CTO Sessions: Nigel Kersten, Puppet

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? “I have a particular distaste for what we call ‘AIOps’… it’s often seen as a quick fix for IT problems that are really about a failure to optimise processes and organisational dynamics.”

Headshot of Nigel Kersten, Field CTO at Puppet

Name: Nigel Kersten

Company: Puppet

Job title: Field CTO

Date started current role: August 2019

Location: London

Nigel Kersten is responsible for bringing product knowledge and a senior technical operations perspective to Puppet field teams and customers, working on services strategy and representing the customer back into the product organisation. He works with many of Puppet’s largest customers on the cultural and organisational changes necessary for large scale DevOps implementations. He has been deeply involved in Puppet's DevOps initiatives, and regularly speaks around the world about the adoption of DevOps in the enterprise and IT organisational transformation. Kersten has served in a range of executive roles at Puppet over the last 9 years and came to Puppet from the Google SRE organisation, where he was responsible for one of the largest Puppet deployments in the world.

What was your first job? As a kid, paper delivery in a very small beachside town in Australia. After I left home, kitchen hand in a cafe.

Did you always want to work in IT? I’d been deeply into computers from about 11 years old, but had absolutely no idea what working with computers would involve. My career advisor actually told me in 1992 that I should keep computing as a hobby, and that I’d have a more lucrative career in astrophysics, which is what I first went to university for. Did I mention I spent high school in a very small town? :)

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I loved being at university and studying, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I have part of an astrophysics degree, part of a mathematics degree, spent a while in journalism and sociology, and eventually finished with a BA in philosophy, majoring in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. To be honest, for most of my 20s, computing was just how I made money. I liked it, I was good at it, but I really wanted to be either a musician, or an academic philosopher. It really wasn’t until Google offered to relocate me from Australia to the USA and work in the SRE organisation that I started treating computing as my definite career path.

What type of CTO are you? Right now I’m what I think of as the “customer champion” CTO. I help customers take advantage of technology trends and our own products, and I take this knowledge from the field back internally to incorporate into our product strategy.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Honestly, right now it’s not the emerging technologies that excite me anywhere near as much as the “crossing the chasm” phase of technology. We’ve produced so many amazing and exciting things in tech over the last decade, and yet so many large enterprises are unable to deliver on their potential. The changes that large organisations need to make to take advantage of recent technologies, and how those capabilities need to evolve to succeed in the enterprise - that’s the interesting stuff!

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I have a particular distaste for what we call “AIOps”, and I’ll admit some of that is driven by my background in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, but what really frustrates me is that it’s often seen as a quick fix for IT problems that are really about a failure to optimise processes and organisational dynamics.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I have a fantastic small team of Solutions Architects spread across the globe who have achieved all sorts of great things with multinational financial services customers, but those are a little sensitive to talk about.

In terms of public facing work, it has to be the 10th anniversary State of DevOps Report I produced last year. We’ve done a lot of great work with State of DevOps over the last ten years, but it was incredibly rewarding to do a retrospective of the last decade and to do so in partnership with so many luminaries from the DevOps movement.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? I’m rather allergic to the phrase “digital transformation”. I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful anymore, and has become somewhat like “agile” and “culture”. The people who talk about it the most are the ones who are making the least progress towards that state. For most organisations, focusing on removing the blockers to fast-flow IT delivery and minimising cognitive load for employees will give you a concrete and achievable roadmap to a better place. That place will almost certainly be more agile and digitally transformed than where you are now.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? How to overcome the organisational scar tissue built up in the form of stale processes and evolve to new operating models without creating massive uncertainty and fear across a large IT organisation.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? These days it’s increasingly rare to have any business goal that doesn’t require technology to achieve it. This is one of those things that’s far easier to say than it is to do, but I strongly believe that if your goals are clearly defined, well understood across the organisation, and with highly visible metrics - then your technology use tends to support the goals of your business relatively easily.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? The pressure is always to balance the near term pressure from customers about what they want now, with what you believe they and your business need over the longer term.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I was introduced to the amazing book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Dr Nicole Forsgren and it changed my thinking on strategy forever. No strategy is complete without having a clearly defined diagnosis, a set of guiding principles, and an action plan. A strategy without an action plan is not a strategy.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Just as we’ve seen the appointments of Field CTO grow across our industry, so too I believe we will see more fine-grained distinctions develop in terms of the different kinds of CTO. It’s a relatively nebulous term that can range from alpha developer/founder to chief architect to product visionary to simply somewhere the technical founder CEO parks themselves when they decide they’re sick of running the business and want to get back to tech work.

What has been your greatest career achievement? It’s always about the people - having spent a long time at Puppet, the thing I’m most proud of are the people who have come in with a junior role, and I’ve had some part in helping them along their career trajectory. It sounds a bit naff, but it’s far more rewarding than any technical or product accomplishment.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I wish I’d recognised earlier in my career that it’s incredibly valuable to be someone who both loves working with technology, and loves educating people about technology.

What are you reading now? I tend to have a couple of books on at any one time, and right now in terms of non-fiction it’s Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by the fantastic Daniel Kahneman et al and Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture by Simon Reynolds. Fiction-wise it’s two sci-fi books, Invisible Sun by Charles Stross and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Most people don't know that I… make electronic music as a hobby, and pre-pandemic was regularly playing dance music gigs at warehouse raves.

In my spare time, I like to…make music, cook, and garden.

Ask me to do anything but… unpack a box with styrofoam in it. SHUDDER.