A Decade in the Open Organization
10 years ago, I started my first day at Red Hat by relocating geek toys and Despair posters to my new work-home. This was back in the days when floor-to-ceiling office walls were a thing. While the cubicles were closed, I was amazed at how the organization was open… and honestly was a little concerned. Red Hat was very much still in start-up mode, yet had this insuperable open source fervor, intent on freeing all the things. I was used to passionate disagreements as I joined Red Hat as a sysadmin from academia. What I did not expect was the spectacle that is hundreds of engineers pedantically debating the most efficient bagel-cleaving algorithm on a global level. Yes, there were serious, company-wide debates occurring on the sins of leaving partial bagels behind in the kitchen! Surely, even the most contentious of engineers had better things to do. It turns out that they did, but that was not the point. Rather than view these polemics as lost productivity, you have to view them through the lens of establishing and maintaining culture norms.
I quickly found that the bagel apportionment discussion was a mere extension of our development practices. If someone felt that the default kernel elevator failed to meet the needs of a particular customer, they were free to propose a fundamental change to RHEL. The unique thing I found was that this proposal was deeply considered and evaluated regardless of where the idea originated. These decisions were not made by some faceless middle manager in a corner office, rather, they were discussed openly where anyone could participate. Others would often disagree with you, or better yet, reframe and build upon your idea. This was never considered a bad thing, nor was there a concern about credit. The idea might have started with you, but it was no longer ‘yours’ once you shared it with the world. That said, if you were proposing a change, you had better be able to defend it. If you felt passionate about your proposal, you can bet there would be at least a few others who would passionately disagree.
Despite differences, the arguments were never personal. Yes, there were some cars filled with packing peanuts and the occasional workstation being disassembled to be left as a breadcrumb trail, but it was never personal. Disagreements were not something to be avoided or feared, rather, the debate was, and is, where inspiration happens. I have been in many organizations that preach avoidance over a disagreement, that it is better to dodge conflict at all costs. Evolutionary biologists have found that nothing extraordinary happens in a safe space– that it is only through external forces that a species evolves. The same is true of innovation. It is only by combining passion, intelligence, and experience with disagreement and disparate views that advances are made. This was the Raison d’être of early Red Hat–that, and helping open source change the world.
Over the next 10 years, Red Hat grew up a lot as a company. Honestly, we did lose some things, like cubicle walls and free bagels, but I think we managed to keep the best parts of our culture alive. We clearly gained experience, maturity, and talent. Nonetheless, the spirit of openness still permeates the organization. Even though the open source community succeeded in changing the world, our desire to do good has only grown. The raw, collective nerd Id has been tempered, in that we as individuals have learned the benefits of true collaboration, even with non-technical people, and those who aren’t as steeped in Open Source culture. I confess that there have been occasions when unfiltered, brutally honest feedback left some feelings hurt.
So what does this really mean to work in an open organization on a daily basis? It is dismissing the usual corporate overhead, unchaining associates to do their best work. While the concept is not unique, it is certainly rare in today’s IT field. For example, many companies are now eliminating their work-from-home policies, forcing people to not only come into the office every day but to also relocate. The usual reason given is that this is a move to encourage collaboration. At Red Hat, nearly 60% of our workforce is remote, yet we are the most collaborative organization I have ever seen. Frankly, you do not need to occupy the same air in order to work together well. Most meetings and face-to-face interactions happen over video chat, even in cases where two people are in the same office. But this is not where the collaboration takes place, rather the vast majority is over IRC, email, and Git. While IRC may have lost its hipster cred decades ago, Red Hat runs on it (IRC, not hipster cred). If you look at the philosophy behind IRC, things make sense. IRC is an open protocol, anyone can join any channel, there are numerous open source servers, the same chat client can operate with multiple communities across the globe, and the IRC network is vastly decentralized. The same is true of Red Hat from bottom to top. If you want to participate in something, you simply need to show up and contribute, no matter the location or project.
When I reflect on working at Red Hat, associates have the freedom to work whichever way makes you most productive, freedom to try new things, freedom to ask for help, and most importantly, freedom to improve things–anywhere and everywhere. On your first day, you are subscribed to several company-wide mailing lists. It is a lot of mail to keep up with at first, and you learn quickly to set up filters. It is only after you have time to digest the scope of the mailing lists that you discover their power. Associates are free (and encouraged) to communicate with the rest of the company. A wide range of topics is discussed every day from current political issues to project ideas to delays in email processing. The amazing thing is that upper management all the way up to the CEO pays attention to these lists with an open mind. It is not about seeing who says what, rather it is about listening to concerns and ideas. Every employee has a forum to communicate and interact with the CEO, VPs and the rest of the company. This is where the spirit of openness shines.
Just as company-wide forums give rise to trust and destroy silos, developing products as upstream, open source projects in the community build a resolute customer focus. At the heart of it, the entire company wants everyone to be successful with open source products. The more people and organizations that make use of a project, the better it becomes. This is a core belief at Red Hat, a shared mission of Red Hat Associates. Of course, we prefer that enterprises consume Red Hat’s stabilized and supported products, which allow us to further fund open source communities and development. Regardless, it is a net benefit for the community when any Linux or BSD-based distributions are chosen over proprietary operating systems.
Adopting these philosophies without hesitation has allowed Red Hat to mature into the two billion dollar company that it is today. A decade ago when I first joined, we were in the middle of releasing RHEL 5 and had just completed the acquisition of JBoss. This was not the first time we had attempted to scale beyond Linux, but it was the largest and most ambitious non-Linux endeavor to date. It was very enlightening to see they dynamics of what came into play with two different open source cultures merging. It really was a merger rather than a takeover. To this day, Mark Little jokes that JBoss took over Red Hat, although I’m not really sure how much of a joke it really is. From the Red Hat side, it was really the first time we were exposed to developers needing Windows (gasp). The Linux purists wanted no such thing, believing strongly that our corporate laptops should only be running RHEL or Fedora. If someone needed Windows, too bad… go write your app for Linux. Still to this day, we have many customers deploying JBoss on Windows. We as a company have learned that freedom means sometimes people choose things you don’t like. In a strange way, the mentality and recognition that customers just need to run their IT in the most stable and efficient manner possible came as the result of the merger. It took a while to understand that we are no longer in an epic David and Goliath struggle, but that sometimes David and Goliath need to work together for a shared benefit.
That is where we are today. We have matured past adolescence into an organization that is contemporaneously focused on the customer, the community, and growing talent. The three are intertwined with the values of sharing that coalesce into the Red Hat we know and love today. I look forward to what the next decade brings, as we all face new challenges in an open and collaborative way.
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