Red Hat’s current and former CEOs in conversation about open source

Paul Cormier, CEO of Red Hat, and Jim Whitethurst, president of IBM.
Paul Cormier, CEO of Red Hat, and Jim Whitethurst, president of IBM.

The Red Hat Summit was supposed to be held in San Francisco this year, but instead took place online.

The open source company’s in-person events are grand affairs - the conference centre seems to be stained red as thousands of customers, partners, staff and the media flock to what must be the largest gathering of open source enthusiasts on the planet.

One benefit of holding the conference online is that more people can attend; 38 000 signed up for Red Hat Summit 2020 Virtual Experience, which took place from 28 to 29 April.

It fell to the company’s new CEO Paul Cormier, to kick the proceedings off from his home office near Boston, Massachusetts, this week. First, he spoke to Jim Whitehurst, the former CEO, who is now president of IBM and responsible for that company’s cloud and cognitive software organisation. He also oversaw the acquisition of Red Hat by IBM for $34 billion last year.

Whitehurst joined the company in 2007, and Cormier asked him what he thought the biggest change had been over the last 12 years. Without a doubt it had been the rise of open source software, Whitehurst said.

“Back then, we were trying to convince people that open source could be a viable alternative to traditional software, so that Linux could replace Unix. I got a lot of questions around whether it’s secure and reliable. If you look at where we’ve come from…it’s the default choice now. That change has been amazing.”

Red Hat had less than 2 000 people when he joined, and now employs over 15 000. Now, he said, almost every large enterprise isn’t just using open source technologies in their stacks, they’re also thinking about how to implement the ‘open source way’, such as Agile, or DevOps methodologies.

“(They’re using open source) not just in how they develop software, but how they run their businesses. People have learned that if they’re going to innovate, it requires a different way of working.”

Whitehurst said the biggest topic on IBM customers’ mind is innovation.

“How do you innovate? We went from a world where value creation was much more about how you executed or made things of higher quality, or cheaper. And now value creation is more about growth - how you invent new things, or how you create whole new markets that didn’t exist before. How do you invent new ways to interact with your customers?”

As for the future of Red Hat within IBM, and whether it could continue to operate with any degree of autonomy, Whitehurst said the two companies had shared a vision of hybrid cloud long before Red Hat was acquired. While the larger company can help to scale the adoption of hybrid cloud, it also competes with partners in the open source ecosystem.

“Red Hat has to stand alone so that it can work with competitors of IBM to ensure that the platform is neutral and available to anyone.

“It’s critical to ensure that the industry has a horizontal platform, and IBM supports that but recognises we have to leave Red Hat separate to ensure its success.”

The summits are a chance for Red Hatters, as they’re known, to dress up and show their allegiance to the company. Many wear red fedoras, a nod to the company’s Linux distribution project. Others wear crimson dresses, or red shoes. Whitehurst usually wears a stylish shirt of the palest pink to the summits, but this year – in a perhaps symbolic move – he chose a shirt in a shade of blue, a shade not too far from that of the logo of his new company. He did however include a red fedora within eyeshot of his camera’s lens.

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