CXO

Chris Kemp: Nebula CSO. Cloud pioneer. Entrepreneur. Former NASA CTO.

Chris Kemp spoke with TechRepublic about the founding of OpenStack and how he went from NASA's first CTO of IT to startup founder.

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Image: Nebula

Chris Kemp has always been an entrepreneur. In college he convinced his friends to join him in starting a company, which he eventually sold before moving to Seattle to work as the chief architect for Classmates.com.

He left that gig to start an online travel company where he worked for five years. During that time, he ran into old friends from college who were interested in space, which led to him meeting some people from NASA. After recruiting a replacement CEO for his company, he left to work for NASA in 2006.

Kemp treated NASA like a series of startups. As a director of business development, he put together partnerships with major tech companies such as Google and Microsoft. He then took over as the CIO at the NASA Ames Research center, where he became heavily involved in developing cloud systems.

After seeing some of the early work on Amazon's public cloud, Kemp thought it would be useful in the NASA enterprise. He set out to build their own private "Amazon" within NASA. He recruited a team and they open-sourced their work, and were approached by Rackspace soon after. That collaboration would eventually turn into OpenStack.

When they first started the project, Kemp said the idea was that NASA could be used to get other organizations excited about OpenStack.

"When we actually launched the OpenStack project, it was Lew Moorman and I up on stage at OSCON in 2010 and the one line I remember from my talk during the keynote there was, I looked out to everybody in the audience there and I said, 'If you guys contribute code to OpenStack, you're helping NASA explore the solar system,'" he said.

There were a lot of innovations in the early days working on OpenStack. The Nova Project, for example, was the first project in OpenStack and was also the first project that was ever open sourced under an Apache license in the US government. That was an effort that Kemp led for six grueling months.

While Kemp was still at NASA, he was approached by Andy Bechtolsheim, former co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who tried to give him a check to start his own company. Chris refused to take the check, instead offering to let Bechtolsheim know if he ever left NASA.

Kemp did end up resigning as CTO of NASA in early 2011 to form his current company Nebula. Bechtolsheim wrote him a check, and Kemp got investments from KPCB and Highland Capital in his series A round the day he left NASA. Kemp explained that he left NASA for the sake of OpenStack.

"I wanted the project to live on beyond the work we were doing," Kemp said. "It was very common for projects at NASA to get funded and then to lose their funding and then to just go away because no one was investing in them and supporting them. I knew that if we could open source this work under a very flexible open source framework, and really get a community gathered around contributing to it, the project could live on."

It was obvious to him when he was at NASA that cloud computing was the answer to many infrastructure problems in IT. The big surprise for him, he said, was how much resistance there has been to a change this big. The IT industry is massive, and Kemp said it takes "tectonic shifts" to make change happen.

"I think it's a much bigger transition and it's a much bigger shift than we could have ever imagined in the early days," he said.

Kemp's pioneering work in the cloud and open source is paramount to much of the technology that most people use today, but is not very public-facing. While OpenStack is behind the scenes, it powers advances in many industries and levels the playing field for smaller companies to compete.

"If, in 25 years, I can look back and I can see how we've enabled big enterprises to have the same disruptive, leveraged, scale-out computing capabilities that small internet companies running on Amazon, Google, or Microsoft have; and I see discoveries, and I see innovations, and I see things that would have never happened if we had not given these enterprises this access to this technology," Kemp said. "That will make very proud of the work we've done."

In his own words...

What music do you listen to?

"It's basically a mix between electronic music and classical music where you have synthesized instruments that kind of contribute to it. This pop music just drives me crazy these days, and I'm not into R&B and hip hop or any of this popular stuff. I play classical music, I play violin, and I really like the idea of engineered instruments. Have you heard of an artist named Amon Tobin? I would say he reflects the genre."

What's the best thing you've read lately?

"I was just reading one of Peter Drucker's works, I forget the name of the book. I think it was called "Innovation and Entrepreneurship." It was a book that he wrote back in 1985. I got in on my kindle, and I had a paper copy that read back 20 years ago. I'm going back through and highlighting things on the kindle edition and it's absolutely astonishing how many of the core principles of building a business and innovation and entrepreneurship have not changed since this book was written in 1985."

If you weren't working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?

"I might spend some time building instruments and writing music for them. But, I wouldn't use instruments that exist, I would try to engineer new instruments — they might have different intervals. I would start back with neuroscience and then work forward from literally putting electrodes on peoples brains and understanding how different tones and chords are felt and experienced by people of different ages. Then, I would go back and I would engineer instruments around that, and then I would write music for them. That would be kind of fun."

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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