Inside MongoDB’s Quest to Make Databases Magical

How the company’s CTO is fulfilling his career-long dream of making data ‘stunningly easy’ to work with

Written by Adrienne Teeley
Published on Feb. 04, 2020
Inside MongoDB’s Quest to Make Databases Magical

After three decades of working in databases and concurrency, Mark Porter came to a sad realization: legacy data platforms just weren’t cutting it — and probably never would.  

“Even after 30 years, databases were still hard to operate, hard to program against and behaved unpredictably,” Porter said. “It was not a great realization. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still fascinated by the power of relational databases, but the use cases for them are being overtaken by flexible, modern, always-on and scalable engines every day.”

Those flexible, modern, always-on engines? Porter is describing what MongoDB has been busy building. That’s why Porter, in his self-described “career-long quest to make databases magical,” accepted a seat on the company’s board in February 2020. As a board member, he became convinced that MongoDB was the place he’d been looking for, and so he upped his involvement by joining the engineering team as the new CTO.

“I didn’t want to be on the legacy team anymore, trying to push it into the future. I’d rather be leading the charge.”

“I was attracted to the broader mission of the company, which is to make data stunningly easy to work with,” he said. “When I learned about MongoDB’s vision for a data platform, comprising search, mobile, data lakes and analytics, I knew this was the next step for me. After being here almost six months, I can say without reservation that MongoDB is the best platform to write and deploy modern applications on.”

To learn more about what makes MongoDB so unique in the world of databases, Built In connected with the CTO. And, in order to fully grasp the impact of MongoDB’s tech, we also tapped Director of Sales Enablement Doug Williams to get his perspective on what the data platform can do for engineers across industries. 

For Porter’s personal engineering mission, he feels satisfied that his work at MongoDB is driving the needle forward on what’s long been his area of expertise. 

“I didn’t want to be on the legacy team anymore, trying to push it into the future,” Porter said. “I’d rather be leading the charge. It’s a rocky and uncertain road — but it’s exciting.”


mongodb sales


We know you’re on a mission to help make data easier to work with. Tell us a little more about what is so exciting about working on MongoDB’s products.  

CTO Mark Porter: When the founders of MongoDB started the company, their vision was simple: make data easy to use by applications that are easy to write, scale, operate and iterate on. Rather than making the developer adapt to the database, make the database adapt to the developer. 

The MongoDB JSON-based (JavaScript Object Notation) Document model, with flexible fields and embedded sub-documents, is much closer to how developers think and computer languages work. Because it breaks with the prior standard of SQL, the MongoDB Query Language (MQL) can start afresh and build all the primitives needed for today’s modern developer, without all the baggage of the past. After all, who wanted to teach computers to understand an English-like language? It’s better to let developers talk to computers using code that is natural to them.

“Rather than making the developer adapt to the database, make the database adapt to the developer.”

We have very few constraints — we are the stewards of the entire technology stack, from the drivers to the servers to our mobile platform to our Atlas database, which handles cloud orchestration. The fact that we’re an open-source company makes it even better. We get contributions and suggestions from the community all the time and it’s great to see the energy. We are strong believers in open source and protecting it from people who would harm it.

Finally, the fact that we can deploy this via all the major cloud providers in our Atlas offering means we can iterate quickly, knocking down tech debt and bugs while rolling features out on quick cycles.  


Getting equipped to evangelize MongoDB

Most salespeople don’t arrive at MongoDB with complete knowledge of the nuances and use cases of the product they’ll soon be selling. That’s why new hires are given detailed checklists for their first six weeks, designated mentors and are paired with a solutions architect. Together, Director of Sales Enablement Doug Williams said this team ensures each new recruit ramps up effectively. “These partners, in combination with the broader MongoDB ecosystem, ensure that a new seller always has someone to go to with questions and to receive coaching or other types of guidance,” Williams said.


For four years, Stack Overflow has listed MongoDB as the database developers most want to use. What’s so unique about these products — and why have they created so much buzz? 

Porter: Companies need to develop applications faster and easier and, as you mentioned, MongoDB is the database that developers most want to use, according to Stack Overflow’s annual survey of 65,000 developers. 

MongoDB’s document model and flexibility are vital for building modern, mission-critical applications. Instead of scaling their understanding of multiple interfaces, developers can unlock the true value of data through MongoDB’s unified platform.


“MongoDB’s document model and flexibility are vital for building modern, mission-critical applications.”

First and foremost is the flexible document model. You can build so much faster, deploy faster and modify in production easily, while at the same time you can lock down your schema or give warnings if you want. 

Second, MongoDB is a distributed scale-out database first. Relational just doesn’t scale out — most relational databases are single-node, and the best relational databases do a handful of nodes at best, while MongoDB regularly scales to tens or hundreds of nodes. We started with distribution and scale first, then added transactions later. It turns out to be a lot easier to build a mission-critical system that way.

Third, we have a bottom-up culture, with as little process as possible, that’s empowered to get innovation going, mixed with a rational leadership team that knows that they need to give guidance and listen to wider perspectives and customer input to guide that innovation. Our primary customer is the developer, full-stop. That connection has driven our product direction and it’s why they want to use us.


What specific problems is MongoDB helping customers solve?

Trick question: There’s no one specific use case for MongoDB’s products. And while there are no standard problems to solve, Williams said, there are some common themes — and MongoDB is built to address them all. “Customers want to continue to innovate and gain an advantage in their markets,” Williams said. “They are looking to accelerate development velocity and the delivery of new capabilities, manage the risks associated with managing their environments, and ensure the security of their customers’ data.”


For those needing a bit more context, what’s an example of how MongoDB’s platform has helped a customer?

Porter: Sanoma Learning is Europe’s leading online education provider. When COVID-19 hit, it made Bingel, its e-learning platform for primary education in Belgium, freely available to students and teachers, becoming critical infrastructure overnight.

Sanoma Learning had been self-managing MongoDB in their on-premises data center. However, the massive increase in traffic to the platform caused a poor user experience, and engineering leaders needed a quick fix. 

MongoDB partnered with Sanoma Learning to spin up a virtual war room and migrate Bingel’s database from their on-premises data center to MongoDB Atlas on AWS in just three days. Given Atlas is a managed database service, Sanoma Learning’s lean development team could stop worrying about database management and trust the platform could scale elastically to meet the massive increase in users.


Real talk: How do you sell a product that has a free version?

There’s a free, open-source version of MongoDB, and it would follow that selling the premium suite would be an uphill battle. According to Williams, however, that’s not the case. “There is a considerable value our customers see in our broader portfolio of data platform offerings, which further accelerate developer productivity and development velocity as well as automate and simplify operational tasks associated with managing an application environment in production,” Williams said.


What on the tech team’s roadmap are you most excited about rolling out?

Porter: In the last year, the team has launched our new data platform comprising Online Archive, Search, Realm and Atlas Data Lake. All of these products are growing fast and we’re learning about what customers want more every day. As these new products reach the same scale as the core database engine and tools, it’s going to be very exciting watching how our customers can build new applications faster and better.

“MongoDB is the only database company that offers the ability to stand up highly available clusters in nearly 80 regions across all three major cloud providers.”

MongoDB has launched features that can handle data residency better than anything that’s been released before, and we’re seeing huge interest in those capabilities, like Global Clusters. 

As more industries are becoming cloud-first, it’s incumbent upon technology providers to provide systems that have the necessary reliability and security. We’ve integrated into the clouds so deeply that we offer the best integrations with the native cloud identity and access systems, and MongoDB is the only database company that offers the ability to stand up highly available clusters in nearly 80 regions across all three major cloud providers, helping insulate mission-critical industries from regional or global outages. 

Finally, and this is very exciting to developers, we’re moving the server itself from an annual release cycle to a quarterly one, which will help developers get their hands on our software even faster.



Sellers at MongoDB must empathize deeply with their highly-technical customers to grasp what challenges they face. Only then can they illustrate how implementing MongoDB’s products can solve their unique pain points. Williams says that’s where the job gets really exciting — his team is selling products that can drastically help engineers in their daily life. “We sell into a highly technical customer base with complex use cases, and the database is a mission-critical component of the application stack, as opposed to a ‘nice to have’ tool that sits adjacent to it,” Williams said.


Where does MongoDB go from here? Where does the next big idea come from?

Porter: We are constantly working across the company to understand from our sales, professional services and support teams, whether our customers are being successful with the last thing we released and about what they want next. 

One way the tech team has a huge impact, in a way that I haven’t seen often in my career, is that the teams balance engineer-driven roadmaps and innovation with all the ideas that come from the field. We try to defend the company from short-term ill-conceived fads while still being open to new trends. We take that responsibility seriously and propose projects to keep our products and processes healthy as part of every release. 

Our goal is to stay the best data platform to build modern applications on. That’s going to require us to innovate in the MongoDB server, our Atlas managed cloud service, our new data platform, and all the innovations and partnerships we’re working on — both those we’ve announced and the many we haven’t. I took the leap to MongoDB make a magical database platform, and the company and I are committed to delivering on that vision. 



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