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How Porsche used Puppet Enterprise to speed up its IT processes

Editor's note: Arik Hessendahl is a guest blogger covering PuppetConf.

I’ve been a business journalist for more than 20 years, and I never get tired of the stories about how well-known companies are founded. It’s endlessly interesting how some of today’s most iconic brands and companies can trace their history to a single spark of thought in the mind of a founder.

So it was with Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche, who’s known for a small car company in Germany:

“In the beginning, I looked around and could not find the car I'd been dreaming of: a small, lightweight sports car that uses energy efficiently. So I decided to build it myself.”

Ferdinand is better known by the name Ferry Porsche, and that statement more or less sums up what has become known as The Porsche Principle. And while the history of Porsche is a little more complicated than that, the underlying philosophy set out by the principle really is that simple: Get the most out of everything. Get the maximum output from the minimum input. Waste as little as possible.

You can see it in the cars of course, which have long had a certain reputation for performance. More than one million Porsche 911s have rolled off the assembly lines since 1963. But like pretty much every company today, Porsche is doing more than simply manufacturing fast cars: It’s providing its customers with an evolving range of new digital services that surround those cars. Here’s one: If you have a Porsche 911, you’ll be happy to know it will soon be able to park itself.

Obviously offering services like that has forced it to raise its tech and IT game. And much of that has fallen to Thorsten Biel, Porsche’s manager for cloud services. In a PuppetConf 2017 keynote he explained how the Porsche Principle has led the company to embrace IT automation and the role that Puppet plays in it.

For one thing, Biel said Porsche has shifted from using Puppet’s open source version to Puppet Enterprise. Alongside that the company has also started a big shift in its management philosophy. “We’re shifting from a more structured culture to a more agile culture, especially in IT,” he said. “And we’re doing this because Porsche is shifting from a purely automotive company to one that is innovating on automotive digital services.”

Porsche owners have their own app store called Porsche Connect, where they can download apps that give them access to all kinds of data and features available on their cars.

“Our IT organization plays a key role in the transformation,” Biel said. “We’re moving from being an organization that mostly served internal customers in a reactive way to one that is more proactive, more innovative and more focused on customer experience.”

Running a portfolio of apps with a global footprint — there are Porsche owners in Australia and China — has forced Porsche to break away from old practices of hosting everything on its own infrastructure in Germany to go big on cloud infrastructure. For a good customer experience, Porsche apps have to run close to Porsche customers.

None of the changes happened overnight, and the biggest challenge, Biel said, was cultural. “On one end we have management driving us to go faster and to respond to market pressures,” he said. “Then we have a core of technical innovators, including my team who have already embraced the more agile way of working.”

But a larger percentage of Porsche’s technical teams who lack experience in working in more agile ways, have resisted change, he said. He and his team have been addressing the challenge on three fronts: process, technology and people.

On the process front, Biel said Porsche found many processes that included unnecessary shifts of work, responsibilities and roles. This led to a complete redesign of those processes in a way that adhered to the Porsche Principle.

The second front was technology, which necessitated a re-examination of the tools used to get IT work done. After about 10 years of using Puppet’s open source version, Porsche moved to Puppet Enterprise mainly for the support and for the lifecycle automation features.

The transition was “just a bit harder than we expected,” he said. Porsche’s Puppet code had grown over the years and it had never been updated to modern syntax. Rather than simply import it into Puppet Enterprise, the shift created an opportunity to “throw it all away and start fresh,” Biel said.

“It was a hard decision,” he said. “We had more than 10 years of stuff to redesign. But I think in the end it was really worth it. We’ve moved from the old way of describing each server in code to describing them in roles and profiles. … It’s more comfortable, more reliable and more agile.”

The third front was people: Biel said he learned that forcing DevOps practices on an organization doesn’t work. “You cannot mandate DevOps. DevOps is a culture of trust, not a culture of fear,” he said, recalling what Mike Garcia of Fannie Mae said at PuppetConf last year. “Remember we have a lot of people who don’t have experience with agile methods and they’ve been doing things the same way for a long time.”

One way of addressing that was the creation of a DevOps enablement team, made up of solutions architects, project managers and technical consultants who can talk to developers, managers and project leads in order to help them execute their projects in a more DevOps-friendly way.

The combination of all three, Biel said, has sped up the pace and capacity for change inside Porsche.

“You cannot do one of these things without the others,” he said. “It’s one thing to redesign your processes, reorganize your teams and plan to upgrade your tools. It’s quite another thing to implement.”

In the end, all the changes left Porsche about three times faster than before, Biel said.

Plus running Puppet Enterprise allows for easy upgrades to new versions and fixing security issues when they occur. “Now if we encounter a problem we open a support request. … All of this helps me sleep at night and in my eyes that’s worth the license fee.”

Arik Hesseldahl is veteran technology journalist and independent analyst. He was a founding editor at Recode, has written for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes, and has contributed to CNBC and NPR.