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Three takeaways from working in an open organization
Interning at an open organization means learning to trust the meritocracy
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For the past two months, I've worked as a field marketing intern at Red Hat. I knew the organization would differ starkly from the rank-centric hierarchy I'd experienced during my nine years in the United States Army, but I still encountered aspects of working in an open organization that I did not expect.
On top of that, I began my internship at a great moment in the company's history. President and CEO Jim Whitehurst had just published The Open Organization, a book offering insights that have been extraordinarily valuable to my early professional development.
Prior to interning at Red Hat, I was pretty clueless about open source software and open culture, but I was intrigued and enthusiastic about it, and I read as much as I could about it. On top of that, I got to see the "sparks fly" (as Jim puts it), and I was involved in some amazing projects at Red Hat. Before long, I started to notice subtleties that I'd have overlooked if I'd only read about open source. Now I'd like to share the insights an internship in open source revealed to me.
Let the sparks fly
I started reading The Open Organization before beginning my internship and undertaking some of my larger summer projects. When I read phrases like "collaboration over centralization" and "freedom and courage balanced with commitment and accountability" I said, "Yes, that's awesome! I completely agree."
But putting all this into practice wasn't so easy when the rubber eventually met the road. On the first day of my internship my teammates asked me to help plan a program for the annual Red Hat Summit, but I didn't understand the nuances of the program, the open source software (LibreOffice) I needed to get the job done, or how to get in touch with the incredibly busy people who could help me. I thought I'd taken Jim's message of courage and openness to heart, but I found it tough to muster the guts to reach out to managers and risk getting burned by those "sparks." What if they rejected my ideas for completing this project? What if I discovered conflicting ideas?
In a traditional organization, someone might have reprimanded me for going straight to a director-level expert instead of the bottom of the chain of command. But I have learned that in open organizations like Red Hat, people of all positions are willing to help and offer their own ideas, especially if you approach them with genuine curiosity.
I've also learned that creating opportunities for letting the sparks fly is not only a manager's responsibility. Even as an intern, I've found that bringing many ideas together and seeing which rises to the top can be helpful for understanding problems and discovering solutions. Even though we've been taught in school to value individual research via the Internet or a library, I've noticed that the best solutions are the product of collaboration and often a bit of debate.
Trust the meritocracy, take opportunities to contribute
While researching Red Hat before my internship, I thought I might be included in important projects. (The company is, after all, a meritocracy that values ideas more than titles.) Although I was excited to have such opportunities, I doubted the level to which I could participate. How could I possibly contribute given my lack of experience in the industry? Would I be stuck making coffee all day? If I did have to learn skills, would doing so be as much of a grind as lessons on school?
However, I was surprised by how many opportunities arose within one short month of interning at Red Hat. Among my favorite assignments was the work I did to help promote The Open Organization. I helped Red Hat show its appreciation for its top customers by helping distribute more than 2,000 copies of the book as gifts to them. I worked on projects that tackled the incredible challenge of understanding our largest Fortune 500 customers and their unique needs through rigorous research involving more than just spreadsheets. I even attended the Red Hat Summit as a volunteer and learned about the various solutions Red Hat has been working on this past year.
I initially stumbled a bit when taking on new projects, but learning did not take long when I had a purpose and responsibility. In fact, looking back, I see that learning came quickly and naturally when I began to participate in these projects. Technical skills matter, of course, but I learned that if I could trust the meritocracy to bring valuable ideas to the table, then I could learn those technical skills more quickly and naturally.
Accept inspiration when it comes
During my internship, Red Hat put on a "game day." All of the interns assembled for a table sport battle royale that included foosball, ping pong, air hockey, and even cornhole. It was an all-out tournament thoughtfully planned with music, announcers, prizes, cameras—the works. Honestly, I felt guilty taking two hours out of my afternoon to step away from work and play games while deadlines approached. During my years in the military, I couldn't imagine doing something like that without consequence.
But something surprising happened: the interns started playing, loosening up, and chatting with each other in honest, real, and fun conversation. By the end of the event, many of us knew what was going on in each others' worlds and what our challenges and biggest ideas were. After that day, when I needed to collaborate on one of my projects, I didn't think twice before reaching out to a fellow intern with whom I'd re-connected at that event. When I first read the part of The Open Organization that explains how companies can inspire enthusiasm and motivation, I did not expect those emotions to be evoked by something as lighthearted as this.
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to learn lessons like these from passionate people in an open organization. Working for Red Hat is unlike anything I've ever experienced, and it's exactly what I needed to make my final year of college worthwhile. I can't wait to see what the future holds for those who embrace the open source way, both personally and professionally.
This article is part of the series of Red Hat Intern Stories. These interns share their experiences about what it’s been like to work for an open organization, and more.