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Fresh look at Red Hat's company culture
Open source has me brainwashed
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Just a week after my first day at Red Hat, my friends were convinced that I had been brainwashed by open source culture. One teacher even wrote: "[Derek is probably] building a computer system that will become self-aware and destroy us all; like Skynet from the Terminator movies, only it will be an open source evil computer overlord." While there is no immediate need to call Arnold Schwarzenegger to the rescue, the transformative power of the open source model has certainly convinced me of its applicability to more than just the world of open source software.
Joining Red Hat as the youngest intern was a daunting prospect to say the least. I expected my voice to be lost in a sea of corporate politics for being naïve, but instead Red Hat fostered my ideas as fresh and innovative, and I owe my positive experience this summer to the company’s open culture. The most powerful example of open culture is memo-list, a mailserv which enables anyone within Red Hat to email the entire company about topics of mass interest. In my time at Red Hat, memo-list has been used as a platform to discuss the adoption of new products, tech news announcements, the strategic direction of Red Hat—all to allow employees have a stake in the company. Red Hat culture includes much more than just memo-list of course; there are groups for everything from amateur radio to running, a television program called The Show, and an internal social network called Mojo. While I seriously doubt that an organization like my high school will be adopting an unmoderated forum like memo-list in the future, Red Hat’s open culture demonstrates the power of the so-called 'Benjamin Franklin Effect.' Franklin posited that when someone does you a favor, they have a stake in your success, and are more willing to work for you in the future. Open culture fosters people to have a stake in the company, and thus success at every level, something that can be replicated by nearly any organization.
When I began, open source had only meant publishing code online, but as I worked at Red Hat I realized that the community behind a project is what gives open source the advantage. I was assigned early in my internship to try to figure out what programming languages where being used in each country, and at what rate. Within two days, I was able to cobble together two open source projects; one that tracked GitHub commits, and the other, a geocoding library. When a bug came up in the code, a contributor had a patch posted within fifteen minutes, and when I was done with my project, the source was added to the GitHub project to benefit others in the future. This powerful community-building ability is what has driven Red Hat to success, with thousands of people supporting products like Red Hat Enterprise Linux and JBoss. Building a community is not limited to just software, as sites like Reddit have shown. The Reddit community has rapidly evolved like a community around open source software, providing everything from dating advice to graphics design on its 'boards.'
I interned as part of the corporate strategy department, and the hardest thing to get used to (besides LibreOffice) was the subscription model. Most companies operate under a license-based model, in which a user pays a one-time license fee for a product. After the sale, the company has no incentive to support its products because the company has already made its money. The subscription model at Red Hat remedies this problem, as customers only pay if they find Red Hat’s support and services valuable. As Red Hat legal counsel Michael Cunningham explains, "this means the customers have to like us." As a result, Red Hat has created one of the best support groups in the industry (called Global Support Services) which helps to keep customers happy by delivering quality solutions. While the applicability of the subscription model in the IT field is clear, the subscription model is just beginning to gain traction in other areas. Take for example a hospital clinic. Currently, they charge a flat rate for a service, and therefore are market-incentivized to not cure patients. Imagine instead they relied on a subscription model, which would allow both patients and doctors to have the same goal: to get patients healthy. The subscription model also benefits businesses in that it is more predictable, as customers keep coming back, month after month.
For the last three years I have led a school club called the Durham Academy Technology Entrepreneurs, which introduces students to the real world of innovation. Last year, we were honored to have Red Hat’s CEO, Jim Whitehurst, as a guest speaker. While the students’ questions all focused around how profitable Red Hat was, in retrospect, what is more remarkable to me is that Red Hat did it all the "open source way." Red Hat's success is just the beginning, for it has paved the way for others to apply the open source model to the way we live.