messaging," Suleman said. "Not everyone being perceived as a competitor is a competitor."

Singh will also have to take on the conundrum faced by all open source software vendors—maintaining a balance between the company's open source roots and generating enough revenue to realize a profitable commercial business.

"Those are hard problems to solve," Suleman said.

Golub quit the leadership job after four years, which is a normal vesting period for a startup's CEO, said Alexis Richardson, CEO of Weaveworks, a Docker technology partner based in London.

Golub was a "pro turnaround CEO with strong team and customer empathy," Richardson said.

While he doesn't know Singh, Richardson expects him to "double-down on the sales motions" for Docker's Enterprise Edition, the commercial platform that's crucial to monetizing Docker's enormous success in the market.

"That is the right thing to do, surely," Richardson said.

While Golub wasn't exactly a founder, but rather an executive brought in by Docker's first venture capital investors, he deserves heaps of credit for guiding Docker to the next phase of growth, Hohman, of BoxBoat, told CRN.

"He grew it from a bunch of open source community guys into a real company," Hohman said. "Now they need the guy who has a lot of experience running a real enterprise software company."

And Singh has genuine credibility in filling such a role, Hohman said.

At the helm of Concur, Singh guided what could have been a painful transition toward a Software-as-a-Service strategy, helping the company move from its perpetual licensing model to selling a subscription service. Concur was acquired in 2014 by SAP.

Singh transitioned to president of SAP's Business Networks and Applications operations. Last month, the software giant announced he would be leaving the company.

In a blog post announcing the leadership change, Golub, who worked at six startups before Docker – three as CEO – wrote that his "heart lies in startups" and that "different leaders with different skills are needed at different stages in a company's history."