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For the past 20 years, Paul Cormier has helped design, craft and ultimately drive Red Hat's product direction, from the communities we support to the new technology sectors we enter. Now as president and CEO, Paul will be responsible for executing the vision for Red Hat as a whole, not just as our product leader.
So what makes Paul tick, what’s his background and what do you need to know about him? Read on to find out more!
When did your interest in computers and technology begin?
Paul: When I was in high school, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) did their manufacturing in central Massachusetts and my dad was the facility manager. He got me my first summer job and some of the engineers I worked with offered to train me on Logic so I could fix boards that go into computers. I did that part-time, on weekends, after school and during summers. Then when I went to college I was able to continue working for DEC part-time all through my undergrad and after I graduated.
This was probably 40 years ago and, at the time, there weren't enough graduate-level engineers in the entire industry. So DEC and IBM worked together to fund an education program - Graduate Engineering Education Program - that I participated in. Essentially, if you were an engineer and you got accepted to grad school, the program would pay for grad school, provide you with a salary and other expenses while you were going through grad school. It was a great way to seed the industry with graduate-level engineers. That experience put me on this career path and started it all.
What was your first programming language?
Paul: It’s difficult to remember the first language, but since I was at DEC and it was in assembler because it was microcode, I believe it was Pascal. They had to do Pascal because it was sort of like C, but you could keep out of some of the trouble that C would get you in because Pascal was a bit more forgiving. I also worked in Fortran, BASIC, COBOL, but those aren’t really considered languages, so not sure they count!
What was the most memorable part of your early career?
Paul: Working in corporate support in my mid-20’s was a pretty unique experience. I would fly out to help companies that had been trying to solve a problem for weeks or sometimes a month. It was such a cool experience for me and quite honestly, it’s probably where I built up my backbone. I was a younger guy coming into these situations to help people who were often much older than me. They would question my knowledge and experience level and I learned to stand up for myself and say, "hey, you called me, I didn't call you remember." It was also where I started to realize that things like age or title couldn’t dictate knowledge level. If you knew your stuff, you knew your stuff. That’s what should matter.
How did you become interested in open source?
Paul: What first interested me about open source was that I saw from Athena. I saw the innovation that happened because everybody was working together to solve the same problem. This was back in the UNIX days. UNIX was intended initially to be an open source operating system, but hardware companies like DEC, IBM, HP, Sun and others took it, made it proprietary and put their own information security management systems in it. What struck me was how fractured it became, versus on a project like Athena where everybody worked on the same code base.
When I think back on it, it was Athena that started the open source interest for me. We still use it today, X Window came from Athena and Kerberos came from Athena. I remember using its messaging service in Athena, Zephyr, when we were on the network working late at night and we'd put a message out there like, "Who wants to get pizza tonight?" So that's how I got started way back in open source, it was through Athena.
Who has had the most impact on your career?
Paul: My mentor was an executive at DEC named Rose Ann Giordano, and if I look back at that, she probably had the most impact on my career because she gave me a break. Early on in my career, DEC was starting an internet group, which sounds kind of blasé now, but at the time, no one had done it yet and they were looking for someone to run it. I had recently gone into management, but still a lower level employee. The competition for the job was tough. The person who was running VMS went for the job, as was the person who was running our UNIX group at the time. Ultimately, I got the job and it was Rose Ann who gave me the role. She later explained that she gave it to me because even though I was young, I had been in the game for a while and had more experience than anybody in open source, which they knew they were getting into. She took a huge chance in giving me the job, but she really believed in me.
One of the biggest things she taught me was perseverance because she had to have it. During that time period it was challenging to be a woman in tech, every day it was a fight. But she knew how to handle herself. She taught me perseverance, to stick with what you think is right and to have the courage to put your job on the line, if that's what it takes. I've done it probably more times than I can count at this point.
When was a time that you put your job on the line for a decision?
Paul: That’s easy, Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
It was an unbelievable experience and by far the most successful thing I ever have or ever will work on. At the time we didn't even realize the long shot we were taking. The people who were here during that period sometimes forget the leap we took and there’s a lot of people who are at Red Hat now who don’t understand what a big moment that was in our history. We literally stopped our product line. We were a publicly traded company and we said, "We're not going to sell anymore retail, we're going to stop Red Hat Linux."
But I can tell you, while we know what a solid decision it was now, at the time it wasn’t an easy sell. It was during my first year with Red Hat and I remember talking to our then CEO and essentially asking him to bet our approach on RHEL. I asked him to give me 90 days to get 8,000 subscriptions. I told him that if we did 7,999, I would leave the company. That's pretty much putting your job on the line.
We did 32,000, by the way.
Red Hat’s evolved a lot since then. Where do you see Red Hat in the next five years?
Paul: There’s a term that we use today, "applications run the business." In five years I see it becoming the case for the majority of enterprises. And with that, the infrastructure underpinning these applications will be even more critical. Management and security are paramount - and this isn’t just one environment. It’s bare metal and hypervisors to public and private clouds. It’s Linux, VMs, containers, microservices and more.
Complexity is increasing in applications and the underlying infrastructure, and we need to find ways to abstract this complexity to make things more manageable. But it’s not just the infrastructure - the way we build these business-critical applications is also changing. Linux and open source development tools are becoming the norm, if they aren’t already in many environments. Red Hat is the best positioned company to provide these tools and associated infrastructure in a fully open and supported way. We aren’t just open, and we aren’t just enterprise-grade - we’re both. That’s what is needed right now.