Kelsey Hightower Predicts How the Kubernetes Community Will Evolve
At Kubecon, Kelsey Hightower once met someone with a Kubernetes tattoo — which turned his thoughts to the years ahead.
“The future of Kubernetes is, if we’re being honest, that it has to go away,” Hightower said in a recent interview on Github’s ReadME podcast. “And if it goes away, that’s a sign of progress.
“If we’re still talking about Kubernetes 20 years from now, that would be a sad moment in tech because we didn’t come up with any better ideas.”
— GitHub (@github) May 24, 2023
The podcast was highlighting developer stories as part of a month-long celebration of “Maintainer’s Month,” but soon the conversation had turned to how communities grow — and how individuals help to make that happen.
Hightower, who is Google Cloud’s principal developer advocate, pointed out that while Linux is more than 30 years old, Kubernetes is just 10. But having said that, Hightower believes its core ideas go back 20 years, since when Kubernetes first came along, he saw it as “a project that implemented the previous ten years of patterns… what a lot of people were experimenting with in their own environments.
“We finally took all of those patterns, put them together, and gave them a name. We called it Kubernetes.”
Hightower still sees a growing community, with new people who are “coming off the sidelines now.” He believes they’re the ones who’d said “Hey, this thing may not pan out. It’s just hype. We’ll wait it out and we’ll just go back to our VMs.” Hightower says now “they’re attending their first Kubecon, they’re going to their Native Vendors conference whether it’s VM World or Oracle World.”
But a community can also change in other ways. Hightower sees a second group that’s persistently complained Kubernetes was complex or missing features and is trying to build new things on top of Kubenetes’ own abstractions. “And one of those are going to work out one day, and then that will be the new thing that shows up.”
But maybe the real message is just to always be growing — because Hightower also applauded Kubernetes’ current extensibility, with “extension points for security, storage modules, cloud provider integrations.” Its code didn’t need to be forked, as he sees it, because “Any innovation you wanted to do, Kubernetes made a really great call early on…” Kubernetes made it easy to test new ideas, and “Best of all, these extensions then feel like native code…”
“I think Kubernetes’ API model, its plug-in model, was like a gift to all future maintainers. Because now that group of people don’t need to try to figure out how to add every bell and whistle to Kubernetes. The API allows you to do it yourself, and the best ones will actually grow their own sub-communities that satellite in the orbit of Kubernetes.”
A career in tech is less about learning a specific tool as it is the willingness to learn a different tool when the time comes.
— Kelsey Hightower (@kelseyhightower) March 16, 2022
Martin Woodward, GitHub’s vice president of developer relations, asked how they could make that complexity more accessible so more people can get involved.
Hightower remembers when a “big shell script” was introduced — kube-up.sh — “and if you ran it, it would do everything for you… And for 5 to 15 minutes you’re watching all this text scroll by… Even though you had the one command to bring up a cluster, you didn’t feel good about it. You knew that if something broke, there’s no way you could understand it.”
To solve that need, Hightower wrote Kubernetes the Hard Way, saying his idea was to give people the whole picture. “I think that has been one of the most important things, is just educating people what these features do, why they exist, and then making sure we’re very patient…
“Yes, the project is complex, because it’s trying to solve a complex problem. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the time to educate people so they understand how it works.”
Bringing People Along
Since this was a month to celebrate maintainers, the interviewers highlighted a key ingredient for any successful project: people. Neha Batra, a senior engineering director on GitHub’s core productivity team, noted Hightower’s solution involved documentation.
“Those are those tiny pieces of a project that it’s easy to forget, but makes all the difference in the end.” Another piece might be “those community managers in the background who may or may not be writing the actual code, but they are helping things come together.”
It all fits into a larger theme — that if software is a bridge between people, then bringing more people along on the journey can culminate in a shared and impactful experience. And this led Batra to ask how this could be improved to create a more inclusive and diverse future, particularly in the open source world?
Hightower showed some empathy for the perspective of the contributors. “There’s lots of conferences to go to. There’s lots of projects to work on. And we’re really asking them to spend their time and parts of their life with us. And if that’s not welcoming, no one in their right mind is going to choose to go to a place where they have to fight to be there. It just doesn’t make sense.”
But then Hightower also remembered a time when he was ready to stop speaking at conferences. “No more keynotes, no more live demos — they take a lot of work, and they’re taking me away from the day job… Something has to give, and I was like, It will be the speaking stuff. ”
He remembered the aftermath of what he thought would be his last one — chairing a conference in London and also giving keynotes. During “the hallway track” of side conversations in the vendor hall, more people joined the conversation, “and there was a person that looked like me that showed up.” Hightower was ready for any technical question they could’ve asked, but “he asked me a question I wasn’t ready for. He said, ‘How do you do it? How do you be the only black person in the room all the time?”
“I don’t think I had a great answer. Because, in that scenario, I’ve kind of gotten used to it over a 20-year career — you know it’s unfortunate, and you haven’t solved it.” But what surprised Hightower was what he heard back: “I never knew I needed a mentor until I saw you…
“I was watching a video, and a guy that looks like me came out and explained to me this new, complicated, open source project that we’re thinking about using at work. And you look like me — and I realized how important that was. So when I knew KubeCon was coming to London, I decided to go…”
But then they’d said something else. “And I brought my son with me so he could see that not only can we attend the conference — we can lead it. I wanted him to see you in action…”
Hightower remembered, “And I looked down and there’s his son. He had both his hands on his shoulder so he can see me in real life. And I was able to shake his son’s hand.
“And at that point, I realized: sometimes just showing up and being visible, you give permission to all the people who thought they were not welcome. They realize that they can buy a ticket—because people that look like them are going to be there.”
Hightower says he learned if you’re in an underrepresented community, speaking “goes a long way.” He decided then to continue speaking at all the conferences he could. “I’m going to tell the stories. And if I inspire someone who does have a better way to get more people into tech, then I will take that.”
A silence followed. Then podcast host Batra said “I’m speechless. Well, I also have to recover because you got me in tears…”
Just a few weeks earlier Hightower addressed the same issue in a Twitter thread remembering a recent onstage appearance where “thinking about my answer overwhelmed me with emotion. I was traveling through the last 30 years of my life… I had my fair share of struggles but way more wins than loses.”
Hightower acknowledged that hurdles and inequity still exist, while adding that “Thanks to some great coaches along the way, I’ve developed better techniques, and I’m able to glide across some hurdles with grace, and hit the ground in stride….
“If I fall, I get back up, but before I continue, I stop to measure the height of the hurdle that caught me by surprise, and share what I learned with everyone else.”
And maybe that was the real message behind the Kubernetes tattoo. “I thought about it,” Hightower said on GitHub’s podcast, “and this project maybe isn’t going to be around forever. But maybe the memories will be around forever.
“And so maybe that’s the reason behind the tattoo.”