Season 4 — Episode 1

Editor's Note: Since this podcast was recorded, Puppet learning resources have changed and expanded from the initial learning VM! Click here for the latest information and resources to learn Puppet.  

Learning new tools is hard enough on its own. But then you often have to install software, set up a working environment, download a dev kit, or more. Our Education team recently released the new Puppet Practice Labs, which let you learn the Puppet ecosystem at your own pace and remove all these impediments from your progress.

The labs run right in your browser and require no extra downloads. And best of all, they're free and you can access them any time. Many are even short enough that you could run through one over your lunch hour. Join us to chat with the team about how they built the platform and how you can best use it.



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00:00:22 Ben Ford Hello and welcome again to today's episode of Pulling the Strings podcast, as always, powered by Puppet. My name is Ben Ford. I am the ecosystem product manager here at Puppet and pretty active in the community as benford2K. May have seen me around there. Today we're talking with some members of our knowledge management team here at Puppet and they've got some exciting new learning opportunities to talk about. So I'll run through and introduce them real quick. Tara is a senior instructional designer on the KMO team. She joined Puppet quite a while ago, about four years, and her background includes media production. So she does a lot of video editing for us and some motion design that's really cool. She does teaching and freelancing and even some entrepreneurship. So, Tara, do you want to elaborate on any of that or tell us anything else interesting?

00:01:09 Tara Swenson Let's see. That pretty much covers it. Yeah, I started at Puppet in more of a video production type role and moved into instructional design, which has been really neat. And I feel like I'm learning every day in this position. And yeah, when I started, I was on your team, Ben. We were working together. So it's, you know, a lot has changed in the four years that I've been here.

00:01:32 Ben Ford A lot has changed. Most of them good changes, right?

00:01:36 Tara Swenson Yeah, definitely.

00:01:38 Ben Ford Cool. Well, Greg is a principal training solutions engineer. I might ask him to explain the title real quick. And he recently passed seven years here at Puppet. So he's a software engineer by trade, but he's always kind of enjoyed mentoring and training others. And that's kind of why he gravitated towards this sort of role. In his free time, Greg is an ultra runner and he's working on qualifying for a race in his area, the Western States One Hundred Miler. Greg, I have to ask that the race is this weekend and I don't know about you, but it feels up here about a nine thousand degrees outside. Are you actually running it this year?

00:02:18 Greg Larkin I am not running it this year. I have not had the luck of getting my ticket pulled in the lottery. It's such a popular race that thousands of people apply every year to get in and there's only three hundred and sixty-nine spots available. So it may take a few years. But yeah, we've been pretty lucky to have nice, cool temperatures this week. But as of Saturday, I think we're now going to be hitting over one hundred degrees again. And it's going to be a pretty rough weekend for people. Some of them can take up to thirty hours to finish.

00:02:46 Ben Ford Oh, my goodness. The longest I've ever done is a 50K and that was enough. Yeah, but maybe someday, maybe someday I'll come run it with you.

00:02:55 Greg Larkin You know, it starts there and it just keeps going.

00:03:00 Tara Swenson I'd think it'd end there for me. Right there.

00:03:03 Ben Ford Well and speaking of, Nikki is their manager, the senior manager of the technical education, and she's been with Puppet since last September. But she's got a lot of experience developing content programs for designers and developers. Her mission, she says, is to eliminate toil. You'll recognize that slogan both at home and at work

00:03:24 Nikki McDonald So I can have more time to watch season two of Ozark.

00:03:27 Ben Ford I mean, we all got our priorities.

00:03:32 Nikki McDonald It's very motivating, very motivating. The I'm the newbie on the team, I joined just in September. So not nearly as long as Tara or Greg, and relying on their technical expertise and creativity to make great educational products for our team.

00:03:49 Ben Ford That's kind of the sign of a good manager, right?

00:03:53 Nikki McDonald Oh, yeah. I'm really good at letting them do all the work.

00:03:58 Ben Ford So let's go ahead and get started. This is a subject near and dear to me. Like Tara said ago, I was one of the founding members of the education team here at Puppet, and it's really exciting to see it grow up into this modern knowledge management team. And it's really great seeing all the work that you're putting into making these learning opportunities available to more people. I was talking with Greg earlier about that, and I'd like to hear a little bit more information about that later on in the episode. So we're here to talk about practice labs today. So I should probably start off by saying, what is a practice lab?

00:04:33 Nikki McDonald I'll start. We're super excited. We just launched the practice labs internally to the company today they're interactive browser-based command line environments that learners can spin up in literally a minute and they can get started right away trying out our products. So you don't have to download anything to spin Puppet Enterprise in the environment and start working through our tutorials using code. It's so easy, and that was really the goal of the whole project, was to make it as easy as possible for people to learn Puppet.

00:05:11 Ben Ford Yeah, I really hear that. A little side story, back in the day when we were first getting the Puppet Learning VM out and kind of popularizing it a little bit. I remember looking at some of our download stats one week and we had gotten kind of a spike in attention. We were super excited because we had this huge number of downloads and we were just like blown away by how many people were downloading this thing. But then I went through and looked at the actual server logs and realized that something like ninety-four percent of them all came from a single university and they were all failed downloads. And I mean that that says a couple of things as one, downloading a gigantic, it was like four gigs at the time, like a huge, huge file is really problematic, especially when you're like crossing oceans or different areas like that. So we made a bunch of changes. One was obviously getting it on a CDN instead of our homegrown thing, but others was figuring out how we can make it smaller and sort of like start laying the groundwork for other ideas that didn't require the download. So I'm really excited to hear that you're building this now. So what kind of requirements do people have to use it? You said it was no download required. What do they need?

00:06:35 Greg Larkin Yeah, I can jump in. It just basically a browser, a web browser, you know, pretty standard configuration. As long as they can access the website, they should be able to just go in there and launch the tracks that we have, they're called tracks they kind of equate to courses, and nothing -- no plug ins required, no external approvals, hopefully. They should be able to just browse right to the site.

00:07:03 Ben Ford That's really cool. Is it one of those sites that require Chrome like everything else or is it?

00:07:09 Greg Larkin I've tested it under Safari so far on the Mac, both Chrome and Safari. So far, so good.

00:07:15 Ben Ford That's awesome. What other motivations did you have behind developing the practice lab besides just the no download bit?

00:07:25 Tara Swenson So we wanted the learners to be able to have a really streamlined experience that was just really easy to get up and running with right away. We're really trying to work on the idea that Puppet is hard. And I think that this goes a long way to show people that it doesn't have to be. And the learning VM is such an awesome tool. And we were finding that folks were getting frustrated right off the bat, trying this is our first time getting their hands on the code and we don't want them to have that kind of experience. So we're just trying to make it as simple and straightforward as possible for them to just get to the code right away and get their hands on it and get going. So trying to just keep it clean and simple and easy to access.

00:08:06 Nikki McDonald Yeah, I mean, it's you know, I think the practice labs makes it more accessible to all users. And that was part of the issue, too, is unless you were able to unless you were so fortunate to have the system that could run it, I mean, it potentially eliminated people from even trying it who wanted to. So it's this amazing program, this amazing tool for learning. But there were just too many obstacles to get to it. So we're taking that same great content and we're just kind of customizing it for this new environment so people have an easier way to access it. And it's really fun because I'm not, you know, I'm not a Puppet practitioner myself. I have a long background in content development, but not Puppet development. But I'm in there feeling like a Puppet practitioner. I'm trying out the labs, I'm copying/pasting code. And I think the other day I was testing out one of the labs that we have coming up potentially for another course, I was working in the console and it made me feel like I knew what I was doing just in minutes, right. Like you called up minutes and you're actually doing real-world tasks in your browser.

00:09:23 Ben Ford That's really cool. Yeah. It kind of reminds me of we used to have this slogan about shifting left about like delivering stuff quicker, getting solutions faster. And it sounds like you're talking about the same thing except for like learning stuff faster, getting up to speed and building stuff faster with Puppet. And that really speaks to me a lot.

00:09:41 Greg Larkin I'll just tack onto what Nicki was saying, too, about the accessibility. It really fits well with the culture of Puppet. Puppet's got a lot of effort put in to diversity, equity and inclusion. And this really, like she said, levels the playing field. We don't have to put any kind of undue requirements on people to get access to our content, it really gets it out there to a much larger audience that may not have all the resources that other people may have.

00:10:10 Ben Ford That is really good to hear. How do people get access to the practice labs?

00:10:15 Tara Swenson Well, currently they can get to it on Puppet Compas. So There's a practice labs link that they can click and they can be taken to the catalog of what we currently have available and clicking on one of the tracks from there, they will create an Instruct count, which is the platform that we're using for the practice labs, and then it's just a couple of clicks and then they're in the track right away.

00:10:41 Ben Ford That's really cool. That sounds really, really easy. And is the experience going through the whole lab? Is it just as easy as that?

00:10:48 Tara Swenson Yeah, it's very straightforward. From the track dashboard, they just click the start button at the top right, takes about a minute or two for the environment to spin up and then they click start and then it puts them directly into the first challenge. And so a track contains a series of challenges. The current tracks we have available each contain, well the Bolt ones, each contain about five challenges, and each one will spin up as the learner progresses through the track. So as they complete one challenge, they click the next button. The next challenge spins up and then go challenge by challenge to complete the track that way. And it's a pretty guided experience, I would say. When they are done, they just click the finish button and then they're taken back to the dashboard where they started.

00:11:37 Nikki McDonald And we make it really easy to, in the tutorials, you can copy the command and just paste it right into the command line to make it very simple for those who want it to be that simple. But you can alternately if you want to make your life harder, type it in yourself. It works the same way. So if you like to be challenged in your want to improve yourself, go ahead and type it in or copy and paste the commands makes it super simple. One thing to be aware of, though, in this could be a challenge for some people. Each track when you go to the lab, you'll see the landing page that describes what the course is about, any pre recs you need. And we'll also tell you how long the track is. So you'll say the first couple tracks that we have, I believe the Bolt ones are thirty minutes long, so you'll see at the top thirty minutes. Well, that's not the time we think it will take you to complete the lab, although we do. But it's also, that's the exact amount of time you have to use that lab because it spins up the cloud instance and then in thirty minutes, whether you were done or not, it will shut it down.

00:12:42 Ben Ford But there's a countdown timer, right?

00:12:44 Nikki McDonald Well, there's a one at the very end. how much time, how much warning do we have, Tara, do you remember?

00:12:49 Tara Swenson I think it shows when it gets to five minutes. I think that's when it shows up and it turns red.

00:12:54 Nikki McDonald So you're alerted. But the good thing is we've set it so that if you do get shut down in your middle of your work, you can spin the lab back up and skip to the challenge where you left off so you don't have to start it all over.

00:13:09 Ben Ford So you don't lose your work, that's really cool. So will this, is this replacing the learning VM or for people who do like that experience, is that still available? I know that I often would do something like run through stuff while I was flying or something where I didn't have good solid Internet connectivity.

00:13:29 Nikki McDonald We are leaving it up for now because it's going to take us a while to, there's so much great content in there. It's going to take us a while to kind of break it down into smaller lab size courses and move it over into this environment. So we're going to leave it up until we have all the content moved over to the practice labs. And then we're going to potentially take it down just because it's going to be too difficult to maintain and update and keep it up to the latest version and have both of those learning experiences continually updated and maintained.

00:14:05 Ben Ford It makes a lot of sense.

00:14:06 Nikki McDonald Yeah, we'll have the same great content just in a different place and hopefully more accessible.

00:14:12 Ben Ford This is really great. What kind of topic areas do you cover right now? Like what courses do you have? And maybe like what are you planning in the near future? What's coming up next?

00:14:22 Greg Larkin Yeah, so we've got three offerings right now. Two of them are centered around our Puppet Bolt product, getting people to understand how to install it, configure it, do some simple tasks with it, and also understand the inventory file format. And we have additional Bolt specific tracks that we're planning to release that will cover more advanced topics. And then also as we're going, we're starting to port over topic areas from the learning VM and we already have one out there that guides people through installing and exploring the Puppet agent on Linux. There's so many options for future development here. We obviously want to cover as many of the different types of products within Puppet that we can. The nice thing about this tool is that we are able to create very dynamic and full featured environments with multiple machines even in the single track. So we really have a lot of potential here for not only just bringing people in as beginners, but as they progress to have more and more advanced topics. And yeah, we'll be fleshing that out. We've got so many on the roadmap right now. We're getting a lot of input from people inside the company and outside. So look for a lot more of this over the next year.

00:15:33 Ben Ford That's actually really cool. I know back in the day we used to do a lot of bespoke custom scripting and tools and whatnot to manage our platforms. But it sounds like this Instruct platform you're talking about just kind of lets you build it off the shelf. What is that experience like?

00:15:50 Greg Larkin There's a couple of different ways that we were able to build things. We can use a UI. There's a GUI actually browser based as well, where you can go in and kind of very easily build up multiple machine environments and then start producing content. And as we get more experience with this platform, there are also options for us to be able to develop things kind of using standard markdown, which is a type of format that you can format text files with and then be able to do things for the command line. But it's interesting, I think and, Tara, you can confirm or deny, but I think a lot of us are just very comfortable with the web interface, and it's been working really well.

00:16:30 Tara Swenson Yeah, definitely. I would plus one that because the web interface is really easy to use and it's just really neat that we have a couple of different options in the ways that we can choose to build the content. So if someone is more comfortable doing it in the command line, they can do it that way. If they're not, they can use the web interface. And it's just really nice. You know, it makes it feel more accessible to different folks who are on the team who maybe have different preferences of how they like to develop content. So, yeah, it's just neat to have those options.

00:17:00 Ben Ford That's really cool. And I assume that to make this work, all you have to do is just kind of provide a VM or a container that has PE installed or something like that?

00:17:09 Greg Larkin On the back end, it's using Google Cloud and it does allow you to use either standard images that Google Cloud provides CentOS, things like that. Or you can also build your own custom images on top of their standard images. And so pre install software like Puppet Enterprise or other things that we might want to give training on. And all of this can be configured inside of the interface so that when the user clicks start and gets the environment going in their browser, yes, they could potentially come up in a track that already has the Puppet Enterprise console visible. It has a command line to the Puppet server, multiple agents, things like that. And it's all right there in the browser in multiple tabs.

00:17:54 Ben Ford That sounds really, really easy, not only for the the user, but for us all to release, when we have an update or something to release a new version, just roll it out. That sounds really, really cool.

00:18:07 Greg Larkin Yeah, absolutely.

00:18:09 Ben Ford So if listeners have ideas for topics that they want to see covered or want to help prioritize what they would rather see sooner rather than later, how would they go about suggesting to you?

00:18:22 Nikki McDonald Try out the labs, first of all. We want everyone to go to and try them out. And at the end of each lab, there is a challenge that is a survey. So in that survey, we ask you what your experience was like. Did you see anything that needed fixed, please? If so, be specific and let us know so we can fix it. And also if you have ideas for other courses. So put your ideas in there. We look at all of the survey feedback. We get excited about it when it comes in. We take it all very seriously and we are always looking for good ideas. And I am really excited about this. Hopefully the connection we'll make with our customers because we want to hear from you. We want to know what your what your pain points are. We want to know where you're struggling so that we can help you and give you the education you need. So, definitely, if you have ideas, put them in the survey or you can reach out to us at We will look at all of your ideas and feedback and appreciate any ideas you might have. We also have a link in each lab to a GitHub repo where you can suggest Pull requests or you can suggest if you see a bug or feature requests, you can submit to us that way as well. So that's another method.

00:19:38 Ben Ford Well, that's really cool. Like open source course content. I'm into that.

00:19:42 Greg Larkin Yeah, that's right.

00:19:45 Nikki McDonald Yes.

00:19:47 Ben Ford So are there any other kind of learning resources that you'd like to suggest to anybody listening?

00:19:52 Tara Swenson Yeah. So there's another component to the practice labs, which is called the Lab Aids. And this is something, it's built using Gitbook, and it's essentially the same coarse content that you get in the practice labs, but it's on its own standalone page so that if someone takes a track and they want to refer back to the content later on, they don't have to go through the track again to get access to the commands they ran and everything. They can just go to this page, they can view it in the browser or they can export it as a PDF as well. And so we're going to be developing more and more of those as we go forward as well.

00:20:30 Nikki McDonald We also have, in addition to the lab aids, we have other content. If you go to, you'll see you can access other courses we have.

00:20:42 Tara Swenson And we also have tackle boxes which are really cool consultative guides that help you get to quickly and easily achieve business outcomes with Puppet. And those can be accessed at Puppet Compass as well.

00:20:56 Ben Ford So kind of solution oriented. Here is a thing I want to solve here, these are steps to go through to get to that?

00:21:03 Tara Swenson Yeah, exactly.

00:21:04 Nikki McDonald We also have, in addition to that, we have instructor-led training courses. We offer two, three day courses, one on getting started with Puppet, more for beginners and one on Puppet practitioner, which is for the more advanced practitioner. And our, Greg here on the call, he actually teaches both of those courses. So if you have questions about them, he can answer those as well.

00:21:27 Greg Larkin Yeah, definitely. And we also do have a workshop for our workshop, which is called Puppet Enterprise Upgrade Workshop. And if anybody has a specific need in that area and they are starting to think about or planning for an upgrade of one version of Puppet Enterprise to another, join me. I would love to walk you through the process of planning and communicating it out to the stakeholders in your company and then actually doing a hands on upgrade in the lab environment.

00:21:54 Nikki McDonald And that's free. The upgrade workshop, unlike our two longer courses, is free. So you can anyone can sign up and get an instructor-led course virtually, of course, for free. So those tend to be pretty small and somewhat intimate. So if you have questions like really specific questions, that's a good opportunity to get them answered by Greg or Tom, one of our team.

00:22:18 Ben Ford Get a one on one with Greg, right?

00:22:21 Greg Larkin Yeah, pretty much works out that way. I think the last time we had four or five people, which was perfect because we all had different kind of goals and everyone was able to also share knowledge between each other, different companies. And I think people really get a lot out of that kind of like small, intimate setting. There's a lot of communication that goes on in those workshops.

00:22:41 Ben Ford The small class sizes, that is super, super useful. Well, this is really cool, exciting stuff. I see the practice labs as really benefiting a lot of people, especially for people who can't even just run virtualization platforms on their own systems. I know a lot of corporates, corporate companies, networks don't allow you to install that kind of software on laptops. So this makes it much more accessible to a lot of people. Maybe you don't have this, but do you want to tease the listeners with any kind of hints of exciting new developments on the way or?

00:23:16 Nikki McDonald Well, I'd stay tuned for more practice labs. We're starting with three, but more are coming. We'll have, we might even have four by the time people listen to this. So we're adding more all the time. We're listening to your suggestions. We're also looking at potentially offering some more instructor-led training courses later this year that are one day courses and really focused on achieving outcomes. We're really excited about them. But I don't want to tell you anything yet, so you're just going to have to wait.

00:23:48 Ben Ford I did say tease, so maybe it is my fault.

00:23:53 Nikki McDonald There you go. Tease. That's your the only thing I'm going to say about it. You'll just have to wait and be surprised.

00:23:59 Ben Ford Right. So as we close up, are there ways people can get in touch with you? Like, can you be reached in the community Slack or social media or email or anything?

00:24:10 Nikki McDonald That's how you can reach our whole team if you want to reach the education team, we all have access to that. I am on Twitter/X @nikkimc. I know Greg's on the community Slack. He's a participant there. But where else can we find you, Greg?

00:24:29 Greg Larkin Yeah, that's a great place to find me. Probably one of the better places I would say right now I'm trying to think of any other access points. I'd say that's probably the best.

00:24:39 Tara Swenson I can also be reached on the community Slack channel or on LinkedIn.

00:24:43 Ben Ford We'll make sure to post all of these. And some of the links and things we talked about in the show notes so people can find it very easily. So thanks so much for being with us today and talking about this awesome experience. It's going to be even hotter this week. So take care of yourselves out there and don't melt out in the garden or training on the trails or anything.

00:25:05 Tara Swenson Try not to.

00:25:07 Nikki McDonald I'll be in front of the TV watching Ozark.

00:25:10 Ben Ford Maybe that means you're the smartest of us.

00:25:13 Nikki McDonald That's why I'm the manager.

00:25:18 Ben Ford Well, that's a wrap for today. And once again, thanks for being here on Pulling the Strings podcast, powered by Puppet.