On the record with Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat's new CEO

When Red Hat announced that Jim Whitehurst, the COO of Delta, would be taking over for Matthew Szulik there were quite a few skeptics. As I noted, going outside the tech industry for a CEO has had both its ups and downs. After reading this interview of Jim Whitehurst by Matt Asay, I have to admit that I am more optimistic than I was before. A couple snippets:

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.

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.

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.

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.

I suggest you read the entire interview, but I really like what he’s saying from both a technical and business perspective. I’d say that under Jim there is a very good chance we’ll see Red Hat become the first pure play $1 Billion Open Source company. From there, the sky is the limit.

–jeremy

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