A starry-eyed dreamer reflects on The Open Organization

Allison Matlack · 2015-09-16

A starry-eyed dreamer reflects on The Open Organization

Full disclosure: I’m not new to this whole “corporate book” thing. One of the executives at my previous employer published one. I got neither a free copy nor a signature. But I bought it (pre-ordered!) like a dutiful employee, and I read it like only someone early in her career can—starry-eyed and dreamy. I don’t remember much from it. However, I did enjoy reading it, despite the fact that it was a marketing ploy thinly disguised as a fun story about the birth of the company. I wanted so badly to be a part of something that mattered, and reading that the company was founded to make people’s lives better rather than to make a lot of money resonated with me.

I didn’t expect much more than similar marketing cruft from The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance. But I got a free copy this time, so I figured I might as well read it. The difference between this book and the former was apparent before I even opened the cover. For one, CEO Jim Whitehurst was there to hand it to me. It was touching to watch him take the time to write personal messages to each and every one Red Hatter in line to get a book; that must have been exhausting.

Being proven wrong about the book was also heartwarming. I didn’t get into it until Chapter 2, because the first chapter seemed a bit less polished (like maybe it was written more quickly?). Once I got settled in, though, I realized that this book really is an insightful look at what makes Red Hat such a special place to work. The Open Organization is not just the story of our founding: It is a primer for how to keep our values and mission close as we continue to grow as a company.

For example, we’re always going on and on about this “meritocracy” thing, but what does that actually mean? Reading about it made me think about how I scan through messages on our company-wide email list (memo-list), now able to recognize several names. As do many of my fellow Red Hatters, I give more weight to the opinions of those who have proven themselves valuable community contributors in the past. I also became more aware of the reputation each of us is continually building and shaping. Each time I hear, “Oh, you’re that Allison,” I hope it’s a good thing!

Red Hat’s meritocracy manifests most strongly in our management style. We encourage managers who want to be challenged by their teams, who collaborate rather than dictate. Instead of being told what to do, managers ask for my thoughts on different courses of action and then trust me to get the job done well. And while we have a traditional hierarchy in place, I have a vice president who lists his contact information on a public website and a CEO who personally responds to emails. Sometimes I forget that this is not the standard operating procedure at every organization.

We hear about “startup culture” all the time in the business world. As Red Hat continues to grow as a company, I’ve been wondering how we’re going to maintain that “startup” heart and soul that makes the red fedora meaningful. This book is a big step in the right direction. Sure, Red Hat will evolve and change as we bring on more people, but now we have the best workbook on our culture that we’ve ever had. I feel tremendously lucky to work for a company that is so protective of our mutual values of trust, transparency, and meritocracy—not just at the time of its founding, but every single day.