Recruiting software talent

Red Hat Software participates in high-profile projects, such as One Laptop Per Child, and many of its employees are high-profile contributors to open source projects used outside the company. How does one open source vendor use its corporate culture to win the hiring game?
  • Jim Romeo (LinuxWorld)
  • 08 November, 2007 11:10

Red Hat is one of the largest publicly held open source software companies in the world. Since it went public in 1999 and eventually came to offer the world its well-known Red Hat Linux operating system, the firm has performed well. It has come along way from the firm that Bob Young and Marc Ewing founded in 1995.

Red Hat has a culture of its own. We asked Lisa Alexander, Red Hat's vice president of human capital, about a company she describes as "strengthening the social fabric in the community by continuously democratizing content technology."

Can you give us an idea of the trend for open source workers in today's economy?

Obviously, our organization is worldwide right now. We draw from the best talents across the world. I have to say that of all the areas and different groups that we recruit for, I think our engineering organization is probably the easiest sell for Red Hat. It is a place where, because of our reputation as producing the highest probably open source software, we find the most candidates that are excited about joining Red Hat.

By being one of the lead members of the open source community, we really had a robust and growing community of developers that we can draw from all the time. There is obviously an opportunity for us to submit the qualifications of these individuals [to customers]. They were all contributing prior to joining Red Hat.

Speaking of talent and finding top talent, not everybody has such an easy time doing that. Could you tell us about what are some of your biggest challenges in staffing?

Well, we are a worldwide company. I think we have 30 offices at this point. I think the offices are across the globe in probably 25 to 30 countries. Some offices are in the process of being created. Some legal entities are in the process of being created right now.

So, the big challenge is the growth. We have the ability to attract talent across the world, and we do not always require folks to move into our existing offices. We are very flexible about the talent that we select. I think the biggest challenge is to grow in a way that preserves our culture.

Since I have been in this role, I think we have 700 associates join Red Hat, and we have over 3,000 employees at this point. We started out as a smaller company and we have a very close-knit, open and collaborative culture. We are trying to continue to maintain most of the positive aspects of our culture while growing at a rapid pace across the globe. It is such a huge challenge for us.

Often, many different companies, and particularly companies who are innovative in some aspect of the information technology industry -- be they network companies or software developers -- have different programs that might be considered "cool," things like One Laptop Per Child. Do you believe in this sort of program, and do you think such an environment has an impact on the people who work for you?

I do. I think that having these involvements in these types of projects is a great morale boost for all of us. We all can rally around and understand how to be a major player in a project like that. It actually speaks through our mission statement. It is actually a demonstration of what we are trying to do to change the world, so people can get their arms around that and understand what that mission means.

We have a vision statement of what it is to change the world with open source technology. We are a part of that, and we hear about it. We chat about it. We text about it. We hear about it on our internal show, which is our own video production.

So, it is definitely something that we rally around, because you can really get your arms around it. I am in HR, but I really feel like we are contributing to something that is important for us, and to the world, about how technology will change the lives of millions of children. So, it is a mission that we feel strongly about and I think it does not really matter what department you are in.

Everybody in the Linux scene assumes that when one vendor competes on the basis of legal fear, uncertainty and doubt, programmers are more likely to work for other vendors -- since Red Hat has been fairly clean FUD-wise, is this helping to attract talent?

I think that focusing on FUD is not something that resonates the core values in a lot of the open source software community. I think that [ Linux columnist] Jeremy Allison said that his contributions would not support FUD efforts. So, I think our efforts and our mission are not attracting FUD. This helps to attract developers to us. Our developers want to contribute to our work and to keep their eye on open source, as opposed to participating in these FUD campaigns. I think that that is the thing that our CEO always says: "keep your eye on the customer."

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From your perspective, what will employees find at Red Hat that is not found anywhere else?

Well, recently, because we have been maturing as a company, we have developed what the older companies already have, and that is our total-rewards philosophy. But what we are trying to do from the ground floor up, as opposed to from the top to down, is figure out what Red Hat's philosophy is all about. What are our rewards? Our work experience is one of those rewards. Compensation is part of that too, as are benefits. But our work experience is a big part of that.

After really talking and interviewing a huge cross section of our population across the globe, what we have determined is that our work experience distinguishes Red Hat. We certainly are competitive and want to make sure our compensation is competitive and our benefits are competitive. But what is our defining differentiator is that work experience. So what about it is unique?

Probably, the top one related to this particular discussion is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in the global development and deployment of the structured technology that is going to change the social fabric of the community in which it touches. That is one key differentiator in this work experience.

This is our culture. We are nonhierarchical. We limit the number of hierarchies in the organization, because we want to make sure that we are fostering collaboration and leadership at all levels. We want to make sure that we are celebrating achievements across the company, as opposed to growing the number of managers in the organization. We are really focusing on growing innovators. So, it is a culture that is characterized by open communication and collaboration.

We are offering greater professional-development opportunities and training. We have created Red Hat University. There are different tracks for people so they can continue to grow and learn.

Clearly, a big focus is technical training, so that individuals that are on the technical side can come in and progress right after school. If they are one of the key maintainers of of our core strategy, there are opportunities for them to actually give back and to become one of our secondary experts for Red Hat University. So, I think that these are all factors that really distinguished our work environment and work experience.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions in the IT community about open source and open source talent?

I do not know what others are saying about open source, other than they often get it wrong about what you can use this for, or what you can do with the code, but there are a lot misconceptions about the licensing aspects of open source software that other companies pass off, and often people are afraid to participate.

That is something that is out there and has been out there. It is not any different than it has been, but I think the interesting thing is, from what I have seen over the last six years, is a huge change and a huge new respect for or the fact that the GPL license is supported by copyright law, and it makes sense.

Now, there is this huge collaborative effort in creating the next version of that. I think the biggest things that I have noticed are: not understanding what open source software and open source licensing is all about.

I might also add to that that some of the misconceptions are that open source is a trend or a fad. I think Red Hat's is kind of trailblazer and the best business model for open source companies that we have seen for longevity, sustainability and profit.

We have had 20 plus quarters of profitability. I think that shows that open source is not a trend. It is not a fad. In addition to all the things that I have just mentioned and all the different market factors that are going on right now with Microsoft, et cetera, and Novell, the fact that we [our products] are in most of the top Fortune 500 companies, shows that open source is here to stay. It is a movement that we are going to participate in and be a major player in.