Rude people spur innovation, says Red Hat CEO

20 Apr,2012

By Dibeyendu Ganguly


One of Red Hats’ most valuable assets is the system of blogs it has created over the years, where employees can discuss and debate on a range of work issues.


In the spirit of an enterprise that’s makes its money from open source software, Red Hat takes great care to ensure the intranet is truly open. Anyone in the company can post anything – which can lead to ticklish problems.


Last year, Red Hat President and CEO Jim Whitehurst was informed that company intranet was being flooded with jokes. Occasional light banter had always been a part of the communication system, but now people were regularly posting funny stuff that had nothing to do with anything. It had to stop.


Mr Whitehurst, formerly the COO of Delta Airlines, proposed appointing a moderator, who would scan all mails before they appeared on the blogs. “I was advised it would be a disaster,” he says.


“If management appointed a moderator, people would go off the list.” What Red Hat did instead was to identify the five largest contributors to each blog and ask them to help ‘soft moderate’ their peers. This approach worked since these individuals were highly respected software developers and sales executives, who had a stake in the smooth functioning of the intranet.


The solution was also a cultural fit. “We’ve never had one-way memos in Red Hat. Whether it’s to do with technology or corporate strategy, everything is up for discussion, and everybody is invited to participate. The worst thing you can do is surprise people with unilateral decisions that have never gone through the discussion process,” says Mr Whitehurst.


The intranet system has become all the more useful as Red Hat has grown and expanded geographically. More than 60% of its 4,000 employees are now outside the US – in engineering centres located in India, Australia and Czechoslovakia – and intranet keeps them all connected.


Wherever they are, employees know what the thinking is in the organisation and are never clueless about strategy. The intranet also takes care of one of the most vexing issues that global organisations face – the difficulty of having real-time discussions across time zones. This way, an engineer in Pune can put his views on the technology blog during his own working hours, for his counterpart in Boston to read later. The intranet also serves as a great equaliser.


For those whose first language is not English, writing things down is easier than participating in a conference call, where those more fluent in English are at an advantage. And if it’s well integrated into the culture of the organisation, the intranet can reduce, if not eliminate, the geographical advantage of those located in the home country. “I still get inputs from those I run into in the hall, but I also read the inputs from those located elsewhere, thanks to the intranet,” says Mr Whitehurst.


The Red Hat intranet provides a study in how people communicate across cultures. While Americans and Europeans can get rude and aggressive, Asians tend to be polite and diffident, which Whitehurst actually sees as a failing: “In open source culture, it’s perfectly acceptable to call somebody an idiot. We celebrate obnoxious people in the organisation because they spur innovation. But in Asia, it’s against the cultural norm. That’s probably why India and China are big users of open source software, but not big contributors. You need an aggressive personality to climb the hierarchy in open source projects.”


Red Hat loves the mercurial temperament – even arrogance – of programmers and engineers with deep technical knowledge and gives them a lot of leeway. “Google gives all its employees 20% free time to pursue their own projects, but we give our high-merit engineers 100% free time if they want it. However, if you haven’t established yourself, you get 0% free time. It’s a meritocracy, not a democracy,” says Mr Whitehurst.


When it was acquiring a US-headquartered but Bangalore-based company called Gluster last year, Red Hat sent down a team of engineers from the USA to check whether there was a cultural fit. “We were basically buying a team of people. Our engineers are very smart people and they want to work with other smart engineers in a relatively fun environment,” says Mr Whitehurst.


A face-to-face check is necessary for an acquisition, but once a company is acquired and becomes a part of Red Hat’s global intranet, it’s no longer that important. The intranet’s ability to cull talent is actually remarkable. Follow the postings and it becomes quite obvious who the natural born thought leaders are. The others automatically defer to them and their ideas tend to provoke the maximum discussion and debate.


“The worst insult on the blogs is when nobody responds to your postings,” says Mr Whitehurst. “That means they’re not even worth shooting down, let along debating. On the other hand, those with original ideas are always listened to. Meritocracy flourishes on our intranet.”


Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2011, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved


Related Stories

  • No Related Stories Found
Post a Comment 

Comments are closed.