RALEIGH – Former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst—now a number 2 as president at IBM—opened up about the past, present, and future of IBM in a two-part profile of Whitehurst written by Robert Brennan Hart for C-Suite Quarterly (CSQ).
According to Hart’s reporting, Whitehurst is—possibly—the most influential proponent of open-source computing in history, and an incredibly qualified person to speak to the prescience of this moment in the relationship between humanity and computing. In the second part of the series and in a podcast conversation held between Whitehurst and reporter Michelle Dennedy, Whitehurst indicated that he’s still trying to advance open-source principles, including leading discussions with general counsels to argue that giving away intellectual property can be a good thing and isn’t inherently a bad thing to consider or to do.
That’s because, according to Whitehurst, technology can be brought to bear to address many of the world’s most pressing challenges, referencing how the use of technology is playing a central role in IBM’s commitment to carbon neutrality by the year 2030 as one example.
But Whitehurst is still scared about the current and rapidly advancing future state of the power of technology—and scared most about the preponderance of data, even encrypted data, acquired or stolen in recent years, that may be able to be harnessed and accessed by bad actors, especially as quantum computing power increases.
Early in his career, working for Delta Airlines, Whitehurst would download ticket data—every 10th ticket is sampled and sent to the U.S. Government—but ran into issued attempting to process it, because systems had a four-gigabyte file size. Whitehurst first began using Linux to analyze the data, and used Fedora, which was a free version of Red Hat Linux.
He was recruited to join Red Hat, and joined in 2007 as CEO, right at the time the company was constructing a new business model, during which the company saw itself as a transformer of how technology is built and consumed.
“I think I speak for most Red Hat engineers when I say this is working with IBM to look way far off into the future and execute against it,” said Whitehurst, describing his love for Red Hat, noting that his heart and sole are with the team and what they accomplished prior to the acquisition of the company by IBM. “We were taking technologies and iterating on them. That iterative innovation that we talked about in open source and modularity is extraordinary to drive the pace of innovation.”
Yet joining IBM seems an obvious decision to use technology and open-source technology at that, to address critical issues, such as bias in artificial intelligence, climate, or quantum-safe cryptography, said Whitehurst.
“We know there’s bias in AI models, but we don’t know enough about it. I think most CEOs wouldn’t even know what questions to ask,” said Whitehurst, noting that IBM is different, because “we have a considerable effort around anti-bias and AI and how you manage around that.”
IBM is fascinating, said Whitehurst, because the company strategy is entirely focused on how to translate technology into impact for enterprise, which means that IBM is “willing to fundamentally change who we are and what we do.”
Here’s how IBM is thinking now, said Whitehurst: “If the point of technology is not as much around automating rote tasks, it’s more about innovation. You’re going to source components of that innovation from so many places. How do you think about that architecture? That’s where we’ve been going and what we’re trying to deliver. That gets into data and how you’re virtualizing data away from applications. It’s where and how it resides. That set of problems are the areas where we’re focused.”