Since these are questions I’m often asked, I thought you might be interested in their answers.
How did you get from a hippie commune to starting a software company?
I was born on a hippie commune in Wisconsin, then moved to a related one in Tennessee when I was 4 (this was “The Farm”, best known for having produced Spiritual Midwifery, a book that was a major contributor to reviving midwifing in the US). When I was 8, I cut a foot of hair off my head and began attending public school in Nashville, Tennessee as a vegetarian who’d never heard of capital-G God.
Suffice it to say, it did not go well.
Much later, as I worked my way through college, I realized that my coping mechanism for dealing with the stark conflict between those two cultures was to literally forget everything I knew. It was then I realized I only retained a few memories of my childhood on the Farm. Given contradictory but unverifiable information — and Nashville and the Farm were definitely both — the only reasonable response is to discard it all. That explains why I didn’t trust the kids in 4th grade who told me I was going to burn in hell for 10,000 years because I wasn’t baptized, and it also explains why I do not resemble someone raised on a hippie commune.
I graduated from high school a year early, mostly to escape my incredibly violent 3,000 person high school run by jocks. I didn’t exactly have role models to show the real possibilities of what going to school can do — nearly every adult I knew went to college, but I knew I didn’t want to use my degree to build shoddy houses and dig outhouse holes in the woods. When it came to picking colleges, I eliminated all schools that had fraternities, sororities, or organized sports (because I wanted my school run by the geeks, the nerds, the brainiacs), and then I picked the best school I could find the furthest from my home town.
I looked at schools in Alaska, but the one I found that fit the criteria was too small at 400 people. It never occurred to me to consider overseas schools. Then my home room teacher pointed out Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. I’m sure their whole book was useful, but the only bit I remember was how their Guerrilla Theater of the Absurd ingested red, white, and blue mashed potatoes in preparation for a visit by then-vice president Dan Quayle, and then threw them up at his speech. I was in. That was a whole different kind of patriotism than they practiced in Nashville.
I was too poor to visit any schools, so I showed up at Reed having never been on the west coast, or within a thousand miles of Portland. The black and white photos in the school book didn’t quite capture the place. Seeing the campus for the first time is unquestionably the first time I remember honestly crying for joy.
One of the first things I did there was buy a computer, and one of the last was decide not to be a scientist.
How did you get from a chemistry degree to starting a software company?
I had seven jobs in two and a half years at the end of college, so I tried a lot of things. I got fired a lot. Until my last year, I was planning to be an academic scientist, but Reed did a great job of training me on exactly what that job entailed, and the result was that I didn’t want it. For all that science is all about trial and error, they don’t actually allow much failure in your career — you better pick the right boss, the right school, the right project. Anything else means you can’t get the grants, because there’s just too much competition for too little money.
Once science was out, there weren’t a lot of other great options. I am not one of those who grew up with a computer; I didn’t get one until my sophomore year in college, and taking a loan out for it is one of the first things I did in school. I had spent a lot of time playing with my computer, and I found I was particularly adept at breaking it. When are you most likely to break it? When you’re procrastinating. And when are you most likely to procrastinate? When you really, really need your computer to work because there’s something big due the next day.
This meant that I also got pretty good at fixing it quickly. Or maybe, setting it up in such a way that it was always easily fixable.
When it came time to look for work, this is pretty much what I had to go with: A science degree, and facility at breaking computers. That led to a QA job, a couple of mac admin jobs, and finally a support job, which soon turned into a Unix administration job. Most of those jobs I was fired from (who gets fired from the Plaid Pantry?), but the last one was a great fit for me, and I only left because I was moving to Nashville.
Once I got there, I continued my investment in scripting and automation, which two jobs later resulted in my being a consultant, having worked myself out of a job. I quickly concluded I could make good money at consulting but hated the job. I thought about an MBA, because the badge is useful, but I didn’t think the schooling would be. I almost went to law school, but then I realized it’s so expensive you have to become a lawyer afterward, which I didn’t want. So, I did the only thing left: I started a software company. I figured I’d learn more failing to start a software company than I would succeeding at getting an MBA.
Puppet wasn’t my only idea — I’m still pretty enamored of a software product I wanted to build for scientists — but in the end I concluded it was the one I was most likely to succeed at, based on my own knowledge and on the market. In the end, I started Puppet to get out of system administration, not because I loved it.
Did you ever think Puppet would get this big?
I always knew it was a possibility, but I never let myself get hung up on whether it would happen or not. Any given situation has many possible futures, and it’s generally unwise to be too attached to any one of them. With Puppet, I was always committed to some of the constraints, but generally not so much to the specific outcome, and certainly, I didn’t spend much energy trying to predict it. With the right constraints, I hoped we would end up in a good place, which was the most I could hope for.
In terms of those constraints, they were things like maintaining a high quality business, where deals were good deals and customers generated real revenue, where we focused on the user and not the buyer, and where we maintained our authentic voice even in marketing.
That being said, I did think that Puppet could succeed, and in a big way. I knew the market was measured in the billions of dollars a year, and I knew it was composed primarily of bad software sold by dying companies. Someone was going to come in and take business away from those companies, take users away from them, and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t be me.
“Someone has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” — Jerry Garcia
Did I hope for something like this outcome? Heck, I hoped for more, faster. This is one of the better possible futures Puppet had when I started, but there were far better futures available, and it’s tough not to see those and ask, “What if?”
In the end, though, I am incredibly proud, pleased, and surprised by what we were able to accomplish. I know how lucky I am, how rare this outcome is, but I also know that it wasn’t entirely accidental, that I started at the right time with a good idea, a good market, and a pretty decent plan, and I worked intensely while passing up many opportunities to make mortal mistakes.