Interview: Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian on open source, AWS, and working with the military
New Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has a lot of work to do.
The company that basically invented the concept of hyperscale distributed computing has notably failed to capitalize on that accomplishment when it comes to enterprise computing, allowing a bookseller to dominate the still-emerging market for cloud computing. Amazon Web Services enjoys a healthy market share lead and recorded $25.7 billion in revenue during 2018, while Google’s revenue from cloud computing is buried in a smaller line item on its earnings statement that also includes G Suite customers and Chromebooks.
Google deserves to be taken seriously as a cloud computing player. It controls technical infrastructure built to handle one of the most popular internet services yet devised by human beings and the cash machine generated by its search advertising services to plow into the capital expenditures needed to run cloud computing workloads at scale. But Google has struggled to translate that prowess into enterprise computing dollars, plagued by a reputation for nudging customers toward the Google Way To Build Infrastructure when a more consultative approach was desired.
In an interview with GeekWire ahead of Google Cloud Next 2019, where more than 30,000 people are expected to attend, Kurian outlined two strategies to win cloudy hearts and minds: make developers happy while making it easier for corporate IT departments to do business with Google. The first part of that strategy, a series of managed services around very popular open-source databases, was announced Tuesday at Cloud Next 2019, while the second — plans to galvanize the Google Cloud sales team with new hires and new energy — will take some months to play out.
Perhaps the most interesting challenge for Kurian in his role replacing Diane Greene as CEO will be adjusting to a new company culture after 22 years inside Oracle, which has been about as anti-Googly as it gets in more than one way. But there’s still plenty of time for Google Cloud to put its stamp on this market as billions of IT dollars continue to shift from data centers to cloud providers.
(The following interview was edited for length and clarity.)
GeekWire: I was talking to Redis Labs CEO Ofer Bengal last week and he mentioned that in his view the new database services announced Tuesday was an initiative you pushed the company to do. How did this all come together?
Thomas Kurian: The background is fairly simple. We see a lot of customers wanting to develop applications using open source. Historically they wanted three things: They wanted a fully-managed infrastructure for the open source technology; second, they wanted enterprise support from the cloud provider; and third, they wanted the cloud provider to allow them to use their credits to consume the open-source offerings in addition to the cloud platform provider’s old products.
We felt that many cloud providers were not working in a friendly manner to open source, and we felt that open source companies needed to have a cloud partner that would share the success of the platform with them. And so what we’ve done is a very simple thing. We’ve put together the leading open source companies, (and) they’re offering their services on Google Cloud as fully managed services. These products will be taken to market by Google’s cloud sales team and we will support it as a first class service in Google Cloud.
So we’re giving customers and developers choice by giving them ease of use, because they get a single console from which they can access all these technologies. We’re giving them the ability to get integrated billing, metering and consumption of procurement. And we are sharing our success with the partners.
GeekWire: This is not just a random group of companies you’ve assembled here, obviously. Three of these companies made a lot of noise over the last year or so with the changes to their licensing structures. How did this all come together?
Kurian: We have had a long history with these companies. They are, by all accounts from the developers we talked to, the leading companies in open source. Frankly, the proof that they are the leading companies is because other cloud providers are attacking them and trying to take away their business model.
If anything, the fact that some of our competitors are doing what they’re doing is a further articulation of the strength of these companies and their technology. And so rather than attacking them, we felt that we believe the long term platforms that win are those that foster ecosystems rather than those that compete with ecosystems.
GeekWire: With respect to open source in general and some of the changes that have been contemplated by these companies, such as how cloud providers can use those open source projects, where have you come down on that?
Kurian: We generally feel that if an open source company has done the hard work of creating the open source technology and providing a solution that developers and customers like, they should be fairly rewarded for that hard work. And if their livelihood, if you will, is threatened by alternative forms of monetization, which is taking away their ability to monetize the technology that they invented, we don’t think that’s necessarily the right thing for the industry.
GeekWire: This is the first time we’ve had a chance to talk since you’ve taken this new role and I wanted to check in on a couple of things. One thing that strikes me is that it would appear from the outside that Oracle and Google are two very different corporations. I was wondering if you could give me a sense, now that you’ve been around a few months, of how they are alike and how they are different.
Kurian: They’re alike and different in some ways. Every company that you work at is different from every other company that you work at, right?
I’ll give you an example. Engineers in all companies are roughly the same. They are very focused and disciplined on how they deliver software. They’re very keen on understanding customer needs. They’re very keen on delivering technical solutions to needs that customers have.
The way that Google brings its technology to market and the way that the relationship it has with customers are different than other companies. Partly because Google is such a technological powerhouse, but many companies in the industry look at it for solutions to their digital problems.
And we’re bringing not just Google Cloud, but all of Google’s assets when we talk to a customer. And that’s probably different than the way other companies approach their go-to-market in the sense that when we talk to customers, it’s not just about Google Cloud. It’s about what we can do to transform their e-commerce, or what we can do to transform how they do advertising.
So I would tell you probably the biggest difference with Google is not the engineers or things of that nature, but the breadth of assets that we bring when we talk to customers about technology transformation.
GeekWire: From a cultural standpoint, though, they would seem very different companies.
Kurian: You know, more is written about the differences between these companies than is reality. As you can imagine, some of the things that are written are true and some of it is just not factually true. I’ve learned a lot from working with people at Google about how the decision-making process on projects work and how we talk to customers and what we do with events. In many ways there are differences, but there’s far more similarity than people believe.
GeekWire: How do you feel about working with military customers when it comes to cloud and AI services?
Kurian: We’ve made a public statement about it. We made a statement around our AI principles that’s publicly documented. We stand by them. We do work with a number of agencies around the world, but they’re always in compliance with our AI practices and principles that we publicly made a statement about.
GeekWire: With respect to the core cloud business, what do you think Google has to do to gain share in cloud computing? And what do you think is a realistic target for where Google might be in two to three years?
Kurian: We have the lowest customer churn of any cloud provider in the industry. We have amazing customer loyalty. If you look at the top 10 companies in virtually every industry: nine of the top 10 media companies, seven of the top 10 retailers, six of the top 10 utility companies, five of the top 10 financial services companies, five of the top 10 manufacturing companies, five of the top 10 healthcare companies around the world — not just in the United States –use Google Cloud for their business transformation.
So for us to grow, the primary thing is to scale our go-to-market organization. And we’re very committed to doing that. We just need to hire and train and enable a world class sales team at scale.
Today we have a great sales team, but we are far fewer in number than the other players. We just need to expand that. And as I talked to customers, they asked us to, one: expand our sales organization and our go-to-market teams. Second: specialize (that sales team) with deep expertise in technology and in industry. And third: make it easy to contract and do business with us. We are extremely committed to doing all three of them.
GeekWire: How is Seattle factoring into your plans as you look to scale and grow the organization? Obviously the new campus is right around the corner in terms of being finished, and from what I understand there are going to be a sizable number of Google Cloud people in Seattle. Can you tell me a little bit about how you think about the area?
Kurian: We certainly want to diversify our footprint as Google Cloud and as Google globally. Seattle is one of our top three or four locations where you’re going to see expanding. The campus was meant to provide a central location, let’s say, for Googlers to work in, because it’s much easier than being fragmented in a number of buildings around the city.