Chef Exec: Partners With Enterprise Cloud Skills Are Getting Really Tough To Find

The rate at which enterprises are migrating workloads to the cloud is creating more work than the channel can currently handle, according to an executive from one of enterprise technology's hottest startups.

In a recent interview, Ken Cheney, vice president of business development at Chef, a Seattle-based vendor that sells a popular configuration management tool, said there just aren't enough partners with the kind of skills enterprises are looking for.

That's good news for Chef partners that have already made investments in developing in-house cloud expertise.

"From our perspective, I think there's a big opportunity. But many organizations have yet to transform their business, to take their opportunity," Cheney told CRN.

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This business transformation extends beyond traditional IT skill sets and practices, Cheney said. Partners that adopt a "DevOps type of culture," or one that adheres to the idea that software developers and IT operations teams should work closely together to speed new software deployment, are poised to do well in the cloud, he said.

Chef, which was known as Opscode until changing its name last December, has raised $68 million in four funding rounds since its founding in 2008. The latest was a Series D last December from Scale Venture Partners, Citi Ventures, Amplify Partners, Battery Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Ignition Partners, according to Crunchbase.

Chef's customers are looking for a "trusted advisor" that can help them use the tool to manage complex workloads, and achieve the benefits of web-scale infrastructure for hosting applications, Cheney said.

Solution providers who can offer those services are in scarce supply and high demand, Cheney said.

It's a common theme—solution providers need to adapt their businesses for the new realities of the cloud by bringing more to the table than just a sale followed by some support and service.

"It's not just about technology. They have to deal with the business side and take on the old operating model where sales people are incentivized based on those large data center refresh deals," Cheney said.

One fundamental driver of IT transformation is that many traditional businesses—from retailers to financial services to health care firms—are to some extent becoming application developers and administrators.

"Every company is becoming a software company at the core," Cheney said.

"That opportunity we see to help all those companies become software companies, which is a big shift to how many of them operated previously, requires a new set of capabilities around understanding how not only to implement technologies like Chef, but also the business transformation side," Cheney said.

Successful channel partners must work strategically with customers to guide them through organizational changes. End users are looking for help incorporating best practices for operating in a continuous-delivery model, as well as in choosing applications to automate, abstracting applications away from the underlying bare metal, and standing up and operating the technology, Cheney said.

Chef currently partners with some boutique system integrators who bring all those skills to the table.

"But services to demand is still quite low in the market," Cheney said. Which means there's a lot of work out there for the channel, and a lot of profit being left on the table.

"There's huge appetite out there in the markets, that steep growth curve we're seeing, all of us are growing at this incredible rate, yet you're seeing a lot of traditional resellers and [system integrators] that are dying on the vine. They're not tuned to this new operating model," Cheney said.

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One Chef partner, Chicago-based solution provider 10th Magnitude, has transitioned to the new cloud model, and is reaping the benefits.

"Chef has been an outstanding partner and also a great example of how the cloud market is providing opportunities for vendors to build a new model of partnership with the channel," 10th Magnitude CEO Alex Brown told CRN.

Brown said only a small part of the transformation involves adding skills. "A bigger thing is about perspective on where the market is and how IT behaves today in the cloud."

Many legacy providers are struggling to adjust the way they engage customers and deliver value because they're stuck in an on-premise paradigm that raises barriers between infrastructure, operations and development. But those traditional IT silos have been eradicated, Brown said.

"In a cloud world, you don't have those barriers any more. They're gone. In fact, that's the whole point," he told CRN.

Those legacy companies are going to have to move away from many of the practices and methods that got them to where they are because "it's those practices that are holding them back right now," Brown said.

But the good news is that in most cases it's not about bringing in new talent, or training skills that don't currently exist in the organization.

"The technical skills that we need are not particularly rare and unique," Brown said, "but the way we think about combining them to deliver value to our customer needs to be very multi-disciplinary. I think that's very much the secret."

Vendors have a large role to play in helping their partners transform their businesses, Cheney told CRN.

"There's a lot more we can do and we're learning a lot as we go on about what we can do," Cheney said of how Chef and other ISVs go about offering partners training and support.

Brown told CRN that while a lot of businesses similar to his are anxious about the changing IT landscape, he believes it's an exciting time to be in the channel.

"At its heart, cloud transformation is not really about technology. But it is a very different operating model, a very different way of delivering IT to be consumed by different parts of the organization and a different way of deploying it," Brown told CRN.