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Inside Red Hat’s open culture

The open source stalwart’s culture of transparency, openness and collaboration has been instrumental to its success as one of the world’s most successful software companies

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Red Hat’s rise to become one of the world’s most successful open source software companies may be attributed to its open culture that empowers employees to speak up openly across hierarchical lines and contest ideas.

Although Red Hat’s close ties to the open source community have paved the way for a corporate culture that values transparency and openness, its executive leadership still works hard to foster this cultural DNA across the organisation – even in places where being open is not always the norm.

In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen, senior vice-president and general manager at Red Hat in Asia-Pacific (APAC), talks up the challenges of driving an open culture in a very diverse region, how that culture shapes the way Red Hat approaches the market, and the transformation the company has undergone.

What is Red Hat’s open culture about?

Van Leeuwen: It’s about building ideas, listening to each other, and there’s not much of a hierarchy where the boss is always right. But it’s not like the open source community where everyone does their own thing. To us, it’s more like a way of doing business. It’s something that’s deeply ingrained in the company’s DNA, where we intertwine open source and open culture.

More than half of our employees are developers who believe in open source and open culture, but the other half, such as those in sales and marketing, may have come from companies that do not have an open culture. This makes it hard to maintain an open culture across the organisation, which has been my top priority in APAC. It’s important for us to stay unique and maintain our culture in a fast-growing organisation that operates in a fast-growing, complex region.

Instilling an open culture

Across APAC, the top-down hierarchical mindset dominates corporate life where employees do not openly disagree with their bosses. How are you addressing this challenge in the push to instil an open culture?

Van Leeuwen: What I did was to define a vision for the region. I needed to do something to connect the local region with the company’s strategy and vision, and create something positive out of something that could be perceived as negative. At the same time, how do we celebrate the differences across the region?

The vision I had for Red Hat in APAC was to be a diverse and dynamic organisation, and to connect business success with personal growth. Working at Red Hat is not just about putting bread on the table – it’s something you do because you are passionate about it. This enables APAC employees to respect their own country’s culture, and embrace Red Hat’s company culture at the same time.

Any specific examples of how that was done?

Van Leeuwen: We’ve done it in different ways. The first thing I did was to bring people of all ranks together from all over the region and let them share ideas about what could be implemented. For example, how do we get people to do short stints across the region and work more closely together despite family commitments and language barriers? And how do we create and groom good talent?

To that, we’ve created a leadership development programme here in APAC – but not without challenges. Our headquarters had questioned why we started our own programme when the company already has a similar programme driven out of the US. I said let me try because we need people to understand how things work in local markets so that they can be better participants in global projects – and that’s ultimately what we want as a company.

Differences in opinions

There’s no doubt that having an open culture helps to drive innovation and surface new ideas. How do you reconcile the differences in opinions between teams, and iron out differences so that execution is not compromised?

Van Leeuwen: Many people have opinions and ideas but not everyone is an expert. So when we ask people for opinions, we actually ask the experts so we can reduce the noise. So if people come up with great ideas, we’ll test them before implementing them.

We have people who can assess the feasibility of things, but let’s at least try it – that creates a different atmosphere in the company and inspires people to come up with ideas. This is where our open culture supersedes a country’s culture.

Would you still hire developers with good technical skills who may not fit into Red Hat’s open culture?

Van Leeuwen: We won’t hire them because they won’t be happy. If they don’t have the right attitude to work and collaborate with people in an open and transparent way, they will run into roadblocks. In our organisation, people need to understand that transparency doesn’t only mean they can speak up, it also means others will speak up about them. So when we look for talent, we look for people’s adaptability to our culture. We don’t necessarily look for those exhibiting our culture, because they can be difficult to find.

Ties to the open source community

Red Hat is in a good position to embrace an open culture because of its ties to the open source community where collaboration is the norm. But the same cannot be said for other organisations. What can these organisations do if they want to foster a similar culture, or embrace some elements of it?

Van Leeuwen: It’s a good question, but a difficult one too, because I often wonder if organisations really want that culture or that it is only because we’re successful. If they believe having an open culture works, they have to go all-in because this is not something you can do just a little bit of. You will run into roadblocks if you shoot down just one person for disagreeing with your direction.

Having an open culture starts from the top. Leaders should make this a culture among themselves before fostering it across the organisation. There are extremely talented people in the world who may not be leaders in their companies, and if you can find them in your organisation and create a platform for them to flourish, you can innovate so much better and faster. Being open to those people who may bypass ranks and hierarchies will be quite a transformation.

I presume there’s still some form of hierarchy at Red Hat – what’s its role?

Van Leeuwen: There is hierarchy for sure, because you can’t have 13,000 people without any organisational structure to manage work and assign tasks. But the point is, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, you can speak up on things, ideas and processes without any consequence. We also have forums and platforms where people can voice their opinions, whether it’s about rolling out a new email system or an acquisition we’ve made. If a decision needs to be made, we’ll bring people in early and we will.

An interesting example is that we may want to change our logo. We opened this up to the world, not just our employees, through the Open Brand Project where people can offer suggestions on what our new logo should be. At the end of the day, not all ideas will be implemented, but people will feel that they have been part of the discussion.

How does having an open culture change the way you work with customers and external parties? Are there any specific examples of how that was done?

Van Leeuwen: Interestingly, many customers now come to us because they want to understand how an open culture helps to drive digital transformation in their organisations.

Their internal hierarchy tends to slow down their transformation, and at our Open Innovation Lab, we have people from the same company who have never met each other. We bring them all together in one room, and have them share ideas about what they need. Then they define solutions, which we help them with, to change the way they do business and compete.

Assessing transformation

On that note, is Red Hat itself going through any transformation?

Van Leeuwen: Nothing is ever the same. We’re always changing the way we do things, looking critically at ourselves, our processes and principles, testing, experimenting, failing and succeeding a lot as well. For example, when we moved from being a single-product company to a multi-product company, we found we needed a very different approach to customers.

When we were selling an infrastructure product like Linux, we were selling to operational people who have already made all the technical decisions. All they were buying was an operating system, and we’ve been very good at selling the benefits of Linux – and migrations from Unix to Linux.

But it wasn’t as strategic as bringing a whole series of products together to help a customer drive an architecture. So we had to change our internal approach and needed our sales people to have different conversations with customers who may be CIOs and CEOs, not just the infrastructure guys. That was a big transformation for us.

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