On Episode 4 of Up Right & Better, Luke Kanies, founder and former CEO of Puppet, joins us to talk frankly and openly about the challenges of being a CEO, understanding that the facts live outside the building, and how he worked to be intentional about culture at his company.
Luke has been publishing and speaking on his work in system administration since 1997, focusing on development since 2001. His work with Puppet has been an important part of dev ops and delivering on the promise of cloud computing. He currently serves as director of Puppet Labs, but recently he’s be writing things like, “The Wrong Successes Kill Companies,” in which he reminds us that just because it’s working doesn’t make it right.
Kristen: Today’s guest is Luke Kanies who founded Puppet Labs Incorporated in 2005 and also served as its chief executive officer until the fall of 2016. Luke has been publishing and speaking on his work in system administration since 1997, focusing on development since 2001. His work with Puppet has been an important part of dev ops and delivering on the promise of cloud computing. He currently serves as director of Puppet Labs, but recently he’s be writing things like, “The Wrong Successes Kill Companies,” in which he reminds us that just because it’s working doesn’t make it right.
I met Luke in late 2016 when he generously agreed to answer a bunch of invasive questions about what he might have done differently as he built Puppet and I’m so excited to have him on the podcast. In this episode we talk about failure CEOs don’t like to admit to, hiring, bad experiences with HR, diversity and a whole lot more. Welcome Luke.
Can you talk a little bit about why you founded Puppet and how you came to that solution?
Luke Kanies: Yeah, I actually wrote a little about this this week. I was talking about publishing and this is one of the things I published this week. I was out of college, I was a chemistry degree who I knew I wasn’t gonna be a scientist and went into being a sys admin. After seven or eight years as a sys admin, I essentially worked myself out of both doing the work and being interested in the work so I was focused on automation and things like that. After a couple years of that, as a consultant I kind of went I could make a lot of money at this, but I hate it. I looked at getting an MBA because the badge is useful, but I didn’t think education would be useful. I looked at going to law school because the badge isn’t nearly as useful as an MBA and I thought the education would actually be more useful to me. But it turns out becoming a lawyer is so expensive, you have to go to law school, you have to actually become a lawyer afterwards.
Kristen: Be a lawyer, yeah.
Luke Kanies: Which I didn’t want to do, I just wanted to have a JD.
Luke Kanies: I basically said I think failing to start a software company will be more educational than successfully getting an MBA. At the time, it’s not so much that I thought that I had better ideas than anybody else I knew. But I knew everyone in the world pretty much was working on the problem that Puppet was built to solve. Of them, I was the only one who was gonna start a company. It’s a bit like the joke about poker, if you look around the table and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. I looked around the table and I didn’t know who the entrepreneur was and I was like well I guess it’s gonna be me.
Luke Kanies: So a lot of it was I had all this insight and I saw an opportunity to turn it into equity. I saw a problem that I didn’t see anybody taking active movements to solve. Today, it’s pretty old hat for a sys admin to start a company. But when I started Puppet, there weren’t any. I thought maybe I can be one part of getting a movement started around we could build our own tools and once we build a good tool, we can start a company to make money on those tools. We can join the capital class too, we don’t always have to just be labor.
Kristen: Instead of diving into the history of Puppet and what you’ve done with Puppet and you have recently stepped down as CEO and are on effectively a sabbatical, writing a lot, touring around, doing some really interesting things, I want to talk about the actual people of Puppet and your experience in hiring those people, managing those people and considering them as the capital that actually made the capital for the company. So fall back to when Puppet was pre-ten employees, how did you get to ten employees and what was the momentous occasion that caused ten employees to show up one day?
Luke Kanies: Puppet is weird in a bunch of ways. I would definitely not recommend the way in which we did what we did. Puppet was bootstrapped for four and a half years. I started Puppet in maybe February of 2005, we raised our first round of capital in June of 2009. In between we were ramen profitable. I was the only employee for three of those four and a half years, three and a little bit of change.
Luke Kanies: So the big thing that allowed us to get from three to ten was we got two and a quarter million dollars deposited into our bank account, which it turns out is a thing that allows you to hire people. Our first 25 employees, very, very few of them stuck around. What everyone else talks about with successful startups is that early spirit, the early culture and how are we gonna make sure we don’t lost that.
Luke Kanies: For me, that was literally all between my ears. All that early culture was literally just Luke. Even those two people that joined later, they got given the title of founder, but they weren’t there for the early learning, they weren’t there for the building of the product. By the time they joined we were already making cash, we already had customers, I was paying myself a meager salary, I was able to pay them and they were only able to join because I was able to pay them basically a six figure salary.
Luke Kanies: Those things we think about as the early days, everyone thinks is 2009 to 20011 at Puppet. But it wasn’t, it was 2005 to 2007. So those early days had many casualties as a result of me not realizing what my job was. Me having read all the advice what’s the job of the founder, the job of the founder is to empower your employees, get out of their way, you shouldn’t stand over them, you shouldn’t tell them what to do all the time. Of course, you do that as a founder and what you’re gonna have is a failure because your job is to lead and leading is not about vaguely describing … It’s not about empowering your employees, it’s telling them what to do and make sure they don’t do it and if they don’t do it, fire them as quickly as possible because you’ve only go so much time on this Earth.
The process of figuring all that out was very expensive for me, it was expensive for the people around me and it had a lot of casualties. The 0 to 25 was a painful, slow, high cost affair and by about the time we got to 50 or 80, I had a sense of okay, I can almost see what a company is like, I have some successes and not just some failures, I have some places where my direct involvement is a positive thing. But it happened much later for us than it did for most people.
Kristen: Sure. To be honest with you, I think having seen both from some of my own clients and other companies, I think there’s a lot of lore that company’s early people, they’re the backbone of the company and they are the culture. But in reality, the first 80 people the just stuck around because there was this lore around having them there and people who were managing them might … They were not able to let go.
Luke Kanies: Right.
Kristen: There was too much …
Luke Kanies: They were talismans, as opposed to great people.
Kristen: Right and then seven years later, eight years later, you have situations where this person is a horrible, horrible toxic human who is ruining this and it was cancerous to this organization. But I’m not strong enough to let them go. Or on the more common side, we get to this place where they have all of this knowledge and if I let them go I don’t know how I’m gonna get it back. It sounds like it was hard and painful and I fully trust you that it was. But I think maybe there’s also some …
Luke Kanies: I don’t think it was as special as I made it sound. I have to recognize I wasn’t unique.
Luke Kanies: I do think certainly it was outside of the way we tell stories about the early days and I was never under the illusion that those first 25 people or first 50 people were that special. Where I think most people they have that problem that you’re talking about, I didn’t have as much of that problem because … Actually a huge part of me becoming successful in what I was doing personally as opposed to the company was recognizing that what I had to do was find a way to go back to those first three years and expose that to more people as opposed to build a platform for new people to step in.
Kristen: Right. I was listening to someone speak recently about the concept that he hired based on fit for the moment and fit for what the company was gonna be doing in the 6 to 12 months. Case in point, I am a builder not a maintainer. I will never be able to step into a role where I have to do the same thing every day for the rest of my days. I can do it, but I’m gonna go crazy and bad things will happen. So I’m not right for a company of 500 people whose gonna stay at 500 people for the foreseeable future. I’m wondering did that show up? Maybe there were successes and maybe mistakes where this person was right at that moment and maybe 18 months pass and they’re no longer right or maybe 36 months pass and they’re no longer right. Did you ever experience that?
Luke Kanies: If you can pick those 5 to 10 most common ways in which things can go wrong, we did all of those multiple times. So that absolutely happened, but we also had a lot of … I wasn’t a developer when I started Puppet. So in the three to four years that I was the only real person working on the product, I became a developer. But then I started hiring developers and I’m the CEO so my time’s being dragged in all places. One of the biggest mistakes I made was saying thankfully now I have real developers on the project, I’ll hand it to them. All their reaction was essentially wow, all this software is horrible, I don’t understand it at all and why does the CEO have so many opinions about my work. Because of course I’m still the project manager, I’m still for better or worse I’m the person who knows everything about … It’s not even that, I’m still the lead developer. Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s only one person that understand the architecture of this product, it’s me. There’s one person …
Luke Kanies: I kept trying to step away and hand it to the developers, but at the same time I kept failing to do so for obvious reasons because I’m literally the only person in the whole world who knows anything about the product. My major conflict was I kept seeing my inability to work with people as a failure on my part to step away, when in fact it was a failure on my part to hire people I was compatible with.
Luke Kanies: So I’m hiring a developer and there are some developers who I could’ve worked with really, really effectively in the early days and I have some of those now at the company. But I didn’t hire any of those in the first two to three years and when I saw a conflict, I always interpreted that conflict as a failure on my part on a day to day basis, as opposed to a failure on my part when it came to team building.
Luke Kanies: So nearly all of the other failures, not literally all of them, but a much larger proportion than I would like to admit and certainly I realized at the time, was I didn’t work hard enough to get somebody who could work with me. I didn’t rotate enough on compatibility with me being important. It’s one of those you spend your whole life training yourself not to be egotistical and not be full of yourself, not to think the universe revolves around you and then you come to this role and the biggest mistake you can make is not thinking the universe revolves around you.
Luke Kanies: By the time I actually learned how to correct the mistake it no longer did revolve around me because I did have more of a team, there were people who had made it through and who were surviving or they were thriving in the new world.
Had no other option but to spend the energy … This was when people talk about hiring fit over experience or hiring for capability over experience, what they really mean is the best person in the damn world who you can’t work with on a day to day basis is literally worthless to you, literally worthless. Somebody who has capability and who you are super excited to work with every day and an hour of mentoring that person makes you happen and energized instead of drained and suicidal is a much better fit. So, that’s the first of the trickle down.
The second is there’s a reason why you’re winning. There’s a reason why you’re successful enough that you’re able to hire somebody. There’s a reason why you’re successful enough that you’re able to do these things. It’s not the only way, that isn’t to say and all the ways are worthless.
Luke Kanies: But you have a way that you know works. You’ve got a successful model that anything other than trying to replicate that model is again, it’s heat loss, it’s waste. Maybe you’ll find another better one, maybe hiring somebody who has completely divergent views of yours will help you to a better model. So what you need to do if find somebody that goes I love this model, I will show up every day and continue to execute this model and I fully support and I am here to learn from you and to find a way to duplicate your success.
The third way is there are ways to build tools that can help you reinforce this and there are some downsides to these tools that we built at Puppet eventually. It’s fair to say that we never got the most out of this but we built what I called a personal operating manual where we took some personality tests but we also took a bunch of kind of simple questions that were … If you view yourself as a minefield, how would you help somebody navigate that minefield? Here’s how to get the most out of me, but by the way if you do one of these four things, you should not be surprised if I scream at you. I’m not saying I’m excused for screaming at you, but at least now you’ll know why.
Kristen: Yeah. [inaudible 00:12:57]
Luke Kanies: Here’s a way that you can easily avoid it. Now, one of the downsides we had with this POM was that people pretty quickly went well you saw my operating manual, of course I was gonna flip out on you. No, this isn’t justification for you being a child, this is helping to inform the people around you. I do feel like as a hiring manager one of the things that it was incumbent on me to do was to try to give somebody in the interview process an idea of what it was really like to work with. I don’t mean are we going to be compatible, what I mean is I’m incredibly opinionated, there are going to be times where I have two hours to spend with you and I’m really, really concerned about how you feel and I want to make you feel better and there are times where seriously this is not okay.
People need to understand what they’re getting into and if they show up on day one they’re like wow the beta was great, but the production version is not any good, then you’ve got a real problem. You have to expose that so the personal operating manual I found was actually a pretty good way to say here as some pretty deep flaws I have and by the way, I’ve written this down, I’m not really working on these. These ones, as you were saying, are not gonna get better.
Luke Kanies: That’s it. At Puppet at a certain point we got to the point where we had an intro lecture that I used to give in person to every new employee group and we eventually recorded that lecture and then I still met with all the new employees but it was instead of doing … It was all Q and A and they would watch the lecture some other time. It was 15, 20 minutes of here’s what I think, here’s where I work, I’m a real person, don’t …
Kristen: Don’t be weird.
Luke Kanies: Yeah or at least if I’m weird it’s because I’m a weird person, it’s not because I’m some sort of far off in the distance [inaudible 00:14:35] type thing.
Kristen: Yeah. I think that could be another conversation about just open communication. One of the things that I’ve found that is easier as a consultant is you hire me to tell you what’s wrong and if you don’t like it when I tell you, I can leave and you can leave and we can stop the contract. But as an employee, for example, I find a lot of, for me, a lot of similarities in your communication style that … I don’t know if it’s the east coaster in me, I don’t know what it is. But I am much more honest and much more up front and I ask for a lot of deep criticism and I give a lot of deep criticism. But I also won’t give any criticism that doesn’t have support behind it. That quickly makes you no friends in certain environments.
As a leader of a company or a manager, you’re not there to make friends often. But I don’t see … That doesn’t come-
Luke Kanies: Pointedly yeah.
Kristen: Through all the time in management. I could definitely talk more about that but I actually wanted to switch gears a little bit into human resources.
Luke Kanies: I have one point before we switch.
Luke Kanies: On the east coaster versus … So I’m not an east coaster. I’m not from anywhere. I think that could be part of it. I think that our society, our definitions of success are so exclusionary and so little meritocracy. You think about … I’ll throw in a couple at the end to make it clear how exclusive we really are. So we only let people succeed who are white men, you can kind of do it as early as 20 or so, but you really need to be upper 20s and ideally early 30s. You really probably shouldn’t be older than 65 or so.
Kristen: No disabilities.
Luke Kanies: Right, no disabilities. You gotta be fit, you can’t be too fat or too skinny, you probably shouldn’t be fit. It can be all muscle but … You gotta be a morning person. If you aren’t a morning person, fix it, act like you are. You gotta start getting up at 5 in the morning and bragging about it. We all know the leader shows up, I open the office every day. Why? So everyone knows I’m a leader, okay.
Kristen: Other making assumptions there.
Luke Kanies: You think about it and you go any given person at the table justifying their existence relative to anybody else who could be there, any direct confrontation to the … They’re not incentivized, I should say we because I fit in that bucket. We’re not incentivized to question our assumptions about ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite, once we begin questioning our own assumptions, once we begin questioning our own beliefs, the whole thing feels pretty fragile. I don’t think your being an east coaster is a sufficient explanation for why everyone’s like this and certainly this exclusionary aspect of our society is also not a sufficient explanation. But I think it’d be unfair to say neither of them … It’d be unfair to say that neither one is sufficient or that neither of them is present.
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a solid, scientific assessment of that situation. [inaudible 00:17:37] and could also be its own thing.
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk … We have previously talked about human resources and mistakes and how difficult it is to actually know what you’re getting into when you hire a human resources person. Can you talk about when you first decided I’m gonna hire an HR person? What went through your mind and what were you hoping to do to [crosstalk 00:18:01]
Luke Kanies: Well it took a lot of convincing because I didn’t decide it, somebody else said you really need to hire an HR person. We went through multiple rounds of not success. I’m a stubborn loser. My head of finance at the time said we really need somebody to do HR and I said that doesn’t sound right, anyone I’ve ever worked with in HR has been [inaudible 00:18:23] evil. I don’t think that’s a good fit. So she said someone’s gotta do payroll and I’m tired of it being me. I went okay. There are tasks that do have to be done, again, people would selfishly would like to eat. That was a big part of what caused us to start hiring HR people and then recruiting is a thing that historically falls in that bucket. So those things kind of led to it.
But our first HR person very much … She was another person that culturally we did not … We weren’t a great fit and it took me a long time to go wait a second, this is a thing where you and I have to agree and if we don’t agree, it’s because you joined the wrong company. I’m not wrong and you’re not wrong, but we’re definitely wrong for each other. So that led to a bit more investigation and a bit more trying and even then once I had a strong HR leader as opposed to an HR practitioner … So anyway I could begin to form the team under, then I could begin to better understand the discipline of HR versus the other things. One of the things that became really clear was I think greater than most organizations in the company, there is a significant separation between the tradition of what the role of HR within a company is and how they talk about their role. Because if you look historically about why the discipline developed and if you look at what the first three biggest problems there are to solve, they don’t really have anything to do with the touchy, feely people oriented aspects of HR.
If anything, I think most organizations develop a comprehensive HR department primarily to protect the company. I remember, one example is we began hiring somebody to do legal training because it’s actually pretty important that your hiring managers have some idea of what the law is. There are things that … People can sue you for anything so there’s nothing you can do to prevent yourself from being sued, but there are some things that’ll guarantee you’ll lose the lawsuit. There are some things that you should be sued for as opposed to you can be sued for. It’s important train people on those. Some of those aren’t obvious. There are questions that you might think this is a great get to know you question and you just landed yourself in a lawsuit. There are really good reasons to train your teams on the legalities of hiring.
However, the first couple of conversations we had with this person who was gonna train us were very much here is the thin line you must walk and your primary concern is not being sued. So as opposed to here is education about what the shape of the law is and how to get what you want done, but also not break any rules and let’s understand them and here’s why some of these make sense and here’s why we frankly don’t think this makes sense but it’s still true. It came a here’s how to protect yourself. Then when you talked about the conversation about discrimination, it was very clear that the first … Job number one, are we in danger. Then if you’ve still got time in your 30 minutes, if you’ve got 5 minutes left we can talk about how you’re feeling and whether you’re okay.
Luke Kanies: Again, it’s not so much that anybody … Nobody’s doing evil. Nobody’s a bad person. But as an industry, the kinds of training and opinions that HR produces are clearly biased towards protecting the company. But if you listen to them talk about why they’re here, that’s not what they say. So there’s this really, really big separation between those two. Those who are on the development side of the house might see the separation sometimes where you’re at a company that talks about the user all the time, but in practice they don’t ever talk to the users and don’t understand what the user really wants. So they’re we’re a design oriented shop but we only talk to the buyer and we never actually know what the user does.
Kristen: That’s great. I think that was one of the questions that I had and wanted to dive deeper into and something that I’ve personally been chewing on a lot lately. I feel that maybe I’ve read one too many … I hate even saying it that way. But one too many statements, one too many [inaudible 00:22:26] articles suggesting … Painting that HR was not there to help in certain circumstances of racism, discrimination, sexism of any variety. I think that maybe we need to have a conversation about HR’s participation.
Luke Kanies: HR showed up and did its job perfectly, the company was safe.
Kristen: Right, the company was safe. There’s little legal action, supposedly none for most companies.
Luke Kanies: We’ve made it really clear to people who report that you’re gonna be fired, there’s nothing you can do about being fired, you can sue us all you want there’s not gonna be any proof. By the way, if you make it to court the jury’s gonna rule against you because all of this is he said she said kind of stuff in nearly every case. Even having reported, if your name makes it on a lawsuit, no one’s ever gonna hire you again, but the person who you sued is gonna look like the victim somehow. Our society has made that super clear.
Kristen: Very clear.
Luke Kanies: There’s this pernicious myth that women support harassment somehow for their own benefit. But of course only white dudes think that and only dudes think that’s a real thing because in practice, any reporting of harassment or discrimination of any kind is usually a sign that it’s time for you to leave town and you’re never gonna … Every work experience you have is never gonna count for anything every again and you’ll probably take a 30 to 50% pay cut and probably be an independent employee for the rest of your life.
Kristen: It’s true. Having myself been dragged into a HR conversation about discrimination and sexism, it was not there to make my life better. It was not there to assuage my fears. Which brings me to another question that I think is a really pivotal one in the conversation about diversity but I don’t hear it a lot or hear it talked about a lot. Let’s just take the example of a very talented engineering manager, maybe somebody who is very senior, has stayed with the company for quite a long time and holds a lot of tasks and knowledge and they’re actually a huge problem culturally.
Luke Kanies: This is super common.
Kristen: Very common unfortunately. You’re then faced with the hard decision of do I let this person go and make almost a, you can decide how far you want to go, but make a lesson out of that or do I just sweep it under the rug and deal with it because they are the one who architects my project?
Luke Kanies: I think you have to phrase the choice differently than that because when it’s phrased that way it’s an easy answer. But I think you have to phrase it differently, which is do I let this one person stay or do I let women stay.
Luke Kanies: Because that’s actually what you’re deciding in the end. Do I choose to exclude something like 50 to 70% of the available workforce in my country because I won’t hire people who aren’t white people and I’m not excluding women, so that rules out most people.
Kristen: That’s a lot of people.
Luke Kanies: Or do I want this one person to stay.
Luke Kanies: That’s not how people think about it. They think about it like I’ll find a way to make this work and for a long time that was reasonable because there weren’t any places that women could work that wouldn’t treat them like this. What people are beginning to find is I can leave Uber, I can leave other places and I can get a great job somewhere else because there are places like Stripe, there are places that women can go work that are pretty awesome places to work for women. There are places like Etsy that have done a fantastic job of empowering and enabling women. Suddenly you go, as a woman I have a choice of working at a company that keeps that jerk around or I … So there’s competition for your great developers and that competition is driving the right behaviors. The only reason hwy we care about this today is A, we’ve got disadvantaged people have a platform that they didn’t have two decades ago and B, there’s a place they can go where they can … And it’s not gonna be perfect for them too. There’s gonna be discrimination everywhere so it’s gonna be way better than it is at the other place.
So you gotta phrase the choice correctly and now that is a really choice because women, they will leave. Not just the women but all the dudes who believe women are people, those people will also leave. So what you end up with is that one person changed the entire nature of your organization and that’s not right either. You, your tolerance of that intolerance, of that discrimination changed the entire nature of your company.
Kristen: Exactly. I really appreciate the flipping of the question and the distinction you made there. Because I think often times consultants, people in my world often are saying saving somebody like that, letting them stay is going to ruin your culture and that’s the exact kind of vague language that I don’t tolerate.
Luke Kanies: Right.
Kristen: What does ruin your culture mean? Yeah, sure, that’s a byproduct. But you’re right, the reality is that I’ve literally said by inaction that I don’t want you to work here if you’re a woman, I don’t want you to work here if you’re black, I don’t want you to work here if you’re disabilities or a veteran because what I value more is the profit that I’m going to make and not having a hard conversation … I’ve actually been told by an HR person and a CEO about the same engineering manager that A, they’ve improved a lot in five years …
Luke Kanies: Right. They don’t ever beat the women who work for them, they only yell at them now.
Kristen: I don’t want to know what we was like five years ago, if I couldn’t tolerate it now. B, he’s just so valuable we have to keep him.
Luke Kanies: Right.
Kristen: We can’t replace him.
Luke Kanies: I could see somebody saying this person is worth me never hiring a woman ever again.
Luke Kanies: It’d be weird, but I could hear somebody saying that.
Kristen: It depends what your motivations are.
Luke Kanies: I think people need to realize that that’s what they’re actually doing.
Kristen: I agree.
Luke Kanies: Especially, of course you’re going to keep hiring women accidentally, so what you really mean is it worth me continuing to hire women who never get promoted. So every woman I ever hire, I’m gonna hire very few of them and the few I do hire are gonna last 18 months and we all know the people that leave within 18 months are some of the most expensive people. They leave within 12 months it’s not that expensive, but if they leave in 18 to 24 months, they’re here long enough that people rely on them and then they’re gone and now they … Those people are never gonna become valuable people in my company because I’ve prevented them.
Kristen: Right. But I’ve spent a lot of money on them and I invested …
Luke Kanies: And then the second thing is you’ve now taught your entire company by the way, you know all the things that I say that I want you to believe, I wouldn’t do that anymore. I’ve always said I care about diversity, I care about inclusion, but I’ve demonstrated that it’s not true through my actions. But don’t worry that’s the only thing that I’m lying to you about. No one believes that.
Luke Kanies: So once you stand up and you do a thing that everyone in the room … Because everyone in the room knows, they all see that person in the conference room yelling at women and only women. They all see that, they all know, they can tell that you’re lying, they can tell that they cannot trust you.
Kristen: I think that’s such a salient point that leaders often think that people do trust them innately for whatever reason. But it is these very … I guess maybe even relate it to microaggressions, the thousand tiny cuts. People can see, but they might never tell you. They’re never gonna walk up to the CEO and mention this is a little hypocritical for you.
Luke Kanies: I’ve certainly have people do that to me.
Kristen: Really, did you? What was that experience like?
Luke Kanies: I spent too much time in firewall configurations so I think about this as default except on criticism. I couldn’t possibly explain why, I could explain it but I’m not sure it would be usefully explainable.
Luke Kanies: But when people say here’s this thing you’re wrong about or here’s this thing that you’re missing, then I start with the assumption that they’re correct. I start with the assumption that their opinion has as much validity as mine. I spend a lot of time thinking and a lot of my beliefs are very defensible. If I find that I agree with somebody in general, when I test it all I find that I was probably actually … I was the one who was correct. Not because I’m super smart, but because for most of the things that I bother expressing an opinion about I have been thinking about for 10 times longer than you have and that’s the only reason why. If you spent as much time on it as I have, you would’ve had a more correct opinion. When somebody comes and says I have this experience that from my perspective makes you a liar, what you can’t do is say you don’t have that experience.
Kristen: Actually you can, I’ve had that done to me before. But it depends on the standing.
Luke Kanies: You’re right, there are a bunch of silent words in there like authentically and with any honor or justifiably or in the court of law.
Kristen: Or if you go on another podcast and say actually we have a wonderful culture in our company or you may be the keynote speaker somewhere.
Luke Kanies: I’m a product manager, I love all of my products, they are all perfect and they work fantastically and all of my ideas are brilliant until I talk to a user. You have a choice, when a user tells you that this is stupid and you have to fix it you have a choice, you can be right or you can be successful. Those are your two choices, you gotta listen to users. So building a product really helped me understand and everyone knows this from reading Eric Reaves and reading Steven Blank facts of outside the building. I think of culture as a design problem and as the CEO, I’m not building culture for me, I don’t need help especially as the white guy. I already didn’t need help but I’m the boss, you literally can’t discriminate against me. This is solvable.
So what I have to say is who am I designing my culture for and how am I convincing myself that I have succeeded at that. If one of the people I say wow, I think they’re one of my vulnerable users, if the come to me and say you aren’t there yet, if I’m a designer, if I’m a product manager and I really think the facts outside the building I better listen. So not only did I encourage people to come talk to me, but I went on the [inaudible 00:32:26] and they did, it’s bad when somebody comes to you and says this thing that you love … You might’ve been on a podcast yesterday talking about how great your culture was, you might’ve been on stage yesterday saying it, here’s a place you were lying. I saw that and me and my team around me, we’re all pissed off at you and now …
I remember I had this dinner, it was fall of 2014 and I had dinner with eight women, it was the hardest night I’ve ever had as a CEO, it was the hardest time.
Kristen: They were all Puppet …
Luke Kanies: They were all Puppet employees and they pretty much all were really pissed off at me. Now I realized later on that we collected the eight most pissed off women in the entire company for that dinner-
Kristen: That’s not a bad thing.
Luke Kanies: It was a tactical mistake in terms of figuring out … You have to have a more complete picture. I failed to acquire a complete picture that day, but it was a hell of a stark awakening.
Luke Kanies: In terms of how far I was in terms of where I thought I was as a leader. You have to do that.
Kristen: I was gonna ask you if you had any parting words of wisdom for other founders, other CEOs. But I feel like that was actually really clear parting wisdom. That you can choose to be right or you can choose to be successful.
Luke Kanies: The facts of outside the building, if you think Eric Reaves is right about products, you gotta use the same practices to build your culture. That means that your perspective as the white male leader of your organization is literally irrelevant. The only people who are relevant are people who you’re trying to build advantage for in a way that wouldn’t happen organically. You’ve gotta go talk to them. And you’ve gotta have people who you also know can go talk to them in a way because you aren’t trustworthy. You as the CEO are the wielder of ultimate power, so they aren’t gonna always trust you. You’ve gotta demonstrate day to day, year to year … Those women at that dinner were willing to talk to me in a way that they wouldn’t be willing to talk to other people because I had demonstrated over the years that for all that I wasn’t succeeding necessarily, I was really, really trying and one of the things that worked out really well at that dinner is I was able to say here are three things that are going on right now that I’ve been working on for three months, here’s the person whose working on it, here’s when I expect it to ship and here’s why I think this is one of the most important things to work on.
So for all that we were struggling I was also able to say I’m aware of some of these struggles and I’m making direct and positive effort towards some of them. That really helped and I was able to include some of them in some of the effort. So they were able to go okay, for all that I was a little bit blindsided, I’m also not completely ignorant nor kind of leaving things sit. You’ve gotta get outside the building. If Eric Reaves were to write a book on HR, he would definitely say talking to just your HR team isn’t goo enough. That’s the CEO talking to his product team, not the CEO talking to his customers or her customers.
Kristen: Any kind of last thoughts about culture or HR or people management?
Luke Kanies: The last piece maybe would be another piece of advice for me three to five years ago, which is … There was a time when I became despondent as CEO because there’s a point in time where you realize the absolute best you can hope to do is to be less discriminatory than the wider society. Because within a system that has biases and all of us have biases as individuals, as a culture, as a business culture. Our business culture itself has some pretty impressive biases. Within that system, you can compensate for many of them, you can have an organization that is dramatically better for the best people than the people around. But you can’t really have a world that is isolated, so it’s important to recognize the difference between I succeeded at building an organization that’s absent from all these problems, that’s missing all these problems and I succeeded in making a better organization that people are proud to be at.
It took me a long time once I realized kind of where I was failing and succeeding, it took me a long time to stand up and go wait a second, there’s work to do but I can and I should be proud of the work I’ve done. I think as important as it is to stand up and work on things, it’s equally important to stand up and say but here’s what I’ve accomplished and here’s where I can and did make a difference, therefore here’s a platform of success to build on. If all you can do is look around you and see here’s how far we are from success and I wasn’t really good at seeing here’s how far we’ve come. You have to feel like I did good work yesterday or you can’t show up to work tomorrow and do good work again.
Kristen: There’s so many other things that we could talk about that are on my mind and I know that you’re thinking a lot about writing about what you believe and HR-
Luke Kanies: On that note actually if anybody’s interested in … Some of these things I’ll absolutely be writing about on my medium blog, if you look for L Kanies on medium you’ll find me, I’m pretty easy.
Luke Kanies: My last name is rare enough that I’m easy to find on the internet.
Kristen: Well thank you so much Luke, I appreciate you being on today.
Luke Kanies: Thank you for having me here.