Taking the typical proprietary business model of computer technology companies and turning it on its head may seem a precarious strategy, but for multinational technology company Red Hat, which proudly wears the badge of disrupter, it’s been a fruitful journey.
As Red Hat’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, Asia Pacific, Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen has a track record of taking startups from ‘zero to hero’, relishing the tightrope walk of driving emerging technologies to mainstream success.
He has a background in technical computer science, but his commercial skills enabled him to transition to managerial roles in centrifuge operations, where he quickly became a country manager and then regional manager in Europe.
He began with tech companies like PlanetWeb and SCO, until open-source technology evangelist Red Hat came along. He said no initially, but then changed his mind.
“I had to start from scratch as the only person in the country, and very quickly grew that business. When you’re in a startup, as I’ve been in Red Hat, every time I got a promotion, I got to keep my old job. So I got busier and busier,” he recalls with a laugh.
“One of the greatest things about Red Hat is we’re always operating at the sharp end of technology. What open source brings us is the latest and greatest. So I am involved in the latest technologies that nobody else is aware of at the time.”
Dirk-Peter’s arrival in the Asia–Pacific just over a decade ago showed him that much of the region was behind the West in technical adoption, so it was able to leapfrog technology stages, skipping the step of having to divest existing investments and figuring out what to do with legacy systems.
He realised that to grow Red Hat in Asia–Pacific required sensitivity to the differing cultural and national interests of each market in the region while operating as a unified entity bringing together those markets as a collaborative whole.
His strategy worked, turning Red Hat into a leading player in the region as an open-source solutions provider. “I felt it was important for the region to cooperate as one and create connections between all the different people and organisations,” Dirk-Peter says.
“With a common vision for everybody, we could also make people feel part of something unique, which really is the Red Hat culture. I wanted the organisation to outperform any other in the region because we were collaborating and working together across borders and across cultures. That’s a super powerful way of achieving goals.”
Our open culture is really a reflection of the products we sell. That makes sense because it’s who we want to be.
The open-source nature of Red Hat technologies brings with it an inherent advantage of delivering business performance freely without being locked into a closed circuit of proprietary products and processes. The region was ready for it.
“We all talk about digital disruption. What it has done is create an environment in which consumers of technology can derive value out of the experience more than from ownership – like Airbnb, where it’s about the experience,” Dirk-Peter explains.
“If you draw this parallel to software and technology, really what has happened in cloud computing and software as a service is that it is no longer about owning a licensing software, it’s about using the technology but paying for it because you have a better experience.
“That’s what Red Hat has been doing very effectively, and we were the first company to do this, before any other digital disrupter. We created a business model where we give our customers the ability to experience the use of open-source software in a safe and secure way, and they pay for the services around it; they’re paying for the support, the updates and for making sure that it works well.”
Dirk-Peter is adamant that the customer experience is at the top of the list of everything Red Hat offers; it’s an organic by-product of open-source software development, which “comes to life” by working through meritocracy.
“It’s not about one individual person having the best ideas,” he says. “It’s about anybody in your organisation having a great idea and giving that idea some time and letting it potentially grow out to be a business. This empowers people to come up with great things.
“That is the disruptive part of the industry. But it’s also a culture, and for that culture to arise in traditional companies is pretty disruptive in itself. We are helping customers do that because our customers want to reap the benefits of digital transformation.”
Red Hat was acquired by IBM more than a year ago but was not subsumed into the technology behemoth. Instead, it operates quite independently but with the cooperation of its new owner.
“We have been able to learn a lot from IBM. We leverage each other; we have technology that IBM really wanted, and IBM has customer relationships that we really wanted,” Dirk-Peter explains.
“By bringing those together without becoming one company, we have been able to find synergies between two organisations and give our customers a much better experience.”
Meeting of the minds
Red Hat thrives on new thinking and bright ideas. Attracting clever people to Red Hat boils down to a straightforward – and maybe even old-fashioned – template of a cooperative culture. “We are an open-source company, and that in itself is attractive to people because it’s not about hierarchy; it’s about sharing and creativity,” Dirk-Peter says.
Red Hat and COVID-19
The global pandemic has affected many businesses, and Red Hat moved very quickly to ensure business continuity for its clients and prioritise the safety and wellbeing of its employees, customers and partners. Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen took the step of prioritising customer safety over profits, and is adamant it was the right step at the time. “Obviously, COVID-19 is a big challenge for everybody around the world,” he says. “Just like our customers, we have been challenged with it as well. We had to get our people to work from home and make adjustments to how we communicate with our customers. “Everybody’s in the same boat and there is a lot of understanding and empathy around. We really have to be empathetic with our customers – their business is under pressure. We have taken an approach of helping our customers first before taking commercial benefits out of it because, with our whole customer-first strategy, we need to make sure our customers are helped and they get what they need. “It will pay back, because after COVID-19, they will remember which vendors helped them and which vendors did not. That’s the message I’m giving to my people on daily basis.”
“Our open culture is really a reflection of the products we sell. That makes sense because it’s who we want to be. At Red Hat, people work together, they collaborate, and that is refreshing for the current generation of people coming into the workforce.
They like to be part of something and have an almost equal stake in the success of it, rather than working their way up and being stifled in their growth because of a traditional way of thinking.
“Innovation is great for our customers and great for the products, but it’s also great for the personal growth of the people who work here. We need to keep learning as individuals. That’s not advice I got from one person in particular, but it’s around the culture of Red Hat, where we believe in continuous learning for our people. I’ve been a recipient of it, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Running at full steam at Red Hat is matched for Dirk-Peter by his habit of running for personal release. In exercise, he finds clarity and purpose.
“I need to empty my head, and the best way for me to do that is to be disciplined about my exercise routine. I love to run,” he says. “That really helps me clear my mind. I also love to spend time with my family and young son, and I love to be out on the water, boating and just relaxing.” Wearing a red hat, one assumes.