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Scaling the DevOps Career Ladder with Eran Bibi

Eran Bibi is is a Founder, CPO, and DevOps Engineer at Firefly, a Cloud Asset Management solution that enables DevOps and SRE teams to rediscover their entire cloud footprint, understand which parts of it are codified vs. unmanaged, detect drifts to prevent service failures, and manage a single inventory of all their cloud resources across Multi-cloud, and Kubernetes deployments.

In this episode, Eran talks with host Aaron Bassett about making the switch into DevOps, his career transitions from Individual Contributor (IC) to management and back to IC again, then taking a Director position, and eventually founding his own company.

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Transcript:

Aaron Bassett: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Polyglot Podcast. I'm joined this week by Eran Bibi. Eran is a Founder, CPO, and DevOps Engineer. Hello and welcome to the show, Eran.

Eran Bibi: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Aaron: No, thank you for joining us. I know we had a little conversation in the run-up to the show last week. And I was already really enjoying that and was trying not to have too many spoilers as we talked about what we were going to go through this episode. So I'm really excited to get stuck in and really get some of these answers out of you. So let's go right back to the start.

So for people who are just tuning in to Polyglot for the first time, we sometimes like to go through people's journeys in technology and how they got to where they are now. And obviously, Eran being very successful in the DevOps space and now founding his own company; we wanted to look at what that journey is like. And let's go back really to the start. So what got you interested in technology to begin with, Eran?

Eran: I think it was...like, I started to be curious about stuff that related to computers early in my life. So I think my first PC was when I was ten years old.

Aaron: Oh, wow. [chuckles]

Eran: Yes, it was like an old IBM kind of PC with Windows 3.11. I think it was the first operating system. One of the things that was very standout is that curiosity about how stuff is being built behind that screen. So I was finding myself trying to open that metal box and understand all of those pieces. And I think; basically, I fell in love with the concept that with a few pieces wiring together, I can get something in my screen, and I was just trying to understand how it works.

Aaron: Yeah, it's kind of a weird concept if you think about it. It's like we took a bunch of sand, electrocuted it, and now suddenly, it can think. Computing, in general, is just really odd. [laughs] But yeah, I'm much in the same boat; I think I started off with a Commodore 64. So I know that same feeling of being enamored from a very young age. But you started off in engineering and a little bit of system administration and things. But it looks to me like you made the switch pretty early on in your career into DevOps. What made you interested in that niche in particular?

Eran: So I was starting my career basically in the Israeli military. So my serve was being a system administrator of one of the units, and it was all based on the operating system, and configuration, and a bit of hardware. But then, when I completed the military service, I was very interested about stuff that is more complicated, more toward development. And I got a very good decision when I look back to get more knowledge about the Linux system. Specifically, in Israel, there was a very nice education around Red Hat operating system. So I did a deep dive course on that.

And then I was just trying to find some company that I can work doing Linux and sysadmin stuff that related to Linux. And so, this was the first step in my career toward what we call, right now, DevOps. But it will really change with the years. But I think the main portion was about trying to automate stuff and integration of pieces and integration of software. So that was the initial state of my career.

Aaron: You started off looking really then at operating system levels, and that's what got you interested in the DevOps space. I think what I probably should have done beforehand is let's give listeners a little synopsis on DevOps then. So when people say DevOps, what do you envision? What does that mean to you?

Eran: So right now, DevOps is really tied to cloud-native workloads and how you're supposed to manage your infrastructure and workloads in an automated way. But it was very changed if I'm looking back ten years ago when DevOps was started. It really was about that sysadmin skills with the programming capability, integrate. Most of the organization was a separation between operations and development.

So DevOps was the first step of having a sysadmin and integration capability into the development lifecycle, so that was DevOps like ten years ago. And right now, it's really about cloud engineering and doing stuff in an automated way and basically supporting the development team to work in high scale when pushing a lot of changes into the cloud and making sure nothing is breaking.

Aaron: Great. Yeah, I think that's a pretty good synopsis for everybody listening who has not come across that term before. It is a huge area in technology, which is something that we're very interested in at New Relic. There's a lot of crossover there between seeing what we would do in DevOps.

So let's move on then. Before we get into Firefly, which is the company that you co-founded and currently are Chief Product Officer, before we go into Firefly, there is another company you worked at for a substantial amount of time. And I think if I remember correctly, you told me you were employee number 20 there, and that's Aqua Security.

Eran: Yes. So Aqua Security was a very young startup when I joined them in early 2017. And I was employee number 20 and the eighth or seventh person in the R&D and in engineering. And for me, the decision to try to do a startup was because it was a very exciting period in time in terms of technology. So Docker container workloads was just introduced and becoming more popular. And I thought to myself; I would like to do something that is really related about technology.

So I did the shift of doing DevOps in a fintech company to do DevOps in a company that more related...like, the business of the company is more related to the stuff that interested me. And Aqua Security which is, in one sentence, a cloud-native workload security company, I thought was a very good fit for me to try to do the stuff that I love and also be more related to the business itself.

Aaron: And you joined Aqua Security as an IC. So you'd been kind of on a management track previously. And then whenever you made that move back to Aqua, you went back to being an IC. And for people listening, sorry, I keep using terminology here. IC is an individual contributor. So an IC is somebody who is not a manager, doesn't do any people management. So you'd been a people manager before in your previous role, I believe. And then you decided to move back to an individual contributor role at Aqua. What spurred that decision?

Eran: It was a counterintuitive decision because I was on my way up in the management skill and also with the stuff that I did in the previous company, and everything looked very promising. But I know that in that specific stage, I had to get the decision to go back and do an IC role again in order to achieve and fulfill my wishes in being in a startup company because I didn't have the option to come to Aqua Security as a senior manager.

So I basically bet that Aqua will grow, and I will grow with them. Again, I was betting, but I also really believed this is what will happen. I thought to myself, okay, I will go back and do hands-on without any people reporting to me and doing only stuff that's related to coding and pivot my career. But again, Aqua Security was growing so fast, so I found myself, after a few months recruiting the first member in my team.

Aaron: So you weren't an IC for very long then. You were very quickly back onto that management track.

Eran: Yes, and it basically was very natural for me because this is the bet that I took. I thought that Aqua was going to explode, again, from a very narrow perspective when I decided to join Aqua. I really believe in that kind of solution that Aqua is offering and also the trend that everything is going cloud-native and containerized, and this is the space that Aqua was born. So it was like a hard and stupid decision in one end, but when you look at it, it was very obvious that I will be going and expanding my team very, very soon after I joined Aqua.

Aaron: You were going back as an IC, but you always had it in mind that you wanted to go back into that management track eventually then.

Eran: Yes, because I had that passion for doing more business-related activities. So on one end, I really like engineering and hands-on. But that stuff that related to being a manager and being more close to the business, I was really attracted to that. When I had the opportunity to go with Aqua, this was like a no-brainer for me.

Aaron: It's interesting because I've done the switch myself as well. I went from being a very senior-level manager back to being an IC. But I went back to being an IC with no intention of ever being a manager again. It was a very conscious decision. I did not like management. I did not want to be a manager. I don't enjoy it, and I'm awful at it as well. Let's be honest; I am a really bad manager. I have a hard enough time keeping my own Jira tickets [laughs] in order, never mind managing other people's, and I just don't have that kind of --

Eran: There is some bad side for that for sure. [laughs]

Aaron: And I always feel I'm doing a disservice to people I manage as well by not giving them the attention that they require. I very much just want to go off and do my own thing. Whenever I made the switch back, (The switch was a little bit of time ago.) I know, at least at that time, there was honestly a bit of a negative connotation from my peers of, like, why would you give up this high title to go back to being an IC? Did you encounter any of that at all?

Eran: Yes. And that's why I also mentioned that decision like a stupid decision because people did not understand why it makes sense for me to go and be an IC after I was building myself, and I have a very bright future as a manager. But again, I did it with the state of mind that eventually, I will become a manager again in Aqua.

But if I'm looking back on those, I don't know, ten months when I was an IC in Aqua before even onboarding the first member, I was really, really enjoying that. It was reminding me how fun it is without handling priorities and other stuff that is related only to management kind of activities. But after ten months, [laughs] I thought to myself it's a good time to go back and try to build that management career.

Aaron: I just want to point out to anybody listening that this is obviously a very valid way and a way that people do go. But I just want to say for other people like me who may not want to go down the management track, there is, thankfully, these days, it seems to be a lot more common for there to be career progression and career ladders for pure ICs up to principal, and distinguished, and fellow. We have a lot of options now. But what was your ladder like going from IC to director then in Aqua?

Eran: It was related to the growth of Aqua and the importance of the function that I was managing. So I was starting as the one that's leading the DevOps. But because the company was growing so fast, there were a lot of opportunities to do much more than that. And because I had that hunger to be exploded with Aqua, I was trying to do more and more. And when I got that trust from the higher management, they were willing to give me more investment and more resources to do more stuff.

And then it was just natural. I was like a team leader. And then, I had a few teams under my court and eventually promoted to director with few teams reporting to myself and doing much more than DevOps. But again, it really depends on the macros. Aqua was looking for those individuals that have the capability to carry more and more and more function, and I was willing to do that. I really enjoyed that. The first two years and three years in Aqua were amazing for me.

Aaron: So you mentioned you had a couple of teams under you, and then that grew in size, and you progressed up to director, et cetera. Have you heard of the two pizzas for team size limit? Have you heard of that before?

Eran: Yes, of course. [laughs]

Aaron: Is that something that you prescribe to? What is your ideal team size before you think oh, we need to have additional managers here?

Eran: It's a good question. And there is a playbook for that. But eventually, there are much more constraints in real life, you know, the budgeting if you find someone that can lead that team. If I'm looking back on the Aqua scenario, everything changed really, really fast. And it was very hard to find appropriate candidates to do that step up and take a team lead position. And so it was very different than the typical playbook and pizza size kind of split.

Aaron: [laughs] Yeah.

Eran: I was in some cases with, I don't know, more than ten persons reporting directly to me, and it's not the ideal, let's say.

Aaron: That's a really large pizza you're going to need there.

Eran: [laughs] A lot of slices, right?

Aaron: Yeah. [laughs] Oh, for listeners who are not…I'm pretty sure it originated on Amazon. I don't know why I'm so sure about that, but I'm pretty sure it was Amazon.

Eran: Yeah, yeah. I heard about that too.

Aaron: The whole thing is that they say that the team should be no larger than you can comfortably feed with two large pizzas. That's kind of their rule of thumb for the size of a team. So yeah, if you're getting up to 10 people, those ten people need to not be very hungry, or it needs to be two very large pizzas. It is, as you said, you kind of make do with what you can. Sometimes budgets and recruitment make it difficult to get the team sized the way that you would want to.

Eran: But I think five or six people in a team can work very well. And also, here in Firefly, we were able to establish a very nice engineering group, and they are divided into something like five persons in a team. And again, from my perspective, it's working very well. There is also some reserved capacity for the team lead to do also hands-on and not just making sure everything is aligned.

Aaron: Yeah, I've been approached by companies in the past and you kind of look at the company makeup, and it's like they're so top-heavy sometimes. It seems like everybody is something in management. And there are only like three developers in the entire company, and you're like, okay, what are the rest of you doing all the time? But yeah, I think the five kind of in a pod for me is I feel also that's the most comfortable kind of position to be in.

You have enough people where you do have some slack if something should come up or something should arise, or somebody goes out on parental leave. It's a big enough teamwork, and everybody can pick up the slack for each other, but without it being too large that it gets to the point where even as an IC, you don't have visibility across what your colleagues are working on and where they maybe have bottlenecks or where you might be able to assist.

And yeah, leaving the management side out of it just as an IC, it's good to know what your colleagues are doing so that you know where you can chip in and give them some help as well. I've worked in much larger teams where you don't know what any of the rest of your team is working on. And that in itself becomes a bit of a blocker.

Eran: Even with work from home and hybrid mode, stuff is really changing even for that because right now, you are not very close to your teammates as was before. And there are a lot of unknowns and people trying to find the best way to communicate because it's a bit more complicated than before COVID started. But again, when I see here the teams with the size of four and five, it seems like a very good fit. More than that, I totally agree; stuff can be split away, like, you will not be on top of everything.

Aaron: Yeah. And also, once you get above that size, then your stand-ups get too long in the morning. I'm one of those people. I'm very strictly a stand-up is 15 minutes and no more. I'm really quite inflexible about that. I'm very rigid about it. One of the things I really like to maintain is keep stand-ups really short. So too many people, and either you will all have to go very quickly, or it's going to start running over the 15 minutes. And that's not something I'm willing to compromise on. [laughs]

Eran: You need to sit down during the stand-up, right?

Aaron: Yeah. [laughs]

Eran: [laughs] Take a break.

Aaron: You mentioned there a little bit about COVID and how it's changing team makeups. But talking about changes, you joined Aqua when there were 20 people, and you left when there were 500-plus. There must have been a lot of changes in that company, just in the culture of the company during that time. What things did you notice?

Eran: Yes. And by the way, I also see it here in Firefly. So I think it's something that is general for any startup that you need to be accepting changes and willing to adjust. And also, this is something that now I'm learning how to communicate. Like, I'm investing in that communication to the employees that changes are always welcome in that kind of atmosphere. And in Aqua, it was like I was replacing four jobs in that period of time. Because it's not just the company grows, you're also changing offices because the office that was built to host 30 employees is not the same office for 100, right?

Aaron: Sure, sure.

Eran: Even more members that are working from other places in the world, like, we started only in Tel Aviv development centers. And early on, we also started an office in Boston and later on in other places in the world. So you have more colleagues that are not sitting next to you. So it was very, I will say, challenging to understand that in each quarter that the business is growing, you are basically changing your workplace, and you need to accept it as something positive and not negative. And it's not always comfortable. It sometimes can be very frightening.

Aaron: Yeah. You got to 500 people at Aqua, and then in 2021, so really recently actually, you decided to found your own company, to found Firefly. Whenever you founded Firefly then, what were the things that you took from Aqua that you wanted to apply in your own company?

Eran: Wow, a lot. To be honest, I don't think I ever thought about doing that drastic move in the career of founding a company without having the specific experience that I had with Aqua. It basically was Aqua for me in that period of time that I established that idea that I can do something crazy [laughs] as creating a startup company.

So I learned a lot from the co-founders in Aqua, and I learned a lot of stuff that I think can be done differently. But eventually, this was a very fulfilling kind of experience for me. And everything that I'm doing here in Firefly, I'm always thinking about how stuff was being done in Aqua, and I'm doing a lot of reflection in that specific matter.

Aaron: So you mentioned there that there are some things you wanted to do differently in your own company. What are some examples of that?

Eran: So one of the examples is being more communicative with the employees that don't know how…like, a lot of employees here this is the first time that they are in a startup company. And it's very different between the usual corporate experience. And we are really putting the time and effort to explain to the guys about the stuff that are coming ahead. And again, think about it, there are tons of unknowns. It's not just specifically in Firefly. It's in every startup.

And by giving them that communication and to explaining them…the employees are more connected to the stuff that is happening and expecting less of surprises about stuff that's related to not their day-to-day but more business kind of related about fundings, and customers, and stuff that are really far from their day-to-day execution.

Aaron: So you also said it's kind of scary doing a startup, and you founded that in 2021. We're just coming out of 2020, which, as everybody listening knows, was a very difficult year for a lot of people around the world. So coming into 2021 and deciding you want to do the scary thing, you want to start your own company. What prompted that decision?

Eran: So in terms of starting a company and getting the initial funding, 2021 was a very good year because of all of the stuff that happened post-COVID with the technology companies and the interest rate and liquidity of cash in the markets. It was a very solid ground for having a very good investment, like seed investments. So, again, it's counterintuitive everything.

You think about COVID put a negative influence on the markets, but it's just the opposite. If you're talking about the technology sector, COVID and all the stuff that's related to the digital transformation was really putting more money and more VCs betting on technology during those years. So it was a very, let's say, relatively easy period of time for getting funded.

Aaron: Well, that's, I guess, one good thing to come out of everything that was going on in 2020. [laughs]

Eran: Yes, at least one.

Aaron: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about Firefly then. What's your elevator pitch for it?

Eran: So Firefly is a cloud asset management tool basically trying to give a better life for DevOps engineers and SRE, which is like site reliability engineers and basically all of those engineers that are handling cloud workloads. And we are giving you better visibility about the status of your cloud and whether you are managing it with Infrastructure as Code or not. And giving you that kind of automation that helps you to be more best in practice. So we took some few of the flows that are taking a lot of time for DevOps to accomplish, and we basically automate it.

Aaron: So it's really looking at your previous experience then from DevOps. And is it kind of like scratching an itch for you? Is it taking some of the pain points you had and creating a solution for them?

Eran: Yes, indeed. A lot of the solutions that we are providing were originating with the challenges that I faced in my previous role. Think about it; the cloud becomes very huge in scales in terms of the assets that you put there. And there are some trends like a multi-cloud and multi-account. Think about it, a few years ago, a company was with one AWS account, and it was sufficient. Right now, companies are running multiple AWS accounts.

And if I even put in Aqua as an example, we were a multi-cloud account. So I was having to deal with managing multiple AWS accounts but also multiple GCP projects and a few Azure subscriptions. And even if you think about the skill set of that specific DevOps engineer, you cannot master everything in alignment. So Firefly is trying to give that alignment of best practice across all of the clouds.

Aaron: Yeah, and it's something that's become more important, I guess. I remember the days of like, okay, you needed to be multi-region. You couldn't just have everything just hosted in one region. And now this idea of multi-cloud is definitely something I'm seeing mentioned a lot more. I remember when I was still at MongoDB, that was a big deal whenever we launched multi-cloud support for Atlas. So we could replicate your MongoDB databases across different client accounts.

And yeah, as much as they all try to say that it's just MongoDB or it's just whatever else, it's a whole different way of administrating some of them, and it's a different skill set. So yeah, expecting a single DevOps person to be an expert in every single cloud out there is just not reasonable. So, Firefly, I believe, is still in kind of a closed beta. Is that right?

Eran: Basically, the good news is that we are announcing GA next week.

Aaron: Oh wow. So for anybody listening to this episode, it's probably already in GA then. So that's great news.

Eran: Yes. So this is very, very exciting for us, and saying GA basically means that everyone that would like to experiment with Firefly will be able to do that with a self-service kind of flow. And we are also providing a free tier for small teams. So even if you have a small team and you don't have the budget to pay, you can enjoy Firefly and the value that we are providing.

Aaron: That's great. So tell me a little about your customer acquisition then for a product like Firefly. So, how did you get your very first customer?

Eran: One of the best advantages that we have here in Israel is that the ecosystem is very good. Like, there are a lot of technology companies that just recently become unicorn-level companies with tons of challenges with managing of cloud. So we started with a few design partners that were able to assist us with installing our software, our premature software on their cloud, and basically helped us to shape that use cases and flow and with a lot of feedback coming in.

We were able to build a GA-level product. And one of the benefits that eventually, if you are doing something very right and you're providing value, those design customers are being converted to paying customers. So I'm proud to say that we already have paying customers even before getting GA. And a few of them are some companies that went with Firefly very early in the game, like in the first months when we had a prototype with, let's say, tons of defects [laughter] and broken UI. But they helped us on that journey. And they have a very good place in our hearts, let's say.

Aaron: And I think that that is kind of it sometimes; it’s those companies that join you very early on that really kind of believe in the product and believe in your vision a little bit as well. I don't know if it's a little bit of Stockholm syndrome, but if you struggle through it together, then they can be very, very loyal and champions of your product, really.

So that's great that you managed to get some of these customers who've really helped you nail down the vision and get the product to GA here and now happily signed up as paying customers. What are your plans next? So you've got your first paying customers. How do you get your next 10,000 customers? Like, what's the plan there?

Eran: So right now, it's like the phase in the startup when we're trying to put more fuel in the marketing machine, let's say it like that. So we are planning to be in KubeCon Europe, which is in Valencia, in two months. And again, we are scaling up the team and also for those non-engineering functions like marketing and in sales, of course, and trying to create a really good business around a solution that we already proved that's giving a lot of value to DevOps engineers.

Aaron: Obviously, developer relations has to be featured in there somewhere as well.

Eran: Yes, of course.

Aaron: [laughs]

Eran: Yeah, it's a very good point. So we're basically outsourcing that at that moment, but this is super important. And being involved with the community and open source is something that is one of our strategic thinking. And we're all in love with open source. I'm saying that as a co-founder of Firefly but also as a DevOps. It's like I built my career around implementing open-source tools. So this is something that we're really aiming to invest a lot in.

Aaron: And you've just recently released your first, or Firefly has released its first open-source tool recently as well.

Eran: Right. So last week, we launched validiac.com, which is a free-to-use SaaS-based solution for getting validation for your Infrastructure as Code manifest. And it's, of course, open-source, and everybody can contribute. And of course, any star will be highly appreciated. But again, if you will browse to validiac.com, you will get a place that you can just copy-paste your Infrastructure as Code and get the output of whether it's valid, whether it's secured, and even a cost projection for the workload.

So it's a very nice tool and something that can be bookmarked in your browser. And it's really saving the effort of using four different tools. We just put in four different tools in one place and providing it as a SaaS service.

Aaron: Yeah, that's great. And that's available at validiac.com. We'll make sure that's linked in the show description as well. And anybody who's looking for the source of it, it's available on GitHub under the gofireflyio organization, so you've got sources up there. Also, the SaaS offering at validiac.com for people who want to just try it out, just give it a go. Does this represent Firefly's general philosophy around open source? Can we expect more of these open-source tools in the future from Firefly?

Eran: Yes, of course. We are already cooking something. And we are hopefully going to release the next open-source tool near the KubeCon timeframe. We are doing a lot of investment with our commercial offering and the Firefly product. And again, I mentioned there is also a three-tier, so you don't need to pay in order to experience with the commercial product. We're also going to have a lot of investment with the community and open-source tooling.

Aaron: That's great to hear. That's such an important thing as well. So I'll look forward to seeing what this new open-source tool you're cooking up. Is that at KubeCon, that would be when you announce it? Unfortunately, we are coming close to time. So I just want to give you just a little moment here, Eran, if there are any other projects or where can people find you online? What's the best way for them to contact you, or if they want to get started with Firefly, any of those kinds of things?

Eran: So our site is gofirefly.io. And from there, you can basically start your own tenant and connect your cloud account and just experiment with Firefly without talking with anybody. But if you would like to get a full demo and talk with me directly, you can just book something in our Calendly. There is a link on our site as well. And again, everybody can reach out on LinkedIn, Twitter. [laughs] Every usual kind of communication will be accepted from my side.

Aaron: [laughs] And you are on LinkedIn as just Eran-Bibi. And on Twitter, what's your Twitter account then, Eran?

Eran: It's @EranCloud.

Aaron: EranCloud. So there you go. Anybody if you're looking to get in contact with Eran, you can either message him on LinkedIn, get in touch via Twitter, or if you go to the Firefly website, that's gofirefly.io. You can also even book in via their Calendly to get a full demo of the system. Or if you're like me and you just like to play around with things, their GA is going to be hopefully launched by the time you're listening to this episode, fully self-service. Go sign up for the free tier and have a play and try it out for yourself.

Well, I think that's all we've got time for in this episode, unfortunately. It's been really enjoyable talking to you. I really enjoyed it. It's always interesting to hear from somebody else who's on that kind of management back to IC route. So that was a highlight of this episode for me was getting to talk about that a little bit. Thank you a lot again for joining us. I hope everybody listening gets a chance to check out Firefly, and we will see you all next time.

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