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Q&A: Puppet Labs CEO Kanies Explains How DevOps Is Shaking Up Enterprise IT

Puppet Labs CEO Luke Kanies created software that automates data center tasks and makes systems administrators' jobs a lot easier. He sat down with CRN recently to explain how it works.

Luke Kanies, founder and CEO of Puppet Labs, is a popular figure among enterprise systems administrators. The open source configuration management software he created automates time-consuming data center tasks -- and lets admins have lives outside of work.

Kanies is a driving force behind DevOps, a term that describes the trend of software developers and IT operations people having shared business goals, instead of wildly different ones, and working together to reach them. The collaboration that's driving the DevOps movement is seen as a key to unlocking the value of large-scale cloud projects.

This spirit is also evident in Kanies' leadership style. He holds all-hands meetings with employees after every Puppet Labs board meeting to make sure they're aware of what's happening in all areas of the company's business. The way he sees it, informed staff are more likely to step up with a game changing idea.

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Kanies also has a dry sense of humor -- his bio on the vendor's website claims he started Puppet Labs in 2005 "out of fear and desperation."

Puppet Labs, which inked a $30 million deal with VMware in January, is anything but desperate these days. It held its third annual user conference -- called PuppetConf -- in San Francisco last month. While the first event attracted some 300 attendees, this year's drew 1,300 -- with an additional 3,700 people watching the live stream.

CRN sat down with Kanies at PuppetConf to talk about the startup's growth, its relationships with traditional enterprise vendors, and how its technology is affecting the day-to-day work of systems administrators. Following is an edited transcript from the interview.

DevOps people love what Puppet Labs is doing -- what's driving their enthusiasm?

Developers and operations have very different needs. Developers' goal is to build new features, while operations is judged on whether downtime happens. But, developers don't care if there's any downtime because that's not what they're measured on.

DevOps is about having shared goals that are tied to business goals. It's especially important for companies that are looking for more agility. It's for people that need to double the size of their production environment without doubling the size of their team. It's also for people who've made long-term investments in technology and are realizing that there are these major cultural changes they need to make.

With VMware, it's great to be able to deploy a thousand virtual machines in five minutes. But if it takes you six weeks to get them to do anything useful, then you clearly still have a major problem. DevOps is about continuous delivery of your changes into production without having to have artificial barriers and six weeks of change control rules.

How would you explain the value of what Puppet Labs does to the uninitiated?

The vast majority of people don't have an automation solution in place today. So, it's not about hey, you should replace this thing that doesn't work well with something that's better. It's hey, there's this opportunity in the market, there's this thing we could be doing better, and here is the way to do it.

The best way to do that is to say: 'The reason you're not seeing any trouble tickets in our market is that we automated our entire department six months ago. That's why I'm only working 8 hours a day instead of 12. And, that's why users are getting their requests responded to in 30 minutes instead of 3 weeks.'

NEXT: Measuring Performance And The Portland Startup Scene


How do you measure performance and communicate with your employees?

We've got 190 employees now, compared to three employees four years ago.

I like to make sure my entire company really understands the whole business. After company board meetings, I spend two hours with the whole company going through the board report, explaining what happened. It's a lot like an investor call, but with employees. I want them to understand how their performance had an impact -- positively and negatively.

We built this company on a culture that says you'd better care about what the key metrics are. And if you only want to care about your own little corner, that's not going to work.

Puppet Labs is headquartered in Portland, Ore. -- not exactly an enterprise IT hub. What's that like?

It's definitely like being a big fish in a small pond, and there are good and bad things about that.

In general, it's been fantastic, because we have an amazing office in a great location, and we get people who are super excited to work for us. They don't spend all of their days in the office and then go home and have this horrible, empty shell of a house, or live in a bad neighborhood.

There are some challenges in hiring really specific executives, but in general, if you're willing to move, you're willing to move to Portland.

Puppet Labs has raised more than $45 million in funding so far. What would you say if some company came along and offered you a bunch of money, but you had to move Puppet Labs to Silicon Valley?

One of my main jobs as CEO right now is staying more expensive than anyone thinks we're worth.

Fundamentally, I think we have to stay independent to succeed and reach our goals. Our business is about vendor-neutral, heterogeneous technology. It's about working everywhere on everything. To do that, it doesn't work that well to be part of another company.

PUBLISHED SEPT. 6, 2013

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