Can an airline exec manage a software company?

An announcement before the holidays captured my attention: Red Hat named Jim Whitehurst, formerly COO of Delta Airlines, as its new CEO.  Maybe too hastily, I had a flashback to John Sculley’s disastrous tenure at Apple.

Whitehurst did some great things in pulling Delta out of bankruptcy and infusing employees with much-needed company spirit.  He is more than casually knowledgeable about open source and has definitely turned around opinions of people who’ve spoken to him.

But even if he is a self-proclaimed geek, does he have the background to succeed at Red Hat?  Are the company’s challenges in the near future operational or market- and technology-oriented? Do software companies need leaders who have a software background?

I’d like to hear opinions from the source — people in the business of software.

3 responses to “Can an airline exec manage a software company?”

  1. Arthur McCavendish says:

    Lou Gernster ran the company that made Oreos and Lucky Strike cigarettes before turning round IBM. Bill Green, CEO at Accenture, wasn’t a developer. Didn’t Steve Jobs only have a passing interest in the technical side at Apple? Plenty of successful leaders don’t have a technical background.
    The idea that you need to have ‘worked on the coalface’ to be a leader is a myth in the software industry. Understanding software isn’t anywhere near as hard as understand customers, and developing an effective strategy. Having a technical background certainly helps, in the same way that having trained as a chef puts you in a better position of running a restaurant business. But if you watch the Gordon Ramsey series ‘Kitchen Nightmares’, there are plenty of chef run businesses creating over-elaborate dishes for an empty restaurant. In the same way, you don’t have to look far over the Redmond skyline to find the software equivalent of this – a focus on product development at the expense of everything else, including what the customer actually wants.

  2. Andy Brice says:

    I certainly don’t feel my background in software development and business qualifies me to run an airline.

  3. Arthur,
    To manage a software company I think you need to understand software. That means you need to understand how it is written (in broad terms), what your products are, who the customers are, how it is sold and marketed and so on. Given time, these are all things you can get with experience. I don’t think that means you need to be able to code in C++ though.
    It also probably depends on what problems a company is facing. When Gerstner started at IBM, many of the problems were organizational and not technological (25% of the workforce was support staff, there was little intra-company communication, people spent their days arguing over geographic fiefdoms etc.)
    Also, your broadside at Redmond is possibly aimed at Steve Ballmer, who doesn’t have a technical background. Things seem to have gotten worse since he took over from Bill Gates, who did.