Too dogmatic ? Us ?

10th March 2020 By Brian Fig 0

Draft, but haven’t have time to finish it, so comments welcome


It was a conversation with an ex-Red Hat colleague that got me thinking. We were discussing the company where he was working now and why, after a long career at Red Hat he felt he was now in a better place to understand and help customers. He put that down to now being more pragmatic to customer challenges, rather than dogmatic.

It got me thing and writing. Warning, there is some philosophical discussion and more ‘isms’ coming up below.

We have a understanding of what being pragmatic is ? Just get it done and don’t worry too much about the details, philosophical debate or the bigger picture. Pragmatism is a relatively new philosophical movement and is one that really looks at the actual measurable success of an action (or series of actions). It looks across a number of ideas, theories and methods and choses the one that is in practical terms, the best fit. It doesn’t consider the theoretical, touchy-feely or less tangible aspects to the matter in hand. You’d therefore say it’s the perfect approach for the keyboard warriers and the technologists.

Dogmatism is usually seen as the offical principles, methods and apparatus of a religion and is most commonly associated with the Catholic church. However, dogmatic people in work or a personal setting can be characterised by those who want to follow the rules and process of doing something. People who read the manual and then stick to the process, even if there’s a quicker, better way of doing something could be described as dogmatic.

The discussion, was Red Hat’s near-to-religious belief in open source was in fact a constraint in helping customers achieve success as it would ignore technology and processes that didn’t adhere to its own dogma (ie the rules and environment of open source). As such it might overlook or ignore a proprietary piece of software over-and-above a lesser open source alternative, just because the latter was open source. Initial I thought this a valid point, despite my own open source centric career over the last 25 years.

However, on further reflection, it occurred to me that all software companies are dogmatic, in that they believe their products, the ones which make them money are the best for the customer. It’s the nature of the industry.

There was one point he mentioned that was interesting; the company he now works for is open core, so it’s business model looks to use proprietary components as the means for revenue generation. It’s therefore a better model than a pure open source one. It’s a model that’s come under criticism from open source purists but it’s one that is relatively widely adopted. For an end user customer, I didn’t think this was more pragmatic, nor did it provide any greater benefit.

This conversation left me with two further areas of thought,

  1. With digital transformation at the forefront for so many organisations isn’t pragmatic approach really better
  2. Is Red Hat so closely wedded to open source that doesn’t have the best interest of the customer at heart ?

In thinking and writing this article, it raised a third area of thought. The discussion on this is also below, with a general conclusion to finish.

Pragmatism isn’t enough

For IT analysts, business consultants and those working solely on advise and guidance, then this pragmatic approach would seemingly make more sense. They are free from the constraints on selling software they produce (more on this below), so potentially they can pragmatic and potentially agnostic in providing the best solution to the customer. The term agnostic widely used, incorrectly to define independence and a focus of needs rather than a specific solution based on the technology trying to be sold. Infact, the analyst or architect should be described as an omnist, someone who believes in all technology equally and knows how it should be used in a specific solution.

Since the acquisition of Red Hat by IBM [1], I’ve spent plenty of time working with my new colleagues. A recent presentation from someone within services part of IBM got me thinking further; he stated that as part of an advisory service on cloud computing, his organisation would be independent and put the customer requirements first and foremost, with no bias towards IBM or Red Hat products or technology.. Unsurprisingly, this provoked some charged responses from the internal audience of 100 or more technologists. The revenue came purely selling consulting time and not software products. In my own career in Red Hat Consulting, only a couple of occasions have we been approached by customers for “independent” advisory work; usually it’s for advise on what technology Red Hat and open source can provide. Given that a lot of the consulting companies are not ‘digitally native’ then this made a lot of sense.

Primarily the role I and my colleagues have played is based on that of syncretism whereby different approaches, technologies and methods are combined to provide the best advice and potentially the best solution to the customer [2]This is a fascinating area of work, much debated and one suggested reader is However, you need an open and inclusive mind to do this type of work, which also can be a challenge given the confirmation bias we all have.

Digital transformation and how IT and computing now should work means that the combination of people, process and technology is complex and that Occam’s Razor can rarely be applied successfully. Solutions are complex, though not impossible to solve. For digital transformation, understanding the wider business, the capabilities of the organisation being worked with and having sight of the long term goal (and path toward it) are all key aspects. Getting an understanding of the business is key [3]Reading The Phoenix Project is a good way of understanding this

Being pragmatic will result in quick wins for customers and their technology providers, however focusing on one aspect (usually the technology) will mean the chance of long term success are not so certain.

Doing the Right Thing

As mentioned above, all technology companies and their employees believe their software is the best for the customer and for the problems that customer needs to solve. The digital transformation agenda over the last 5-7 years has shown that these problems are becoming harder to solve and importantly cannot be resolved solely through the use of technology.

Red Hat’s is the most successful open source company. By having this higher doctrine around open source beyond that of the company goals (usually financial), it can be argued is in fact less dogmatic than many proprietary vendors as it has both community and enterprise versions of software available to its customers. The former (free, as in beer) versions are the communities and the projects that are the heart and soul of open source, whilst enterprise versions are the downstream, paid for versions that are used commercially with the security, support and management that’s needed. Whilst the sales teams in Red Hat aren’t always happy about the community versions of the software product, their existence is essential for making the software what it is. For many developers paid for by Red Hat, it is solely the community software that is their focus and whilst this drives downstream commercial revenue (and pays their salaries) they are not incentivised by this.

Back to The Present Age

So to the third point, that’s come up whilst I’ve been thinking and preparing this article. A couple of years ago I wrote a short, Kierkegaard influenced article of The Present Age, discussing the impact of the calm after the battle. For Red Hat, it can be argued that its fight for success and understanding of open source took place from 1994 through to around 2015 and the rise of the hyperscale cloud providers and widespread understanding of open source.

As time moves on, people with direct experience from this part of the companies history diminishes as people move on to new challenges, so understanding and belief changes. Lots of new hires to Red Hat come because the success of Red Hat after careers in other technology companies (some successful, some not). They add significantly to the shared knowledge and experience within the company. One of the other aspects to this growth and change has been their interpretation and understand of open source and Red Hat culture. Open Leadership principles, combined with transparency are recognised and admired, making it a desirable place to work and it’s no about it’s something that has driven it’s success.

From my own experience, this open culture and leadership has sometimes been interpreted by new joiners as the ability to continue work in the way they were working at previous companies (this is in part why they were hired), as much as it is embracing the dogma of open source. The cultural change when coming into Red Hat sometimes does result in an incorrect fit as the organisation can be robust and challenging, which is unfortunately interpreted as hostile. This one of the pitfalls of a meritocracy.

The other effect is the growth of gnosticism, where the beliefs and understanding of the individual have taken a greater importance than that of corporate or open source dogma. In most cases this might