Red Hat's CEO Jim Whitehurst shares his Linux story

How I discovered Linux's true power

Posted 29 Sep 2015 by 

Jim Whitehurst (Red Hat)
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My Linux story begins like that of so many others—with an old computer and a desire to tinker.

It was the late 1990s when I read an article about a UNIX-like operating system, "Linux," I could download and install for free. When I was a computer science major in college, my classmates and I regularly used Solaris to learn computing with UNIX. But we never had complete control over that technology. I remember we couldn't explore it the way we would have liked.

This thing called "Linux" promised something different, a kind of openness and flexibility that seemed like the perfect prescription for my ailing laptop at the time. So I took the plunge, installed Slackware, and began using Linux.

That use and familiarity with Linux would prove incredibly valuable when I was treasurer at Delta Air Lines. Beyond my role, I was genuinely interested in how people flew, why they flew, why they made the connections they made, why they chose nonstop flights over other options, and how much they tended to pay for nonstop flights as opposed to others. I decided to review a year's worth of Delta's network data to gain some insight into passenger psychology. (A quick aside: Many people aren't aware that airlines must record data from every 10th ticket they sell—the U.S. Department of Transportation makes this data available to the public as a free download.)

But I encountered a problem: the data set I wanted to analyze was larger than 4GB, and back then Windows computers couldn't handle files of that size. So, I moved all my data to a Linux machine where I could work with it the way I wanted. Linux enabled work that would have been impossible on other platforms. It allowed me to glean insights I would never have been able to otherwise. It helped me provide value to the company (and that saw me promoted to chief operating officer).

Not only did Linux free my data, it also helped me advance my career.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst with his Linux laptops

Jim with his Linux laptops. CC BY-SA 4.0.

And yet even when I joined Red Hat in 2007, I continued to underestimate Linux's true power. I still considered "software freedom" principally a matter of price; I thought, as others have put it, that the "free" in "free software" meant "free as in beer" (in other words, that the value of free software was its extremely low cost for users). Eight years later, working at Red Hat has radically altered my perspective on multiple ideas (including the most effective way to run a company, as I detail in my new book!), and my views on software freedom are not least among these.

Only after spending time at Red Hat did I begin to truly understand the meaning of "free software"— that software should be "free as in speech," that it should be something we share, something on which we openly collaborate as we make the world a better place. At Red Hat, I quickly realized I was leading a company driven by something other than the profit motive. Like so many people attracted to Linux, I came for the technology, but stayed for the philosophy.

In my years at Red Hat, I've witnessed firsthand the kind of excitement Linux can generate. At an event in Brazil, for example, the Brazilian president wanted to meet with me to express his interest in open source technologies and principles. The same thing happened during a trip to Poland, when the Polish prime minister learned of my visit and asked to meet with me to discuss Linux. Something about the open source movement unites people across all kinds of boundaries, including political and geographic ones.

In the technology world today, Linux has become the platform around which innovative people are building the next generation of computing. People are building the most exciting applications, languages, and frameworks to run on Linux. It's the default platform for burgeoning technological ecosystems around problems like big data, mobile, and analytics. Without Linux, all this activity simply wouldn't exist.

As I sit and write this, I can glance around the room and spot five notebook computers all running different Linux distributions. And the computer I have in front of me is running Fedora 22. They'll all come in handy as I pursue my next Linux-related goal: acquiring my Red Hat Certified Systems Administrator certificate.

I guess you could say I'm still tinkering.

My Linux Story

This article is part of a series called My Linux Story. To participate and share your Linux story, contact us at: open@opensource.com.

9 Comments

riberto

Nice article. I discovered Linux installing and exploring Red Hat 5 or 6?
I remember buying a Red Hat book, it came with an instal disc inside the back cover.
That was in the days before Fedora.
When it went Enterprise I switched to Mandrake and later Open SuSE.
Still using a partitioned hard drive. I still wanted to hang on to Windows.
I learned a lot in those days. You never forget your first, mine was Red Hat.
Discovering Debian made me a full time Linux user. It was goodbye Windows and Mac.
I'm still a Debian user. But I was Red Hat that turned me into Linux.
Thanks.

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luckied

Hi Jim,

I admire and greatly appreciate your passion for opensource though I fundamentally with your statement "Linux enabled work that would have been impossible on other platform" because the BSD's were around I believe (please correct me if I am wrong since I was only an infant at that time). I personally prefer BSD over GNU/Linux because the BSD license does not require the developer to give back the source code; effectively posing a limit and causing some people to think twice about using the GNU/Linux platform. While I appreciate all open-source projects and efforts, this is simply my stance as someone who is truly a very proud young Canadian geek!

Cheers,

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Onan the Barbarian

You seem to think that if you develop on GNU/Linux, you must release all of your software under the GNU GPL. That isn't true. The requirements of the GPL apply only to "derived works", that is, if you recycled other people's code into your program (either by copying or by linking to a GPL'd library). Developing on Linux does not make it a work derived from Linux. If you develop on Windows, your code doesn't become property of Microsoft Corp., does it?

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johnutah

The whole point of open source is the give back, being worried you have to give the source code back? That's the reason you have it in the first place. Somebody before you was unselfish. You might want to try being a open collaborative developer, closed source is what caused the problem in the first place. Praising something and then doing exactly what it was design to avoid is an integrity issue. Your young, learn from this.

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Eddie G.

My Linux journey began when I lost EVERYTHING from a Windows 2000 machine. And then it happened again with Windows XP! After having to start over the second time? I began researching alternative operating systems. I stumbled upon Fedora Linux....I downloaded it to CD and installed it (Or tried to....it took me four attempts!...LoL!) When I finally got it installed I had to spend another month or two trying to figure out how it worked (thank GOD for Google!...) after learning the hard way that you cannot format the "/" partition without losing things...I made a concerted effort to learn as much as I could about Linux an Fedora....I ran into Red Hat after a while, and even though it was something you had to pay for...(although I couldn't afford it!) I had to go with it's "trademark-less" cousin CEntOS. This is where I learned all I could about servers....file types....partitions....backups...and the commands that one would use to manipulate a server to so what one wanted. I will NEVER go back to using Windows' OS. EVER! I have way too much fun and way more choices using Linux, and that includes Ubuntu....Linux Mint....Debian........Fedora...CEntOS.....and my current most recent install: openSuSE. Long live the Linux kernel developers...and may the thousands upon thousands of programmers and devops people continue to work on....and produce the greatest operating system to ever walk the Earth!

Cheers!

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John M

So Windows made you lose "everything". LOL. Losing data is due to a hardware failure, not software. It also can be due to stupid human error --oops I deleted the wrong file. But even Windows has a recycle bin to restore it. I have been using Linux and Windows for over 20 years, and never lost a byte. And if i did its not the OS fault. It would be my own for not backing up. Didn't anyone ever teach you to make a backup? Guess you learned the hard way.

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rudi

wunderful article, wunderful linux, but what if you have special hardware like TV-cards and no driver nor program is a available to run the hardware in linux?

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Phil Turmel

Linux is open source -- you can write your own driver for the troublesome hardware. Or if you aren't a programmer, you can offer to test with your hardware the driver someone else is trying to write. Open collaboration. Also, you might be surprised how much support Linux has for TV tuners and related hardware. Look up the MythTV and LinuxTV sites.

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Mohamed Obaidulla

I am a new user and learning Linux since since feb-2015. I can understand it is tough to learn command and control of linux machine. Everyday practice made me comfortable to get the toughness. I hope any one learning linux must do practice regularly to catch the power of linux machine.

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Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments. Since joining Red Hat in 2008, Whitehurst has grown the company, and its influence on a variety of industries, by reaching key milestones—the