IBM paid $34 billion for Red Hat, but it shouldn’t be about the tech—it’s a culture thing. Here’s the case for why Big Blue should be a deep red.
IBM insists that Red Hat will remain a separate operating unit within IBM. Let’s hope that’s not true.
Oh, sure. It’s important to allay Red Hat employee and customer concerns by saying they will “Let Red Hat be Red Hat.” Given the magnitude of potential for IBM to bury Red Hat in its 100-plus year history, this makes sense. But it’s also a concern when Red Hat EVP Paul Cormier tells ZDNet Contributing Editor Steven Vaughan-Nichols, “There will be a blue [IBM] line and a red [Red Hat] line.” The two only come together at IBM and Red Hat’s highest levels.” Why?
Because IBM desperately needs more Red Hat infusing its stodgy corridors, not less.
SEE: IBM’s Red Hat acquisition moves forward (ZDNet)
A question of time
As Steven Vaughan-Nichols reminded me, IBM wouldn’t be the first to undergo a marrow-deep cultural transformation: “[I]f Microsoft can do it, IBM surely can!” he quipped. He’s right, of course. Microsoft’s transformation required two CEO changes and at least 10 years before the Linux and open source-hater changed course and has since become the world’s largest contributor to open source code (measured in terms of the number of active contributors on GitHub, the foremost repository for open source software).
In all this, the impact Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has had on Microsoft’s metamorphosis can’t be overstated. Microsoft would have had to change, anyway, if it wanted to be a serious platform company in a world awash in open source code, but Nadella made it culturally safe to embrace that change.
SEE: Cloud migration decision tool (Tech Pro Research)
IBM has long been an open source supporter, yet has lacked an open source manner of operating—it would be difficult to find a more hierarchical, top-down culture. As such, as much as I believe it is the rank-and-file Red Hatters who will effect the most change within IBM, Vaughan-Nichols is probably right when he argues that “I think the plan is to first show IBMers the Red Hat way works and then bring its culture over from the top down.” That “top down” likely means Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst becoming IBM CEO, but Whitehurst’s ability to dictate change will depend on IBMers having at least some hint that the Red Hat way can work.
(Yes, it’s also a bit rich for IBMers to demand proof of alternative options when “the IBM way” has been failing consistently for a long, long time.)
Opportunities (let’s make lots of money)
Of course not all the value is on Red Hat’s side. IBM is a storied company with over 100 years of serving customers. What it lacks right now isn’t so much technology, though arguably that’s true, but mostly a winning culture. I suspect if you were to ask an IBMer what the company stands for, she’d be hard-pressed to answer. (Indeed, most employees at most companies would struggle with this sort of question.)
SEE: Here’s Red Hat’s open secret on how to make $3B selling free stuff (TechRepublic)
Not so with someone at Red Hat. The company has so consistently stood for open source, and everything that comes with it, that Whitehurst even wrote a book on how openness must come to permeate an organization.
This is the task at hand. Yes, it will be great if IBM helps Red Hat to sell a lot more OpenShift, but even that will depend in large part on IBMers embracing a culture of radical openness. Open sourceror Sacha Labourey warns that, “IBM has 30x more employees than Red Hat. Red Hat maintaining their culture would already be a massive win.” He sees Red Hat possibly “inject[ing] some redness into specific areas of IBM,” but not IBM-wide.
But for this deal to truly change the fortunes of the stumbling IBM, eventually the entire company needs to stop being “Big Blue” and instead turn a deep, deep “Red Hat red.”