Mega reloaded

At Kim Dotcom's latest venture, Mega, the CIO/CTO functions are rolled into one, but are delivered by two people.

Many Silicon Valley startups -- and some global technology companies -- trace their beginnings to a garage, or a university dormitory room.But Mega -- the cloud storage company that is the latest venture of Kim Dotcom -- has a different pedigree.It was launched last January 20, exactly a year after Dotcom's cloud storage company Megaupload was shuttered for alleged copyright violation.Thirteen months after the Megaupload raids, Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk -- Dotcom's co-accused in a case that sparked headlines across the globe -- can see the upside of the incident.Without it, the pair tell CIO New Zealand, they would still be working on "2005 technology", referring to the year they launched Megaupload, and not with "2012 technology".They also dispel a popular perception that Mega emerged from the flashy Coatesville mansion of Kim Dotcom.The "birthplace" of Mega, as Ortmann puts it, is a room in a more modest house, albeit in Orakei, one of Auckland's priciest suburbs. This house, which was raided at the same time as Dotcom's mansion over a year ago, remains the residence of van der Kolk and his family.Ortmann says that having two of them working from home was a big factor in the making of Mega. "We are not your typical corporate office," he says. "We work through the night, long hours, so we are flexible." Merging roles"Our technical field involves innovating," says Ortmann. "We are not strictly CIOs. We are CTOs.""We merged the task of CIO and programming into two people," says Ortmann. "He [van der Kolk] is basically a chief programmer which is basically a sub-CTO."But Ortmann explains that this is not a hierarchical structure. "I have to say much of the innovation, even 50 percent of the innovation that made Mega, is coming from Bram."He has contributed immensely important innovations to Mega and therefore we merged the task of CTO/CIO and programming into two people."Indeed the two have worked in tandem so much so that they finished each other's sentences during this interview."Basically we sit down together like here," says van der Kolk, pointing to the room beside the lounge that is the headquarters of Mega."Standalone, we could not come up with great ideas, but by challenging each other, we do," says Ortmann.Like a ping-pong game where the ball goes back and forth, adds van der Kolk.Ortmann says Mega was hatched as a direct result of the "illegal government surveillance" that Megaupload was subjected to. "That played a major role in our thinking," he says. "If the government is able to look at everything and scrutinise all data in transit or stored without valid warrants and even illegally, what can citizens do to protect their privacy?"In the early days of the computer, everybody had their hard drive at home, the government couldn't walk into your house and look at your hard drive contents and prosecute you for it. "Our aim was to give people back control over their data and give them back their privacy and of course the straightforward way to that is strong encryption. And then we thought encryption is very cumbersome. You usually have to have tools for that to somehow remember the encryption keys. If you lose your keys, all of the data is gone."And it is all not really consumer friendly. And then we looked at the browser market and how the browser market has developed in the meantime and the browser's technical ability." They realised how the web browser, especially Google Chrome, had reached a stage where it would be possible to implement their vision of a proper cloud storage service purely in this environment.At the time of the interview, Ortmann says the site already had three million registered users. "It is much, much more than what we expected. It is just unbelievable."And "in such a short time", says Van der Kolk. "Dropbox, it took them two years to get three million users. We had it in one month.""We knew we had great visibility but..." says van der Kolk. "...we never expected such a tremendous run on the new service," continues Ortmann. "Now, already a month after the launch, in terms of number of files, we have a third of what Megaupload had after seven years. That is really crazy."Ortmann says in the CTO at Mega does much of the programming. "In the case of Mega, limited resources didn't give us any alternative," says Van der Kolk. "We did not have significant capital to hire a large team of programmers." While they say the work was "great fun", it included a period of 16 to 18 hour workdays, without a day off. "We knew the January 20 anniversary deadline will be coming up and there would be no way of ever cancelling the launch on that date, we are working towards that fixed deadline. And we knew we had to make it."From the minute we launched, we already had hundreds of visitors a second. There was immense interest, sparked of course by the awesome PR work of Kim Dotcom," says Ortmann."Usually you do soft launches," says Ortmann. "You test code with a small group of people and you make it a little bit more public. Not so with Mega." "There was no burn-in testing that had taken place before the launch. It was quite brave to do it that way and it worked quite well. And of course it helps I have several years of experience running industrial scale internet infrastructure," says Ortmann.So how do Ortmann and van der Kolk work with Dotcom?"Kim does the high level abstraction work, we do the medium to low level abstraction work," says Ortmann. "In terms of time consumed, it is much more complex but it is a nice division, a vertical division.""And much labour," says Van der Kolk.A year after the raid, Ortmann says its impact on the Mega team was limited. "We know we haven't done anything that would justify criminal action against us so we are very relaxed about it. We see it as bullying.""If you are in a situation like this, being prosecuted and the spotlight is on you, that is a great marketing tool," says van der Kolk. To which Ortmann points out, "It is not recommended as a general way of marketing your business."Despite their experience of the raid, the pair only have great praises for New Zealand. "It is a beautiful country, the people are fantastic," says Ortmann. "And what is important, it is very business friendly. It is very easy to start a company here. Everything is updated on the company registry website in real time. "Their plans for Mega? Ortmann says the first priority is to have secure email. "Then, we will have secure instant messaging between Mega users. Then, a little bit further down the future, possibly secure video chats."Another important goal, says van der Kolk, is to develop apps for the main mobile operating systems. "We want to have apps for big mobile devices, iOS, Windows mobile, and probably Blackberry as well. That is what is missing in Mega right now."Mega employs two assistant web developers who are based overseas, in Europe and Central America, but Ortmann says the company wants to hire New Zealand-based programmers in the lead up to its public listing.Apart from developers working across iOS, Android and Blackberry, van der Kolk says Mega will need systems administrators with "more than average, not just small site" experience. "It is quite a specific skill set to be able to manage very large infrastructure that is being hit by millions of users all the time," he says. 

Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.

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