Kelsey Hightower on building businesses around open source projects

Published by Alex Olivier on May 02, 2023
Kelsey Hightower on building businesses around open source projects

At KubeCon Amsterdam, Kelsey Hightower spoke about building businesses around open source projects. Hightower, with vast tech industry experience, is known for creating simple, enjoyable tools and delivering engaging workshops on various topics.

Hightower shared insights from his time at Puppet Labs, CoreOS, Google, and advisory roles with Cloud Native startups. He emphasized authenticity and readiness to demonstrate an open source project's value.

During the talk, Alex Olivier, Cerbos' Product Lead, asked for advice on promoting open source projects without resorting to cliches such as "we save you time and money." Hightower recalled their previous encounter, where Alex impressed him by showcasing Cerbos, an open source authorization solution, when asked about its superiority to Open Policy Agent.

Hightower stressed the significance of open source advocates being able to share their project's story and demonstrate its capabilities. He cited his own KubeCon stage experiences, where he effectively showed the potential of the technology being discussed. This approach gained trust and inspired people to experiment with the tools presented.

Overall, Hightower's KubeCon talk offered valuable insights for building successful open source businesses. Focusing on authentic storytelling and preparedness to showcase their product, founders and developers can inspire others to adopt their solutions and contribute to open source communities' growth.

Full transcript of the talk’s segment

Alex: Hey, I'm Alex Olivier from Cerbos, I lead the product side of things there. We've taken that loan from that VC. We are doing that whole enterprise playbook. You throw up a dashboard, those sort of things. I loved your Knative / Cloud Run example of, the value is in paying for the work you don't have to do. And in a world where the mantra is “developer marketing does not exist,” how do you like seeing businesses and open source projects talk about that value without just saying, “We save you time and money”? Because no one believes that, ever. I certainly don't. Are there any particular projects that you see that do this really well, or any particular approaches you specifically like?

Kelsey: Could you tell people what your project is?

Alex: Cerbos is an open source, open core authorization service, which allows you to define your authorization logic for your application as YAML policy rather than hard coding it across your entire code base.

Kelsey: So I met you in Seattle, not too long ago. And sometimes, um, I go to these events and maybe I'm speaking and I'll walk around the booths and I like to just learn what everyone is doing. And I think I walked up to your booth and said, “Tell me how this is better than Open Policy Agent.” And to my surprise, he was ready. Got the laptop out and said, “I'll show you.” And you proceeded to show me something that I thought was amazing. And I think I even tweeted, “Wow, this is actually good.” I was thinking that, ah, something, something enterprise nonsense... But no, you understood who was asking the question and you were ready. And I think when it comes to this developer marketing thing, I need you to be ready.

We've seen it - “Next up is the sponsored keynote from company X.” And you're sitting there, “Oh, this is gonna be trash.” And they get up and say, “All right, these are the slides that marketing has approved. I'm going to say the words that legal has approved. Please pay us money for our software.” And you're sitting there like, “I am so inspired to tell you no.” That's not going to work! The best thing you can do is show people how to do this.

And I'll give you the example of the first time I learned as an engineer to show people. So I'm at the financial services company and we're using Puppet in production, and I spent the last two and a half years convincing InfoSec that Puppet was safe, and then getting it to production and using it for everything. I did it! I joined Puppet Labs as an engineer on the open source side of the house, so I'm a purist at this point.

And one of the sales rep, he looked like the Incredible Hulk, and he came over. He was like, “Hey, I need you to talk to one of the customers.” I'm like, “Man, I'm open source. We don't talk to no customers. Tickets - that's it.”

And he's like, “No.” And I walked over to his desk, like “On the phone?!” So I pick up the phone and he's sitting next to me like, “You better say good stuff,” because he's trying to sell the product. And so I'm on the phone and I was like, “Listen, man.” He was like, “Eh, we're not sure what to do. We don't think Puppet's the right fit for us.”

I was like, “So what are you currently doing?” And he was like, “You know, we kind of built our own automation system.” I was like, “Oh, you got a bunch of batch scripts, huh?” And he was like, "Yeah." I was like, "Come on, man. How many batch scripts you got?" And it got real silent. I said, "Hey, can we share a screen?"

I said, "All right. This is what you currently have, right? You’ve got a batch script and it’s got a for-loop that does some stuff on the server." He's like, "Yeah, that's exactly what we got. Pretty much." I was like, "I know I used to work there too." And then I said, "Alright, I'm gonna show you the Puppet thing. Right? I'm not gonna go through the website, but I'm gonna just show you the difference. So in your world, if you unplug the server, what happens for an error? But your script doesn't stop, does it?" He's like, "Nah, we keep going and then the QA team tells us, or back in the day, Nagios tells us, that something's wrong. We missed the server." I'm like, "How are you missing servers, bro?"

And so I said, "All right, I'm gonna do the same thing, right? Same number of servers, but this time I'm gonna put the agent over there, I'm gonna log into the server and I'm gonna do something to a file." He's like, "Yeah, our developers do that all the time." I said, "I know. And watch what happens. We're gonna log out and we're gonna wait a couple of minutes and we're gonna log back in. What do you think is in the file?" And he's like, "This must be a trick question." I was like, "No, you saw me open Vim and put stuff in the file. This isn't hard." He's like, "Okay, the stuff that you put there using Vim."

And I opened the file and was back to the previous contents, and he was like, "Wow, I can't do that." And we're both fired up. And then I get off the call and a sales rep over there, he is like, and he said it very loud... You know the cubicle stuff, engineering sits here, sales sits over there with the little partitions. And he got up. He's like, "That's how you talk to the customer."

Because some people don't understand that it is the paycheck source. And so as an engineer showing people how it works, like you did that day at the conference. I walked away in a few minutes, I understood that there was a new player in the game. You gained my trust instantly by showing me something better than I saw before. And you know how many people I've told about that? I'm like, "Yo I found something better than writing Rego file. I'm just saying." So I think the most authentic way of doing this, if you're a founder, you gotta be able to tell those stories and you gotta be able to show it to people.

So all those years when I was on the KubeCon stage, what was I doing? I was showing you, and there were people in the audience that saw that, and they would go back to their desk. It was like, "Kelsey said..." You know, how many emails I got from people's managers that were like, "Dude, please don't show anyone else anything because production keeps changing."

But that's your goal. You gotta inspire people by showing them.

Alex: Thank you very much.

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