From software developer to CEO: Red Hat’s Matt Hicks on his journey to the top

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Image: Red Hat

Matt Hicks, the new CEO of Red Hat, does not have the experience of a typical CEO.

He studied computer hardware engineering in college.

He started his career as an IT consultant at IBM.

And instead of going into management at Red Hat, Hicks started in the open source software business in 2006 as a developer on the IT team.

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His on-the-ground experience, however, is one of his biggest assets as the company’s new leader, Hicks says.

“Markets move very quickly,” he told ZDNet. “And just having that intuition – where the hardware goes, having spent time in the field with what enterprise IT stores struggle with and what they do well, and then having a lot of years in engineering Red Hat – I know it’s intuition that I’m going to rely on… Around that, there is a very good team at Red Hat, and I can rely on their expertise to know how deliver to the best of my ability, but I like having that basic intuition.”

Hicks believes his background knowledge helps him guide the company’s strategic bets.

While his background is an asset, Hicks says he’s not sure a good developer will make a good leader. You also need to know how to communicate your ideas persuasively.

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“You can’t just be the best coder in the room,” he says.

“Particularly in STEM and engineering, the soft skills of learning to present, learning to influence a group, and presenting very well in a leadership presentation or at a conference – they really start to define the people’s careers.”

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Red Hat CEO Matt Hicks has big plans for the future of his company.

Image: Red Hat

Hicks says focusing on influencing is a big part of his role now that he didn’t enjoy earlier in his career.

“I think a lot of people don’t like that,” he says.

“And yet you can be the best engineer on the planet and work hard, but if you can’t be heard, if you can’t influence, it’s harder to seize those opportunities.”

Hicks embraced the art of persuasion to advance his career. And as an open source developer, he learned to embrace enterprise products to advance Red Hat’s mission.

He joined Red Hat just a few years after Paul Cormier – then Red Hat’s vice president of engineering, then Hicks’ predecessor as CEO – took the company from its first distribution, Red Hat Linux, to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). It was a gesture that not everyone liked.

“There was a lot of angst,” Hicks says, with developers wondering if this was the right business model for open source. “People are passionate about creating sustainable models. So I think at the time [the question] was, is Red Hat deviating from this, or will this continue to improve open source?”

Hicks had an understanding of both sides of this debate.

“I really started my whole journey with technology with Linux itself,” he says. “I was on the consumer side – you know, I bought the boxes of Linux from Best Buy. But my first professional job was actually consulting IBM at the time. And as far as I know on Linux, there’s has a difference when you are a consultant in a company and you deploy Linux alongside [IBM’s Unix-based operating system] AIX.

“I had my consumer view — I loved this open source stuff,” he says. “But I also had this vision as a practitioner, I go to big companies, and I’ll only be here for a consulting gig and that has to have some credibility. And RHEL responded really well to that.”

Hicks says he was drawn to Red Hat because of the inherent tension between community and commerce.

“There’s pull on both sides, how do you enable a community where the software is accessible to anyone on the planet, your partners and your competitors on it?” he says, in relation to the question “How do you leverage this innovation, to have a really successful business model that customers appreciate?”

In all the years he’s been at Red Hat, Hicks doesn’t think much has changed around the challenge of balancing these two forces.

Of course, many other things have changed, both in the software development profession and at Red Hat. Hicks wants to ensure that the company is always ready to evolve. That’s why, in a message to Red Hat staff, he wrote, “When hiring, look for the added culture, not the fit culture.”

He thinks that the idea of ​​looking for a suitable culture for potential employees has a very static aspect.

“It’s not that you don’t add anything, you don’t look at the potential,” he says. “If you always stay with what you know, the culture you have today, adapting to your current constraints, I think you’re going to lose a lot of that potential, both the potential of today. today and the next as that talent evolves and changes tomorrow.”

Red Hat was acquired by IBM in 2019 for $34 billion, but the company continues to operate as a standalone division. Meanwhile, RHEL is still the industry’s leading enterprise Linux platform. As Steven Vaughan-Nichols noted for ZDNet, it’s used by more than 90% of Fortune 500 organizations and hits $13 trillion in global business revenue in 2022.

“Almost every industry you look at is starting to define their innovation with software at this point, and we’re in the software business,” Hick says, pointing to the opportunity ahead of Red Hat.

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The company is focused on supporting “open hybrid cloud,” enabling IT teams to work across public clouds, data centers, and the edge.

“We’re at the intersection of open source potential, open hybrid cloud potential, and software innovation, and that’s what excites me every day,” says Hicks.

As he settles into his new role as CEO, the main challenge that awaits Hicks will be choosing the right industries and the right partners to pursue at the forefront. Red Hat is already working on the cutting edge, in a range of different industries. He works with General Motors on Ultifi, GM’s end-to-end software platform, and partners with ABB, one of the world’s leading manufacturing automation companies. He is also working with Verizon on advanced hybrid mobile computing.

Even so, the opportunity is vast. Red Hat expects to see around $250 billion in edge spending by 2025.

“There will be tremendous growth in applications that are written to be able to respond to this,” Hicks says. “And so our short-term goals are to pick industries and create impactful partnerships in those industries — because it’s newer and it’s evolving.”

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