In September 2003, I was asked by Gus Robertson to consider joining Red Hat – essentially to kickstart the Red Hat office in Singapore/ASEAN. I was at that time running my own open source consultancy – Maringo Tree Technologies.
I did try to get Red Hat to acquire MTT, but that did not go far. Red Hat had just done a JV in India and was not looking to do another even as an acquisition so soon. In any case that JV was subsequently bought out fully by Red Hat in 2005.
I started at Red Hat as the Chief Technology Architect. I would not say that Red Hat was my dream company to be at, but most everything I did before was all about Free and Open Source Software.
Time Before Red Hat (yes, there was)
I had no direct interest in the notions of software licensing (see this post about the Singapore Ohio Scientific Owers’ Group from 1982 – yes, predates establishment of the venerable Free Software Foundation). Even my 1989 MSEE thesis (link to PDF) was about creating software but I never did consider the licensing of it because lots of it was given to me or copied from USENET newsgroups.
I, together with Greg Hosler, Mathias Koeber, Ng Hak Beng, and a bunch of others, set up the Singapore Linux Users’ Group in 1993. That was about when Red Hat itself was setup. I was fortunate enough to have been in situations where I could help drive the conversation and technology forward. I helped by distributing diskettes of Soft Landing Systems, Yggdrasil, Slackware etc either via the LUGS or directly. I was more concerned with getting the code out there and people benefitting from it. LUGS even created our own distribution in 2000 called EasyLinux.
I wrote up some how-tos – IP Masquerade, IP Alias, DialD, and lots of other stuff – I can’t recall what else – but suffice to say, these efforts were unexpectedly “rewarded” by shares being offered when Red Hat was planning on an Initial Public Offering.
I recall receiving an email from Red Hat and eTrade in 1999 (unfortunately, I can’t locate that email) in which it said that I was being given some shares (I don’t recall how many) to acknowledge the contributions made to the community. The only reference to the thinking at Red Hat about this is in an article in the Linux Magazine of November 15, 1999.
July 1999: The Community
It was clear that Red Hat wanted all the open source developers who had made its success possible to participate in its public offering. Red Hat would be nowhere without the hackers, and the company knew it.
Red Hat Director of Technical Projects Donnie Barnes spent three weeks scouring the Internet, digging up all the contributor lists to all the open source projects he could find. Red Hat then had to craft a letter to this list of developers. The SEC has a complex set of rules about what companies can and cannot say when they offer shares to the public. If a company doesn’t stay well within the rules, the SEC can –
and regularly does — withhold permission to proceed with an IPO.
“I’m sure they have very important and well-researched reasons for implementing each and every one of these rules,” Young said. “But to the companies who have to negotiate these rules on their way to a public offering, they appear designed solely for the purpose of ensuring the mental collapse of anyone who attempts to navigate through them.”
For example, the SEC-imposed quiet period “was one of the more bizarre notions to a salesman like me,” Young said. “How can you sell shares in your company if you are not allowed to promote your company for three months before your IPO or for a further month after your IPO? This letter to developers could describe the offer, but not mention any reason why anyone should want to accept the offer. That would be
promoting the shares in the quiet period — a big no-no according to the rules.” Red Hat ended up with a letter which, while legally acceptable, was “sufficiently badly worded to end up alienating a significant percentage of the developers we mailed it to,” Young said.
The SEC has a set of rules governing who is eligible to purchase shares in an IPO. First, you must be a U.S.-based taxpayer to buy IPO shares that are listed on an American exchange. This eliminated about half of the developers on the list from participating in the offer, according to Red Hat.
The SEC also has a set of rules designed to protect the public from scam artists who use public stock offers to con inexperienced investors out of their money.
“In effect the SEC deems IPO offers to be extremely high-risk investments, and therefore buyers of shares in IPOs must prove that they are experienced investors who can afford to lose the money they are being asked to invest,” Young said.
Unfortunately a significant percentage — about 15 percent — of the developers to whom Red Hat offered shares were either students or otherwise inexperienced investors by the SEC’s standards.
“And of course this offer was not being made by the SEC — it was being made by Red Hat and E*TRADE. So when members of the development community that we had extended the offer to found themselves declared ineligible, they initially naturally blamed Red Hat and E*TRADE,” Young said.
The final result was that well over one-fifth of the developers on the list were interested, eligible, and able to participate in the Red Hat IPO.
(extracted from http://www.linux-mag.com/id/348/)
I accepted the shares from Red Hat and I guess I was part of the 1/5th.
For the record, I think I did sell the shares later (along with the shares that I later received from VA Linux when they IPOed). It was a very nice gesture on both Red Hat’s and VA Linux’s part and I am thankful.
When Red Hat offered me a position in 2003, I was very aware that this is a business that is trying to do the Right Thing. While I was trying to figure out the value of such a move, I was provided with the relevant employment documents to sign. In one of them, a particular paragraph stood out for me.
In the Red Hat Code of Business Conduct and Ethics (a PDF from https://investors.redhat.com/corporate-governance/governance-documents), this paragraph was pivotal:
Participation in an open source community project, whether maintained by the Company or by another commercial or non-commercial entity or organization, does not constitute a conflict of interest even where you may make a determination in the interest of the project that is adverse to the Company’s interests.
(from the bottom of page 2 of the PDF)
I did not, then, have to think twice. I signed.
With that stoke of the pen, my tenure at Red Hat started officially on 8th September 2003. I still had Maringo Tree Technologies and I had to find a way to exit it and eventually I did.
Fifteen years is a significant amount of one’s lifespan to be spent with a single entity (assuming a 30-40 year work career). Red Hat is the 7th organization I am with: CSA Group (1st job, employee, Singapore), Microsoft (intern, employee, USA), Sembawang Media (management Singapore), Brokat (technical management Singapore/Germany), Inquisitive Mind (co-founder/management/technical Singapore) and Maringo Tree Tech (founder/management Singapore),
Each stint provided experience and exposure to different aspects of the business/technology world. Perhaps the most challenging was to be your own boss at Maringo Tree Tech. While the time spent at MTT was relatively short, I am proud of what I was able to achieve. I suppose the work at MTT was the lead-in into Red Hat for I had approached Red Hat as my own business even though, technically, I was an employee.
The thought process that says that the place you are employed is your own business, instead “it is just a job”, is a very powerful and empowering mental state. I want to make open source wildly successful and I was using Maringo Tree Tech as the vehicle to make that happen. When Red Hat came knocking on the door, it made immense sense to me that I should hitch on the Red Hat branding to drive my conviction forward.
I, had, at the back of my mind (and perhaps still valid today), that should I ever decide to part with Red Hat, I will still be doing the exact same thing but under a different label. That would be just fine.
What does 15 years at Red Hat mean for me? First, it is testimony that it is a growing organization and will continue to define how technology should be created, curated and consumed. That, the pursuit of fiscal goals has to be in congruence and cadence with ensuring the health and wealth of the commons. The commons comprise people from around the world who, once empowered by technology, are able to display and benefit from their talents and skills that can only but move the needle forward positively.
My early years at Red Hat were spent making sure the ONE product we had, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (2.1 and 3) were being made available to customers. I was tech support, sales, order entry, delivery person, spokesperson, evangelist, keynote speaker, community pointman and the go-to-for-everything-open-source-and-Red-Hat in South East Asia person.
It was not until late 2004 that Red Hat decided to re-draw the sales organization for Asia Pacific in creating an APAC HQ in Singapore for sales and marketing, Red Hat Brisbane to be the APAC engineering HQ, and to create six regions within APAC (ASEAN, ANZ, India, Korea, Japan, China). This change meant that we will have new Red Hatters focused on the selling of products and services but who might not have cut their teeth in free/open source software but were from the dark side, aka, proprietary software vendors. This is a necessary “evil”, but something that can be managed with the right amount of training and exposure. That was what happened when Red Hat University was setup in 2006 and I was asked to head that up for APAC, or more specifically the Sales College (which was the only college under RHU in APAC then).
I think, my time with the Sales College and especially in running the week-long Sales Boot Camp, was a very important personal challenge. Through the Sales Boot Camp, I helped transform a whole lot of open source migrants to become champions of open source. Not all of them got to their open source a-ha moment, but those who did, were sold on it. They could not do anything else as the fact that we are not shortchanging our customers by promises and handwaving but with solid and independently verifiable technology was not something to be walking away from.
In the meantime, our product portfolio started to grow. JBoss came on board in 2006, Qumranet in 2008, Makara and Gluster in 2010, CEPH in 2014, Ansible in 2015 and CoreOS in 2018 just to name some major acquisitions.
My sales quota in 2003 was US$100k and Red Hat’s revenue then was about US$126.1 million. Today, 2018, revenue is at US$2.9 billion. That’s a whopping 23x growth in revenue in 15 years. In the 60 quarters I’ve now been with Red Hat, every quarter has been better than the previous.
While the business grows with a plethora of products and service, where in the scheme of things does Red Hat understand how the open source community of projects are faring? These projects become open source products that our customers consume (via a subscription). The incredibly fine balance of open source projects and open source products is something that I’ve speak about because there is still an insufficient appreciation of what an open source project is when it become a product that a corporate entity has to be held accountable for.
Wtih the fine balance of project vs product, it is just as important to be able to gain insights into the open source projects that feed into the products. This was what lead me to start an internal project “Prospector” project in 2012. In 2017, Prospector became part of the CHAOSS Project of the Linux Foundation. Much work continues to be needed and I am working on many fronts to make that happen.
Which in a meandering way, brings me to today, 8th September 2018.
What would the next 15 years bring? What I know for sure is that it will be based on a widely distributed and decentralised world built on free/open source software and open hardware.
This will be a world that will bring the remaining unconnected 3+ billion members of the human family into the digital world, The tech flavours of today (AI, Machine Learning, Distributed Ledgers), having been built on free/open source software, will blaze the trail into new applications to better the human condition and the planet’s health.
The future is so open and bright, I need shades!