Can an airline exec run Red Hat? You'd be surprised

Can an airline exec run Red Hat? You'd be surprised

Summary: When former Delta Airlines chief operating officer James Whitehurst takes over as CEO of Red Hat on New Year's Day he'll face the worst kind of doubters--the quiet ones. But Whitehurst could very well take Red Hat to the next level.

TOPICS: Linux, Open Source

When former Delta Airlines chief operating officer James Whitehurst takes over as CEO of Red Hat on New Year's Day he'll face the worst kind of doubters--the quiet ones. But Whitehurst could very well take Red Hat to the next level.

Aside from the blogosphere (Techmeme), you won't hear much questioning about the choice of Whitehurst. Perusing the Wall Street research you get the following:

  • "Red Hat wanted a person with no ingrained beliefs about how software should be created and sold," said Steven Ashley, an analyst at Robert Baird.
  • "As with all CEO conversions, there are likely to be a series of derivative personnel changes at Red Hat over the next 12 months: Red Hat's EVP of Worldwide Sales is a relative of Mr. Szulik, for example. Regardless, the change should unsettle the status quo at Red Hat, potentially reinvigorating the firm," said Jeffries analyst Katherine Egbert.

No analyst is going to question the Whitehurst move amid a great third quarter.

But the Linux community will wonder if Whitehurst is one of them. Rivals may pooh pooh that fact that a fly boy is running Red Hat. There will be some upheaval--as there always is when a new CEO takes over.

In the end though don't be surprised if Whitehurst shines. Here's why:

Matthew Szulik: Szulik isn't going to hand Red Hat over to just anyone. At some level, you have to trust Szulik's choice. After all, Szulik has made a lot of great choices over the last nine years. Besides who would have thought that selling free software would actually turn out to be a good business?

There's precedent for outsiders to do well. Before we pooh pooh Whitehurst we should remember Lou Gerstner. Remember him? Oh yeah, he's the guy that transformed IBM into a services juggernaut. The funny part of the story: Before IBM Gerstner was CEO of RJR Nabisco. Before RJR Gerstner was at American Express. What did Gerstner know about mainframes? Probably nothing, which was the point of the hire in the first place.

Corporations on many levels all look alike. Let's face it Red Hat isn't some little startup trying to convert people to Linux anymore. It's a well run business selling to big corporations. Red Hat also plans to own half of the worldwide server market by 2015. To hit that goal Red Hat needs scale. In that regard, Whitehurst is well schooled. He has helped run a massive business in the most cutthroat industries in the world (airlines). In the end you sell stuff: Widgets, airline services, laundry detergent and software. It all looks alike after a while.

On Red Hat's earnings conference call Szulik noted:

Jim joins Red Hat after most recently serving as Chief Operating Officer of Delta Airlines, a company with over $17 billion in revenue and approximately 55,000 employees. Jim played an important role in the financial and operational restructuring at Delta Airlines. Prior, Jim was a partner at The Boston Consulting Group and the combination of work experiences, operational and strategic in deploying technology and processes to improve operating performance and efficiency while boosting customer service across the enterprise, is highly relevant to Red Hat’s future. For me, I wanted to find an executive with an open mind and an unencumbered historical perspective.

That's a long winded way to say scale matters. And Whitehurst knows scale.

Whitehurst has a geek streak. On last night's earnings conference call Szulik noted:

As we went through the recruiting process, we did interview a number of people that I am sure are familiar to this audience listening from the technology industry and what we encountered, of course, was in many cases a lack of understanding of open source software development, a lack of understanding of our model. And as importantly for me, the open mindedness that would come to both the creation of new economic models and contemporary thinking as it relates to software development.

In my first meeting with Jim Whitehurst, we discussed the four Linux distributions that he was running on his home personal network. He was running Fedora Core 6 and Fedora Core 7 at home. He was running Slackware at home and he was an experienced software developer up until the time that he was at BCG (Boston Consulting Group). So we are getting a technically savvy executive who happens to have strong operational, financial, and strategic skills and it was in my view that in comparison to his peers that were finalists for the job, that he stood head and shoulders above, in light of all of the qualities that we were looking for in my successor.

Do these aforementioned items eliminate my doubts about Whitehurst? Not completely. But there are enough positive factors for me to be cautiously optimistic about the fly guy.

Topics: Linux, Open Source

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  • Goodbye customer service...

    If there's one thing we know, it's that the airline industry falls behind only one other...the cellphone being the worst in customer service. Way to go Red Hat.
    • Customer Service?

      I was never blown away by Redhat customer service in the past.
      • re: Customer Service?

        Well, you're the exception rather than the rule:,1206,pg=0&s=304&a=220172,00.asp
    • Actually...

      Delta's customer service always struck me as fairly good, though it's possible that anyone looks good in comparison to US Airways (the people who currently hold the franchise at my local airport; Delta/SkyWest used to hold it).
      John L. Ries
  • Running Linux like an airline

    What happens when an airline exec takes over a Linux shop:

    - All your cron jobs will run late.

    - Your data buffers will write, then sit for hours before being committed to disk for no apparent reason.

    - You will be arrested by TSA for ignoring warning messages.

    - You will have to fasten your safety belt during boot up and shut down.

    - You will get booted out of your user session because the CPU has been overbooked.

    - Packets routed through New York will back up the entire internet for hours.

    - You will create a new folder only to find other people have already stuffed it full of crap.

    - Your computer will play an annoying video before you start work that explains how to exit the operating system.

    - You won't be able to use your computer and cell phone at the same time.
  • One point to make

    Despite his airline background, Whitehurst is a techie; his bachelor's degree is in Computer Science.
    John L. Ries
  • A great manager...

    Can manage just about anything. Also, bringing in a "fresh view" of everything can often be just what is needed to move to the next level.
    • Partly true

      Management skills are very transferable, but it is enormous help to understand what it is the company is selling and the particular problems faced by your people. The boss' job is to lead and that's much more difficult if you don't understand what it is your followers are supposed to be doing.
      John L. Ries
      • Naw...

        It is MUCH easier to take a great manager and educate him in the tech than it is to take a geek and try to make him a great manager. Anyone of average intelegence can learn the tech, I know guys (geeks) that are brilliant but can't manage their laundry much less a company.
        • But they do have to learn the tech...

          ...or whatever else the business happens to be, in sufficient detail that they know what people are supposed to be doing and can have realistic expectations.

          There are way too many pure money/marketing types in the business world. The most important part of a CEO's job is to make sure his salespeople have something to sell that's worth buying so that his stockholders can make money on something besides short-term speculation.
          John L. Ries
          • Or...

            Have the right tech based "go to" guy or gal working for him. But yeah, over time he/she needs to learn and will simply by being involved.
      • I Agree, with an average person

        in charge that, yes, they do need a grasp or understanding of the product they are selling.

        Then there are the ones who do not need to understand how something works, just what the end purpose of the product should do, and does it do it.

        These are the ones who surround themselves with trusted and knowledgable people who do understand, with his job to manage them and see that the software continues to do what it was designed to do, while seeing who is BS's him and who is delivering.
  • From travel to computers

    I worked in the travel industry for about 11 years before coming into computers (relatively recent, too), and this has me a [i]little[/i] worried. Although not their fault considering the price of oil, Delta went through several bouts of financial difficulty. However, the big issue is they almost alienated all of their front line employees with demanding pay and benefits cuts; at the same time, many of the upper management ended up with pay increases and rather big bonuses even though the airline was losing money hand over fist. Granted, Delta wasn't the only company doing this at the time, but there is a story to tell behind it.

    I'm honestly hoping this doesn't happen to Red Hat. This article did go quite a ways to alleviating my personal qualms, whatever weight that actually carries. :)
  • Short sighted RedHat

    The bottom line grew under Mr. Szulik and made Wall street happy but he failed woefully to popularize the use of RedHat software. An example The Red Hat Certified Engineer which I am preparing for cost a minimum of $800. The classes cost about $2500.
    At these prices how will RedHat expertise spread in the tech community? How will RedHat expertise ever spread to small and medium sized companies? At the moment only big company sponsored candidates can afford to take these test.
    RedHat needs and army of RedHat savvy techs to compete with Microsoft but short sightedness defeats this. I am hoping this new leader will change this direction.
    • what a whinner!

      Dude, you have to understand that OSS is free as in software not as a beer.
      You keep spreading FUD and refuse to invest in the OSS future, forgeting that freedom is not free and that's true for software too!
      Linux Geek
    • If you are unfamiliar with Linux or Unix, it will cost more.

      Your complaint appears to revolve around the price of training and a test (which provides a certification or piece of paper). For those that are familiar with how RedHat does their Linux implementation (which is somewhat different from Debian/Ubuntu, Novell/SuSE, Gentoo, etc.) then you will have to find a way of learning this (if it is of any importance to you). Also helps if you are familiar and comfortable with Unix environments.

      The alternative is to gain experience through running Unix or Linux systems (I have run several, both Commercial flavors of Unix and Linux) and only the commands and syntax may very, but you can largely go from one to another without too much pain in my experience (same with going from Linux or Unix to Windows) or reading books and experimenting. There may be too much emphasis in getting certifications over having the experience which allows one to transition from one platform or distribution to another with minimal pain.
  • James Whitehurst will take the stock sky high!

    An excellent geek manager + great software means we will be seeing a new goole like stock shooting up!
    Linux Geek
    • Jim Whitehurst is the right guy

      I worked in the same office as Jim years ago. Although I know him mostly by reputation, his reputation is very remarkable. Sure he most recently has worked in the Airline industry, but before that he was a partner at BCG where only the best of the best make it. Given his CS background at Rice, and years prior to BCG working as a software developer, I think Redhat has the right guy.