Raleigh’s Whitehurst steps down as IBM president

Red Hat leader who oversaw 2019 merger with IBM exits amid a series of executive changes

Jim Whitehurst and Gina Rometty are shown in this undated file photo.

RALEIGH — Jim Whitehurst, who came to lead Raleigh-based Red Hat in January 2008 and directed the open source and Linux company through an acquisition by IBM in July of 2019, is now out at IBM.

Whitehurst’s departure was one of a series of executive changes announced by IBM late last week, just before the July 4th holiday weekend.

Whitehurst remained after Red Hat’s $34 billion acquisition and then 14 months later, in April of 2020, moved over from Red Hat’s CEO spot to become the president of IBM. He was replaced at that time as Red Hat’s CEO by Paul Cormier, a 19-year veteran of the open source market leader.

In a July 2 post on the company’s website, IBM chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna wrote that the company was “announcing a series of important leadership changes effective immediately,” including Whitehurst reportedly “stepping down” as IBM’s president.

Jim Whitehurst has played a pivotal role in the IBM and Red Hat integration,” wrote Krishna. “In the almost three years since the acquisition was announced, Jim has been instrumental in articulating IBM’s strategy, but also, in ensuring that IBM and Red Hat work well together and that our technology platforms and innovations provide more value to our clients. Jim has decided to step down as IBM President, however I am pleased he will continue working as Senior Advisor to me and the rest of the Executive Leadership Team as we continue to evolve our business.”

In an article for tech news site EnterpriseAI, industry reporter Todd Weiss referenced the mixed emotions among analysts and insiders about Whitehurst’s exit, while some expressed shock and others shrugged it off as “business as usual.”

“As someone with a long-term commitment to the business of open source, I am disappointed to see the departure of Jim Whitehurst from the role of president,” said Bill Weinberg, open source strategist at Linux Pundit. “His leadership kept Red Hat at the forefront of open source while simultaneously evolving the company to become a premier private and hybrid cloud provider. His direction deftly positioned Red Hat for the 2018 acquisition by IBM as that behemoth sought a new growth engine and looked to re-establish leadership as a cloud technology provider.”

At the same time, Weinberg told Weiss, “this shakeup at 100-year-old IBM is business as usual. I have lost count of the number of reinventions, ousters and ‘seismic shifts’ at Big Blue over the last decades. Today’s emphasis on AI in the cloud is the right place for the IT giant, and it’s hard to argue with Arvind Krishna wanting new faces and newer thinking.”

Weinberg also noted, however, that IBM stock tumbled about 5 percent on the news, indicating market uncertainty surrounding the changes.

Weiss also quotes Rob Enderle, principal of Enderle Group, who said that Whitehurst’s early history as COO at Delta Air Lines meant he started out in a different kind of company and culture, even though he ended up leading Red Hat for many years.

“Whitehurst was never an ideal match for this project” at IBM said Enderle. “As a result, he was always likely to be replaced by more of a subject matter expert as IBM’s process is to assure technical competency in critical positions generally.  A capable executive, he was simply poorly matched to the job overseeing a progressive software company during a time of significant change.”

Because the president’s role at IBM was critical, “and because [Whitehurst] lacked the background to do it, it was always a matter of when he was going to leave, not if,” said Enderle.

“You bring a talent like Whitehurst as a turnaround manager, similar to [Louis] Gerstner at IBM,” Enderle continued. “But this isn’t a turnaround job. It is a sustaining and expansion job and, for that, you need a subject matter expert. Typically, you need a software specialist to run a software unit, not a general-purpose operational CEO. Whitehurst is the latter.”

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Inc., told Weiss that like many other IBM-watchers, he thought that Whitehurst was being groomed to eventually step into the CEO position when Arvind Krishna decided to retire.

“Since the Whitehurst news was one part of an announcement of other senior executive transitions and new hires, it’s hard to say whether this signals a broader shift I’m IBM’s strategy,” said King. “The fact that Whitehurst is remaining as a senior advisor is a positive point though exactly what that role will consist of remains to be seen.”

According to Weiss, the combination of IBM and Red Hat was seen as “giving IBM a leg up” and “represented a bet by IBM that open source technologies will continue to drive enterprise cloud deployments as users look to diversify beyond current public cloud leaders Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.”