From software developer to CEO: Red Hat's Matt Hicks on his journey to the top

"You can't just be the best coder in the room," says Hicks, who takes the helm at Red Hat more than 15 years after joining the IBM-owned open-source software business.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer
Image: Red Hat

Matt Hicks, Red Hat's new CEO, doesn't have the background of your typical chief executive. 

He studied computer hardware engineering in college. 

He began his career as an IT consultant at IBM. 

And instead of jumping into management at Red Hat, Hicks started at the open-source software business in 2006 as a developer on the IT team. 

SEE: Red Hat names new CEO

His on-the-ground experience, however, is one of his core assets as the company's new leader, Hicks says. 

"The markets are changing really quickly," he tells ZDNet. "And just having that intuition -- of where hardware is going, having spent time in the field with what enterprise IT shops struggle with and what they do well, and then having a lot of years in Red Hat engineering -- I know that's intuition that I'll lean on... Around that, there's a really good team at Red Hat, and I get to lean on their expertise of how to best deliver, but that I love having that core intuition."

Hicks believes his core knowledge helps him to guide the company's strategic bets.

While his experience is an asset, Hicks says it's not a given that a good developer will make a good leader. You also need to know how to communicate your ideas persuasively. 

SEE: Hands on: Putting Ubuntu Linux on my Microsoft Surface Go

"You can't just be the best coder in the room," he says.

"Especially in STEM and engineering, the softer skills of learning how to present, learning how to influence a group and show up really well in a leadership presentation or at a conference -- they really start to define people's careers." 


Red Hat CEO Matt Hicks has big plans for the future of his company.

Image: Red Hat

Hicks says that focus on influence is an important part of his role now that he didn't relish earlier in his career. 

"I think a lot of people don't love that," he says.

"And yet, you can be the best engineer on the planet and work hard, but if you can't be heard, if you can't influence, it's harder to deliver on those opportunities."

Hicks embraced the art of persuasion to advance his career. And as an open-source developer, he learned to embrace enterprise products to advance Red Hat's mission.

He joined Red Hat just a few years after Paul Cormier -- then Red Hat's VP of engineering, and later Hicks' predecessor as CEO -- moved the company from its early distribution, Red Hat Linux, to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). It was a move that not everyone liked. 

"There was a significant amount of angst," Hicks says, with developers questioning whether it was the right business model for open source. "People are passionate about creating sustaining models. So I think at the time [the question] was, is Red Hat departing from that, or will this continue to make open source better?" 

Hicks had an understanding of both sides of that debate.

"I really started my whole journey with technology with Linux itself," he says. "I was on the consumer side -- you know, I bought the boxes of Linux from Best Buy. But my first professional job was actually in consulting with IBM at the time. And as much as I knew about Linux, there's a difference when you're a consultant at an enterprise and you're deploying Linux next to [IBM's Unix-based operating system] AIX.

"I had my consumer view -- I loved this open source thing," he says. "But I also had that practitioner view of, I'm going into large enterprises, and I'm only going to be here on a consulting gig and this has to have credibility. And RHEL really delivered to that well."

Hicks says he was drawn to Red Hat because of the inherent tension between community and commerce.

"There's the pull to either side, of how do you enable a community where the software is accessible to anyone on the planet, your partners and your competitors on it?" he says, versus the question of, "How do you harness that innovation, to have a really successful commercial model that customers value?"

In all the years he's been at Red Hat, Hicks doesn't think much has changed around the challenge of balancing those two forces.

Of course, plenty of other stuff has changed, both in the profession of software development and at Red Hat. Hicks wants to ensure that the company is always ready to evolve -- that's why in a message to Red Hat's workforce, he wrote: "When we hire, look for culture add, not culture fit."

He believes the idea of searching for a culture fit among prospective employees has a very static feel to it. 

"It's not you're not adding anything, you're not looking at potential," he says. "If you're always staying with what you know, the culture you have today, fitting your current constraints, I think you're going to lose out on a lot of that potential, both the potential for today and then as that talent evolves and changes tomorrow."

Red Hat was acquired by IBM in 2019 for $34 billion, but the company continues to operate as a standalone division. Meanwhile, RHEL is still the industry's leading enterprise Linux platform. As Steven Vaughan-Nichols noted for ZDNet, it's used by more than 90% of Fortune 500 organizations and touches $13 trillion in global business revenues in 2022.

"Pretty much any industry you look at is starting to define their innovation with software at this point, and we're in the software business," Hick says, stressing the opportunity in front of Red Hat. 

SEE: Red Hat's next steps, according to its new CEO and chairman

The company is focused on supporting the "open hybrid cloud," enabling IT teams to work across public clouds, data centers and the edge. 

"We're at the intersection of the potential of open source, the potential of open hybrid cloud and software innovation, and that's what gets me excited every day," Hicks says. 

As he settles into his new role as CEO, the main challenge ahead of Hicks will be picking the right industries and partners to pursue at the edge. Red Hat is already working at the edge, in a range of different industries. It's working with General Motors on Ultifi, GM's end-to-end software platform, and it's partnering with ABB, one of the world's leading manufacturing automation companies. It's also working with Verizon on hybrid mobile edge computing. 

Even so, the opportunity is vast. Red Hat expects to see around $250 billion in spending at the edge by 2025. 

"There'll be a tremendous growth of applications that are written to be able to deliver to that," Hicks says. "And so our goals in the short term are to pick the industries and build impactful partnerships in those industries -- because it's newer, and it's evolving."

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