Photo courtesy of Swapnil Bhartiya

Photo courtesy of Swapnil Bhartiya

Meet the CTO of Red Hat

Hats Off

Article from ADMIN 46/2018
At the Red Hat Summit in San Francisco, Swapnil Bhartiya sat down with CTO Chris Wright to talk about his role at Red Hat and the future of Red Hat in new technologies.

Chris Wright, CTO of Red Hat, did not start his tech journey with an open source company working on open source technologies. He started off as a system administrator maintaining and managing Unix systems in the early 1990s. However, he could not bring those massive Spark machines home with him, so he explored and discovered Linux and set up an x86 machine so he could play with the technology. "I enjoyed it. I like digging under the hood," he said.

He then graduated to become a developer working on high availability (HA) for a telecommunity platform and became more involved with Linux. With his work on the Linux HA project, he was bitten by the bug of working and collaborating with a community. "I was surrounded with incredibly smart people, and I learnt a lot from them."

He continued to evolve and ended up working on the Linux kernel itself. Some 12 years ago when Red Hat was looking for virtualization expertise, he joined the company from Open Source Development Labs (OSDL). "Back then, Red Hat didn't have virtualization offerings. They didn't really have a very large hypervisor team. They were using Xen and were looking at expertise in this space to drive that technology, productize it, and bring to market."

What Does the CTO Do?

Wright rose up the ranks within Red Hat and became the Chief Technology Officer (CTO)of the company. But what does the CTO of an open source tech company really do when most of their technologies are being developed in the open by different communities?

"My role is about strategy around technology, to make sure that we are paying attention to emerging technology trends and markets that are potentially relevant to Red Hat," said Wright.

Every new technology or trend could be an opportunity or a threat, irrespective of its nature. Companies like Red Hat need to keep an eye on them and turn threats into opportunities. That's what Red Hat has been doing lately. The company has evolved from being a Linux vendor to a solution provider, making it easier for its customers to use technologies that add value to their businesses.

The good news is that most of these technologies are open source. "I call open source the innovation engine for the industry," said Wright. "We are a part of these open source communities. One of my jobs is to find the emerging and exciting technology trends and understand what impact it would have on our products. That influences our roadmap and direction."

Crystal Ball

Keeping up with the latest trends and technologies is a not an easy job these days. New technologies, new paradigms, and new buzzwords are popping up on a monthly basis. Open source has triggered an innovation revolution, where companies are putting out their work for wider exploration and adoption. Collaboration makes it easier to iterate on such technologies by a much larger and diverse community than a few engineers on the payroll of the company.

So, how does Wright keep an eye on all these technologies? Does he have a crystal ball? "My crystal ball is visibility into other people who are giving me all the information that I need. It's not just me; it's a team effort."

Red Hat has a very strong presence in most of the open source projects, which enables Red Hat to gain insight into what customers are looking for, the real challenges customers face, and trends. Wright's team has access to this insight, which helps him frame the roadmap for the company.

"It's relatively easy to find emerging trends and technologies, but the real challenge is to identify the projects which are healthy and then try to find the intersection point into our product world," said Wright. "We spend our time looking at one level deeper: What are the projects? What are they up to?"

Another challenge is that many of these emerging trends tend to have multiple projects that overlap others' efforts; each project tries to achieve the same or a slightly different goal with its own approach. "We try to find those projects that will withstand the test of time and be there for [the] long term. We try to find those key projects and then help our enterprise customers make use of them in a reliable, consumable way," said Wright.

Red Hat is very actively and directly involved with all of these trending technologies to make these open source technologies useful for customers. Open source is about building the core technologies; it's about day one, but customers need to bring them into production. They need plumbing so all those components work together. They need support. It would be way too expensive to hire developers who know everything from kernel to containers to blockchain. That's where companies like Red Hat enter the picture, to offer fully integrated solutions so companies can focus on using technologies to add value to their business instead of wasting resources in putting the pieces together.

HAL Opens the Door

One of the hottest trends that caught Wright's attention was machine learning. "It's big, but there is a big hype cycle associated with it, so part of what we also do is try to distill fact from fiction," he said. As exciting as machine learning is, Red Hat is not going to offer a machine learning platform. It's yet another workload that can run using Red Hat technologies. "We have to make sure our platforms support that workload. It may not sound as exciting as machine learning and AI, but it's a lot of work," he said. Red Hat is also using machine learning internally so that its own products and services can benefit from it.

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