Over 15 years, Michael “Monty” Widenius coded the open-source software MySQL almost entirely by himself, later helping sell the company to Sun in 2008 for $1 billion as the company’s CTO.
This article is part of a series of Founder Stories by OpenOcean, highlighting impressive people building deep tech businesses. Monty is also a Founding Partner at OpenOcean. Clickhereto read our first story about Aragon founder Luis Cuende.
The amount of Computer Science majors at universities have ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of tech companies, and currently, CS is in full bloom. This means, for better or for worse, the majority of CS grads would ideally like to code for a max of two years, move into product management before then transitioning to venture, entrepreneurship, or business school, before then moving into middle management at an established company and getting married at 32 and having two kids, one daughter, one son, one dog, and a beautiful two story house with solar panels. For most, being a programmer is a 9–5 job, a guaranteed six-figure salary to pay back a steep college tuition, a means to an end, and no one can ever be faulted for that. But for each of the thousand good, medium, and mediocre programmers, there is one Monty Widenius.
Monty is a programming genius. At 19, he dropped out of the Helsinki University of Technology to work full time, because there was little more the university could teach him. At 33, he released MySQL, the most popular open-source database in the world, after coding the entire thing up himself with the exception of one library. At 55, he defies ageism and is still the best programmer at his company.
Born in 1962 in Helsinki, Monty bought his first personal computer in 1978, paying for it by spending his summer putting asphalt on the streets. Monty quickly realized he was quite good at coding — things that were complex to others came easily to him, and he’d get absorbed into his work. “Three hours can feel like minutes,” Monty said in a thick accent common among Swedish speaking Finns. “Basically, it’s like reading a really really good book. Or like playing a videogame. You know when you start a game and boom it’s three hours later? That’s what coding is for me.”
When other people went to parties, Monty stayed home programming. He learned the ins and outs of the computer. He pushed BASIC to its limits. “Schools don’t understand that programming is not something like a language or history that you can just learn,” Monty said. “School is not enough. Top notch hackers, you only have one in a thousand. They sacrifice all possible time, 10 hours, 16 hours, every day, for years and years and years. This is not something that most people like to do. Most people would prefer to have a life.” Good code in Monty’s eyes is code that is written once and never needs to be touched again. It is optimal from a performance point of view and can always be enhanced but will never need to be rewritten.
By 1980, 17-year-old Monty was deep into programming, and needed to improve the memory on his computer from 8KB to 16KB. With no stores in Finland selling what he wanted, he took a boat and traveled to the computer shop of Allan Larsson in Sweden. Through Allan, Monty met David Axmark, and the three of them were in communication for years, helping each other with projects and occasionally collaborating. Together, they founded MySQL AB in 1995. Monty did the coding, and David and Allan did everything else. Monty had been coding precursors to MySQL since 1981, both as a programmer for the Finnish company Tapio Laakso Oy as well as for his own data warehousing company that he had founded with Allan. However, it wasn’t till 1995 after lobbying from Allan and David that Monty decided to incorporate an SQL layer on top of the code he was working on. In October of 1996, MySQL was finally released, to widespread acclaim. It was fast, reliable, and easy to learn, largely because Monty had been constantly integrating real-world customer feedback over the years of its development.
MySQL was made to store and manage big data. If someone wants to keep track of various data points, they use a database, something like Microsoft Excel. However, as the amount of data gets bigger, searching a database like Excel becomes much slower and no longer reliable. MySQL has the ability to store a lot of data and return search results extremely quickly. “My” comes from the name of Monty’s daughter, and “SQL” is Structured Query Language, the language used to communicate with the database.
The decision to open-source MySQL came in 1985 from another boat trip between Finland and Sweden, this time at an open-source conference. “The discussion didn’t take many minutes,” Monty said. “We wanted to give something back to the open source community. Even if someone tried to copy or steal our code, we thought we will not earn less money than we do now.” Open-source projects allow for a community of developers to make the software better, but the drawback from a business perspective is that monetizing is much more difficult. To avoid this, Monty added a stipulation that if any enterprise used MySQL to make money, a paid license would be required. There was nothing in the code that mandated this, but based on this honor system MySQL was able to expand and become profitable. “I believe that open source is a better way to develop software,” Monty said. “But you still need to earn enough money to hire staff and create a company that can compete with closed source communities. MySQL was the first product that did that.”
At MySQL AB, Monty served as CTO, and for most mature companies the CTO does very little programming. However, Monty never stopped spending the majority of his time coding. This would cause many later stage startups to self-implode, but even with 550 people, Monty created a unique culture at MySQL AB that allowed him to avoid a calendar full of meetings (in fact, Monty does not even accept calendar invites). “I just always hired self driving people,” Monty said. “So I didn’t have to tell them much. And with open-source, you have an open community, people give you code, you can look at the quality of the code, how they interact with the community, how they interact with you, the questions they ask, its very easy to see in these scenarios if a person is good or not. It’s very hard in an interview to know how good of a coder you are.”
The success of MySQL was a collaboration between CTO Monty and CEO Mårten Mickos. Both were highly capable and important to the company, but in different ways. Monty was the technologist, focusing on employees producing as perfect of code as possible. Mårten was the company builder, focused on shipping things and helping the team grow. It was the combined vision of the two men that produced MySQL. But in a company that did not have free laundry, free meals, and standing desks, it was Monty who attracted programming talent. Monty is not a gregarious fundraiser, people pleaser, game theory master, or professional networker. He codes, and does that very well. Getting the developer’s respect is very simple in Monty’s eyes: “You do the same thing that they are doing but do it better.”
For the programmers reading this, Monty suggests getting involved in open-source communities and spending time on personal projects (“I created hundreds of programs over the years. MySQL was the one that was most used, the other ones only I used”). And he cautions that changing environments and code bases will mean even the best programmer has a lot of learning to do. After Sun was acquired by Oracle, Monty founded MariaDB, a community-developed fork that has many of the same team members and, according to Monty, the same official language: “broken English.” Many of the fervent open-source believers at MySQL followed Monty to MariaDB. MariaDB is more developer oriented, allowing things like patches from outsiders, and is the default database in many Linux distributions.
Monty’s commitment to open-source and developers is incredibly strong — OpenOcean was initially founded by Monty using his proceeds from MySQL, with the mission of investing in developer-driven and deeply technical products. He still hosts developer lunches at his house in Helsinki, and soon OpenOcean will be releasing a Slack channel for developers to ask Monty questions directly. Over multiple decades, Monty’s contribution to shaping the selflessness of the open source community is undeniable. Yet it is the time and ability of thousands of unnamed programmers and hackers who deserve most of the credit, and who will ensure that the open source revolution continues.