Interviews with industry leaders, Part 1: James Whitehurst


The following content is a republishing of the interview made between 2019 and 2020 for Red Hat's internal channels, thus stripping down all the company-oriented answers available only for Red Hat and IBM employees.


In today's evolving digital landscape, the narrative of leadership and innovation takes center stage as we delve into the personal journey of a visionary who has significantly shaped the open-source domain. Our focus shifts from the corporate achievements of Red Hat and IBM to a more intimate portrait of James Whitehurst, a figure whose professional milestones are well-documented but whose personal insights remain largely unexplored until now.

Rewinding to a chilly day in Munich in 2019, I found myself in the presence of James Whitehurst, the former CEO of Red Hat and, lately, a key figure, a President at IBM. It was here, amidst the backdrop of innovation and future thinking, that I seized the opportunity to request an interview. His response, "Yeah, sure, let's do it. Write me an email, and I will hand it over to my office, which will arrange that," marked the beginning of a dialogue that transcends the conventional corporate discourse.

This republished interview strips away the layers of corporate strategy and focuses solely on the person behind the title. It's a deliberate choice to exclude discussions specific to Red Hat and IBM—details that remain exclusive to internal stakeholders of Red Hat, where the interview was published by the end of 2020. Instead, we embark on a journey to uncover the ethos of James Whitehurst, shedding light on the character, values, and personal experiences of a man who has navigated the complexities of leading one of the most influential open-source companies into the 21st century.

James Whitehurst's tenure at Red Hat is marked by a profound commitment to open source philosophy, not merely as a business model but as a catalyst for innovation and community collaboration. His leadership extended beyond the orchestration of cloud solutions and automation processes, touching the lives of those he worked with directly. Today's narrative diverges from these well-trodden paths to present a narrative solely focused on Jim, whose impact resonates not just in boardrooms and global conferences but in the personal stories and interactions that define the essence of true leadership. As we unveil this personal side of James Whitehurst, absent of any discourse that might impact his future endeavors, we invite you to join me in this unique exploration of a leader's journey, where the milestones are not just achievements but moments of human connection, learning, and growth.

As the former CEO of Red Hat, Whitehurst played a pivotal role in leading the company through a period of substantial growth and innovation, culminating in its acquisition by IBM for approximately $34 billion in 2019. This move not only marked one of the largest tech acquisitions at the time but also underscored Red Hat's value and influence in the open-source community and the broader tech industry.

Under Whitehurst's leadership, Red Hat became synonymous with success in the open-source software market, significantly influencing cloud computing, enterprise software, and IT services sectors. His strategies for fostering innovation, commitment to open-source principles, and ability to scale business operations have left a lasting impact on the industry.

After his tenure at Red Hat, Whitehurst served as President of IBM, further establishing his role as an industry leader by guiding the company through its hybrid cloud and AI strategies. His vision and leadership have been instrumental in shaping the direction of enterprise technology and cloud services, making him a respected figure in the technology sector.


Mickey: "Hello, Mr. Jim. Can I bother you for a second?"
Jim replied in the same fashion as my favorite trader, Larry Willams, whom I met in Ostrava in 2018. Jim: "Hey, you are not bothering me at all!"

An interview

Published on July, 2020

I am more than honored to have today as my guest no other than James Whitehurst, CEO at Red Hat, proving that he is not just a successful man despite his age: he is also an amicable and down-to-earth person who doesn't hesitate to drop by at the New Hire Orientation program and take photographs with new associates, solving his everyday business tasks and matters in the meanwhile.

Let me introduce you to James Whitehurst.

Jim, I am delighted to meet you again. Please, let me start with the first question, which will be aimed towards you as a person: people know you as a CEO at Red Hat, but please tell us something more about yourself, about the Jim who can be found outside of the Red Hat world.

Thanks for having me. Something I really care about is time with my family. I have boy-girl twins who are currently seniors in high school, and whenever I am in town (which isn't as often as I'd like), I do my very best to make it home for family dinner. This is often the only time our family really has an opportunity to share what's going on with one another. I often have to do more work afterward (and my kids are also busy with homework then too), but that time is so valuable to us all. I feel the same about weekends -- my wife and I only started playing golf on weekends once our kids started sleeping late. When they used to rise early, we wanted to be sure to maximize our time off with them. We become empty-nesters next year, and I will really miss having our family unit all under one roof.

Thank you for the honest invitation into your personal world. What can you tell us about the things you are passionate about?

Obviously, I'm passionate about open source and technology and the power of open innovation. Technology has and can continue to change the world and it's exciting to me the role Red Hat plays in that. Our technology can help our customers make the world a better place. That reality gets me excited every day at Red Hat. I believe it's that same reality that gets our associates excited about the role their work can play in society.

I believe there always has to be a great library in the house of a successful man. Can you tell us what your favorite pieces are and what the most inspiring book you have ever read is?

I do love to read, but the vast majority of my books are ebooks or audio ones. I do have a number of favorite business books. "The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail" is a must-read book for anyone competing in today's disruptive business world. Clay was a professor of mine at Harvard Business School, and his book was a real eye-opener when it was published, and it remains relevant today. He explained that an established company can miss an opportunity to bring innovative technology to market because there isn't a recognized market for it. In that situation, startups often step in and take advantage of the void, and by the time the established company understands what's happening, it can't catch up without a huge effort. He later added a component about culture -- even if the larger company can see a market, it may need to incubate the new idea in a separate space or under a separate set of rules just to ensure the norms of the established enterprise don't crush the entity in its formative stages. I also really liked Simon Sinek's book "Start With Why." Sinek's articulation of the power of purpose and the motivational force it has, and how there has to be a reason for people to commit and give their best efforts to an organization, really resonated with me. Purpose has become a huge focus for companies today -- Millenials care greatly that their work has meaning, and it's difficult to see how any company can thrive without considering how purpose plays into what they do, what they make/sell, and how they make/sell it.

Can you tell us something about the most adventurous trip you have ever made?

I fulfilled a bucket list goal last year when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I had prepared, but it was a lot harder than I had anticipated. Funny story, I was not the only Red Hatter scaling the side of a mountain in Africa that week, John Hardy (one of our senior principal product managers) was there too! Below are the pics John and I exchanged after we realized we had both been there at the same time. I only wish we had known before and we could have gotten one together.

Do you have a personal motto or motivational ideology that helps you reach new goals?

I have no real motto, but I'm big on doing your homework, putting in your best effort, and letting the cards fall where they may. I've always told my kids that me and their mom care more about the effort they put into studying for a test versus the grade itself. I would say that's a lot like how I operate. We can't always control the result, but we can control the effort we put in. And I've found that if you put in the effort, the results usually follow.

What kind of advice would you give to a young Jim Whitehurst now?

Enjoy playing football while you can because you won't be making it to the professional leagues :-) In all seriousness, I would say to pay attention to the things that interest you and pursue those.
Don't worry about defining a particular career path. If you follow the things that interest you, a career path will emerge.

What would you do differently if you had the chance?

I would have thought about work-life balance sooner. Those first five years out of undergrad in my twenties, I watched life pass by from the window of an office building. I guess it was the generation in which I was raised -- we talked more about making a living than having a life. But when I met my wife, and we started a family, I realized you have to find a balance that works for you and those that are close to you. My assistant always says, "Work is meant to provide a life, not be your life." I'd say those are pretty wise words to live by.

Jim, you are also a writer, and your book, The Open Organization, demonstrates how adopting open-source principles can alter the nature of work, management, and leadership today—and how those principles can form the bedrock of tomorrow's most innovative organizations. What inspired you to write this book? Can you give us a few baits that would make others read it?

One of the consequences of my foundation in consulting is that I still read all of the leading business books and think a lot about how businesses and organizations work, as well as how they should evolve to succeed in a changing world. That reading, along with my ongoing exposure to the way Red Hat operates, sparked a realization that the industrial era's hierarchical ways of working and managing people were not going to lead to success in today's environment, where speed and agility are paramount. A group of us came together to push this idea and decided that the way Red Hat operates is a terrific illustration of how an organization optimized for innovation gets work done. I often say I was given a gift. I didn't create the culture at Red Hat, but I did recognize the chaotic brilliance of it and how to explain it to others from more traditional backgrounds. That's what I would say. If your business is stuck in the old world and you want to read a book about a new world way of working, "The Open Organization" might be of interest.

When did you hear about Red Hat for the first time, and how did your path to becoming its CEO start?

Anyone who loves computers and technology as much as I do has known about Linux since the early days. I remember using Linux when I was at Delta Air Lines to help me sort through large government data sets on airline activity. It led me to discover Red Hat, but that's not what led me to my current role. A recruiter called me after former CEO Matthew Sulik had read a press article about my work in leading Delta through their bankruptcy restructuring. And the rest, as one would say, is history.

After becoming the man in the lead of this unique company, you were aware of its strong and weak aspects, and you had to act upon them. How did you deal with both of those? How did you ameliorate the weak ones and how did you bolster those that worked and help them to be even more effective?

That's a hard question to answer, and I'm not sure I could distill the solutions down to a few sentences. One thing that works very well at Red Hat is how we organically collaborate and organize to get things done. I would say I'm constantly looking for things that help us do this more effectively and efficiently and looking for things (and people) who help make this happen. Red Hat has a way of choosing people who can build on that strength. Not everyone can enjoy, survive, and thrive in our organized chaos, and I've found that the most successful Red Hatters are the ones who actively embrace the way we work. 

Jim, You were asked in a BBC interview a few years ago what your point of view was on blockchain.
In 2019, when all the hype about this technology has died down, what are your current thoughts about blockchain? Many believe blockchain technology will help industries with decentralized trust, security, automation, and cost savings.

I believe there's tremendous promise with blockchain. The idea of distributed trust is truly mind-blowing. I'm still trying to fully get my head around it. I've had a chance to spend some time with researchers at IBM on it, and the breadth of the uses is far beyond payments and even supply chains. All of that said, it's such a radically different approach to trust that I think it will take years to develop fully. It's more than technology -- it's getting people to recognize that there is a new way to develop and ensure trust. New business models that fully leverage that concept will need to be created. Getting all three of those to happen (consumer behavior, technology maturation, and new business models) will take time, but I'm really excited to see where it goes.

Anything you would like to share with our readers?

Thank you for reading, and I hope something I shared was of use or inspiring to you.

Thank you very much for all your responses.
Let me finish this interview with one of my favorite questions: What advice would the young Jim Whitehurst give you?

He would tell me to continue focusing on the things I love to do. I loved playing with computers and figuring out how they worked as a kid. I didn't worry so much about how that interest would translate into a profession, and in the end, it landed me in the best job in the world. Today, I still love to figure out how things work, but I'm much more focused on thinking about and making sure Red Hat has a winning, long-term strategy. I imagine young Jim would tell me to always make time to reflect on and map out our strategy. 

The end.