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1/23/2008
06:15 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Anti-Leadership Vaccine At Red Hat; Is Whitehurst The Answer?

Oracle strips out Red Hat logos and offer its own Linux? Red Hat refused to be provoked. Novell wants to cozy up to Microsoft? That's a fellow Linux distributor's affair. Microsoft has patents that govern parts of Linux? No tough rejoinder from Red Hat. Now Jim Whitehurst has arrived on the scene as the new CEO. He's an engaging and experienced manager. And he's going to need all his skills to find an antidote to Red Hat's anti-leadership vaccine.

Oracle strips out Red Hat logos and offer its own Linux? Red Hat refused to be provoked. Novell wants to cozy up to Microsoft? That's a fellow Linux distributor's affair. Microsoft has patents that govern parts of Linux? No tough rejoinder from Red Hat. Now Jim Whitehurst has arrived on the scene as the new CEO. He's an engaging and experienced manager. And he's going to need all his skills to find an antidote to Red Hat's anti-leadership vaccine.You can hear it in his voice and see it in the photos. Jim Whitehurst is a personable, confident man and a leader by example, especially as a company goes through its time of troubles. As chief operating officer at Delta, he became the trusted insider who made hard choices and focused the company on how to emerge from bankruptcy. When a new CEO arrived, the whole company, except finance, was reporting to Jim, and both knew it was time for him to go. In that sense, his arrival at Red Hat is an accident. I suspect his leadership skills exceeded his role in his previous job. Now, somehow, those skills need to be harnessed to a new and challenging task. Red Hat has gained a leadership position in a fast growing but somewhat rudderless army of open source developers. Open source is everywhere, but at the same time it has to keep fighting for the same ground over and over again. It's fragmented and lacks consistent leadership voices.

For each new voice that emerges, another disappears. Leading projects keep being bought out by proprietary firms. Zimbra's Scott Dietzen disappears into Yahoo. Sleepycat's Mike Olson disappears into Oracle. Xen's Simon Crosby hasn't been silenced, exactly, but his fortunes now rest with Citrix, and by extension, partner Microsoft. MySQL's Marten Mickos is being taken in by Sun, a company that has brought numerous software leaders inside its fold, where they are seldom heard from again.

In the midst of all this migration, there's been one consistent presence and that's Red Hat. It has successfully partnered with some of the most proprietary companies in the world, including IBM and Oracle. It understands how the widespread open source "movement," if there is such a thing, is essential to these companies' interests. And it is almost the only entity that can set the core leadership example and maintain the open source principles that younger companies will need to emulate, if they are to mature.

But from its earliest days, Red Hat has been subjected to open source advocate's criticism. It's not employed enough Linux developers; its Linux developers haven't been allowed to work on the right projects; it wasn't giving enough back to the community; it wasn't investing enough in a user version of Linux; it was only interested in making a profit.

Well, Red Hat was interested in making a profit, and thank heavens for that. But along the way, it swallowed an anti-leadership vaccine that stifled the impulse to put critics in their place or take forward thinking stands. Or claim leadership of a wider community.

Jim Whitehurst appears to understand all of this. He trots out his Slackware use as bona fides, even as he clearly realizes the decisions he makes at the office over the next few months will be more significant than what distro he's running at home.

Marc Fleury, someone who's always resisted the anti-leadership kool aid, believes Whitehurst is the right man for the job. "He intuitively understands he has to take a stand," says Fleury. Amidst the outright competition with Microsoft and the evolving "co-opetition" with Oracle, IBM and Sun, Whitehurst will have to stake out and defend an advanced position for Red Hat. His success in doing so will have much to do with the future success and longevity of Linux and open source code itself.

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