Friday 23 December 2016

Podcast Interview with Emil Eifrem, Neo Technology

In the summer of 2015, 5-6 months after first starting this crazy podcast thing with Michael and Mark at Qcon London, I finally got my boss and friend Emil Eifrem, CEO of Neo Technology, to spend some time with me on this podcast. It was a great conversation, and I still smile thinking about the silly drumroll that we used.  But just before we wrap up 2016, it felt like it was the right thing to get Emil back on the podcast, and talk about "stuff". Here's that conversation - a little longer than usual, but totally worth it.

Here's the transcript of our conversation:
RVB: 00:02.909 Hello everyone. My name is Rik, Rik Van Bruggen from Neo Technology. And here I am again. And I'm so excited, I can barely restrain myself. It's my “├╝ber boss” on the phone again. It's been 18 months since the last interview, and here I have him back on the podcast. Emil Eifrem. Hi, Emil. 
EE: 00:21.803 Hi Rik. Thanks for finally inviting me back.
RVB: 00:24.997 Yeah. So I'm sorry it took so long. It wasn't intentional, believe me please. 
EE: 00:29.944 I'm sure [laughter]. 
RVB: 00:35.731 It's great to have you back. Thank you. Yeah, Emil we've had a wonderful first edition of the podcast, but it felt like the right time, at the end of 2016, to have you back on our program. So many things have happened this year, right, over these last 18 months. It's been a crazy journey. Maybe we can review those? 
EE: 00:58.882 Sure. Perfect. 
RVB: 01:01.791 Yeah. Let me start with some of the product stuff first, right? Two releases in one year [laughter]? Big releases in one year. That's [crosstalk]-- 
EE: 01:13.191 Big releases too, yeah. 
RVB: 01:14.842 3.0 and 3.1, which we released this week, right
EE: 01:17.815 Right. 
RVB: 01:19.371 How do you feel about those? 
EE: 01:22.119 Well, I think the-- well, it's a good question. I think whenever we push out a new release, I feel very good about that right? It's typically the combination of a lot of work that, of course internally we've seen it for a long time in the planning stages, when we put together, "Hey, this is what we're going to start building months from now," and then we start building it, and now, okay now, they're working on it for months and months and months, and okay now it's getting to some level of early quality, beta quality maybe, and we try it out with some users and customers, and then, so by the time it hits GA, it's been quite a long time, and then it was just fantastic to get that out to actually be useful for customers. Because ultimately, in agile software management you talk about inventory. Ultimately, it's only at that point that it's truly valuable, when it's actually used by users. I think this year, I think 3.0 is a massive release. Massive release. It truly is. We upped the major number from 2.X to 3.X, and I think that was very fair. The new driver architecture, the unlimited size storage format, the fact that we can put in unlimited sized graphs, with a high limit storage format, and then procedures, which I think is amazing. Those are just a couple of headline features. There's a bunch of other things as well. 
EE: 03:01.009 And that is funny. We sat down, we announced the beta of 3.1 at GraphConnect, San Francisco, a couple of months ago. As I was siting down reviewing the product section in my keynote with Utpal - our head of marketing at Neo, I first talked a little bit about 3.0 to provide context, and then I talked about these are the key features in 3.1. The next generation clustering architecture, the security foundation. I asked for his feedback, and I thought his feedback would be, "Well, I don't know. I think you should phrase this in this way and whatever." Stuff like that. But no, his feedback was completely different. He just looked at me and said, "Holy SH1T [laughter]." Holy crap, Let's say. The velocity is amazing. Four months ago we released this extraordinarily huge release 3.0, and now we're back less than half a year with an amazingly huge release as well with the clustering architecture and security. These are very significant features. In some way I always feel good about, when we finally release software and get it out to customers, but even more so with 3.0 and 3.1. 
RVB: 04:14.855 What do you think is like the most significant feature that we've released in the past 12 months? In those two releases, what's your favorite? 
EE: 04:22.431 Man, what? Rik? You can't choose favorite feature. Come on, that's just like choosing your favorite kid [laughter]. Well-- but, no [crosstalk]. 
RVB: 04:33.388 I asked for the more significant one, yeah? 
EE: 04:36.386 All right. So, look, I'm going to go a little bit out on a limb here, and I'm going to say procedures, actually. I'm going to say procedures. Because look, we've now-- I think we've figured out the best way to express graph operations and the language is Cypher. Maybe it's not the most optimal, and maybe at some point we or someone else will invent an even better language, by I think Cypher is the best out there. But it can't do everything. And the fact that we now have a seamless way of writing the stuff that is easy to express using a general purpose, imperative query language - like Java, or Javascript, or something like that - and write what's easy to write in that, encapsulate that in a procedure and have that seamlessly co-mingle up with Cypher. So for the stuff that's easy to express in Cypher, you use Cypher. For the stuff that's easy to express in the general purpose language, you do that. And have both of those worlds seamlessly in track with each other. I think that is, when we look back on 2016, maybe I'm wrong here, but I do believe that that's going to be the one thing that changed the world the most, if you will. The world of graph development. 
RVB: 05:47.653 Absolutely. Well, it's been fantastically received by our customers, I can tell you that. So both of those releases, we announced them at GraphConnect, right? We've had two GraphConnects, or actually three since our last interview, but how do you feel about the conference? The audience and the growth of the conference? 
EE: 06:09.701 Yeah, look. I always go on stage, I think I mentioned this probably in all my keynotes that it's my favorite day of the year, right? It's a day, or multiple days, just focused on the amazing things that people are doing with graph databases. And so it's just, for me personally - since I spent a little bit of time, and have historically in the past few decade or so, [laughter] decade plus or so spent some amount of time on graph databases - it's like a candy store for me, right? Look, I think our community is so positive and so enthusiastic, so I love that part. That's the touchy-feely, the subjective stuff, right? But, then also the numbers are amazing. We had I think over 800 people registered, maybe it's 700, something like that, for London. We were sold out, we were at the QE2, the Queen Elizabeth Two Conference Center, which doesn't mean anything to me [laughter]. But a lot of people in London, that really means something. Several journalists had told me like, "Wow, you know that a company's really around when they can-- when they can use QE2", right? And then fast forward just a few months, more like, whatever, four, five, six months, and we're in San Francisco. We have over 1,000 bodies in the room. 1400 people registered or 1000 bodies in the room, and I think that conference was quite extraordinary. It's the biggest conference we've ever run, and so I think Graph Connect is here to stay and I love them dearly. 
RVB: 07:48.810 Fantastic. Have you rewatched some of your keynoting, specifically the one at last San Francisco conference? Because I thought that was very well done actually.

EE: 07:58.129 Rik, why did you bring up that one in particular [laughter]? 
RVB: 08:02.685 Because nothing was wrong there, right? 
EE: 08:04.704 No, nothing at all. Nothing at all. No, I watched through some of it and what's fascinating of course is I tend to focus on the content, and the substance and the narrative but, as you alude to, there were some logistical challenges, let's say, at GraphConnect San Francisco. And, since you brought it up, just to put you behind the scene, so what ended up happening for those listeners who weren't there is that I walk into the conference venue at 8:30, then the conference kicks offs at 9:00 AM, and always with my keynote, right? The first thing they tell them is that, "We're having some AV problems." And I know we ran through everything at 11:00 PM the night before with the AV team, multiple laptops, double checked everything, triple checked everything. Everything worked just a few hours earlier, right? But something has happened. I'm like, "Whatever, they're going to sort it out." 
EE: 09:01.759 But as we creep closer and closer to 9:00, and the kickoff, they still can't sort it out. And so we hit 9:00 AM and at that point, it's still not working. And I don't know, we have 500 people in the room. I don't know how many people, [inaudible] lot of people in the room, and I'm not that nervous, they'll sort it out, but it's 9:03, 9:05, and they still can't make it work. For some reason, they can't get my laptop, my Mac, to show on both screens, and finally, we hit 9:10, and the AV team, they just check out, say, "Sorry, we don't know. We can't solve this." And that's when the Neo field engineering team-- the engineers employed by us, who help our customers, our customer facing engineers, who can handle the pressure. And they basically-- it is a crazy technical solution. Since it worked on a PC, they get a PC, they run GoToMeeting on that PC. They run GoToMeeting on my Mac or whatever, the Mac we're using, and share my screen via that GoToMeeting via hotel wifi. So, I end up going up on stage at 9:15 and I just say, "Screw it. I'll just kick it off and just start talking, and then these guys will have to sort it out, and I'll just try to click on my clicker," and then finally, as I was talking, I noticed that the slides started advancing and I went into my presentation, but I had a five, six-second delay because it was using Hotel WiFi via GoToMeeting [laughter]. 
RVB: 10:37.253 It was just amazing. I was in the standing in the corner there and I could see you guys at the AV stand standing there and it was like a cloud of stress hanging over it [laughter]. 
EE: 10:50.511 [inaudible] smiling, I was calm. That's the image that I tried to project, but I think in the end it worked out very well and I think the people seem to appreciate the actual content and we kicked off the conference. 
RVB: 11:10.070 Another thing that I felt was amazing at the first GraphConnect this year in London was having our dear friend Mar Cabra on stage talking about the Panama Papers. That was a big event for us. 
EE: 11:25.948 How amazing was that? I don't think most of our listeners would know this but the mission of the company is “help the world to make sense of data”, help the world to make sense of data which is fairly precisely worded. Help the world means that help like we enable people, we’re tool builders. We don't do it ourselves, people build tools for other people to do, we enable other people… and the world means that we're not just focused on financial services or big enterprises, big small-- whatever. But it truly is, we're going to touch everyone ultimately. I don't think we've ever seen a more tangible example of helping the world to make sense of data. This is the biggest leak in journalistic history, over 11-and-a-half million documents. They got petabytes of data that get dumped on this organization. And with three developers, three developers, they used Neo4j and Linkurious, and they made sense of that data. Which, of course, had huge political implications. For example, most prominently, probably that Prime Minister of Iceland resigned due to things that were uncovered in this data. 
RVB: 12:49.320 That was a big event, right. We had so much impact around that publication. I can only speak for myself, but here in Europe the impact has been so resounding. It's been an amazing success. And I think also for all of us that Neo it's been a massive confirmation about what we're building matters. It's a great accomplishment. Speaking of which, how does it feel to have $36 million in the bank [laughter]? 
EE: 13:23.015 Great question. Yeah I guess, that's the other thing that happened towards the latter part of the year. So, more recently, we announced our Series D round of funding, and I feel amazingly good about that, right? I think that what-- again, this is pretty internal, probably not something that we talk super widely about, but it's not a secret in any way, shape or form that in 2016 we were very focused on getting to cash flow positive. We've always had a fairly contrarian perspective on how to build businesses like this. I'm in Sweden right now, but I'm normally based in Silicon Valley, as you know, Rik. And there's a tried, true, and proven way of building these types of businesses which is you raise a bunch of money, you get a bunch of free users, or quote, "eyeballs," right? And then you raise even more money, and then you raise even more money, and then you sell the company, right [laughter]? 
EE: 14:30.994 And I'm emphasizing and I'm exaggerating right here now, but there's a lot of truth to that, right? And we've always felt that we wanted to grow the company alongside our customers, and customer funding is always the best funding. But in 2016, we made an even stronger effort to get to cash flow positive, because the uncertainties in the market, talks about whether we are in a bubble or not, right? And we were, and still are actually, on a very stable trajectory towards that and we'll reach cash flow positive in early 2017, which is, I think, an amazing thing. And a huge thing for the company. At the same time, it's very clear that the graph space is now taking off. Right? There's more awareness about graph databases now than there's ever been before. If you look at the competitive situation from our company's perspective, right, we've been reasonably alone in the graph space for a long time. 
EE: 15:39.390 There's been others, but if you-- in the past 12 or 18 months, there's been the IBMs of the world, the Oracles of the world, the SAPs of the world that have all announce graph offerings. Right? And I-- of course, we drink our own kool-aid, but I do think that, objectively speaking, we have the best technology out there. We have the best product out there. We just spend more time obsessing about graphs than anyone else on the planet. Right? But that's not guaranteed to last. I think we need to wake up every single day and focus on that, make sure that that remains true. And when you go up against an Oracle, or an SAP, or an IBM, they have some significant balance sheets. They have a lot of gold in their coffers. And so with that as a background, when we had an opportunity to focus on getting to cash flow positive, that was very, very valuable. But at the same time raising another round of funding just allows to invest more, to make sure that we remain that number one player in the graph space. So that's why I feel extremely good about that. 
RVB: 16:54.687 Very, very good. So how does that--? Maybe we could talk a little bit about the future, then. How will that spell out going forward? Where do you think this is going to take us in 2017? I'm sure the future is very bright, but some specifics maybe of where you think our space and our company is going. 
EE: 17:19.296 Yeah. Well, I think we're on a trajectory of increasingly more mainstream usage. We were talking a little bit about the Panama Papers before. Look, I think three, four years ago, an Alpha geek, a very, very hardcore developer, could have done what the Panama Papers journalists did. Because the core capability was there in the product, but you basically would have to be an expert in order to do it, and then now-- 
RVB: 17:53.488 An Alpha Developer, yep. 
EE: 17:55.309 Exactly, right. An expert developer. And like, now today, provably, there's actual existence proof that the Panama Papers journalists was able to do it using our technology and things like Linkurious. Clearly, that's one step along the path towards more mainstream indication if you will and that is only going to continue. I think in 2017 it's going to be a significant year for us when it comes to making the core data model more accessible to more people. More developers, more ops people, et cetera. I think that's huge, and also tying it back to the investment, we're going invest across the board, we're going to expand our geographical reach. More field engineers, more people in sales and marketing, et cetera but the vast majority of the funding is going to go into the product, because ultimately these type of organizations like Neo, there's a lot of things going on, but ultimately, it's all about building great product. Building a product that really solves a problem for customers and that's what we're going to focus on with this investment. 
RVB: 19:09.004 Sounds really great. I'm looking forward to the next GraphConnect conference in London then, with another product release, then, is that the plan?
EE: 19:15.020 Well I think that is the plan, I don't know if the plan is to announce it then, but I'm sure we're going to announce something, if it's going to be released the same day, I guess that's still TBD, but there's a lot of exciting things  going on, and I think we did the two most significant releases we've ever done in 2016 and that's on the back of the growth that we did on engineering side in 2015. That's when we doubled the size of the engineering team. That output, we're just in the early phases of that output so all the amazing things that we saw in 2016, expect even more in 2017. 
RVB: 19:58.678 Sweet. So I'm in doubt here but I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going to ask you to spend two more minutes, one more minute on the most fun thing that you had in the past 18 months, that you did in the past 18 months, and one minute on the worst thing that you did or the least fun thing that you did in the past 18 months. I'm going to keep you two more minutes because that's what I can do now. 
EE: 20:19.731 Oh, man [laughter]. Oh, man. This is fun. 
RVB: 20:25.977 So you want to start with the fun thing or with the least fun thing? 
EE: 20:28.302 Let's start with the least fun thing, then we can end on a positive note, how about that? 
RVB: 20:33.098 Yeah, yeah, great idea, yeah. 
EE: 20:35.745 Oh, in the 18-- sorry in the one minute then thinking time is included, right [laughter]? 
RVB: 20:43.346 As long as you do and shut up while you're thinking [laughter]. 
EE: 20:46.413 All right. I can easily talk and think at the same time. As for the least fun part, look it takes back to the $36 million, right because when you run this type of the business, you can choose to run it in various ways. For better or for worse we'd said that we want to grow it with customer funding and with investor money. And then once we made that choice, then as the founder and the CEO, part of your job is to do fundraising. And I actually enjoy fundraising because you get to meet a lot of smart people and you get the input on your business and stuff like that, but ultimately, that is not why I started the company. And that's, I couldn't imagine myself doing that full-time for a year for example. And fortunately I haven't. But, fundraising does take a lot of time away from, for the CEO, and that is not my favorite part [chuckles] of running this business. So that would on the, probably on the least favorite side of things. I think on the most favorite side of things [crosstalk]-- 
RVB: 21:58.187 That was in one minute. Well done, well done. 
EE: 22:02.015 Are you kidding me? 
RVB: 22:03.039 Well done, well done. 
EE: 22:13.677 So much more to choose from. But I think the opposite of that, if fundraising makes me more detached from the business, then I, it's never as fun as when I actually sit down with end users to see what the use of our product liked and just see the tangible product of what we're doing. And that takes its expression in many ways. It's the meetings that you and I go to in London, it is the local community meet-up in San Francisco, it's the reading about the Panama Papers and what they do about that. It is talking with NASA, David Meza from NASA saying that, look you guys helped put mankind on Mars earlier. Thanks to you, we're going to be on Mars earlier, years earlier than we would have been before. That's the impact the technology is having. And I think that ultimately is what excites me the most. 
RVB: 23:08.847 Fantastic, that was one minute and five seconds but I'm going to give you that, that's fine [laughter]. 
EE: 23:14.003 Very generous. 
RVB: 23:16.576 Hey, Eamon one more thing, you have to promise not to stay away from this podcast for another 18 months. Let's make sure that we talk again in the next six months. That would be lovely. 
EE: 23:30.423 I would love to do that. It's always fun my friend. 
RVB: 23:33.902 Thank you so much for coming online and this were we're going to leave it for now and I'll look forward to speaking to you soon. 
EE: 23:41.039 Awesome, thanks for having me Rik. 
RVB: 21:01.000 Thanks, bye. Bye.
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