Q&A: Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat CEO and President

Jim Whitehurst2008 marked not just the beginning of a new year for Linux vendor Red Hat,
but also a new beginning for its new CEO Jim Whitehurst.

Whitehurst takes over the CEO job from Matthew
Szulik
, who held the post until the end of
2007
. Szulik joined Red Hat in 1998 and led the company through its
blockbuster IPO in 1999. Szulik remains with Red Hat as chairman.

Whitehurst comes to Red Hat after formerly being the COO at Delta Airlines.
He holds a Harvard MBA and before joining Delta had been vice president and
director at Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

It’s a challenging time for Red Hat and its new CEO certainly has his work
cut out for him. On one side, Oracle is aiming to grab share with its Oracle Unbreakable Linux offering. On the other side Microsoft is ramping up
its big Windows Server 2008 release and rattling its patent sword. In
between those two, Red Hat has to continue to grow its customer base and continue to
expand the value it delivers to the Open Source community.

It’s a tall order indeed, but one that Whitehurst is ready to tackle.

Though he’s new to the management in the Linux industry, business is
business and Whitehurst is confident that the skills he has will serve him
well.

In a wide ranging interview with InternetNews.com, Whitehurst
discussed why the Linux business is different, why he’s not getting into the
database business, where Microsoft fits into his plans and what his biggest
challenges are in moving Red Hat forward.

Q: You’ve been on the job for 30 odd days at this point. Any surprises so
far or has it gone much as you would have expected?

In general I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised. I knew Red Hat was in good
shape but I expected to find a few skeletons in the closet. So far I haven’t
found any.

I report to the Board of Directors in total so I don’t report directly to
Matthew Szulik but he has allot of context or history and I do chat with him
quite often. He’s a valuable resource.

[cob:Related_Articles]Q: What are the biggest differences between Red Hat’s business and the
airline business? Or is business business and this is just a different
vertical?

In terms of direction and strategy it’s obviously fundamentally different as
we’re selling a different type of thing. Open Source is a very different
business model. Therefore, thinking about strategy and partnerships and how
to invest in those things are different.

Seventy-five percent of business is executing on what you’ve decided to do. I’d rather
have a less good strategy that is executed flawlessly than a flawless
strategy that is executed haphazardly. Execution is execution.

It’s all about ensuring that the right people are in the right jobs with the
right capabilities for the thing that we want to do and there is clear
accountability, milestones and incentives to make sure things happen. Those
things are common.


To some extent, my first few weeks at Red Hat have not been dissimilar to
what I did at Delta. Go out and talk to our people, our customer and partners
and really understand what they are looking for, what the problems are and
fix those problems. That’s common to any business that is out there.


So while the strategy is different the execution of making sure the right
people, measures, metrics and milestones are in place is similar.


Q: Inside of your first 30 days on the job, Sun has purchased MySQL for $1
billion. Red Hat tried its own entry into the database market in the past,
but execution was an issue. Any chance you’ll try your hand at the database
market or are you content with partnering?


I’m 32 days in, so it’s hard for me to make a final judgment call on anything.
But I would be very surprised if we went into the database business. I look at the core infrastructure businesses we’re in, that business
globally is worth nearly $100 billion dollars. We’re a $500 million company
and still have a lot of room to grow in our core businesses


Given that I know I’ve got a business that is very profitable that we know
quite well why we would want to go and invest in something different. Once we fully nail operating systems and middleware and at that point we’re
a $10 billion company, we can dream about doing all kinds of things. But
that would be a long way off, we really need to focus on the things that
we’re doing well now. I’m a big believer in focus, focus, focus.

Databases don’t hold a lot of interest to me. That said, we do play in the
space in that we do have full stack and do level 1 and level 2 support for
MySQL and have a great relationship with MySQL. You gotta wish them well. I’m very happy for them they got quite a nice
valuation and we’ll continue to partner with them as we go forward.

Jim Whitehurst
Q: Have you been in contact with Oracle? From your early vantage point is
their Oracle Unbreakable Linux offering any sort of issue or threat to your
business?


I don’t want to disclose any specific meetings I’ve had. That’s not
appropriate without checking with the other sides. I will say that I’ve
either met or will be meeting the vast majority of our partners/competitors. Being the new guy coming in, I have the opportunity to meet with folks without
any historical baggage.


In terms of Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux, they are out there in the market but
in the last year we’ve retained 99 of our top 100 accounts. The only one we
did not retain is Oracle itself. So yes they are out there making noise and
healthy paranoia is a good thing. I certainly wouldn’t want to dismiss a company that has the resource and market power of Oracle.

That said, an Oracle-specific fork of Linux is not good for Linux more
broadly and ultimately not good for our joint customers. So I’m certainly
trying to understand what they are doing and how we can work together
instead of being at cross purposes.

Q: Are you worried at all about the upcoming release of Microsoft’s Windows
Server 2008? What do you have to do at Red Hat to either beat or get along
with Microsoft?


Just as an observation but anytime there is a major release for a
competitor’s product it makes people step back and reassess. Any reassessment is good because we thing feature for feature we have a
superior offering for a great many people out there.


I have no problem with Windows Server 2008. We feel good about our value
proposition and our service model. So anything that makes people re-evaluate
is good news from our perspective. Let’s be clear – this is not a religious holy war. It’s about providing the absolute best value to our customers.

If our customers want interoperability, we would like to do anything we can
to promote interoperability. Interoperability needs to work around open
standards and open formats. Interoperability that in the short run may look ok but that reduces choice over time and closes standards, in the end that’s bad for our customers.


We’re happy to work with Microsoft or anyone else to ensure the best
possible interoperability based on open standards.


Q: Are you saying then that you’d prefer an open standard to some kind of
patent licensing agreement?


A patent licensing agreement is a whole different thing than do Red Hat products interoperate well with Microsoft products. We’re happy to work on interoperability. The patent issue we’re still not sure what it is, we’ve yet to see a patent we’re supposedly violating.


We’ve asked and asked and asked and Microsoft has yet to tell us. It would
be nice if they tell us at least what they are. The beauty of the open source community is that I feel very confident that
is Microsoft will tell us what they [patents] are we’ll work around them
pretty fast.



Q: Which CEO in the technology industry or otherwise is your ‘hero’, the one
you’d like to emulate in terms of action and/or legacy?


I’d have to say Lou Gerstner [former IBM CEO]. A lot of that is because his
background and mine are somewhat similar. He came out of McKinsey as a
consultant, I came out of BCG. He worked at a traditional old line of
business and then came into technology.


I’ve done a bit of the same so certainly understanding how he made that
transition – reading his book and understanding more there. I probably
spend more time focusing on him. It’s hard to say ok, is he the guy I most
admire? I frankly haven’t formed a lot of those opinions yet. But he’s
certainly the guy I’ve focused on the most, very successful with a similar
background.


Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge in your job?


We have an incredibly successful business, which is a good thing. The bad
news about that is we have to make sure we don’t accept our current level of
success as the best we can do.


Raging against complacency. We need to do better and we should do better as
stewards of the open source world it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that
going forward we continue to propagate open standards and open source,
continue to add value to customers, continue to be innovative and not become
stale or just become – the Linux guys.


The good news is I think a lot of our people here are inspired to do that.
But its easy to look back and say oh we’re at the pinnacle. I don’t think
we’re at the pinnacle now, we’re just starting up the mountain and we have a
long, long way to go before we’ve reached our full potential.

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