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Is Open Source The Right Way For A New Company?

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In this episode of Let’s Talk, Lukas Gentele, co-founder and CEO of Loft Labs, joins us along with Abby Kearns, CTO of Puppet, who recently joined the advisory board of Loft Labs. Kearns has been helping and advising Loft Labs from its early days and joining the company’s advisory board validates the trust she has in the company as a veteran of the industry. In this discussion, we covered a wide range of topics, including the inception of Loft, what problems it’s trying to solve and most importantly, why it chose open source to build its business. 

Guests: Abby Kearns, Lukas Gentele
Companies: Puppet, Loft Labs
Show: Let’s Talk

Here is the edited transcript of our discussion.

Swapnil Bhartiya: This is your host, Swapnil Bhartiya, and welcome to Let’s Talk. Abby Kearns, CTO of Puppet, has joined the advisory board of Loft Labs. And today, we have with us, of course, Abby and Lukas Gentele, co-founder and CEO of Loft Labs. Lukas, Abby, it’s great to have you both on the show.

Abby Kearns: It’s great to be here. So much fun. It’s always a pleasure to get to spend time with you, Swapnil, and I also get to do this today with my favorite person in the world, Lukas, who’s got a lot of exciting things to talk to you about.

Lukas Gentele: Thank you. That’s so nice to say. Thank you so much for the invitation, Swapnil. It’s a pleasure chatting with you again.

Swapnil Bhartiya: We have talked so many times. We have covered Loft’s early days. But first, to jog the memories of our viewers, just tell us quickly, what is the company all about? What problems are you trying to solve for the industry?

Lukas Gentele: Yeah. So, what we’re essentially doing is helping companies to take Kubernetes adoption internally from 10 to 20 users up to 10,000 engineers essentially. So, we’re really targeting the large enterprise and everything from self-service, over multi-tenancy, over collaboration and developer experience. We’re trying to essentially add value at all of these different parts that large organizations need to really roll out Kubernetes to essentially all of the engineers.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Thanks for telling me about the company. Today’s focus is more on Abby. So, can you tell me a bit about Lukas? How  did you come in contact with Abby and what made you invite her to the advisory board?

Lukas Gentele: Yeah. Essentially, I met Abby in the very early days of the company. That wasn’t even before we incorporated the company in the United States. We were applying for this Accelerator Program at UC Berkeley. It’s called SkyDeck. It’s a fantastic program. I can definitely tell that now going through it. But when we applied for it, we actually didn’t know it so well. In the initial interview, when they flew us over here and we were in Berkeley the first time talking to them, they asked us, “Hey, we have this advisory network. Who do you want to talk to?” So, we pulled up this backup slide in our pitch deck and we said, “Hey, here’s five or 10 people or so that we definitely want to talk to.” And Abby was at the top of that list.

Caroline Winnett, who is the executive director of SkyDeck, essentially said, “Oh, Abby is the perfect person for you to talk to. I’m going to make an intro right away.” We weren’t even in the program yet. We weren’t accepted to the Accelerator yet. She just pulled out her laptop, sent an email to Abby, and Abby got back to us in 30 minutes or so. We were really surprised that the bond between SkyDeck and Abby was so strong. We met Abby, I think, two or three days later in San Francisco in a cafe. And yes, she’s been part of our journey ever since.

Swapnil Bhartiya: So Abby, as you said, you were on the top of that list and you responded to the call within 30 minutes. When you talked to them, what value did you see in the company back then? And now you have joined the board, what value do you see in the company? What potential did you see then and how do you see their journey so far?

Abby Kearns: The one thing that really got me back then, and I will say the company has pivoted a couple of times since then, but what really got me excited is they were really trying to solve the problem. Swapnil, you and I have talked about this for years and years and years. Kubernetes is complicated in the best of circumstances. Lukas and his co-founders from day one really wanted to just figure out how to make Kubernetes easier to run and use. At the end of the day, even several years ago, that was an emerging problem. Today, it’s even more complicated. As environments get more and more complex running, managing Kubernetes at scale, it’s really hard to do for the most talented of people, even those that have spent a lot of time in the Kubernetes community. But more so now as more and more enterprises are starting to run Kubernetes environments, particularly larger Kubernetes environments, that problem has just gotten exponentially more complex.

And so, at the end of the day, even though Loft Labs and Lukas and team have pivoted and evolved the company over time, the heart of it has always been how do we make Kubernetes easier to run and manage. That’s something I’ve been really excited about for years because it’s been a problem we’ve talked about since the early days of Kubernetes. It’s one that I think Loft is the most well-positioned to address.

Swapnil Bhartiya: What does this new role at Loft mean? What exactly will you be doing there?

Abby Kearns: Just helping Lukas and his founding team be successful at the end of the day, answering questions, just giving advice, a lot like I’ve been doing the last several years, honestly Particularly though. as Loft is getting positioned to really scale up the company and do more, it’s just really been a great partner for Lukas and the team as they begin the next level of their journey.

Swapnil Bhartiya: You have been part of the industry for so long and you have worn different hats. You have been at a foundation, non-profit foundation. You have been in commercial companies. So if you look at your own journey where you have helped organizations solve this problem, can you just quickly reflect on your own journey that empowers you to help folks like Loft?

Abby Kearns: For those of us that have been in industry for a long time, I’ve been in tech for over 20 years. As you put it out, I had a breadth of experience across the board. I’ve had a lot of different jobs in technology over the years. For me, I just feel the best thing I can do is start to share that advice more broadly, lessons learned along the way, usually from missteps, versus just say, “Look, I’ve tried this. This didn’t work. But hey, you might look at this.” Or like you said, I’ve spent a lot of time in the open source world, lessons learned from open source or how to navigate open source foundations or ecosystems, or I’ve spent all of my career in enterprise infrastructure. So, how do you navigate getting into the enterprise, selling to the enterprise and then supporting that journey? So at the end of the day, I just hope I can share some useful nuggets every now and then. But at the end of the day, I really love to spend time with startups and founders like Lukas. I get a lot of value out of getting that opportunity.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Since you mentioned open source, let’s talk about open source for a while. This is a question for both of you, maybe Abby or Lukas, whoever can start. We live in a world where a majority of software, even hardware, is open source. But, there is still a lot of closed source code, companies that are still playing with the licenses. But if I ask you folks, is open source the right way to go, especially if someone like Lukas is building a company to solve real problems? It’s not open source for the sake of open source. Does open source come in the way or it becomes a stepping stone for companies who want to create commercial solutions?

Abby Kearns: Lukas has been thinking about open source since the beginning. A lot of the work that Lukas and team started developing was really started in open source. At the end of the day, I think there is a tremendous amount of value that you can gain as a bigger company, but even as an early stage startup in open source. There’s an opportunity to figure out product market fit, get really fast feedback from a broad and diverse community, and really understand how to deliver real value to your eventual end users. And so, I think there’s a lot of value that can be gained.

Now, it’s not without its own challenges, obviously, particularly if you’re trying to build a company around open source and want to make money. You have to really figure out how to navigate what goes in open source, what do you commercialize, and how do you build a company around that commercial opportunity. I do think Lukas has done a fantastic job of walking that fine line really well. Lukas spends a ton of time with the community, and understanding community adoption and engagement. And so, I think from that perspective, there’s a ton of value that I think Lukas has learned along the journey. But, Lukas, and I’ll let you speak to this, you’ve done a really great job of also avoiding some of the key pitfalls with open source.

Lukas Gentele: Yeah. I think for us, open source is probably not even a decision. Right? In the CNCF ecosystem, there’s so much open source tooling out there that it’s almost like a requirement to be a part of this ecosystem that you’re contributing to open source, whether that’s your own projects or if you’re contributing to Docker or Kubernetes or any of the projects out there. I think for us, like we said, the most valuable part is really the type of engagement with users. If I compare myself looking at different SaaS tools, for example, I don’t always even find a way to give feedback. Right? For open source, it’s pretty clear. Right? Everybody knows, hey, that is a controlled repository. People open issues as a Slack channel. That direct interaction with users is super valuable.

Regarding building the business, I think we made the decision to not use an open core model. We essentially have four open source projects, which are standalone work without our commercial product. Our commercial product is not some kind of enterprise version of any of these projects. It’s an independent project. Right? So, we’re working on one commercial product and then four open source products. The commercial product is using these open source projects internally and it might make it easier a little bit to tie those four projects together, but we’re not in the open core dilemma where someone is wanting to contribute some enterprise feature. We’re like, “Hey, you can contribute because it’s an enterprise plan.” I think that’s a really big benefit. I think that’s the fine line that you were mentioning, Abby, in terms of really strategizing around what is commercial, what is open source, and how to tell users where essentially the line is. I think it’s really important to not get users in this position that they’re frustrated. Right? If they have a great feature idea, it should be valuable for both sides. That’s definitely the case for us.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Abby, I’ll go back to you. Looking at your role at both Puppet and Loft, is there any kind of crossover there? Will you be playing a role building a bridge between the two companies?

Abby Kearns: I don’t think there’s any crossover, per se, but I think there’s a lot of learnings that I get along the way. I learn a lot from the work that Lukas and team are doing with Kubernetes. For Puppet, obviously we’re focusing on automation for infrastructure, so that next level down. But also, we’ve spent the last year re-platforming on top of Kubernetes. So really, there are a lot of learnings that I get out of getting to spend time with Lukas and team on the work they’re doing. It also helps me keep a closer eye on what’s happening in the emergent ecosystem around cloud native and open-source cloud native.

There’s a lot of work still left to do. We haven’t solved all of the problems in open source yet. And so, it’s a really great opportunity to really be part of that evolution, which I think we’re still, what, six years into probably a 20-year journey as we think about the re-emergence of what infrastructure is going to look like in the future. Obviously, Loft is one of the many companies that are leading the way on that work. But, the hope is that Puppet continues to build on that and learn from that as a company. We continue to innovate around those areas as well.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Lukas, if I ask you, since the foundation of the company, what kind of adoption have you seen? Suddenly, there is a rush towards cloud, digital transformation, which also means there are people who are looking at Loft’s technologies. So, talk about adoption. What have you experienced or seen so far?

Lukas Gentele: We’re actually pretty impressed. We filled a couple of open source tools before we launched our commercial product Loft. But since we launched Loft, that’s pretty much about a year ago, we’ve seen adoption in really large enterprises. Even in the government sector, we’re essentially selling to some of the biggest companies in this country. That’s super exciting there. There have been feature requests, which I couldn’t even dreamt off a year ago or so. Right? People asking for installing Loft in high security data centers and things like that, it’s just obviously very challenging to do for us as a small team. But it’s, on the other side, super, super exciting that we’re getting that adoption. I think especially with Virtual Kubernetes Clusters and our project vcluster, we’re taking that even to another level by open sourcing. I think that’s how we see our product as well. When we see opportunities to open source a certain slice of it, we do it, just because that is essentially opening up new opportunities for adoption and also collaboration with other companies. I think vcluster is an excellent example that is just going to fuel further adoption for our product.

Swapnil Bhartiya: What’s the long-term plan or goal with Loft? What vision do you have for the company?

Lukas Gentele: Right now, we’re really focused on being a leader in this Kubernetes multi-tenancy space. Right? There are so many challenges around sharing Kubernetes clusters and having shared workloads on top of Kubernetes. That’s what we’re ultra focused on today. But ultimately, I see the company revolving around two major topics. One is self-service around Kubernetes and the other one is developer experience, so really like an end-to-end experience for engineers to work with those technologies.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. Of course, KubeCon is around the corner. I do hope that all this COVID mess is cleaned up by then so that we can attend that in person. We’ll see what happens with Delta and Lambda or whatever. But, are you folks planning to attend KubeCon? What are your plans for KubeCon?

Lukas Gentele: Yeah, definitely going to attend KubeCon. I’m actually going to be a speaker at KubeCon as well. I’m going to talk about the future of our Kubernetes multi-tenancy and I’m going to talk about how virtual clusters can essentially solve a lot of the issues that we’re having today of multi-tenancy. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to have a booth as well. Let’s see if it’s actually going to happen in person. We don’t know. Everything’s changing every week, I guess, but I’m pretty optimistic at this point at least.

Abby Kearns: Assuming in person still happening, we are sending to people in person, as well as we have a bunch of people that are attending virtually as well. Obviously, Kubernetes is something we talk about a lot internally. But for me, KubeCon represents more than just Kubernetes, obviously. It talks about a lot of the emergence and evolution of the other open source cloud-native technologies. And so, at the end of the day, it’s always good to keep an eye on what’s happening.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Abby, Lukas, thank you so much for taking time out today to talk about both companies, and especially Abby, you joining the advisory board of the company to further guide them. So, thanks for talking about the company and I would love to have you both on the show again. Hopefully, we’ll see you at KubeCon.

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