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An Interview with CNCF GM & Heavybit Adivsor, Priyanka Sharma Mina Benothman

Priyanka Sharma is a long-time community member and Heavybit advisor. As a former entrepreneur with a passion for growing developer products through open source communities, she has deep expertise in DevOps and observability and has worked on open source projects such as OpenTracing, Jaeger, Vitess, and GitLab.

Priyanka recently became General Manager of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). We talked with her about her journey, the importance of community and ecosystems, and how startups can get involved and take advantage of opportunities.

Tell us about your background and career progression?

My first opportunity out of college was a job at Google working on AdSense and internal data tools. I had not planned for it, but that started my tech career. I got the startup bug so I decided to strike out on my own. My co-founder and I built various products. One of them was a devtool, a time tracker. It had a lot of organic momentum with open source plugins that people could build to get their time tracking dashboard. The minute I experienced that, I knew I liked devtools and that open source was really cool.

That’s how I started with devtools and open source. I got introduced to Heavybit. I consulted with many of the portfolio companies and joined one of them, LightStep, as Head of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships. Ben Sigelman, the CEO of LightStep, taught me about the space of observability, how you can look through a system and know where the problems are happening. I also joined OpenTracing through LightStep, and it became the third project to join the CNCF. So my involvement with the cloud native community started as early as 2016. 

After LightStep, I joined GitLab as Director of Cloud Native Alliances with a focus on engaging with the cloud native ecosystem. GitLab received the opportunity to have a seat on the CNCF governing board and I was elected. By joining the board, I was able to understand how such a massively impactful organization was run. Now, I’ve joined CNCF as GM and have perspectives on how things are done on both sides, as an org and as an ecosystem and community.

Marketing open source products is unique, or maybe you think it’s not. What are your thoughts on how marketing in the open source community differs from marketing devtools?

There is a real nuance between how you market a devtool and open source. In a closed source product, the onus is on the creators and the team to think of everything. Figure it out and give the developer an awesome polished experience.

The better the user experience, the better the ease of connecting it to other technologies, the more likely it is that someone will use it. 

In open source, you still have to solve a meaningful problem but you can arrive at a complete picture as a community. You put a kernel of an idea out there. If it is well contained and has a clear value prop, you’ll attract other developers to support your mission by trying out your product, fixing bugs, reporting, and writing documentation. 

There are also two kinds of barriers to entry. With proprietary, the barrier is the fact that you’re proprietary so workflows need to be super smooth and easy. You’ll most likely start faster and better with mid-market and below, then slowly work up to enterprise. With open source, anybody can start downloading and using it in on-prem, self-managed environments, which means that enterprise developers find it easier than someone looking for an immediate solution. At GitLab, I saw how much people were using our product because the barrier to entry was so low. Different kinds of developers lean toward these two types of solutions. Marketing should keep that into account.

How do organizations like the CNCF help companies? What role does it play in the larger ecosystem?

Our goal in CNCF is to enable the cloud native ecosystem, which includes project creators, maintainers, contributors, the builders who provide the technology, and end users who consume the technology. Vendors play an important role because they often donate projects. Kubernetes was donated by Google but there are also a lot of projects that come from startups, like Falco, which was donated by Sysdig.

It’s a virtuous cycle where vendors consume technology, build their own open source, and then pay it forward to CNCF. 

Cheryl Hung, my VP of Ecosystem, just released a project, Tech Radar, which looks at a certain category of tech. End users share what they’re using and whether they recommend people adopt it. That kind of collaboration is what we achieve as an ecosystem enabler. 

Another way for companies to engage is to become a CNCF member. By joining the community, which I call Team Cloud Native, they get access to things like webinars and marketing calls where we share opportunities. If we host a booth, there’s an opportunity to volunteer your time and, in return, get the chance to talk to a lot of people. 

We’re here to help and we will, as much as we can. If we can support you with intros, we will. My guiding principle is to “yes” to everything I can. I only stop short on things that I may not be able to offer to everybody.

Are there any people who have paved the way for you and others in the open source and cloud native spaces?

Chris Aniszczyk and Dan Kohn took CNCF from zero to the massively impactful organization it is today. I look up to them for their contributions. I’m grateful that Chris is staying on in the CNCF as our CTO because as someone who open-sourced technology as an engineer at Twitter, he has an inherent understanding of the space. I respect that. 

Sid Sijbrandij, my CEO at GitLab, is also a force to be reckoned with. I joined this industry by accident, and have been through crash course after crash course with every job. While that has been a recipe for some success, it’s a tough road and can often lead to self doubt. Being mentored by someone like Sid helps keep that doubt at bay. I also respect that he thought of the single application concept way before anybody else thought it was cool, and that he is helping the world navigate working through this pandemic with the remote handbook

Finally, Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin trusted me and offered me this opportunity. He saw in me something I didn’t know existed. I’m grateful for this opportunity to have been enabled and elevated to this position, where I can give my 210% to cloud native every day.

In your interview with TechCrunch, you mentioned serverless and service mesh. Are there other major industry trends that you’re excited about?

Serverless and service mesh are definitely key topics of discussion in our ecosystem. There is a lot of interest to welcome more projects to round out the cloud native experience. There are core infrastructure projects, which we’re doing a good job of attracting, and affiliate-type projects that are related, which can improve the developer experience. Projects adjacent to cloud native infrastructure improve how productive web and application developers can be when working with cloud native tech. 

Another trend that we’ll see is greater end-user participation. Until now, the Googles, Netflixs, Amazons, those who knew distributed systems before others, led the charge. They did it super well. But since 2016 things have evolved. Now, end users are increasingly sophisticated so they’ll guide each other, the vendors, and how things evolve. I’m predicting more collaboration and bi-directional innovation.

As a Heavybit advisor, you often coach our member companies on how to build communities. What advice do you have for someone starting their user base from scratch?

There’s a lot of “traditional wisdom,” like “get a product marketer, get X, get Y.” When building a community or starting your marketing function, get the type of person who is passionate about your technology, and is maybe a user or an evangelist. A developer evangelist persona, combined with good writing skills, will get you a lot further than any other persona. 

In our world today, getting through to an increasingly sophisticated end-user community means you shouldn’t sell to them. You learn from them and teach them.

It needs to be a bi-directional educational experience so you want someone who is technical but also good at communicating. That feels like the impossible hire, but look in the ecosystems that you’re building for and find people who are passionate. Start with them. If they don’t have the traditional marketing chops, or the cookie cutter background, that’s fine. 

The second piece of advice I have is to consider investing in and engaging with the ecosystem, like CNCF. The best timing to join is when you have an opinionated product. If you join pre-product, take advantage of the technical offerings like the Special Interest Groups and Technical Oversight Committee to get the most value. You won’t get as much value from just the marketing activities because you have nothing to market. If you are at an opinionated-product stage, become a member and start promoting yourself and engaging in the community.

Where can people learn more about what the CNCF is working on and follow your CNCF journey?

Our website is CNCF.io. It links to everything. You can also follow me on Twitter @pritianka. Reach out, my virtual door is always open, including direct messages for any advice. There’s a lot being built, so let’s build together.

Interested in getting involved with the CNCF? KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Europe is happening virtually August 17-20 and registration is open. Subscribe to our mailing list to learn more about what folks in the Heavybit community are building and working on.

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