I just started a new job in marketing and social media at Red Hat. This is my first time working for an open source company, and I didn’t know what to expect. I knew what it meant for software to be open source, but I had no idea how the principles of open source could be applied to other areas of business.
Open source runs deep at Red Hat. Everyone I’ve met seems to make a personal mission of showing how the open source way is the best way─not just in technology, but also in business practices and creative work. They certainly practice what they preach.
I worked at several different companies before coming here, including Fortune 500 tech companies and a few advertising agencies. At first glance, the Red Hat corporate structure didn’t seem radically different. But after experiencing the culture and beginning to understand open source, I can spot the subtle differences that make my experience at Red Hat completely new.
At my first job, the management philosophy revolved around strict proprietary control. Company information was kept under lock and key, and employees didn’t find out about company changes (especially product launches) until immediately before they happened. Although there weren’t many layers of management between myself and C-level executives, I would not feel comfortable talking with them, or giving them feedback.
I don’t think that strict hierarchy is a bad thing. I understand why companies might need to keep high-level decisions private. However, there are negative consequences that stem from a small group of people making the majority of big decisions, mostly because it excludes countless ideas that could be very beneficial to the company.
The advertising agencies I worked for had similar issues. In agencies, creative directors are treated as gods, and they have final say over all work that is produced by the team. This can create a stressful environment, because all lower-level employees are jockeying to garner approval from one or two people. In my experience, this kind of top-heavy management structure breeds favoritism, and I’ve seen a few brilliant ideas get squashed in order to advance so-so work from a director’s pet.
I understand why agencies choose to have one person with final say. It generates campaigns quickly, eliminating debate over different ideas. Although this system is faster, I think it also shuts down innovation.
Open source management is different. As soon as I set foot in the Red Hat offices, I was encouraged to give feedback and share ideas. The feeling that my opinion is valued is very freeing.
People that work here show respect for one another, and merit seems to be the largest factor when choosing ideas. I know that if I had something important to say to an executive at the company, he or she would listen, and most likely consider my suggestion.
But, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Employees are selective with the ideas they share because it’s a privilege to be able to share opinions with the company. People also realize that, with thousands of co-workers, no executive has time to hear every idea, and employees usually select only their best ideas to take up the chain. Red Hat is a meritocracy, and we keep each other in check─it’s part of our culture.
The Red Hat philosophy is very different, and it wouldn’t work for all companies. I have great respect for the open source way–it empowers me and seems to energize the people I work with. I would encourage anyone in business to consider applying open source principles to your management structure.
I’m sure others have worked for both open source and traditional companies, and noted the differences in management and culture. I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you recommend one tactic of management over another? Do you feel major differences in how your daily work was done, or how successful you were?
Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.