IT Life: Ten Years Of Email Code

Managing email archives of a large organisation can be a pain. For ten years, Mimecast has been helping businesses with this mission, making sure that communication remains secure, cheap, and those ever-important messages don’t get buried under mountains of spam.

These days, Mimecast has over 250 staff, more than 5,000 customers and is one of the fastest growing technology companies in Europe. It all started with a meeting of two men – Neil Murray and Peter Bauer. We visited the Mimecast head office in London to have a chat with Neil about his coding days, the plague of software patents and the future of email.

Building a company

How many years of experience in IT do you have?
I started in systems early, aged 12. That means I have something like 24 years of experience, considering the gap for military service.

What are your areas of expertise?
Mimecast is email focused, but my main interest has always been in software. I’ve been a developer for most of my life. I like making cool things out of ideas, and software allows you to do that.

What inspired you to create Mimecast?
The inspiration came from quite a lot of work I was doing at the time, related to email. In late 2002, it was fairly fragmented, there were lots of different email systems. That’s when I ran into Peter Bauer. We chatted at length and decided that it was a market that was open to consolidation, something we could really be good at.

What has been the favourite project in your work so far?
I started writing Mimecast in 2003, and they forced me to stop writing it last year. It has been excellent. I’ve spent ten years waking up, going to sleep, writing code, thinking about ideas, dreams, applying them in real life, seeing the results of that work.

I can’t say that my work before Mimecast was very interesting. It was a useful experience, sometimes enjoyable; there was a chance to make technology, but nothing at this level. There have been lots of projects I liked during my time at the company, but the project of creating Mimecast itself was the most rewarding.

And you have Nathaniel Borenstein, the inventor of the MIME email attachment protocol, working for Mimecast?
We named our company after his invention. Nathaniel is a very experienced guy when it comes to technology. We were looking for someone who could advise us on email matters, and he is an excellent spokesman. He also works with the engineering teams on various projects.

The network effect

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
The technology at the time wasn’t that different from what it is today. You could see early cloud services, although I wasn’t involved in that. I was pretty much on the Application Service Provider track, trying to extend the life of banking systems that were written in the seventies. Crazy, but you could make a fortune if you did the right things.

We knew about Java, and we still use it today. And then, there was the dot-com crash. It was not a great time for a start-up, but there was certainly a lot of new technological stuff being made.

What tech do you expect to be involved with in ten years’ time?
I expect to be working on Cloud solutions, in the Cloud. I wouldn’t expect any on-site infrastructure at all; I wouldn’t expect to be bound to any office. I am definitely looking forward to a certain amount of code simplification. At Mimecast, we write a lot of code, thousands and thousands of lines a day. I think some sort of AI or at least pre-AI capability can help with code generation.

Email will probably be quite different. Everybody understands that it is useful, and everybody has an email address. It has achieved this “network effect”, the only technology to accomplish that other than the telephone.

There’s a growing desire to simplify the working life. Email has made us much more productive, because it’s asynchronous, and we can work on other things in the background. In the future, it will be similar, but it has got to be a future where you don’t spend six hours a day in front of your email client. I anticipate automatic classification, and reduction of the amount of messages we receive.

Who’s your tech villain?
It’s not a person, it’s a system. I strongly believe that the software patent system is the villain. Pretty much any technology company, whether it is a start-up or not, will tell you patents are stifling innovation.

Who’s your tech hero?
The hero would be someone who ends the madness of the software patents. I think the world forgot what a patent meant. It has to be something novel, non-obvious. These are fundamental things, because, when given a particular requirement, engineers will tend to follow a similar pattern.

Let’s say someone sends you to the shop. If there are two routes to get there, and someone patents them, because they believe they are unique, you won’t be able to get to your destination. When software engineers think up solutions to problems, and they work on business methods, the outcomes are predictable. But the patent office isn’t skilled sufficiently to make a call about the nature of these things. So now we have about 160,000 US software and business method patents, and it’s a minefield.

Data Custodian

What’s your favourite piece of technology ever made?
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but I will say it’s the iPad. It has changed my life. It has changed the way I travel, it has changed my holidays, the way I read books. I even do some coding and design on it.  

Budget outlook going forward? Flat? Growing?
The company is growing. I think it is a reflection on how the business is doing, but also a reflection of our desire to continue to be a private company.

Mimecast is not limited to email. It is really a cloud service business. In the near future, we want to do much more: file exchange, collaboration tools, and other things that converge around cloud and business.

Email is a very valuable resource for us. Thousands of large companies have given us their archives, and inside lives the wealth of those organisations. All of the files people shared, decisions that have been made, interactions, relationships, groups. Applying the Big Data approach to those archives is something we absolutely want to do. We want our customers to benefit from their own data.  

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
I’m going to choose SpaceX [the company which launched the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station]. It was founded by Elon Musk, who was the CEO of PayPal and Tesla. This is a company that built its rocket engines from scratch, using the tech start-up mindset. It is like agile development, applied to a physical thing. And in Tesla, they even had test cars called “betas”.  

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
IT managers need to adjust their thinking slowly over the next few years. In the past, it was all about managing the infrastructure and the users. Now, there’s a fair amount of consumerisation of IT going on, and it is the end-users that make the decisions about where critical business data will be stored.

The challenge is not to hold them back, because I think that’s impossible. Instead, we need to adjust the approach, so that you are not an IT manager anymore, but a “Data Custodian”, looking after the digital assets of the business.  

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I can’t remember much from early childhood, but I managed to get a hold of Sinclair ZX80 when I was about 12. At that point I knew what I wanted to be – a software engineer.

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Max Smolaks

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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