Open source software is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. “Source code” is the part of software that most computer users don’t ever see. It’s the code computer programmers can manipulate to change how a piece of software, a program, or an application works. Programmers who have access to a computer program’s source code can improve that program by adding features to it or fixing parts that don’t always work correctly. The opposite of open source software is “proprietary” or “closed source” software which is where only the person, team, or organization who created it, and controls it, can modify it.
Red Hat, a pioneer in open source software, was founded in 1993, and today generates more than $2 billion in revenue annually, operating globally with more than 9000 employees. The company provides storage, operating system platforms (Linux), middleware, applications, management products, and support, training, and consulting services. What is most interesting about the firm is that open source has become more than just their product specialty, it has become a part of their corporate culture. In the more than two decades in which they have been steadily growing, they have gone from an open source company to an open everything kind of firm, where every associate, programmer, customer, vendor, and shareholder, has a voice, breaking long standing dogmas that successfully running a big business requires rigid adherence to organizational hierarchies.
I recently spent time picking the brain of Red Hat’s president and CEO, Jim Whitehurst. He joined Red Hat as CEO in 2007 after serving as chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines, a company with a very different culture and business philosophy than Red Hat. Whitehurst, skeptical when he first joined Red Hat that an “open everything” culture could drive results, has become a firm believer that open everything is not just the best way to run an organization, it’s the only way. Extremely passionate about the open everything movement, Whitehurst published his first book in 2015 called The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance. Now that he’s been immersed in the benefits of an open everything culture at Red Hat, he says he could never go back to the corporate hierarchical structures he experienced in past positions. He says the best companies are the ones where everyone has a voice. He is a true evangelist of the open everything company and here he offers 3 simple strategies for driving company profits, building culture, and changing the world by opening more than just source code, but rather by opening everything:
It’s OK to Disagree: Whitehurst says that he realized massive differences in culture right when he first joined Red Hat in 2007. He says that at first, it appeared to be chaos. He says that Delta Air Lines was born out of the military so the inner workings of the company were very structural and hierarchical. Then Whitehurst went to Red Hat and realized that literally everyone in the company was encouraged to voice their opinions on everything. He says that one of his first meetings at Red Hat was a meeting on technology and virtualization. The meeting had employees from all different departments in the room, including products and technology, engineering, development, and virtualization. He says that he remembers a developer raising his hand mid-meeting to say that he felt that the entire direction that the company was heading in terms of a specific virtualization technology was totally wrong. To give perspective, Whitehurst says that the developer was basically telling his boss, his boss’s boss, and his boss’s boss’s boss that they were doing something wrong. Whitehurst says he just watched, not knowing what to expect. He says that at his former company, that kind open dialogue would have been considered insubordination and the employee would have been fired. Whitehurst says that at Red Hat, he watched as the developer’s comments were discussed amongst the entire team, causing for a deeper dive into the obstacles and opportunities with that particular technology. He says that at the core of building an open everything culture, you must give every stakeholder a voice, and that you need to be clear that when they use their voice, it’s totally ok to disagree with the rest of the group. Whitehurst says that company growth, product growth, and employee growth, are a byproduct of informed debate, and debate is only possible when employees are encouraged to speak up no matter what.
Nobody Knows a Red Hatter like a Red Hatter: Whitehurst says that an open everything culture is not for everyone. Just like there are certain personalities that thrive in a culture where everyone has a voice, there are also people who thrive in environments where everyone has a defined role, where process manuals are the norm, and where employees speak when they are spoken to. He says that the employees that thrive at Red Hat are typically very passionate about their work, are comfortable with ambiguity, and are self-starters who thrive with change. He says that because of their open everything culture, the direction they take on ideas, products, and initiatives can easily change, especially when open debate offers an opportunity to explore new directions. Therefore, people who are resistant to change or who have a hard time being open to new and different ideas, or who find it difficult to articulate their opinion, rarely last long at Red Hat. Interestingly, the employee retention rate is high at Red Hat, so I was curious as to how they find candidates that thrive within their business model. Whitehurst says that their system is simple. First, they are candid with applicants about what the culture is like so that they have some idea of what they are signing up for. Second, they rely heavily on employee referrals for new job applicants. Whitehurst says that there is nobody who better understands Red Hat than the employees, and so they have a reward system for employees who go out and find other great team members. After all, says Whitehurst, nobody knows a Red Hatter like a Red Hatter.
A Crater Sized Impact on Humanity: Perhaps what is most inspiring of all when it comes to the open everything movement at Red Hat, is that the crusade has transcended their walls becoming a revolution in terms of transparency, open communication, and collaboration in all different ways, creating a crater sized impact on humanity. Think of how differently you might operate within the walls of your own family unit when you work at an open everything organization as opposed to the kind with a strict organizational flow chart. How differently will your children impact the world when you apply open everything to your family and home life? Or, think how differently you might approach your own healthcare if you applied open everything with your medical care and the way you talk to your doctors and how they openly communicate back with you. The video above is a 15 minute inspirational movie produced by Red Hat about how the open everything movement is beginning to change the entire doctor/patient dynamic, so that both sides can be transparent about the diagnoses, treatment options, and other statistical data. The movie documents the journey of two brain tumor patients who talk about how the open everything concept has allowed them to shine a light on the diagnoses, treatments, side effects, and medical data of their diseases in order to help themselves and others in their situation make more informed decisions. The idea of an open patient is a revolution in and of itself, creating a dynamic where patients have true access to all the information they need to know about their diagnoses, rather than just tiny chunks of data as is typically the case. Furthermore, one doctor in the video suggests that the concept of open patients, using technology like OpenNotes, potentially creates a dynamic where real patients offer insight and transparency about their diseases that could potentially be used to cure those diseases. This is a mind-blowing notion that the principles of “open source” not only give everyone a level playing field for curing all kinds of software issues, but this same theory can be applied to “open patients” giving both doctor and patient a level playing field when it comes to potentially curing diseases.
Red Hat has been one of the forefathers of the “open source” movement since their inception in 1993, and their leader, Jim Whitehurst, has become the evangelist. He has spent his career closely examining the intricacies of big business from all sides, both hierarchical organizational structures and open everything firms, perhaps making him the most qualified of anyone to share insights on the benefits of running an open everything organization. His message and his mission are profound; open everything applies not just to software code, but to employees and culture. Open everything applies not just to employees and culture, but to home and families. Open everything applies not just to home and families, but to creating a better world. He is Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, and his notion is simple; almost everything in the world becomes better when it’s open.