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Exclusive Interview: Jackie Yeaney Of Red Hat

In our ongoing interview series ‘Woman Force In Open Source’ this week we are publishing the interview with Jackie Yeaney, Executive Vice President, Strategy and Corporate Marketing of Red Hat. She is responsible for orchestrating Red Hat’s strategy formulation and planning, PR/corporate communications, brand management, advertising and customer insight & analytics. Jackie was a 2009 and 2010 Women in Technology (WIT) Woman of the Year Honoree, a Finalist for the 2010 Atlanta Corporate Marketer of the Year and Winner of the 2010 Womenetics POW!

Swapnil: How is the corporate world treating the former US Air Force captain? Are the risks up in the air anywhere closer for someone handling the strategy and corporate marketing of one of the biggest open source companies?

Yeaney: I’ve been asked that question several times over the years. First, let me say that I am incredibly grateful that my first real job out of college was serving our country. I learned more about leadership, trust, and respect than I could ever imagine.  I also learned that one of my gifts in life was the ability to orchestrate lots of complex activities towards a vision. I had always thought I was going to get my Ph.D in electrical engineering, but being a captain in the US Air Force taught me that business may indeed be a far better path for my skills.  So I chose MIT’s business school instead of its engineering school.

There are a few critical differences from the military that took time to adapt to. There is certainly less structure, especially at a place like Red Hat. The military is, of course, very hierarchical, and Red Hat is much more of a network of people and communities. Titles and traditional hierarchies are close to meaningless at Red Hat. It’s been quite a ride learning how cultivating communities can actually be the key to innovation. Managing this kind of structure introduces a great deal of complexity and often makes decision making far harder and feel slower. But the end result is nothing short of magic—something that our shareholders have appreciated over the last several years.

I also learned my marketing and branding skills years after I left the US Air Force. Remembering you are in business to serve your customers—to understand their pain points, anticipate what’s next, and deliver what’s relevant—that’s not something I worried about as an officer. Now, I consider it my passion to center companies around who they serve. My creative side also took years to cultivate. Now, I find the fun of marketing to be combining the creative work with analytics. I can’t believe I called my system in the Air Force the “Intelligence Correlation Module (ICM).” Really?! How uninspiring was that?

The notion that has fundamentally stayed with me from the Air Force (and is one of the primary reasons I love Red Hat) is that of being mission based and working together towards a common goal. Having a common true purpose. A reason to jump out of bed every morning. Red Hat is on a mission “to be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners creating better technology the open source way.” You can feel it in the air and culture here every day. It’s not just a sentence. It’s something the CEO created with the employees. There is truly nothing like having people work together on something they believe in. Most companies will never understand that a true mission is what galvanizes their employees to help them make a profit.

Swapnil: Red Hat is primarily an enterprise company and doesn’t deal with consumers, so what are your challenges as VP of Strategy and Corporate Marketing?

Yeaney: I honestly don’t find it that different. Consumer marketing and business-to-business marketing have become a lot more similar than you might think. Those making purchasing decisions inside companies are people, too. It has become impossible to make decisions based purely on features and functionality. You know what it’s truly about? Trust and credibility. Those are emotions. And emotions are easier to convey with consumer-type marketing, not with complex sales collateral or packaging products for certain vertical industries. In our role at Red Hat, we need to communicate who Red Hat is, what we can do for you, and why you should believe us. We market to them as human beings, not as businesses.

 

CIOs are not yet familiar with how much Red Hat can do for them as they are planning their future IT architectures.

A bigger challenge for me is that one of our best assets is also one of our larger challenges. The marketplace equates Red Hat with Linux. That’s a marketers dream to be defined as an entire category. It’s like being Kleenex or Band-Aid. Yet, Red Hat now delivers so much more to the enterprise—from middleware to virtualization, and from cloud management tools to scale-out storage. CIOs are not yet familiar with how much Red Hat can do for them as they are planning their future IT architectures.

Another challenge is that we compete with companies several times our size. We are no longer a small, technology niche player. We will never have enough marketing dollars to compete head-to-head in the same manner. But the great news is that the new marketing game is no longer won by those who have the most money to spend and shout the loudest. It’s won by understanding your target better, being more relevant, being craftier and more creative with your messages—and, of course, by delivering what you promise.

Swapnil: Red Hat has become the first open source company to touch the billion mark in revenues. What is Red Hat—the brand? When we look at Google we get an impression of an innovative “do no evil” company. What is the overall ‘image/branding’ of Red Hat?

Yeaney: If I had to sum it up I’d say we make “open innovation relevant to the enterprise.” You can imagine that we are very proud to be the first open source company to reach that billion dollar milestone. Red Hat is the most unique and passionate brand I have ever had the privilege of being a part of. Our brand is a very approachable one. Associates at Red Hat obsess about being authentic in everything we do. We want to be bold and confident in our voice without ever being arrogant. We believe that it’s the power of the community—not just those inside Red Hat—that leads to the best ideas and answers. Communities of developers. Go-to-market partners. Customers. We have no pretense of doing any of it alone. We aim to be that bridge that participates in the best innovations and makes them relevant and usable by the enterprise. That’s our role in life.

Swapnil: Can you tell us about Red Hat’s corporate strategy?

Yeaney: Absolutely. As you know, we are in the middle of a major IT paradigm shift. Technology is changing rapidly, and entirely new players are emerging with new IT business models (see image). The commoditization of key components of computing are abstracting specific layers in the stack and are enabling new, highly disruptive deployment models. Innovation is happening at a rapid clip, and represents a large opportunity for Red Hat that fits well with our competencies.

In order to win in the future, we know we need to focus on three things:
1) Invest for the long term
2) Assemble the right portfolio for our customers
3) Build a robust ecosystem

With this in mind, our strategic efforts are focused on ensuring we are a relevant influence in the traditional data center, and to be a trusted partner to enterprises as they on-ramp to the cloud. We are also focusing on portraying a unified and amplified Red Hat voice in the marketplace. We have moved quickly from a one-product-line company (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) to five product lines (Red Hat Enterprise Linux, JBoss Enterprise Middleware, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, Red Hat Cloud, and Red Hat Storage). CIOs are making critical IT architecture decisions today, and we want to help them make “open” ones so that they remain agile and prepared for the future.

Swapnil: How do you see the evolution of social networking as a platform for brand-building? Which platforms are Red Hat using to reach out to its customers?

Yeaney: It’s funny. Social networking is a way of being at Red Hat. But it’s not the tools themselves that make it work. It’s communities of people connecting, interacting, and listening to the feedback. Internally, we have company-wide email lists where ideas are exchanged constantly. Everyone has a voice at Red Hat. They use that voice to speak and connect with communities externally as well. We don’t need to spend any energy convincing Red Hatters to speak externally with social platforms—rather we work to make sure our associates understand the essence of our brand so that we are speaking from one core idea. Different voices and opinions, but with one mission and one intention. We want to sound like an orchestra, not an elementary school music class.

Swapnil: Women are in leading positions in all industries. Major IT companies are being lead by women; however there is a gender gap in the Linux and Open Source world. You have won a lot of awards such as Women in Technology (WIT) and Womenetics POW! Award can you tell us about women’s participation in the development of Fedora and RHEL?

Yeaney: When I was studying at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the mid-80’s, the ratio of women to men was something like 1:6. The electrical engineering program was 1:13, and the Air Force ROTC ratio was 1:25. I imagined that we would have come further than we have over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, there is still a disproportionately smaller amount of women developers in open source communities like Fedora. However, we ARE making progress. Within Fedora, females hold a number of key leadership positions on the design and marketing teams. There is female representation on the Fedora Engineering Steering Committee (FESCo), the Fedora Project Leader is female, and women contribute in nearly every area of the project such as documentation, ambassadors, translations, etc.

There are also some key initiatives like Fedora Women that are crucial in both uniting and empowering women against gender-based stigmas, which are often considered detrimental to the success of female FOSS developers. Since being announced in July 2006, Fedora Women has raised awareness of the female community—along with the many roles women have as contributors and users—within the Fedora Project. Other initiatives include:

- Ada Initiative (Supporting women in open technology and culture.)
- National Center for Women in Technology (A non-profit community of more than 300 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase women’s participation in technology and computing.)

These initiatives are breaking down barriers and increasing diversity. I suggest your readers pick up Climb: Leading Women in Technology Share Their Journeys to Success by Sandra Coffey Hofmann and Bonnie Bajorek Daneker. These stories have inspired me on many a day.

Swapnil: Can you tell us about Woman power at Red Hat?

Yeaney: Although we haven’t reached the number of women leaders that we would like at Red Hat, we do have several strong influencers at all levels and functions of the company. Red Hatters value people based on their ideas and work, not their race, gender, or title which I find absolutely refreshing. You may not believe me because certainly other companies claim they do the same thing—but in reality it’s often not true. At Red Hat it is. I’m proud that Red Hat has two women EVPs and a handful of prominent VPs. I have three women direct reports on my global strategy and marketing team, and a staff that is more than 50% women.

Also, as I mentioned before, it is not about the hierarchy or leadership titles, but about the influence these women have. Women shine at Red Hat as change agents or leaders in action, not just in title or role. An important role for women here is to help us grow, and to work and act like the billion dollar company we are.

Swapnil: Female developers are not very visible in the Linux and and Open Source landscape. The environment of Linux & Open Source development is considered to be not very friendly (mailing lists and forums are harsh for newbies) which may make it hard for female developers to get comfortable with. How much is this environment responsible for the lack of visibility of female developers in the FLOSS world?

Yeaney: I believe the environment is certainly a direct, open one, and that may not be comfortable for all developers—female or not. Mailing lists can feel daunting, especially if you are made to feel like “newbie” questions are unwelcome. Others find it invigorating. For example, I love that sort of canvas. But that has far more to do with my personality than whether I’m male or female.

Swapnil:  What is Red Hat’s policy for the Fedora mailing list so that female users or devs feel comfortable, if Red Hat interferes in their matters?

Yeaney: Red Hat as a company doesn’t dictate policy for the Fedora mailing lists. There are, however, Red Hat employees who are part of the Fedora Project community and assist other members of the community in things like mailing list moderation. One of the ideals that the Fedora Project embraces is “be excellent to one another.” The Fedora Project wiki elaborates on this a bit:

“By creating an environment for constructive contribution, we can more effectively and successfully compare and challenge different ideas to find the best solutions for advancement, while building the size, diversity, and strength of our community.”

Fedora has a tendency to be very self-enforcing when it comes to “being excellent.” Participants in mailing list discussions will absolutely point out when people are not abiding by this guideline, and escalate as needed depending on the continuing development of that particular situation. Usually, it’s a matter of a misunderstanding, and people correct immediately. Or community members will work one-on-one with a contributor or participant in a discussion to let them know how to communicate more effectively. Occasionally, the situation will escalate to a point where further intervention is needed, such as moderation of a particular individual’s mails to a list.

Fedora does have a Community Working Group, and members help to resolve these types of situations. Anyone can contact this group anonymously to resolve situations, whether on a mailing list, IRC, or other forum.

Swapnil: How do you think female participation could be increased?

Yeaney: Start YOUNG! Even as early as elementary school. I think much of it is an education problem. Young girls need to be encouraged to grow their problem solving skills. I love nothing more than volunteering on science day at schools. We need to embrace our place as role models. Young people need to hear and feel how fun technology can be. They need to know they absolutely CAN succeed in traditionally male-dominated careers. If more women went into engineering, computer science, etc., more women would go into a developer and community contributor roles. We need to encourage women to pursue their interests and passions in developing code, for example, and bring them together as a community to support that.

Swapnil: Are there any programs that Red Hat/Fedora are running to encourage female developers?

Yeaney: Certainly, though a lot of times it extends to other communities that Red Hat also supports beyond Fedora. The GNOME Project, for example, has a summer GNOME Outreach Program for Women which is run by a Red Hat employee. Many Red Hat employees participate in other areas of outreach like the Girl Scouts and the Ada initiative. Others have attended Grace Hopper as a representative of Fedora, Red Hat, or other open source projects.

Swapnil: You also serve as President of the Board Open Hand, can you tell us about the initiative? Is Red Hat involved in any way?

Yeaney: Thank you for asking about Open Hand. This is an Atlanta-based non-profit, and I have been on the board since 2003. We make and deliver meals and nutrition services to the elderly and chronically ill throughout the greater Atlanta area. We are a $13M organization that delivers over 5,000 meals a day, with the help of over 100 volunteers each and every day. We aim to help people better manage their chronic disease by reinforcing the connection between informed food choices and improved quality of life. In 2004, we also started a social enterprise, called Good Measure Meals, where those of us who want to eat healthier can order fresh meal plans. All the proceeds from this venture go back to support Open Hand.

Atlanta-based Red Hatters have been wonderful about spending afternoons together volunteering at Open Hand. They love to count how many meals they can pack in three hours. I think their record is 2000. I am very appreciative of them taking some of their precious time to help an organization I care deeply about.

Swapnil: Is Red Hat involved in any activities outside the IT world?

Yeaney: All of our products and services are provided within the enterprise infrastructure software space. However, our mission to spread the use and understanding of open source goes far beyond technology. Our associates are involved in hundreds of open source community projects that aren’t IT related. We also sponsor and manage opensource.com where we showcase the open source way and how it is multiplying way beyond IT. It’s a gathering place for stories about how open source is changing the fields of business management, law, health, education, and government.

We are looking for aspiring bloggers and journalists for The Mukt. If you are interested, apply now!

We also care very much about communities where we live and work. We tend to focus on basic needs like homelessness, hunger, and nutrition and—not surprisingly— on technology education. More recently, Red Hat sponsored a cow parade benefiting a local children’s hospital. We called it our “cow-laboration” because we used cow designs from hundreds of people and placed them all over our cow. She is currently sitting outside our HQ building. I could list hundreds of the activities from around the world. We are a passionate bunch.

Slideshow Image:
Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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