Very few software companies have been built from Europe with a global footprint. I am about to bring you the story of one that is growing nicely.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Gero Decker: I’m from a town in northern Germany. My father and my uncle were entrepreneurs. My uncle was one of the investors of solar panels. My father built high-precision bases for industrial manufacturing. I was the odd man out in the family who did not go down the path of mechanical engineering.
Mechanical engineering was not really sought after back then. Now, that has changed because software is so important for machinery while 15 years ago, it was perceived more as a toy subject. After my master’s, I stayed on in the university to my Ph.D. in a topic called business process management. Business process management is about understanding how organizations work from a process perspective and operational perspective and then finding ways to improve that operating model.
As a Ph.D., you always have the privilege of a lot of time and smart students around you who are always ready to jump onto exciting projects. I was two or three months into my Ph.D. when my colleague came into my office and told me, “Gero, I’m going to show you the future.” I said, “Not again. What is it this time?” He came to my computer. He had been in an Apple store.
He opened up this new shiny MacBook. I said, “You’re telling me now that the MacBook is the future.” He said, “No, look closely. What do you see?” I couldn’t see anything; just a blank page. He said, “Look closer.” I said, “I see an open Safari web browser with no page loaded.” He said, “Exactly. That’s the future. The future will be happening on the web.” This was in 2006 when the web meant the early prototypes of Facebook. That was it.
Especially from an enterprise software point of view, the web was pretty much untapped at that point. Especially in Germany, nobody had heard about cloud applications. That term didn’t really exist at that time. He said, “The future is going to look like this. All of the applications that you’re ever going to use will come through that web browser.” I thought this was an interesting thought. I didn’t really believe it.
Sramana Mitra: What year was this?
Gero Decker: That was 2006. My path to software was 3D programming where you need to run stuff through your machine. It was pretty hard to imagine that the complex applications that were out there would actually run on a web browser. That was an interesting challenge. We did research on one of the enterprise applications that was already there.
There was a startup called Writely. That was a big inspiration for us, it was later acquired by Google. It basically turned to Google Docs. That was really interesting from a technological point of view because it was the first full-fledged office program with great usability that came fully through the web browser.
We decided to do something that is even more challenging. We were doing our Ph.D.’s in business process management. We had a lot to do with graphical models, flowcharts, and entity-relationship diagrams. These were visual models we were dealing with and building a UI for all of that. We started the project and assembled a couple of students. We started an open source project called RX.
Fast forward six months, we presented our project as part of the university demo day. There are around 200 people in the audience. We told our story about the future of applications and how they’re going to be delivered to the user and that we made our contribution by building the first web-based graphical editor for flow charts. Basically, Visio on the web. People liked it.
Next day at 10 o’clock, our server went offline. We checked what had happened. We checked the log files. We saw that 20,000 people had accessed the system in the first 15 minutes.