Brian Stevens joined Red Hat’s senior management team in 2001. As the company’s Executive Vice President and CTO, he oversees an engineering team that focuses on Linux, virtualization, middleware and cloud computing. Most recently, he’s been touting the all-in-one Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Edition that bundles platform and cloud together.
Stevens began his career at Digital Equipment Corp., where he was a developer on the first commercial release of the X Window System. He spent 14 years there. He spoke with Dice about how his career developed.
Coming out of high school, did you know what you wanted to do?
Yeah, I wanted to be a carpenter. Volkswagen made this car called the Thing – ugliest car ever. I wanted one of these convertible Things and I wanted to be a carpenter. That was it. Zero interests elsewhere.
But my guidance counselor disagreed. I said a stupid thing. I said, “If I have zero interests elsewhere, then you pick.” This was in ’81 and colleges were just starting to have a computer science curriculum. We’d had a couple of classes in our high school. He said, “You’re going to have a regular job and carpentry is going to be your hobby.” He thought engineering and computer science were going to be the future. So I jumped right in and loved it. And carpentry is my hobby.
So how did you get started?
I grew up in New York state and my senior year, my folks moved back to New Hampshire, which is where they were from. I went to the University of New Hampshire for computer science. It had a really early, sound program. It and Stanford were really ahead of the game on computer science.
It had a really strong relationship with Digital Equipment. All of software for Digital Equipment, which was a couple hundred thousand people back then, was in Nashua, N.H. It fed the university system with hardware and software, so I learned on that platform. I showed up at an open house my senior year and got hired at the open house.
And you were there 14 years?
Yes. I spent the first year and a half on a pretty cool project, then Digital decided it was going to do a pilot where they would send people back to school to get a master’s or Ph.D. They were going to pick 40 people. I’d only been there a year and half, but I’d been really lucky to get this great project and it went really well. I led it and defended it against all these people who had been in the industry for 20 years and wanted it to fail. So it allowed me to be selected.
I went back to New York and got a master’s degree at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in Troy. That was half hardware, half software. You got sent to school at full salary and everything was paid for. It was a beautiful thing. And there was no commitment to return. Like an idiot, I raced through it – got the whole thing done in 11 months, then came back because I was just so excited to be creating things in software.
I know some people think you have to move every few years to advance, but you’ve been at your employers for quite a long time.
I’ve had three employers. What I’ve done for my career is to never be afraid of taking the next big, undefined thing. At DEC, there were probably five different jobs in that, but none of those was something given to me by my manager and told, “Go do this thing.” Every one of those was me sort of seeing something that was happening and throwing my hat into the ring to lead it. Or just creating something. It was me saying, “Here’s what I’m going to do,” then selling it and then creating it. My career at Digital really accelerated because of that. I was always willing to leave one thing behind to go solve the next problem – and some of them got more and more visible.
After 14 years there, Digital wasn’t able to turn the corner to embrace the future because it was going to disrupt its core business, just like others. I tried to influence that change, but I just wasn’t senior enough to do that. The change I saw was all about Intel computers. I thought it was all going to be Microsoft computers if Linux didn’t show up.
So I left to join a startup, but I was not a founder. I said, “As long as you’re doing something with Linux, I’m in.” I spent two years there. We built a great team. We were ahead of the market.
As Red Hat was growing in the enterprise, it looked to acquire that company. That didn’t work out, but I came over individually.
Did you make any career decisions that you would do differently?
I’m not sure that I would. I feel like I’ve had the luckiest and the best job in the world over the stretch of the three. I’ve had big, small and then creating something that’s now medium. I’m not a believer that someone should anoint you. You’ve got to earn it. I believe you’ve got to be brave, lead and earn.
When I was hired at Red Hat, it was as a sole contributor. Then three months later I was running all of engineering. I believe things just gravitate to people that they should. If you have to negotiate through your career, it’s not going to get you to the right place. People are taking that next job because they’re negotiating what they think is a better position. But that makes it all about the negotiation – whether it’s compensation, a title. But in many cases, they’re probably not the right person for the job. Sometimes, in my mind, it’s better to just show up. Then when people know what you’re all about, the role and responsibility forms around you. That probably sounds naïve, but it’s worked for me.
So what career advice would you have for those just starting out?
I’m a big believer in the why instead of the what. Everything across my career has gotten grounded and resonates on why we’re doing what we’re doing. What the need is and the impact. Too often, folks get too focused on what they’re going to do. What they’re going to build, what tools they’re going to use. That’s really the second question. In business, if you don’t know what role you’re filling … As a software pro, you need to understand what difference you’re making for your customers and why. Get connected with what the marketplace needs, then fill that in with the skills and deliver on that.