Puppet Master

Luke Kanies ’96 has become your system administrator’s best friend.

By Raymond Rendleman ’06
Luke Kanies ’96

Photo by Vivian Johnson

If you were building a new car, you probably wouldn’t try to create a new method of insulating electrons, invent a four-way rotational friction-reduction system, and sheathe it in a brand new shock-absorbing material of your own design. You’d probably use standard wire, wheels, and tires, so you could concentrate your energy on the design innovations you really want to make.

The same is true for software, according to Luke Kanies ’96, yet computer geeks spent decades reinventing the wheel by independently coming up with identical sequences of ones and zeros.

So why not gather the best sequences of code in a place where anyone can access them, so that they can focus their time on designing better websites?

Sounds simple. The reality was anything but.

In 2005, Luke quit a safe job earning six figures at a software management company to start up Puppet Labs, which automates certain networking chores so that system administrators can concentrate on more important issues.

“Puppet is a very simple way to make your software infrastructure work, allowing you to skip a lot of stupid details that don’t matter to you,” Luke says.

For the first three years, the venture made no money—in part because the basic system was given away free. Luke worked 80 hours a week and literally ate beans to support his startup. Since then, however, his business has achieved international acclaim. Everyone from federal agencies to Apple now deploys Puppet code in their networks. Investors have been duly impressed, last year betting to the tune of $5 million, up from $2.5 million the year before, that Luke can leverage Puppet’s popularity to sell commercial software that runs on top of the basic Puppet system.

Starting the company in Nashville, Luke moved to Portland in 2009, reclaiming the mecca of free thinking for software that he equates with the move of the film industry from Florida to Los Angeles in the 1930s. Just as Los Angeles didn’t have the sticky copyright laws of Florida, Portland is attracting a lot of spinoff activity from Intel’s investments.

“It’s a good cultural fit, because everyone knows that this is the place to be an innovator,” he says.

Although he majored in chemistry, Luke soon realized that his education at Reed was eminently transferable to the software industry. “I didn’t know anything when I first started the business, and I was just going through this process of discovery,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to build a model of reality, and science is all about trying to build a reality, understanding it, adjusting it, rinsing and repeating. Programming has a lot of overlaps with that.”

Among the company’s 40 employees are three other Reedies: Beth Raby ’06, José Palafox ’09, and Michelle Carroll ’10—music, philosophy and sociology majors respectively—whom Luke credits as having been integral to the company’s recent success.

Luke returns to metaphor to explain why such different types of people flourish in the programming world. Puppet itself is a transferable function, so it helps to have lots of different types of people creating the computer code.

“I’m not under any circumstances telling people they need to do one thing or another with this code,” he says. “One of the things I learned from Reed is that you can do something that feels like failure, but you got through it, and that’s great. Life is bloody complicated, and you have to find your own definition of success.”