When Priyanka Sharma took the reins at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) this summer, it was hard to say whether her timing was auspicious or ominous.

As general manager of the organization that oversees the fast-growing open source movement, she is in an immensely influential position. But with a global pandemic upending everyone’s plans, she knew the foundation’s priorities would need to adapt.

For four months now, she’s been trying to strike a balance between helping the foundation navigate its technical mission and tending to the well-being of its community. What she’s learned so far is that both aspects are essential for an open source movement to thrive.

“Many people are like, ‘Oh, what a terrible time to walk into this job,’” Sharma said. “But I think it’s been really good because I’ve had a chance to step up and help the community go through a challenging period.”

A new cloud infrastructure

Founded in 2015, the CNCF is an open source organization that operates under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation. The CNCF’s mandate is to oversee the ecosystem of tools being developed to drive the growth of “microservices,” or “cloud-native computing.”

This approach to developing cloud infrastructure, which relies on containers, holds that breaking applications into smaller, self-contained units can significantly reduce the costs and time needed to write, deploy, and manage them. The result should be a web that is faster yet more stable. Just as compelling to proponents, it should deliver a more open web that makes it easier for users to change cloud platforms.

As containers began taking off several years ago, Google developed an orchestration platform called Kubernetes to manage them. Google approached the Linux Foundation about open-sourcing Kubernetes, and those talks led to the creation of the CNCF, which also counts Twitter, Huawei, Intel, Cisco, IBM, Docker, Univa, and VMware among its founding members.

Rather than being just a Kubernetes project, the foundation took a wider view, positioning itself as a body that would oversee and encourage the development of everything needed to build applications using this new model. While microservices seemed promising, shifting to this new development approach created a need for an array of tools, such as proxies, logging, and registries to facilitate the new services. The CNCF shepherds the process for reviewing proposed tools to certify they are robust enough and supported by enough contributors.

Just two years ago, the CNCF had a total of 20 projects that had either “graduated” or were in an “incubation” phase. Today, 12 projects have graduated and another 21 are being incubated. There are now 97,000 people contributing code and more than 550 official corporate members.

“The crown jewel in this entire ecosystem is the largest end-user community enjoyed by any open source foundation in the world,” Sharma said.

A new start

For most of its existence, the CNCF had been run by Dan Kohn, who helped found the Linux Foundation. But earlier this year, Kohn announced he would be leaving the CNCF to oversee a new Linux Foundation open source project called the Public Health Initiative.

In tapping Sharma to replace Kohn, the CNCF chose someone who had been an early and active participant in its work. Sharma came to Silicon Valley to attend Stanford University, and after graduating in 2009 she took a series of jobs involving product development and marketing. She followed that up with stints at Google and Outright (which GoDaddy acquired) and then cofounded WakaTime, which created a tool to help developers track their work.

When she landed at LightStep as head of marketing and strategic partnerships in 2016, she became more involved with microservices. LightStep was working on OpenTracing, an API standard that helps model and define behaviors of distributed systems. Sharma became a contributor to that project, which is still being incubated by the CNCF.

“It was early days for CNCF, and it was early days for me,” Sharma said. “It was so much fun. I was just traveling everywhere and writing tutorials, giving talks, and meeting with as many end users as possible.”

Two years later, she became director of Cloud Native Alliances at GitLab and joined the CNCF board. Discussions about taking over for Kohn began earlier this year.

“It’s not just another job,” she said. “This is more of a calling. With the CNCF, I found a community that felt like home. I have always been curious and I love learning. It was a dream come true.”

The unexpected road ahead

Of course, by the time Sharma actually became general manager on June 1, the pandemic had changed everyone’s calculations.

As head of the CNCF, her goals include growing the number of contributors, ensure projects are progressing, and attracting more official members. On the technical side, things have continued to run relatively smoothly.

In just the past two months, CNCF Technical Oversight Committees have elevated three projects to incubation status, including Thanos (a metric system that helps scale Prometheus-based systems), Cortex (which provides long-term storage for Prometheus), and KubeEdge (which extends containerized application orchestration capabilities to hosts at the edge).

On September 2, TiKV — an open source distributed transactional key-value database built in Rust — became the 12th CNCF project ever to graduate. Graduation means the foundation is confident the project has achieved sufficient adoption, has developed an open governance process, has attracted a strong community, and has passed a third-party security audit.

The CNCF also streamlined the process for a project to enter the Sandbox phase, the earliest entry point for experimental tools. This step creates a neutral ground where a company that has developed a tool it might want to turn into an open source project can begin inviting collaborators.

But even as this work continued, Sharma said she recognized that the broader CNCF community was feeling the strain of the pandemic. The foundation had earlier embraced the concept of wellness for its members by creating a Well-being Working Group. The working group in turn partnered with Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) to produce a handbook offering guidelines for mental wellness at conferences. In addition to listing advice for coping and how to ask for help, OSMI had booths at CNCF conferences where attendees could come and discuss any general issues they might be experiencing.

In April, as COVID-19 spread and lockdowns expanded, the CNCF began pulling together other resources and advice for members who might be feeling isolated. Sharma said she’s continuing to look for ways to expand wellness support as the pandemic persists.

“We’re going to double down on that because people need each other right now,” she said. “We’re all going through something new when it comes to this pandemic.”

The CNCF has historically relied on conferences and meetups to support members and build its community. And the widespread cancellation of such events hit the CNCF particularly hard because so many projects and so much of its progress have come directly from these conferences.

“This is where all the communities aggregate and integrate with each other,” Sharma said. “People meet people who they’ve never seen before, and they form connections, and they go on to build new things together.”

For many tech organizations, the pandemic has meant turning conferences into virtual experiences. In August, the KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Europe 2020 was held online. The previous edition in Barcelona had attracted 7,700 attendees, almost double the 2018 edition. As it turned out, the virtual format worked well. The conference had 18,000 registrations, with 70% tuning in. Of those, about 60% watched at least 10 hours of sessions over the four days. That exceeded expectations and is a promising sign as the CNCF prepares for its flagship North American conference, which runs four days starting November 17.

During her keynote at the August conference, Sharma said she’s more optimistic than ever about the future of the movement and efforts to reinvent the way people develop software for the web.

“I believe open source was built for now, for the problems of today,” she said. “Our lives have gone remote; our challenges have gone global. We need innovation from anywhere and everywhere, not only just for this pandemic, but to enable our companies, governments, communities, and entire economies to come out stronger than ever.”

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