Karen Chu and Matt Butcher both have extensive experience making Kubernetes more accessible. They’re both long-time members of the community, having attended the first KubeCon + CloudNativeCon event in San Francisco back in 2015. 

While working at Deis, they built the first Kubernetes PaaS, further opening the door to new users and lowering the barriers to entry. That’s also where they launched the Helm project, a package manager for Kubernetes, which has since become a graduated project at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

“Deis was an awesome place, where we accomplished some really outsized things because we had such a wonderful team of people,” Butcher – now the CEO of Fermyon, said. 

It’s also where what was supposed to be a cheeky slideshow presentation planted the seed for an unusual project: The Illustrated Children’s Guide to Kubernetes

Graphic showing the entire Phippy and friends family

Explaining Kubernetes With a Children’s Book

It all started with Butcher being given a monumental task. In the early days at Deis, its PaaS didn’t run on Kubernetes. But it wasn’t long after Kubernetes’ initial release that the team at Deis started tinkering with it, then adopting it. They held an all-company meeting about it, and then-CTO Gabe Monroy tasked Butcher with explaining Kubernetes. Not just to the developers, but the finance team, the marketing team; in fact anyone who was there. 

Butcher realized it was time to get creative. He borrowed a few of his daughters’ stuffed animals, posed and photographed them, and wrote a short story about Phippy, a PHP application giraffe trying to find her way in a cloud-native world. He called it The Illustrated Children’s Guide to Kubernetes and delivered his presentation via armchair. 

Chu watched the presentation and approached Butcher afterwards with the idea of turning it into a full book. This was no small task: turning a one-off presentation into a full book, even a children’s book, takes some potent powers of transmutation. And as a start-up, they needed to do it relatively inexpensively. 

After storyboarding the text, tracking down an illustrator from Fiverr, and working through some rewrites of the text to make it more clear for kids, they had something they could read to their kids at bedtime. Karen did the layout after getting the illustrations back, then used a self-publishing platform to get it out there. As part of the initial launch and at community conferences, they gave out Phippy stress toys and saw them resonating in a big way. After the first book, Chu and Butcher ended up donating the characters to the CNCF, which they’ve called home ever since. They ended up proving very popular: six books, and a variety of hugely popular collectibles later, Phippy and Friends have become fixtures of the cloud native community. 

To Understand Something, Learn to Explain It

Richard Feynman, the physicist known as the Great Explainer, once said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. To Matt, the books are a way of restructuring and reorganizing the very complex information involved in technical documentation. 

“So many times, when I look at a new technology, I say to myself, ‘I just need to temporarily memorize a bunch of words so that I can come back later and figure out what they mean.’ The illustrated guide is clearly not the pinnacle of technical documentation, but it was a fun way to try and reconceptualize and rethink how we convey information at a high-level. The core lesson that I learned because of what Karen and our illustrator Bailey (Beougher) did was that metaphorical thinking can really resonate with people and help them understand something very quickly and intuitively.” 

Matt Butcher, CEO, Fermyon

Plus, he says it’s a lot easier to remember the time pirates sunk Admiral Bash’s ship than a bunch of tech jargon. 

For Chu, the books highlight the importance of non-technical skills even in highly technical fields like software development. 

“Technical communities are about more than just code — they’re about people and everything that comes with them too. My background is in layout design, photography, marketing, and event planning but I’ve been able to use these skills in various ways throughout the community via working on the Phippy books, designing fun swag, helping with communications on the Kubernetes release team, and planning community events from scratch. Everyone has so much more to offer than they realize.”

Karen Chu, Head of Community, Fermyon

Whether you design software or slideshows, there’s room for you in the cloud-native community. Learn how to set sail on our contributors page and put into port by joining the community conversation in our CNCF slack channels.