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Puppet Labs CTO eyes IT automation amid COVID-19

An entirely new executive leadership team is the latest of several upheavals at Puppet Labs over the last four years, but CTO Abby Kearns says there's a clearer path ahead in 2020.

Puppet Labs' new CTO Abby Kearns has to refocus the company's product line and launch a fresh competitive strategy but says the year ahead may also hold massive growth opportunities for IT automation.

Like many IT organizations, Puppet Labs has been buffeted by upheavals in the tech market over the last four years, from the emergence of containers and their impact on the company's original configuration management products to the more immediate crisis of COVID-19.

The company has also seen more than one senior executive shift since founding CEO Luke Kanies stepped down in 2016. Amid the leadership changes, it has introduced and then discontinued products such as Puppet Pipelines and Container Registry as it struggled to realign its strategy with cloud-native trends.

SearchITOperations talked with Kearns this week about stepping into her new role after six years at the helm of the Cloud Foundry Foundation.

In your blog post about joining Puppet, you described it as "a company changing the state of hybrid cloud." What does that mean?

Abby KearnsAbby Kearns

Abby Kearns: Puppet was one of the original creators of the DevOps movement, starting with that small idea around infrastructure as code and just expanding from there. Its products are used in 80% of the Global 5000 today. Hybrid cloud has become very large and complex, and hard to do with people alone. Given that our focus is mainly enterprises, security and compliance were always big drivers but even more so now, the combination of those things is important. The moves Puppet has made over the last few years to invest more deeply in that that stance got me excited about Puppet.

There have also been many changes at Puppet in recent times, with executive turnover and products introduced and then discontinued, such as Puppet Pipelines and Container Registry. How can you assure the customer base that things are going to stabilize going forward?

Kearns: New leadership, I will admit, was part of the lure for me -- since Yvonne [Wassenaar] took over as CEO about 14 months ago, she's brought in a new executive leadership with a new CRO and a new CMO. I'm a big fan of Yvonne and she's a built a fantastic executive team. The vision Yvonne has laid out has been just fantastic -- sunsetting some products that didn't necessarily align with that core strategy and getting focused and clear on what we should be investing in and innovating on.

What is that core strategy as you see it? What's going to be the priority going forward?

Kearns: The priority going forward is making automation actionable, scalable and intelligent. We're going to continue to build on the foundation of Puppet Enterprise platform, which is built on open source. The open source Puppet is wildly successful and has an amazing and vibrant community. The additional capabilities that we're investing in on the open source front, projects like Bolt, are where we're starting that expansion [toward wider] interoperability, and integration with the tools that enterprises use, like Splunk, HashiCorp and ServiceNow. [We're] connecting all of that [through] content through Puppet Forge. Then, how do we automate more? How do we drive a lot more of that for our customers? I'm super excited about some of the announcements we've got coming out later this summer around some of those new integration gains.

Bolt brings in agentless automation and a YAML interface, whereas Puppet Enterprise is based on a master/agent architecture and domain-specific language. Is there any plan to meld those tools together?

Kearns: I don't think of it as melding, but I do think of connecting the dots between those things. With Bolt, if you need to get started, you can run it on your laptop, and it's a very approachable way to start thinking about discovery of what you have in your environment and automating some of the scripting.  We've got a couple of things in flight right now that give customers an easy way to get started, then help them start to leverage Puppet Enterprise Platform as they expand.

You've got Ansible to compete with there too, which also offers familiar scripting languages and easier onboarding. How will Puppet differentiate there?

We're really competing against a mass evolution of tools and technology. Obviously, we understand the competitive threats… but I'm also taking a broader look at how a lot of organizations are assembling their own tools to create similar platforms and constructs.
Abby KearnsCTO, Puppet Labs

Kearns: We're really competing against a mass evolution of tools and technology. Obviously, we understand the competitive threats from key vendors. But I'm also taking a broader look at how a lot of organizations are assembling their own tools to create similar platforms and constructs. I try not to think about a single vendor. Maybe [customers are] running all of these tools together. And that's fine.

That, I would imagine, is where Project Nebula comes in, right? It looks like a centralized IT automation platform and workflow engine that ties together multiple tools. Would you say that's where those things come together?

Kearns: We'll be talking about that, actually, in the next month. There are some updates that will come out on that project that I'm excited about.

Not to be repetitive, but you're not alone in that, either. You've got CloudBees with Electric Cloud and the new company that's being built around XebiaLabs, also taking that tack. How will Puppet differentiate in that area with Nebula?

Kearns: We'll speak a little bit more about that when we announce that project more formally. For me, as I think about why I joined, and what my focus is going to be, it's about helping with that vision of connecting the dots for enterprise customers. I've always talked about how excited I am about digital transformation and how enterprises are trying to evolve with those technology changes. For me, this was just a natural way to get a little closer to those customers and the products that are enabling them.

What is the sense you have of those customers' progress on digital transformation? Where would you say most organizations are right now?

Kearns: Most companies are three years into an eight-year journey. I am curious if COVID-19 is accelerating those plans, where companies had a two-year transformation roadmap, but now need to do that in the next four months. But I haven't seen data that supports that in terms of increased spend, or an increased shift into workloads into public clouds. I'm going to watch over the next 90 days to see if that's actually coming to fruition.

It does seem that a lot of people knew they'd be disrupted if they didn't transform, but I don't think anybody was expecting it to happen all over all over the world all at once.

Kearns: It's gonna be a rough ride for a lot of companies. This may accelerate their demise for many of them. I've talked for years about the skills gap, but I thought we had five years. This has shortened that window -- we're automating a lot more because people can't be on site, and doing a lot more remote work, which means the skills are changing overnight. I'm curious how companies are going to react to that. How are they going to quickly upskill and rescale their workforce? What happens to those 20 million people that have been unemployed? Are they going to get rehired? And what does that look like? It's something that I've been worried about for a few years, and this just accelerated the timing.

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