Ken Cheney | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ken Cheney


Chef Software leads in automation for DevOps, empowering its customers to build and operate high-velocity organizations. Built on an open-source foundation, the company has distilled proven patterns and practices for fast and scalable software development into a leading IT automation platform. 

The Mistake:

 I prioritized my company’s product as the focus of my marketing, sales and partnership efforts. That may not sound like a huge mistake, but as I’ve advanced my career I realized it was. It was limiting.

I’ve been lucky to play a variety of leadership roles across sales, product management, business development and marketing. I’ve worked at big companies like HP and Mercury Interactive, and startups like my current company, Chef.

In my work, I’ve seen a common thread run through great technology companies: they are product-led organizations. The product comes before the company. Their founders start with an idea for a product, and create a company upon which to build it. Their CTOs keep a clear vision for the product. They form cultures and workflows to rapidly improve the product. They stick to aggressive product road maps to deliver the most value to customers.

At Mercury Interactive and HP, I was focused on IT automation and IT business management products providing capabilities for project and portfolio management, application release automation, and IT asset and financial management. These products targeted large multibillion-dollar markets, addressing the needs of mid- to large-enterprises to better understand, prioritize, allocate, and manage scarce IT resources.

Clearly the product itself was an important factor in our position in the market. At Mercury Interactive and HP, we were either the No. 1 or No. 2 market-share leader with each of our products, a position validated by industry analysts and the biggest brands in the world who voted with their wallets for our products.

But there was another factor in the mix, and I was missing it with my focus on the product.

I learned the true value of defining and selling a category right alongside our product.

The Lesson:

When I joined Chef, our executive team quickly realized we weren’t just building and selling a product. We were doing something different. We were engaging with a close-knit community of application developers and people in operations to give them software that helped them work together in a completely different way.

We called this movement DevOps. And the tools we were providing allowed these organizations to move at speed. The collaborative cross-functional teams we worked with replaced manual and time-consuming tasks with automation of their infrastructure, compliance and security, and applications.

Automating at scale using Chef resulted in significant improvements in efficiency, risk, and speed that impacted most organizations' top line and bottom line, sometimes dramatically. We call this category of software tools Continuous Automation and now know it provides the foundation for the cultural changes and collaboration workflows enterprises require to move at velocity.

 We do things differently at Chef. Our biggest focus at Chef is defining and evangelizing the Continuous Automation category – first within the DevOps community and in turn to the larger business community. We’ve built significant value in the category. And that investment paid off.

The category, and our product in it, helps us attract customers at large enterprises and partners from the largest technology vendors in the world. It helps us tell our story to top-tier investors who back us. We work with customers like GE and Facebook, partners like Microsoft and Amazon, investors like DFJ and Ignition.

 At Chef, I learned the true value of defining and selling a category right alongside our product. We have the quantifiable lead in share of voice among companies playing in our category as well as the DevOps movement. We help businesses understand and buy into a new category in enterprise tech. And by getting them to buy into the category, we sell more of our product. The software that Chef built is now used by half of the Fortune 50, the biggest companies in business.

Follow Chef Software on Twitter at: @chef

Pictured: Ken Cheney. | Photo courtesy of Ken Cheney.

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