On the record with Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat's new CEO: 'I must have a mission'

Matt Asay interviews Red Hat's newly minted CEO, Jim Whitehurst, and finds Red Hat has another believer at the helm.

I wasn't very nice to Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat's new CEO, when I heard the news that he was replacing Matthew Szulik. My reasoning? Matthew Szulik had done so much for Red Hat and besides, what could a Delta Air Lines COO have to teach about open source?

Plenty, it turns out. I interviewed Jim this morning and was shocked to discover that so much passion and belief in open source could exist in an airlines operations guy. This is the right person to take the helm from Matthew Szulik.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. What are the last three bands you listened to on your iPod?

I don't have an iPod (or a Zune). It won't play Ogg Vorbis files.

You're serious?!

Absolutely.

Are you a geek or something?

I have been a geek from day one. I had an Apple II when they first released. Back in high school I developed a contact management system that I sold to stockbrokers. I can't say that I've been a contributor to open-source projects, though. I've been a leech more than a contributor up until now.

I went to Rice and was always planning to do something technical. Along the way, I decided that I wanted to be on the business side. I fell in love with it--the problem solving, etc. of consulting. So I joined Boston Consulting Group. (BCG)

While at BCG, I wrote software to solve clients' business problems but over time became a corporate finance guy. Because of that, I started doing deal work at Delta Air Lines as a partner at BCG. I was involved with Delta's first Priceline deal and helped to start Orbitz to serve as a hedge against the growing power of Travelocity and Expedia.

When the airline industry appeared to be falling apart, Delta's CEO asked me to be COO. I had been serving as the treasurer of the company (while still at BCG). I became the finance/strategy guy for a few years and ran Delta for the past two years with the company, except for Finance, reporting to me. I left Delta on good terms.

I looked at doing further corporate turnaround work. But I've found that I have to have a mission to fuel my work. I can't just work for a paycheck. Just turning around a random company had no interest for me.

Red Hat appealed to me. Red Hat is different. By doing well as a company at Red Hat, we are doing good. Open source is a way to focus on the customer, letting us grow, succeed, and change the technology landscape...all while doing something that is fundamentally good. Fighting for open standards and open formats. These things will change society. I'm thrilled to be here.

What's it like stepping into Matthew's shoes? You inherit his board, his employees, his company. It's a bit like moving into a house that someone else built. How and when will you begin to put the Jim Whitehurst stamp on the company?

I joined Red Hat because it shares my values. I fundamentally believe that what the company is doing is right. People shouldn't expect a change in Red Hat's core philosophy, because it's a philosophy that I share. I will focus on operational excellence, but Red Hat is still Red Hat. That's not going to change.

[NOTE: I didn't have the chance to ask that last question, but he answered it while answering a separate question.]

You helped Delta return from the brink of bankruptcy and have a history of helping to improve companies, both at Delta and before during your time at BCG. Red Hat is theoretically at the top of its game. Where do you think it can improve?

When I look at the quality of our existing technology, and the incredible brand that we have and the markets we play in, we should be a $5 billion company or more. If you just look at operating systems and middleware--that's nearly a $100 billion business. We're a $500 million business. We have barely scratched the surface.

We need to figure out what our "fair share" of each market should be and aggressively go after it. We need to make sure we nail the markets we're already in. I'm not saying we won't go broader, but we really need to ensure we're building our presence in our core markets and technologies. Perhaps we need to set our ambitions a bit higher.

Which raises the issue of JBoss. By most accounts, the JBoss acquisition hasn't gone smoothly with a fair number of JBoss employees leaving. Sales in 2007 underwhelmed expectations, too. How do you make JBoss work for Red Hat?

Getting JBoss right is a clear test for the company: can we demonstrate success outside of Linux? We have to prove that we're more than a one-trick pony.

I will focus a lot of time and attention on ensuring that we get it right. It's too early for me to second-guess decisions that were made. Our last quarter with JBoss was quite strong, but we can do better and my emphasis is on operational excellence, with JBoss getting a lot of my attention.

It's more than just writing great technology. If you ask the average technology person about reliability, they'd have their answer, and it's often a question of software quality. But coming from Delta, if you ask a big company how they define reliability, the answer has a lot to do with support. In other words, enterprises care deeply not only about technology excellence, but also about the company/support behind that technology. Who will answer the phone when the high-quality software doesn't work, for whatever reason? I'm planning on bringing that big company experience and perspective to Red Hat.

You just became leader of the "free world." You also must appease Wall Street, which cares less about freedom of code and more about certainty of profits. How do you balance the two? Developers and investors?

I actually don't think it's a hard line to walk at all. If you fundamentally believe, which I do, that open source is a superior way to develop software, then that is our mission and that is what we're going to do.

There will always be distractions: suggestions that we should make a product proprietary, the idea that we can get to revenue faster by adding proprietary this or that. But we fundamentally believe this is a better way to build a software business. The two groups are appeased together.

It's all about serving your core constituency--the customer. At Delta when we started into bankruptcy discussions, I told investors that I was going to focus on three things: Safe, clean, on time. We then relentlessly measured and focused on that. We went from last to first in on-time arrival. Our planes are now the cleanest in the industry, according to industry surveys. Our safety record is top-notch, too. Each of these things costs money because it requires people to make it happen. Were these decisions therefore wrong by Wall Street standards? No, because the customer is happy and therefore the customer spends more money with Delta.

I picked Red Hat because it shares my values. We're going to grow and improve while remaining consistent with the underlying philosophy that makes Red Hat the exceptional company that it is.

For those like myself who believed that Red Hat made a mistake in its selection, we were clearly wrong. Red Hat has another believer at the helm. Well done.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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