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One of tech's most ambitious open source projects puts a software veteran at the helm

Steve Singh, CEO of Docker
Source: Docker
Steve Singh, CEO of Docker

Docker was tagged with a $1 billion valuation in the heady days of 2015, when the term "unicorn" was still in vogue and venture capitalists spoke frequently of FOMO (fear of missing out).

The software start-up was generating less than $5 million in revenue at the time, but that didn't matter. Investors were focused on Docker's surging popularity as a set of free, open-source tools that developers could use to easily move code across machines and to test applications before pushing them live.

Among programming teams, Docker has become so ubiquitous that just in the past two months giant tech companies like IBM, Oracle and Cisco put out press releases touting the availability of the technology to their customers.

But converting usage into dollars remains a hurdle. That job is now being turned over to industry veteran Steve Singh.

Three years after selling Concur Technologies to SAP for $8 billion, Singh is replacing Ben Golub as Docker's CEO to help the company grow into its valuation and well beyond.

In an exclusive interview with CNBC.com, Singh said Docker is at the forefront of a fundamental shift taking place across technology. Developers no longer have to worry about servers and storage, thanks to massive companies like Amazon and Google opening up their data centers. Docker similarly eliminates the need for expensive and complicated software by providing virtual containers for moving code in a way that used to require hefty tools and technical expertise.

"What Docker does is it allows a broader group of people to innovate," said Singh, who until last week was running seven business units at SAP, including Concur and SAP Health. "In the next 10 to 15 years I see an explosion in innovation that dwarfs everything we've seen in the last 40 years. To have a small role in that change is exciting."

Open source is one of the hottest topics in Silicon Valley today. After decades of failures for any company not named Red Hat, this year has seen the IPOs of MuleSoft, a platform for connecting applications, and Cloudera, which is commercializing the big data analytics platform Hadoop.

According to an index published last month by Battery Ventures, Docker is the fifth most popular open source project in tech, one spot ahead of Hadoop. Docker says it has close to 10,000 contributors.

Singh's hiring followed an unusual process for a start-up of Docker's profile -- no executive search was conducted.

Singh has been a Docker insider since joining the board in November and taking on the role of chairman. Golub, a successful start-up CEO, was under intense pressure to not only keep up the pace of development and build the commercial products and sales team but simultaneously manage hundreds of new employees and all of the operational hassles that come with hyper growth.

Scaling the business

When Golub initiated the conversation with Singh, the board was in full support. Golub is staying on the board and remains a major shareholder.

"In the universe of two to three people in the world who have the energy and passion and have scaled to a billion in revenue from scratch, it was sort of like too good to be true," said Peter Fenton, a partner at venture firm Benchmark and a Docker board member. "Getting Steve to say yes and get over the goal line required him to go deep on the business model."

Singh inherits a business that's growing, with annual revenue in tens of million of dollars, according to sources with knowledge of the company but who asked not to be named because the financials are private. He's still got money in the bank from the $95 million round that Goldman Sachs led two years ago.

Uber, PayPal, MetLife and payroll giant ADP are among large businesses counting on Docker to securely move around sensitive data and rapidly launch new apps. The company started selling its enterprise product early last year and has about 400 customers, Singh said.

But Docker faces all the classic challenges of an open source company. The big one is keeping free users happy while leaving enough room to add proprietary and lucrative features for businesses.

Docker founder Solomon Hykes at DockerCon.
Source: Docker
Docker founder Solomon Hykes at DockerCon.

That balancing act has been a bumpy one for Docker. The company has been at the center of all sorts of controversies around the security of its containers and the frequency of product updates that take the ecosystem by surprise.

For example, when it released an update to its Swarm service last year for managing clusters of containers, some developers complained publicly that it wasn't ready for prime time. They asked the company to focus on "boring" and "stable" container technology that just works.

In the spirit of Mark Zuckerberg, Docker founder and Chief Technology Officer Solomon Hykes has been known for moving fast and sometimes breaking things in the process. But Docker isn't Facebook. It's enterprise software that companies are relying on to safely move around increasingly mission critical information.

Singh is tasked with bridging that gap.

"I'm more focused on the road ahead as opposed to things that have happened in the past," Singh said. "We want to collaborate and make sure customers have choice."

There's certainly no getting around the competition. The most powerful force in containers today is an open source technology called Kubernetes that comes out of Google.

Kubernetes has its own container management system that works with Docker containers. And there's perpetual concern that Google and Amazon Web Services are going to capture most of the value in cloud software, leaving smaller companies to battle over the scraps.

"It's a tricky ecosystem," said Dan Scholnick, a partner at Trinity Ventures and a Docker board member. "Everyone is trying to work together and is competing at the same time."