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Matthew Szulik: Open source’s windfall

Dec 26, 20055 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsLinuxOpen Source

Red Hat CEO turned a passion for collaborative software development into leadership of a market-topping Linux distributor - and a profitable one, at that.

Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik turned a passion for collaborative software development into leadership of a market-topping Linux distributor – and a profitable one, at that.

Matthew Szulik stills remembers when, fresh out of college in 1978, he attended a meeting of the newly formed Massachusetts High Technology Council and watched Digital Equipment founder Ken Olsen bring out one of the company’s PDP minicomputers and put it on a folding table.

Hot Seat: Where do IBM and Red Hat differ on open source operating systems? Find out in this 5-minute interview with Matthew Szulik

“There was so much innovation occurring in the greater Boston area, and I was a 21-year-old kid, wide-eyed and impressionable. . . . [The experience] continues to have an impression on me,” says Szulik, CEO of market-leading Linux distributor Red Hat.

 Position: Chairman, CEO and president, Red Hat Age:49 Years at company: 7  Years in industry: 27  Major career accomplishment: Built Red Hat into a profitable open source company and the leading Linux distributor. 

“I got to see men who not only had compelling visions to create great, sustainable companies at young ages, but also who understood the responsibility of doing positive things for the community. It wasn’t about exclusively making money and stopping,” he says. “It was about innovating and creating technology that would improve the lives of others.”

Such missionary zeal for the greater good keeps Szulik motivated personally and professionally. He drives himself hard in the office, but makes it a priority to leave time for family. A husband and father of three, Szulik forgoes the golf course “because I don’t want to spend four and a half hours away from my children.”

Instead, he spends hours on the road on weekends driving his son to Amateur Athletic Union baseball games. “And then when he goes to sleep at 11 p.m., I try to find a Starbucks that’s open to get a wireless connection to check my e-mail,” Szulik says.

Szulik’s commitment to his family is amazing, says Steve Albrecht, associate dean of the Marriott School of Management and Arthur Andersen professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and a Red Hat board member. “For a CEO that is so driven and so passionate, to see how he cares for his family and how important his family is to him, is really inspirational,” says Albrecht, who met Szulik in 2001 during one of Szulik’s many speaking engagements at colleges and universities worldwide.

Initially, Albrecht was struck by Szulik’s professional enthusiasm. When asked to join the Red Hat board, Albrecht had no hesitation despite the company’s somewhat tricky business model. “Matthew comes across as extremely knowledgeable and enthused about what he’s doing,” Albrecht says. “It’s very difficult to interact with him and not get excited.”

Red Hat employees say Szulik’s unabashed energy is one thing that makes the company so strong. A hands-on guy, Szulik makes himself very accessible to employees and spends a lot of time meeting with engineers, help-desk staff and people in sales and marketing, a media relations representative says. He even goes so far as to share his favorite books from his personal library.

Szulik’s library includes business-focused nonfiction, sports-related novels and popular fiction. “I tend to like books that move the soul,” he says. “I just finished reading a beautiful story about my beloved Boston Red Sox called The Teammates. It is written by David Halberstam and it made me cry.”

Szulik grew up in New Bedford, Mass., a coastal town just west of Cape Cod. An early interest in science and technology led him to St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. He graduated in 1978 and, armed with a bachelor’s degree in natural science, returned to Massachusetts, settling in Cambridge.

There Szulik had his first exposure to freeware, or open source software, which was in the process of being created at nearby MIT. He attended several lectures by Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement and author of the GNU Public License.

Szulik liked the movement’s collaborative approach to software development and the idea of using technology for more than financial gain. This perspective has driven Szulik throughout his career. After spending time at several software start-ups, he accepted an invitation to come to Red Hat in 1998. Szulik became CEO in 1999, shortly after the company went public.

“When I joined Red Hat, most people did not have the awareness of Linux and open source software that they have today. Many thought, ‘You’re going to try to do what with something that’s free?” Szulik says. “My father was my most outrageous critic. When I joined Red Hat, he told The Wall Street Journal that I should get a good job like my brother and work at IBM.”

Szulik faced the challenge with Red Hat head on. He clung tight to his vision of improving the way technology could benefit society by using open source’s collaborative approach to create jobs and improve education. He led Red Hat to profitability in 2003 and has managed its rise as the market leader with a more than 90% share of Linux software sales, according to IDC. Today, Red Hat has a workforce nearly 1,000 strong, up considerably from the 30 employees at the company when Szulik took the reins.

“My biggest professional accomplishment is that we have been able to create employment opportunities and validate an economic model around open source software that has allowed other entrepreneurs to create new businesses and exciting projects and new jobs,” he says. “Without [Red Hat’s] validation of the economic model of open source, that would not have happened.”

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