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During a keynote address to over 1600 open source and tech gurus Monday, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst admitted, “Until I got to Red Hat, I thought I knew what leadership and management was all about.” 

It’s fitting that at a conference dedicated to exposing and educating its attendees about “all things open,” the leader of one of the biggest open source companies in the world should be so open about his early misunderstandings about the open source community. 

Coming from Delta Airlines, where he managed thousands of people who wouldn't dare tell him or any other superior no and who saluted him when he walked through a door, Red Hat’s open culture was a shock for Whitehurst. At Red Hat, employees of any stature were encouraged to voice their opinions.

But Whitehurst quickly recognized that the open source principles the culture was built upon were the leading drivers behind Red Hat’s successes. 

Whitehurst's address kicked off the third, and largest, All Things Open, a Raleigh-based conference that “explores open source, open tech and the open web in the enterprise.” Over 1600 participants registered for the event and more showed up today. That's up from 1000 participants last year, and about 700 in 2013

The number of speakers and sessions has grown too. This year’s two-day event features 13 tracks ranging from UI/UX Design to DevOps. Security, a key topic missing from last year’s conference and discussions, has its own track featuring speakers like David O’Berry from Intel Security Group. 

In addition to Whitehurst, this morning’s session featured talks from Mark Skarpness, the director of Embedded Software, Sarah Novotny, community manager at NGINX, and Brandon PhillipsCTO at CoreOS. Topics ranged from Internet of Things to the Google-like infrastructure and data storage the open source community is currently building. #GIFEE (“Google-like Infrastructure for Everyone Else”). 

All Things Open 2015 Logo


Whitehurst’s talk, dubbed “The Power of Openness,” was the least technical of the four keynotes and a continuation of sorts of his “Open Org” chats online and other promotions for his recently published book, The Open Organization. His speech, much like his book, highlighted the benefits of structuring a company’s organization around open source principles. 

Besides the sentiments above, Whitehurst recounted thinking that he had been brought into Red Hat to fix the “chaos” he perceived when he first arrived as CEO in 2008. He quickly realized that the “chaos” he witnessed didn’t need to be fixed. If anything, it needed to be enhanced as it led to better decisions, more empowerment for employees of all levels, and innovation. 

Whitehurst compared the traditional top-down, hierarchical management structure developed during the Industrial Revolution to traditional economic theories developed during this same period. He noted the same principles found in original economic theories—that all humans are rational and make rational decisions—were used to create the bureaucratic hierarchical management structures. And yet, many of the underlying assumptions upon which both traditional economics and management were built have been at least partially debunked over the years. For example, research has proven false the assumption that a paycheck is the primary motivator for positive employee performance. 

Instead, motivation is often found in passion, employee engagement, fostering an environment where the company’s mission is clearly connected to the work the employees complete and where employees can innovate, contribute ideas and honestly assess and advocate for or against others’ ideas without fear of reprimand. 

It’s these principles that Whitehurst found in Red Hat and what he believes are needed to build the next generation of companies capable of furthering technology innovation. As he said, “no single organization can predict the future of technology—but a coalition of us can build it.” 

All Things Open 2015 continues Tuesday with more sessions and keynote addresses from leaders in the open source community.