Kelsey Hightower on open source in enterprise
When distinguished engineer Kelsey Hightower announced his shock retirement from Google Cloud in June this year, the 42-year-old posted on X that he’d spent the last 25 years learning how to work and wanted to spend rest of his life “learning how to live”.
TechInformed met the charismatic Kubernetes king at DTX Europe last month, where the open source champ gave two fireside chats in between advising and inspiring hoards of developer delegates.
Proudly self-taught (even in retirement he recently trained himself to renovate his own fireplace), he gained his first role in IT installing high speed broadband modems after hoovering up a Comp A+study guide.
After opening a small consulting shop, Hightower’s career progressed quickly, passing through the halls of OS automation vendor Puppet Labs, web analytics firm New Relic and CoreOS, where he become a familiar speaker on open source container management system Kubernetes.
He’s retired from all that now and appears happy to watch the remarkable impact that generative AI is having on business from the sidelines.
“You can write AI on anything right now and get funding,” he says.
“You could have a can opener and you rub AI on it, and someone is going to be like ‘wow that’s a smart can opener!’”
As Hightower sees it, you can either be “a magician and ride the hype wave” or “an educator”. “For me, I want to understand what’s happening,” he added.
He thinks people are excited about large language models like Chat GPT because “one day we might be able to give this machine the same input mechanisms that we use every day with each other”.
“But you’re still going to have to configure the thing, you’re still going to have to spit out what you want, with prompts or fields or whatever.”
While AI is everywhere, Hightower advises responsible engineers to take a step back and make sure they have a roadmap that ensures the technology they bring to their business is there to solve actual problems.
“You’d be amazed that lots of companies don’t have a roadmap. They just bring things in as and when they find them and then glue them together.
“They say: ‘So we have Splunk, Prometheus, Datadog and that thing from Amazon’ and I’d be like ‘You have all four?’ and they’d say: ‘Yes the last person that brought it in quit and now we’re stuck with it.’”
Sticking to the roadmap, looking at what you need and bringing tech in only when it matches your business requirements is the kind of “measure twice, cut once” approach that Hightower acknowledges is fast becoming old school.
“Now it’s just all: PoC, agile, go fast and we’ll fix it later”.
Free or not too free?
While a high-profile advocate for open source, Hightower is sympathetic to the needs of the market, acknowledging the tightrope developers and companies often tread between sharing open source code to design better software and making money.
During his session at DTX Europe, Deliveroo’s security architect and podcaster Ashley Pierre asked Hightower to comment on software company HashiCorp’s controversial decision to switch from open source to a source-available licensing model.
Following a similar trajectory to firms such as Confluent, MongoDB, Elastic and Docker, the terms of HashiCorp’s licence now include restrictions on the commercial use of its code, although non-production use remains free.
Why is this such a big deal?
Even if they are well used, open source projects can struggle to keep going for multiple reasons. Some of the smaller firms might start to struggle financially or go bust or their founders move on; or the communities that run them run out of steam or start contributing to something else.
Or, in the case of firms like HashiCorp, they can choose to change the terms of their licence.
The move was met with backlash; but then again, is it fair that firms like HashiCorp might struggle with their business model while major multimillion pound cloud providers capitalise on freely available code?
“We should applaud Terraform and HashiCorp for sharing their code and if you don’t agree with their business moves or the way they run their community then you have to step up,” says Hightower.
“This is how open source works! If you don’t like something, you can change it and contribute and then go from there,” he adds.
The truth is, he notes, running an open source project can be hard work, for little financial gain.
“If you’ve ever ran an OS project or must maintain one, the hardest thing to do is to wake up on Saturday and see a request from someone from some large financial institution with this list of demands.
“So, to maintain it, and to save yourself, eventually you must learn to say ‘No’. I understand the pressure someone like Mitchell [Hashimoto, HashiCorp’s founder] is under. So, when they say: ‘We can’t afford to keep funding our competition. Let’s fork it and see where we are five years from now,’ I think that’s fair enough.”
Hightower adds that he also doesn’t think that OS developers working on projects should feel obliged to create a community around them.
“I don’t know where the idea came from that if you give something that’s open source away for free that you also need to curate a community around it. With T-shirts, stickers and a community manager. That is all optional,” he states.
The future of open source
What has given the OS community more stability, Hightower adds, was the formation of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation in 2015, which incubates open-source projects like Kubanetes (which Google handed over in 2015) and Prometheus (which it has incubated from SoundCloud since 2016).
“What happened with HashiCorp is a reminder to be careful about things that become common goods that are owned by just one company.
“In the future I don’t think anyone in their right mind will depend on critical infrastructure if they don’t know what’s going on with the IP, the source code and the license long term,” he added.
Chief OS Officer?
Given that open source plays such an integral part in the modern IT stack, TechInformed asked Hightower after his session whether C-suite execs should be following its progress more closely.
“It’s just become a utility to them and whether they contribute to it or not, it’s still going to be there because everyone depends on it. The thing they might be missing though is the ability to shape it.
“A lot of OS becomes industry standard. So, if you must conform to these new standards, wouldn’t you like a say in what that standard is? If absent from that OS discussion, the standard will just evolve, and it will be presented to you.
“Too late in the day you might realise ‘oh, no one thought of a vertical like ours’ and so then they have to pay a consultant to integrate it for them. That’s what happens when you are late to the game, and not part of it.”
While he doesn’t think there will be a ‘chief open-source officer’ title cropping up in enterprise any time soon, he adds that what is happening is that, perhaps not CIOs or CTOs, but enterprise tech people “maybe one or two levels below” are starting to attend these OS community discussions and they are staring to weigh in.
They are contributing in terms of what they would like to see for their sector whether that’s finance, security or insurance. Some of them are even open sourcing their own stuff.
“Some are using it as a strategy to commoditise an element in their industry,” he adds. “If you’re an insurance company and you decide to OS your ratings system — you could be in a position where you force the word to standardise on the thing you use. There’s a real power in that.”
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