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Passion is the main ingredient at an open organization like Red Hat
Open organizations don't need to serve Kool-Aid
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Red Hatters tend to be enthusiastic about the company and our projects, so I occasionally run into somewhat-snarky comments about us "drinking the Kool-Aid," as if we're members of a cult, repeating what we've been told to say. The truth is that any open organization fosters this kind of enthusiasm. The ideas Jim Whitehurst shares in The Open Organization aren't new to me—Red Hat isn't the first "open org" I've worked in—but Jim does a great job of explaining this business model to anyone who hasn't yet benefited from it.
When I joined Red Hat in February 2014, I had reservations about how well I'd like the company. I'd been happily self-employed as a tech journalist, editor, and community manager for The USENIX Association since 2011, so I was nervous about making the transition from being my own boss, working with a small group of people I know and like, to being a new kid, way down a corporate ladder in a rapidly growing international tech company.
Prior to becoming self-employed, I'd worked at Linux New Media for several years. Back then, Linux New Media was a German-owned tech publishing company, with locations in several countries, and a small portfolio of print publications and digital products in a handful of languages. At Linux New Media, I worked with editors and writers around the world, and most closely with a small team I helped build up in our newest location, an office in Lawrence, Kansas. Most members of our Kansas team were colleagues—and friends—I'd had since starting my career in the late '90s, when I worked as an editor on Sys Admin magazine. Although we didn't call Linux New Media an "open organization" back then, it certainly was. Working at that company prepared me for the culture at Red Hat.
I'd known about Red Hat my entire career in tech publishing, and I'd watched it evolve over the years. Because I worked on publications that covered a variety of Unix, Linux, and open source technologies and news, I didn't have loyalties to any of the tech companies, but I did have contacts and sources in many of them, which meant I also got both an outsider's and an insider's perspectives. By 2013, I knew more than a dozen Red Hatters, and I'd had several long-time friends who worked at the company send me links to open positions. I didn't apply, and I joked that I had no intentions of giving up my sweet self-employed gig because I worked for the best boss ever. But then I started reconsidering (...not the part about me being my own best boss.)
I noticed a pattern among friends who were recommending Red Hat positions to me: All of them were highly experienced, extremely connected, outspoken (and fairly critical), and they had strong personalities with plenty of other career options. But they chose Red Hat. They were happy here, and they were inviting me to join them.
Jim writes, "Every day, the passion of the people who work at Red Hat bubbles up to the surface. Take, for example, Jon Masters, a technology architect, who once gave a keynote speech at the industry-wide Red Hat Summit while riding a bike that was powering the computer server he was using to give his presentation." I burst out laughing when I read this part. (And I'm pleased to see that Jim appreciated the bicycle presentation and gives it a shout-out in the book, because Jon put a lot of work and energy into it.)
I've known Jon since 2006, because he wrote a Linux community column for one of the magazines on which I worked at Linux New Media. In fact, I visited him in Boston when I attended a 2012 USENIX event, and he was working on that bicycle-powered ARM server presentation. As Jim says in the book, "It's impossible to be around people like Masters and not be infected by the passion that pervades this place."
Jim's right. When I decided to apply for a position at Red Hat in late 2013, I considered the contacts I already had in the company, and Jon's enthusiasm for his job and the company was one deciding factor. Feedback from another long-time contact, Joe Brockmeier, also played a huge role in my decision to join Red Hat. Our friendship dates back to the beginning of my career, when I was an editor at Sys Admin and he wrote for us. Whenever I want a brutally honest opinion, I know I can count on Joe, even if we don't always agree. So when Joe told me about an open position that sounded like a great fit for me, I applied. And then came the interviews.
Culture, not Kool-Aid
Like the interviews I'd had at Linux New Media in 2006, and at Sys Admin magazine in the late 1990s, I spoke with several people during the process, and whether I'd fit in with my new team was part of the discussion. I still remember an interview question Lori White, Sys Admin's production editor at the time, asked me: "There's one Cinnamon Fire Jolly Rancher left in the candy bowl. What do you do?" The correct answer was: "Leave it for Lori, because they are her favorite." Fortunately, I'm not such a fan of that flavor, so I passed that part of the interview, which was more about having a sense of humor than sharing hard candy. (Eighteen years later, we're still friends, and I still don't take the last Cinnamon Fire Jolly Rancher.)
I spoke with several people on the Red Hat team I was joining, and with one technical recruiter who thoroughly explained the company's open organization culture. I assured him that I thrive in open organizations, but I was more concerned with long-term career prospects. Was Red Hat a place in which I could see myself 10 years from now?
"Red Hat works to enable careers of achievement as well as careers of advancement. In conventional organizations, though, it's all about advancement—how far you can climb the corporate ladder in order to gain the kind of power an influence you crave. But what often happens is that some of the best people may not want to advance in that way," Jim explains in the book. He adds, "That notion is turned on its head in open organizations like Red Hat by promoting the idea that people can excel and achieve what they are best at and still build influence, without necessarily having to do a job that they may not like as much or be as good at doing."
The Red Hat recruiter and I talked about my desire to help create my future position, among other details, and I received an offer that I eventually accepted. Even then, I wasn't sure I'd like Red Hat enough to stick around for a year, let alone 10. Because my new job didn't require me to work in a Red Hat office, I moved to Austin, Texas, where I'd have other tech companies to fall back on if things didn't work out. But within a few months, I'd settled in and began picturing myself at Red Hat in the future. In fact, I wanted to work more closely with colleagues in the Raleigh office, so I decided to relocate from Texas to North Carolina at the beginning of my second year.
The idea of "drinking the Kool-Aid" seems ironic to me, because from my perspective, Red Hatters tend to be our own biggest critics, rather than people who "toe the line." When you work on projects you're proud of, with people you like and respect, and feel invested in a company that allows you to control your career, being enthusiastic is easy. No Kool-Aid required.
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