Fireside Chat with Google's Kelsey Hightower @ MCR DevCon 2023

Fireside Chat with Google's Kelsey Hightower @ MCR DevCon 2023

The fireside chat was hosted by Vernon Richards, an esteemed Coach & Tester who has devoted his career to helping organizations, teams, and individuals understand the intrinsic relationship between quality and testing. His work is centred around enabling others to build better products and deliver more effective services, truly embodying the spirit of software craftsmanship.

The guest of honour for the evening was none other than Kelsey Hightower. As an American software engineer, developer advocate, and seasoned speaker, Kelsey has made his mark in the tech world through his work with Kubernetes, open-source software, and cloud computing. His role as a Principal Software Engineer at Google is just the latest achievement in a career marked by curiosity and self-motivated learning.

Kelsey's interest in computing sparked at a tender age, which paved the way for his foray into the IT world by opening a small consulting shop two decades ago. His early beginnings were humble, but they set the stage for a career that saw him traverse the halls of tech giants such as Google, Puppet Labs, New Relic, and CoreOS. A system administrator by trade, a programmer by necessity, and most importantly, a problem-solver at heart, Hightower's diverse skills and experiences have shaped his unique approach to technology.

One of his notable accomplishments includes becoming an L9 distinguished engineer, a feat that demonstrates his expertise and leadership in the tech industry. However, his journey towards this achievement was far from straightforward. He was candid about the significant overhead that accompanies the promotion process at Google, a challenge that he chose to tackle in his own unique way.

Instead of engaging in the conventional promotional process, Kelsey chose to carve his own path. He disregarded the traditional HR process, refusing to let it define or alter his identity. In his view, authenticity and self-acceptance were paramount. He wanted to succeed by being himself, free from the constraints of formal expectations and the pressure to fit a specific mould.

The cornerstone of his path to becoming a distinguished engineer was consistency and a drive to help others reach their objectives or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). He underscored that collaboration was instrumental in his progress, emphasizing the importance of aligning one's actions with others. This collaborative mindset, he explained, was an invaluable skill that not only fostered professional growth but also created a more harmonious and productive work environment.

In essence, his journey reflects a profound commitment to authenticity, collaboration, and a deep-seated passion for problem-solving, attributes that have been pivotal in his ascension to the ranks of distinguished engineers. His path serves as an inspiration for others navigating the complex terrain of the tech world, reminding them of the importance of staying true to oneself and the power of collective success.

Exploiting Your Creativity

Kelsey brought attention to the fortunate circumstances most of us in the tech industry find ourselves in. Contrary to many jobs in the world, we have the privilege to largely choose our work based on interest, aptitude, and passion. As an example, he recollected his early days of employment at McDonald's, a job that left him quite literally carrying the scent of his labour home each day. The experience served as a powerful reminder for him – he didn't want his job to envelop his entire existence. This underscored his desire for work that didn't define him completely, but instead, allowed him to express his creativity and passion.

He went on to emphasize the power of creativity, an aspect often overlooked in the tech world. Kelsey suggested that once one masters the art of creativity, it could serve as a medium for income. The ability to innovate, to think outside the box, and to devise solutions to complex problems – these are highly sought-after skills in our world today. This perspective on creativity mirrors the journey of an artist who hones their craft and eventually garners recognition and financial reward for their unique work.

Discussing his role at Google, Kelsey addressed the perennial need for people to write and fix code. Despite the advancements in technology and the burgeoning growth of AI, the need for skilled coders isn't going anywhere. As long as Google continues to be a tech company, which is undoubtedly its long-term trajectory, there will always be a demand for those who can construct and deconstruct the digital fabric of its services. Just as a house needs builders and maintenance crews, the digital landscape requires its creators and caretakers. Thus, coding remains a secure and promising career path in an ever-evolving technological era.

Career Development

Kelsey's reflections further extended into an examination of the broader aspects of career development. He underscored the importance of empathy as a crucial quality for anyone in the tech industry. He emphasized that understanding others, recognizing their needs, and considering the impact of one's work on them is crucial for meaningful progress. This perspective helps professionals build better products and services that are attuned to the real needs of their users.

Echoing the mantra of customer-centric giants like Amazon, he also encouraged professionals to always remember the end-users, the customers. Knowing who you are working for, understanding their needs, desires, and problems, is key to creating valuable solutions that resonate with users. A deep understanding of the customer is critical to successful innovation and a thriving business.

He then moved on to the inevitability of system failures in the technology world. He said that while a system restart might often fix a breakdown, it's essential to remember that the root cause of the issue might still remain unresolved. Sometimes, 'stalling' might give the system time to self-correct, but these are only temporary solutions. The real work lies in resolving the fundamental issue.

To illustrate the point, Kelsey recounted an incident from his career. He was in a 'war room' tackling a critical issue with a payment system designed to assist financially-struggling people by providing them with payment cards for essential purchases. Each time the system went down, it caused severe distress to these vulnerable customers. However, he observed a lack of empathy from the other members of his team. The anecdote served as a potent reminder of the real-life implications of technological failures. It underscored the importance of empathy and the need to remember who we are ultimately serving through our work – the customers.

A Surprise Announcement 😲

In a surprising revelation, Kelsey disclosed that he was planning to leave Google, sparking an immediate question from Richards, "When do you know when it's time to leave?" His answer was insightful. He had been mulling over the value of "time". Despite thriving at Google, he found himself at a crossroads, contemplating his next career move.

The trigger was an invitation to talk with Microsoft. Although initially reluctant, he decided to proceed, nudged by his wife. Microsoft extended an offer, which Google matched. Holding the offer letter in his hands, Kelsey experienced an epiphany - he couldn't truly quantify the value of his time.

Sharing a personal anecdote, he described how some people he knew found value in owning expensive watches. Each opulent timepiece had a story behind it, an appeal that some found irresistible. However, Kelsey held a contrasting view. When asked why he didn't indulge in expensive watches, his response was poignant, "I'm working hard so that I don't need a watch."

Kelsey's philosophy on time underscores the significance of control over one's time and how it can be the ultimate luxury. Reflecting on the concept of time, he articulated his strategy of "buying his own time back". By stepping away from the conventional track of continuously escalating career goals, he sought to reclaim control over his time, placing value on it by choosing how he spends it.

What now?

Curious about how Kelsey spent his newly claimed time, Richards inquired, "What do you do with your time?" Kelsey's response illuminated the freedom he'd gained. He can now pursue whatever piques his interest without the typical constraints and deadlines. He disclosed that he's currently writing another book at his own pace, free from the stress of publisher deadlines.

In addition to his literary endeavours, he mentioned that he's broadening his horizons by learning new skills. He regaled the audience with a tale of tearing down and rebuilding his fireplace, a task met with scepticism from his wife. Despite her concerns and suggestions to hire a professional, Hightower relished the challenge, further demonstrating his philosophy of investing time in learning and self-improvement.

The Power of Hindsight

Captain Hindsight 🦸‍♂️

When asked, "Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?" Richards cheekily suggested, "Retired sooner?" Kelsey responded by expressing his respect for the "trust model", emphasizing the need for people to work. Rather than focusing on retirement, he advised that energy could be better spent elsewhere.

In his view, scrutinizing job titles was a waste of time, reiterating that everyone, regardless of their position, is deserving of help. This belief aligns with his ethos of investing in people, suggesting that individual growth and development should be a focal point within an organization.

Kelsey also voiced his desire to make the valuable contributions individuals make to their work more public. He saw this as a way to recognize and appreciate the good jobs that people do, fostering a culture of acknowledgement and appreciation.

Continuing on the subject of recognition, Kelsey found immense value in having a "living resume". He explained that this type of continuously updated, real-time career profile is quite achievable when contributing to open-source projects. This provides a tangible showcase of one's skills and accomplishments, further encouraging people to actively contribute and learn in their respective fields.


When the conversation turned to Kubernetes, Vernon pointed out that the initial excitement for Kubernetes (often abbreviated to K8s) has cooled off somewhat. Kelsey responded with an insightful quote: "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." He applied this saying to the context of Kubernetes, remarking on a blame culture arising from situations where people used the complex system for projects that did not require such a level of complexity.

Drawing on humour, Kelsey questioned the necessity of using a distributed Kubernetes cluster for a WordPress site that only gets one visitor every month. This example underscored his point about the frequent mismatch between the scale of the technology and the requirements of the task at hand.

He pointed out a common problem in the tech field: the tendency to get carried away by the allure of new, shiny technologies without properly assessing if they are the best fit for the task at hand. Kelsey further illustrated this problem by describing a scenario where someone completely overhauls a codebase for a new technology. He humorously noted that in a two-line code review, lots of comments and changes would ensue, but in a one-trillion-line code review, people would just say, "Looks good to me," and merge it.

Kelsey ended this section of the conversation with a call to action. He urged people to hold others accountable when they propose large-scale changes that aren't necessary. He emphasized the importance of research before embarking on such changes, underlining his belief in the power of simplicity.

Advice for Startup Founders

Vernon Richards posed a question to Kelsey Hightower about what startup founders need to know. Kelsey shared some important insights, starting with a somewhat sarcastic comment about venture capitalists. He noted that, based on Silicon Valley observations, venture capitalists often provide millions of dollars to people who lack both experience and a clear plan.

However, he underscored the importance of a path to profitability for startups. This, he stated, should always be the main objective. He also advised startups to begin as small as necessary and to avoid premature scaling. Hightower emphasized the importance of letting the product shape the technology you use, encouraging a customer-centric approach.

Furthermore, Kelsey urged startup founders to prioritize a quick path to revenue. In his view, future-proofing a product that's likely to evolve as its place in the market is determined doesn't make sense.

When it comes to technology, Kelsey recommended starting with simple solutions. He said there's no need for complex technologies like Kubernetes and microservices at the outset, although maintaining good development practices is crucial. His overall message was that startup founders should prioritize simplicity, profitability, and customer focus.

Artificial Intelligence in Software Testing

Vernon Richards shifted the discussion towards the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in software testing, and sought Kelsey Hightower's views on the same. In a humorous vein, he suggested that the traditional approach of Test-Driven Development (TDD) is becoming outdated due to AI advancements.

Kelsey believed it was predictable that AI would start aiding in writing tests, given that many companies are performing similar functions. He amusingly stated that he often seemed psychic when he could predict the workflow within a company, and this predictability extends to testing.

He noted that most people are solving problems that have already been solved before, often resorting to the same workflow — searching for solutions on platforms like Stack Overflow and reusing those answers. This repetitiveness, in his opinion, makes AI a viable tool for generating efficient code.

Kelsey also commented on the proficiency of AI programs like GitHub Copilot, explaining that the code generated by such AI tools tends to be correct because working code usually follows similar patterns.

Finally, he suggested that AI could be used to address mundane problems, freeing up human resources to focus on more complex, next-level problem-solving tasks. This shift in focus could lead to more significant advancements and innovation in the tech industry.


In the fireside chat with Vernon Richards, Kelsey Hightower, a seasoned software engineer and a distinguished tech influencer, shared his insights into a broad range of topics, ranging from personal career development and the nature of work at tech giants, to the role of technologies like Kubernetes and AI in the current tech landscape.

Kelsey opened up about his career trajectory, emphasizing the importance of authenticity, collaboration, and alignment with others in his journey. He shared his candid thoughts about the concept of time, valuing one's time, and the need to create room for self-growth and personal pursuits, as exemplified by his decision to leave Google. He further emphasized the importance of empathy, customer focus, and investment in people in the context of work.

Kelsey also touched upon the role and misuse of Kubernetes, urging for greater accountability and research before opting for complex, large-scale changes. He advised startup founders on the path to profitability, underscoring the necessity of remaining customer-focused, adopting simple technologies initially, and avoiding premature scaling.

On the role of AI in software testing, Kelsey predicted a future where AI would solve mundane problems, enabling human problem-solvers to focus on more complex and innovative tasks. This shift, he suggests, could revolutionize problem-solving in the tech industry.

The conversation served as a comprehensive exploration of Kelsey's viewpoints on the evolving tech landscape, providing valuable insights for professionals across the spectrum – from those at the start of their careers to seasoned industry veterans and startup founders.