CNET news is reporting that Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik is stepping down effective January 1st and handing control of the world’s most popular enterprise Linux provider to former Delta airlines COO James Whitehurst. The article reassures us that Mr. Whitehurst is a good pick, as he used to be a programmer himself and runs four distributions of Linux at home. But how might this change in leadership affect Red Hat?
History has not smiled kindly on CxO changes, which have ranged from forcible replacements – such as Steve Jobs to Pepsi-exec John Sculley in 1985 — to planned transitions, as when Michael Dell handed the reigns over to Kevin B. Rollins in 2004. Both events resulted in the eventual return of the original CxO due to the replacements’ inability to maintain the success of the company. Is Szulik destined to return to Red Hat in a few years?
Let’s take a look at Whitehurst. According to BusinessWeek, Whitehurst has degrees in Computer Science from Rice and in business from Harvard. However, if we should judge him by his actions and not his credentials, perhaps we should be a bit more worried. Shortly after he was hired by Delta airlines in July of 2005, Delta filed for Chapter-11 bankruptcy in September. Of course, not knowing the specifics of his involvement one could also easily assume that it was Whitehurst who helped lead Delta out of bankruptcy by working on the plan that was finally accepted in August of this year by the Bankruptcy Court.
I wish Whitehurst the best at Red Hat, I truly do. I guess I am hoping what many other Red Hat fans are hoping: Don’t mess it up!
Red Hat understands enterprise business needs, so I hope that Whitehurst does not take the approach that many other incoming CEOs do: restructuring the company to fit their desires, not restructuring themselves to fit the company. I recently wrote an article on where Red Hat needs to go in the next year to trump its rivals. Mr. Whitehurst, feel free to use my business plan.
Meanwhile, the whole Linux world is watching.