Adam Wiggins on Heroku’s Pivot, Building a “Washing Machine” for Web Developers, and Joining

If you had to name a single company whose storyline weaves through most of the big trends defining Internet startup life in Silicon Valley over the last few years—cloud computing, agile software development, the rise of venture incubators, and the software-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service phenomena—you couldn’t find a much better example than Heroku. From its humble beginnings as part of the Winter 2008 term at Y Combinator to its acquisition by last December for $212 million, Heroku has had a startlingly rapid rise, fueled in part by the rabid devotion of its customers—Web application developers using the popular Ruby on Rails programming framework.

Heroku is one of the organizations changing what these developers and their employers expect from a Web hosting service. Yes, at bottom it’s still just a place where companies can run their Web applications. The difference is that it was built around a philosophy and a work style that co-founder Adam Wiggins calls “continuous deployment.” With Heroku and similar services like Engine Yard, most of the old distinctions between “development environments” and the “production environments” go out the window; changes in the code can be pushed to users nearly instantly, and the whole infrastructure is geared toward supporting rapid software revisions of the sort that startup gurus like Steve Blank and Eric Ries preach about. That’s made Heroku a favorite among entrepreneurs creating new consumer-facing Internet services, including practically every other Y Combinator-backed startup I’ve ever written about.

But while it may seem from the outside as if Heroku traced a straight path from obscurity to omnipresence, it wasn’t really like that. In fact, the company didn’t start out as a platform for Web applications at all; its original system was more like a sandbox for developers teaching themselves Ruby on Rails. “Externally, you see the success, the meteoric rise, but there were obviously a lot of changes along the way,” Wiggins says.

Wiggins described some of the details of Heroku’s key 2009 course change at Eric Ries’s Startup Lessons Learned conference in San Francisco yesterday, but I got the longer version of the story from him in a rare one-on-one interview last Friday.

I’d originally been scheduled to talk with Heroku CEO Byron Sebastian, but he was stuck on a plane, so Wiggins volunteered to speak with me instead—which is how I wound up in his minimally furnished, dimly lit office inside Heroku’s SoMa headquarters, which is all bricks and ironwork. Wiggins has a bit of a black-T-shirt, heavy-metal bad-ass vibe going, and I’d been warned by Heroku’s PR agency that he can be unpredictable in interview situations. So it was hard to keep my eyes from straying to the medieval battle-axe hanging on Wiggins’s wall. But the Heroku co-founder, who has a much longer resume than you might guess from his youthful looks, warmed quickly to my questions about how Heroku was founded, how it’s different from other hosting services, and how it became one of the emblems of a revolution in Web application design.

Wiggins told me his first few jobs were in the video game business, at companies like Carlsbad, CA-based Angel Studios (bought by Rockstar Games) and Santa Monica, CA’s Treyarch (bought by Activision). Unfortunately, he arrived in the industry a bit too late to gain fame and glory. “The games I played as a kid in the ’80s tended to be made by two or three guys with a wild idea, but by the time I was old enough to have a career, it was focused on Hollywood-style blockbusters, and you were on a team of 30 or 40 people,” he says. “I was theoretically living the dream, but kind of unhappy because I couldn’t have the impact I wanted.”

That was when Orion Henry, a college friend who would later become one of Wiggins’s co-founders at Heroku, called to ask if he would be interested in joining TrustCommerce, a payment processing service for online credit-card transactions. “It was much less sexy than video games, but the appeal was that it would be me and a couple of guys and I could have a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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