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Red Hat exec: New CEO has open-source cred

Michael Tiemann, a Red Hat executive with years of open-source experience, says soon-to-be-CEO Jim Whitehurst understands the open-source movement.

Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat's CEO as of January 1, 2008 Delta Airlines

Michael Tiemann, a Red Hat executive with close to two decades of open-source business experience under his belt, has come to the defense of the company's new chief executive.

Red Hat said last week that Jim Whitehurst, 40, will take over as Red Hat CEO and president on January 1, replacing Matthew Szulik, who's stepping down, though remaining chairman, because of family medical issues. Whitehurst worked at Delta Airlines from 2002 to 2007, rising to the position of chief operating officer.

Tiemann, who's Red Hat's vice president of open-source affairs and who helps to run the Open Source Initiative, said on his blog last week Jim Whitehurst shouldn't be dismissed as inappropriate to run an open-source company by his Delta Airlines stint.

"Jim was an open-source guy before he was an airline guy," Tiemann said. He praised Whitehurst's use of Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 version of Linux on a home machine and many other Linux versions before that and said Whitehurst understands the open-source movement.

"The candidate selected to lead Red Hat does understand these values, as a user, as a coder, as a manager, as a customer, and as an executive. In my opinion he should be marked up, not down, for having had experience beyond just open source," Tiemann said. "What a tragedy it would be to discount all that experience, all that knowledge, all that energy because the executive in question has a day job running a petrochemical company, a manufacturing company, a logistics company, a trading company, a bank, or a national government!"

Tiemann has an interesting history and significant cred in the open-source realm. In 1989, he co-founded Cygnus Solutions, a company that worked on the GCC open-source compiler project. Red Hat acquired Cygnus in 1999, and Tiemann served as Red Hat's chief technology officer for several years before taking his current post running open-source affairs.

Among those who were taken aback by Red Hat's choice of CEO was Credit Suisse analyst Jason Maynard, who said, "Whitehurst brings a strong operational and strategic track record to the table but lacks direct technology experience. Given the existing strong operating chief financial officer we would have expected a new CEO to have more external product or distribution related experience to help remedy the company's challenges in transitioning from a point Linux operating system provider into a multi-product, open-source infrastructure player."

And Matt Asay, vice president of business development at open-source document management start-up Alfresco (and a CNET blogger), despaired on his blog, "If there was ever an industry that has little to nothing to teach the software industry, it's the airline industry...This change heavily shakes my faith in Red Hat."

After reading Tiemann's post, though, Asay tempered his concerns about whether has Whitehurst has open-source passion. "OK. I'm willing to believe," Asay said.