Last updated: September 20, 2005 4:42 pm

Matthew Szulik of Red Hat

Evangelist eager to bring skills to a wider world

Matthew Szulik seems an unlikely idealist.

A career in sales and marketing in the software industry, followed by stints building two other software companies, is not the sort of experience that normally breeds such tendencies.

The salesman’s background is evident from the ease with which the chairman and chief executive of Red Hat, the biggest distributor of the Linux operating system, slips into his attacks on commercial rivals.

“The software industry grew up locking customers in and limiting choice. That has not been sustainable long-term,” he says.

Get him going on the subject of “open” approaches to development, however, and he quickly shifts to lofty claims for the impact that this new model for building products will have for the entire industry – not to mention other fields of human endeavour.

”This is the beginning of a renaissance in the field of technology,” he enthuses. “You’re witnessing a big shift that goes beyond software.”

Pointing to how establishment companies such as IBM and national governments in parts of Europe and the developing world have included open source software in their plans, he adds: “The change of views has been breathtaking in a very short period.”

The “open” model of development will become increasingly common in fields as diverse as science and journalism, he predicts.

That, in turn, will force many companies to rethink how they make money – just as many commercial software companies are already switching from relying exclusively on up-front fees for their products to charging ongoing maintenance and service fees.

“Companies will have to deliver consistent value, not just a product – product-based business models will suffer,” he says.

A native of Boston, Mr Szulik says he was first inspired by the potential of open source by work undertaken by Richard Stallman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s.

The software visionary’s GNU project created many elements of the operating system that is now known as Linux.

Mr Szulik is also a realist, however. Linux, he concedes, will not displace Microsoft’s Windows from the desktop PC in a hurry, at least not in the developed world.

Investment in a broad range of Microsoft software, from Visual Basic development tools to Exchange e-mail servers, has created an infrastructure that is likely to persist, and perhaps dominate, for a good many years to come.

But the developing world, is different. There, says Mr Szulik, “they don’t have large implementations of paid-for Microsoft architecture”.

The prevalent use of pirated versions of the software, he adds, is likely eventually to come to an end.

That explains why the Red Hat chief executive has spent much of his time evangelising the cause of open source software in newer technology markets, and points to four countries – India, China, Russia and Brazil – as the main centres of broad-based open source adoption.

The political leaders of these countries “are all outspoken supporters [of open source], whatever their domestic agendas”, he says.

An advocate of improving education – and a critic of slipping standards in the US – Mr Szulik has pressed his case with political and other leaders in these countries that open source software should be part of the foundation for improved public education.

Much of the early use of the technology has come in the government and education sectors.

As understanding of the software grows, says Mr Szulik, that experience will spread more widely. “Ultimately, it will find its way into a trained technical workforce in these countries.”

In software, just as in other areas where open approaches to development are beginning to take hold, it will take long-term adjustments to attitude and behaviour for the new ideas to leave their imprint, he suggests.

“We’re at the beginning of this. It will probably be generational.”

And Red Hat aims to be at the forefront of that technological change. As its mission statement on its website reads, Red Hat wants “to be the defining technology company of the 21st century”.

Biography

■ Matthew Szulik was born in 1956, and grew up in the fishing port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, before attending St Anselm College in New Hampshire.

■ After an early introduction to open source while a Unix product manager with Exxon, Mr Szulik began a long entrepreneurial career in 1984 when he joined Interleaf, the content management software start-up.

■ After nine years at Interleaf he moved through MapInfo, Sapiens International and Relativity Software before landing at Red Hat’s North Carolina offices in 1998, first as president. A year later he became chief executive.

■ One of his first significant achievements was to guide Red Hat through a critical investment round in 1999 in which eight leading vendors participated including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel and Oracle.

■ Among the milestones the group has achieved under Mr Szulik’s guidance are its first quarter of positive cash flow in 2001 and then, two years later, its first profit.

■ Mr Szulik is chairman of the Science and Technology Board for State of North Carolina’s Economic Development Board. He is past chairman and an executive director of the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technologies Association.

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