Chef names new CTO to succeed its co-founder, eyes broader market for enterprise automation

Chef promoted Corey Scobie to chief technology officer of the Seattle-based enterprise automation technology company. (Chef Photo)

It’s a new era at Chef, and not just because the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct has suddenly created a spectacular view from its Seattle waterfront headquarters.

The 11-year-old enterprise automation technology company rounded out a period of massive internal change Wednesday morning by promoting Corey Scobie, its existing product and engineering leader, to succeed its co-founder, Adam Jacob, as its chief technology officer.

It’s a big symbolic milestone, given Jacob’s role not just in starting the 300-person company but also in creating the original technology on which it was founded — helping to pioneer the larger DevOps movement that unites development and operations teams for rapid deployment and updating of software.

“There are few people who you can say with a straight face have changed an entire industry, and he’s one of those,” Chef CEO Barry Crist said of Jacob this week.

Jacob announced in January that he was stepping down from his day-to-day role at Chef, while remaining an advisor and board member. Until now, the company had left the position of CTO unfilled, with Scobie, a veteran of companies including Akamai and IBM, leading product and engineering as a senior vice president.

“Adam is an iconic figure in open source, an iconic figure in DevOps, and an iconic figure in the Chef community, and I didn’t quite realize when I joined that my job might be to somehow try and fill his shoes as the CTO,” Scobie told GeekWire, crediting Jacob for his work to reposition the company. “I couldn’t be happier about where we are with Chef. We’ve made some incredible investments and innovations in the last couple of years.”

Adam Jacob remains a Chef board member and advisor. (Chef Photo)

Jacob came up with the original technology while running a consulting company, and founded the startup in 2008 as Opscode with his consulting colleagues Barry Steinglass and Nathan Haneysmith, along with Jesse Robbins, who made his mark as an operations and infrastructure guru at Amazon and other companies.

Renamed Chef in 2013, the company has gone through a series of changes over the past year, and not just on its executive team.

Earlier this year, Chef changed its approach to product development and licensing, releasing all of its products (including the previously proprietary Chef Automate) under the Apache 2.0 open source license. Chef Habitat, Workstation, and InSpec had previously been open-source. At the same time, the company announced its new Chef Enterprise Automation Stack as its own branded distribution of the technology, for commercial licensing.

In an interview, Jacob described Scobie as the perfect person to succeed him as CTO, leading the company’s technology initiatives into this new era.

“The market has shifted,” Jacob said. “After 13 years in any market, things change, and so having Corey bring not only his technical expertise but also his point of view on the market and his point of view on how Chef should go into that market … has been incredibly valuable.”

Chef on Tuesday also named John Wyss, a Cisco and ServiceNow veteran, as its new vice president of product management. It’s latest in a series of executive changes, including the hiring of Google, Splunk and Microsoft veteran Brian Goldfarb as chief marketing officer, and former Impinj CFO Evan Fein as chief financial officer.

The company focused originally on infrastructure automation, helping developers automatically configure and manage their servers. With many of those companies moving away from their own servers and data centers to major cloud providers, Chef has shifted much of its focus to application automation, along with new capabilities in areas including compliance and security. Chef’s executives say they now see opportunity in a wide range of enterprise automation technologies, including management of desktop computers and Internet of Things devices.

Chef CEO Barry Crist at the company’s Seattle headquarters this week, with the remnants of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in the distance behind him. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Crist said the expanded focus reflects the needs of the company’s biggest customers. “We think that the automation problem isn’t specific to infrastructure — it’s really across everything,” he said.

Customers known to use Chef’s technology include Nordstrom, Alaska Airlines, Facebook, Gannett, General Motors, GE Digital and other Fortune 1000 companies.

Along with the changes, the company is also seeing an expanded set of competitors. While Chef has often been mentioned in the same sentence as Puppet, a Portland-based competitor, it’s increasingly also competing for business against Red Hat, which acquired application deployment and automation technology company Ansible in 2015.

Jacob, meanwhile, is embarking on a new era of his own. He said he recently started a company called The System Initiative, with two other co-founders. He serves as its CEO, but is just getting started with the venture and isn’t yet discussing its plans in detail. This is in addition to his work on the Sustainable Free and Open Source Communities project, which he launched last year.

Chef, which has raised more than $100 million in funding over its lifetime, doesn’t disclose specific financial results as a privately held company, but Crist said the response to the Enterprise Automation Stack has been positive, creating more clarity for big business customers, while bringing in new customers and generating more revenue per customer.

Long-term, Crist said, Chef is positioning itself to be a successful freestanding company. He acknowledged that would inevitably mean becoming a public company, but he declined to give a specific timeline. The hiring of Impinj veteran Fein as CFO gave the company a financial leader who has extensive experience with the IPO process.

In the meantime, Chef has a new vantage point, literally.

Sitting down for a conversation this week in the common area of the company’s Pioneer Square headquarters, Crist acknowledged the symbolic parallels between the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Chef’s efforts to rebuild its business. The double-decker highway, which has been replaced by an underground tunnel, was previously just outside the company’s exterior windows — making it difficult to have a quiet conversation, let alone see the water.

“It’s not a reach, because we’ve joked about it ourselves,” Crist said, when asked about the symbolism. “Ultimately, the ocean is where we’re heading.”

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