Big Interview

Puppet: the network marionette

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Natalie Bannerman speaks to Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Puppet, the open source automation software provider on networks, technology and diversity.

Although Puppet has an established reputation in the critical infrastructure and automation space, as a company you could be forgiven for not knowing exactly what it does.

So, when the opportunity arose to speak to Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Puppet and a woman in telecoms and tech, Capacity jumped at the chance to pick her brains.

In Wassenaar’s own words, “Puppet is an information automation platform that standardises the infrastructure lifecycle”.

What makes the company even more unique is its open source project that is used on a global scale, to fundamentally automate all the infrastructure with software.

“From a commercial standpoint, we focus on some of the biggest enterprises, organisations, government entities around the globe so that they can remain secure, complaint and deliver applications quickly and efficiently,” she adds.

Open source is quickly becoming the most open and collaborative way of creating in the space, and according to Wassenaar is the reason for much of the innovation in industry at large.

“Open source I think gets credit for much of the technology innovation, or the pace of innovation that we’ve been able to benefit from, and it’s because open source technology in many regards democratises the ability to quickly develop and access what I would call base technology,” she explains.

“At Puppet, we’ve now created a space where individuals, corporations, foundations and organisations around the globe can collectively build on something, versus independently building, which creates a lot of replication or conflict or duplication, as well as we can all benefit from what is built.”

Automation, not unlike open source software, is often viewed as less secure by some, in part due to the perceived attack surface, and the open nature of open source gives the perception that it is more vulnerable to security threats.

As this perception grows, Wassenaar says a contributing factor is that the things we automate these days are increasingly more precious.

“It’s dispensing medicine, it’s driving cars, it’s flying planes. So you think about the damage that a bad actor can do if it gets into the network and starts acting maliciously.

“It’s not only that there’s more places, more surface area upon which you can enter, but the cost, the business cost, the societal cost with bad actors successfully entering is increasing.”

But depending on how you look at it, automation can be seen as the vehicle to which security is improved, namely due to its zero-touch approach to network management.

“Automation allows you to take out the risk of human error,” says Wassenaar. “Its things like fat-fingering keyboards, not adhering to process and taking too long to get tasks done.”

Additionally, automation enables businesses to identify vulnerabilities that need to be remediated, and do so much more quickly; this can also be done at scale. 

Speaking of scale, due to Puppet’s unique position in the market it works with both telcos and enterprises as clients, and Wassenaar notes that scale is one of the key differences between them.

“The thing that starts to become different when you talk about the wholesale networks is the scale and size of what they’re trying to drive,” she says.

“It’s important to recognise that there are exponentially harder problems to solve, and then you really have to think about how you’re engineering solutions for scale and how you’re engineering them to work across the broader set of technology stacks that may be deployed.”

Newer technologies like 5G and AI are also playing their part in the automation space and the network it runs on.

“From an automation standpoint, what we have to recognise, fundamentally, is two things,” says Wassenaar.

“One is that many of those new technologies that people are interacting with that are enabled by the new capabilities of the network are in of themselves, and the points and devices that need to be managed. The second thing we have to recognise is it all runs on something on the backend, and so that infrastructure also needs to be managed.”

Another area with growing applications of automation solutions is multi-cloud convergence.

Wassenaar is a firm advocate of automation in this space because, as she puts it, “the complexities almost become unmanageable in a manual sense”.

“We’ve all come to the realisation that it’s not going to be an all on-prem world, it’s not going to be an all in the cloud world, it’s not going to be all cloud native. It’s going to be messy,” she says.

With a career that spans 25 years in the technology space, Wassenaar cites three things – “above working hard” – that have gotten her to this position in her career. 

The first is “cultivating sponsors to really help pull me along and to bring me into new spaces and new challenges.”

The second is “focusing on my network”, which she says she didn’t do until later on in her career.

“I thought that if you worked hard, you’d get recognised for your work, and that is true, but people can’t ask you about opportunities if they don’t know who you are,” says Wassenaar.

“I recognised that cultivating a network was a way that I can learn about more opportunities and that I could get better help faster from knowing the right people in the right places.”

And thirdly, she says, it’s all about taking risks. “There are several times I’ve made career transitions where it’s felt really risky, and yet I feel if you don’t do that, you’re never really going to achieve your full potential.”

As the conversation on creating gender parity within the industry continues to be had, and work slowly begins to progress, Puppet for its part has at its helm a leader that champions this thinking.

“What’s most critically important is that we realise that diversity and inclusion need to go hand in hand.

“As you go out and search for and bring in and try to rise up diverse talent, you have to ensure you have an inclusive environment.

“This means that their voices can truly be heard, that they can deliver at their true level of impact and that that impact is recognised, in promotions, in title, in compensation and the like.”

If she had to pinpoint one thing that could move the needle in the right direction so to speak, “it’s having diverse people in positions of power”, says Wassenaar.

“They’ll be able to call out the unconscious bias in the system. They’ll be able to be sponsors for people, to take risks on, to help rise them up.”

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies like Puppet have reaffirmed the critical nature of the businesses they power around the globe and the importance of technology to help them to safely, securely and remotely continue to operate.

“When I look at the priorities for Puppet over the next 12 months, at one level, they continue to be the same, which is continuing to build out the robustness of the automation portfolio we have.

“The new priority that has arisen is around fast time to value. So, you’ll see Puppet coming out with more offerings that are simple and easy with a much faster return on investment.

“I do think companies, as they work through the impact of the Coronavirus, are going to want to very quickly take some action to prepare in case it has a second wave, and just to increase the efficiency of their business while not completely turning their back on innovation.”

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