Interview with Ethan Rogers: Why He Chose Spinnaker, His Goals at Armory, and His Upcoming Talk

An exclusive talk with Armory’s Community Software Engineer

With the Spinnaker Summit just a few months away, we’re channeling our excitement through a series of interviews with our upcoming speakers.

After an eye-opening interview with Netflix UI Engineer, Archana Sankaranarayanan (check it out here), we set our sights on the inspiring Ethan Rogers from Armory.

If you’re new to the open source software (OSS) scene, Ethan Rogers is a Senior Community Engineer and a driving force behind the growing Spinnaker OSS community.

Since joining Armory in April 2018, Rogers has been following his mission to support engineers navigating Spinnaker with training materials, documentation, thought leadership, and events. When he’s not working on OSS initiatives like Kubernetes V2, he’s answering questions and guiding troubled developers on Slack.

With a stroke of luck, we reeled Rogers in for an interview about his job at Armory, his experience with Spinnaker, and his upcoming talk at the Spinnaker Summit. Dig in.

1. Let’s start with your background. What drew you to software engineering?

I started doing IT when I was 15, then when I got into college I started writing code and I quickly realized that I had a knack for it. I would spend hours figuring out what to do and the best way to do it, so I kind of fell in love with the challenge.

About three semesters before I graduated, I got my first software job working for a healthcare IT company doing PHP and JavaScript where I got a lot of really good experience.

After I graduated, I moved to Chattanooga and started working in startups, which is where I got into Build and Release Engineering. I automated delivery for one company and then moved onto a new job at Skuid and did the same for them. I went from doing PHP and JS to Salesforce development, so it was kind of a “dark time” in my career, but I was learning a lot!

About a year into my time at Skuid, I got into Kubernetes and Spinnaker and that’s when I really dived into the idea of Release Engineering and building tools to help other software developers.

2. What do you love the most about your job as a Community Software Engineer at Armory?

When I got out of my last job [as a Release Engineer at Skuid] and joined Amory, I really wanted to be involved with the Spinnaker community. Spinnaker changed the way I look at software delivery and it made me ten times the developer I was before I found it, so I wanted to help others get to that point.

My favorite part about working with Armory is that I get to do that with the community. I get to hang out on Slack all day, write blog posts, and do demos for people who are just entering the community and have no idea what they’re doing. It’s really rewarding for me to see how their eyes light up when it all comes together and then watch how fast they go afterwards.

3. Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

One thing I’m working on right now at Armory is a demo environment because we found that a lot of people getting into Spinnaker would get bogged down with the setup.

So this demo showcases a lot of common workflows and it lets people go into a real environment, play around with it, and really get a feel for it. This way they can know the value of Spinnaker before they actually start working with it.

Another thing I’m working on is a bunch of demos with the new Kubernetes Provider V2. It’s still in beta so there are a lot of questions about how it works, what you can do with it, and what are the more advanced use cases you can have. So I record a lot of videos and spend a lot of time working on that.

4. What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of since getting involved in the Spinnaker OSS community?

One thing I’m the most proud of is giving to the community and “gaining a seat at the table”, in a way.

At last year’s Spinnaker summit, I actually got a message from one of the guys on the Google team saying that I had gotten commit rights to some of their repositories. So that was a really cool moment for me and it let me know that the way I viewed delivery, the project, the codebase and the community really aligned with what Google and Netflix were doing. That was probably one of my proudest moments.

Also, anytime someone reaches out to me on Slack because they read a blog post of mine or used a tool that I wrote, and say “thank you, this really solved my problem”. It’s just so rewarding and it makes me really proud to know that I made an impact and genuinely helped them in some way.

5. What do you hope to tell people you’ve achieved a year from now?

When I started out I was influenced a lot by people like Kelsey Hightower and well-known influencers in the Kubernetes community. I saw how helpful and useful the information they put out was, so I pretty much wanted to emulate that for the Spinnaker community.

Anytime I learn something new, I immediately write about it so the next person doesn’t have as much trouble as I did trying to figure it out. So I think what I’d like to tell people a year from now is that I’ve really helped to grow the community and make the Spinnaker project a lot easier for people to work with.

To be honest, I’ve gotten a lot farther than I ever thought I would at this point In my career. After graduating I thought I would just get a regular job and keep a low profile but here I am at Armory with the opportunity to positively influence people. Anything after this is just the icing on the cake!

6. In one of your blog posts on Armory.io, you said you first heard about Spinnaker at a 2016 Netflix talk. What exactly got your attention and made you want to know about it?

I remember it was at the RE:Invent in 2016, and Andrew Spyker, who’s the Engineering Manager on the Titus team, was giving a talk about containers at Netflix.

At that point, I was working at Skuid and we had already started using Kubernetes, but deploying to production was super painful. We were running multiple Kubernetes clusters across multiple regions and the code for deploying to all of them was hundreds of lines long. The worst part was that the code didn’t even do the job very well.

Another problem we had was it was difficult to tell what version of our code was running in every environment, so our Engineering team would have to poke our Ops team to tell them what was live.

We had looked at a bunch of other tools and kept finding the same problems, so I was sitting at that Netflix talk and realized Spinnaker actually showed all the information we needed front-and-center. I just thought, “I have to know more about this”. Then when I found out that Spinnaker could talk to Kubernetes and would solve all our major headaches, I decided we had to use Spinnaker no matter what.

7. So you brought Spinnaker to Skuid. Was your team 100% onboard with this decision or did you have to do some convincing?

That was the only talk I went to that year, which is kind of crazy. It was just me from the team there, and after the talk I went back to work and told them about this tool that was going to solve all our problems. I basically asked them to give me a month to figure the whole thing out.

I spent weekends just banging my head against the wall, because this was before all the automation to help you stand Spinnaker up, so it was crazy difficult back then. After a month, I went back to my team and deployed a really simple service but it was enough for my team to go, “Yes, this is exactly what we need”.

There were still some rough edges, which is how I got into contributing code for the community, but it was 90% of the way there and we just ran with it. They’re still using it now.

8. In what ways did Spinnaker impact you and your team?

For me, Spinnaker helped me deploy more meaningful software. I didn’t have to think about how to get stuff out, I could just write an app to solve a problem and then use Spinnaker to deploy it because everything ships the same way.

For the team as a whole, there was some organizational change, primarily driven by the fact that we could innovate faster. It also helped give us a common way of writing software, which was also helped by Kubernetes. They all started thinking less about just the code they were writing and more about the entire software delivery process.

They were getting access to things they had never had access to before. And they were learning new things like instrumenting their systems for monitoring, how to deploy things, and how to containerize applications. So they became a lot more aware of the whole software lifecycle instead of just focusing on the bit of code they were going to pass off to the Ops team.

9. Let’s go back to Netflix for a moment. We have an important question for all interviewees: what are you watching on Netflix these days?

My wife and I just started watching Last Chance U, which is about junior college football. I’m from the South so football’s a big thing here and it just reminds me of going to football games in high school.

I also watched How It Ends recently. It’s a new Netflix original that I thought was really good.

10. Moving on. In one word, how would you describe the process of installing Spinnaker?

Challenging.

It was seriously challenging to set up Spinnaker back when I started. Today it’s a lot better thanks to what the community has done in the last two years. I think the main challenge is that there’s so much configuration and so many options and everyone has different requirements.

At Armory, we have our own Kubernetes installer that will stand it up for you. We have a really nice UI for configuring Spinnaker but even then it’s tough knowing how all the pieces fit together. Although I think we’re making a lot of progress in both the community and Armory so I’m really excited to see how it improves over the next few years.

10. How do you think the community can help move this progress along so more people can get on board with Spinnaker?

One thing that we can do as a community is document things more. Just start blogging about the most common problems. Not everyone might feel comfortable about improving the codebase, but anyone can help improve the experience of using Spinnaker.

11. We’re very excited about having you on-stage at Spinnaker Summit this October. Can you give everyone a peek at what your talk will be about?

It’s mostly about application-first tooling. Basically, I want to draw a parallel between tools like Spinnaker and other tools people traditionally use for deployment.

Spinnaker is an application-first tool so it puts all the things you care about right in front of you, and puts focus on the application and the instances of that application that are running. It’s all about building the right tools that aren’t in the way but give you what you need to be focused on.

The type of person who should come is anyone who has questions about why Spinnaker versus AWS, or why Spinnaker versus other deployment tools like Ansible, Terraform, Puppet, and Chef.

I’ll also be covering how to take the application-first principles instilled in Spinnaker and apply them to other tools in their toolchain — like CI tools. It’s all about giving developers the flexibility to do what they need to do, but make it easy enough for them to do so without thinking about it.

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Want to know more? Don’t miss his highly-anticipated talk at the Spinnaker Summit this October. If you have other questions about Spinnaker or just want to reach out to say hi, you can ping Rogers on Slack (ethanfrogers) or find him on Twitter.

In case you haven’t heard, this is the second annual Spinnaker Summit and it’s going to be even better than last year. From Google managers giving keynotes to Netflix engineers leading workshops, it’s the event of the year for developers, architects, delivery managers and technology leaders. (It’ll also be crawling with recruiters from the biggest companies in the industry. Just saying.) Grab your ticket while they’re still available here.

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