A Conversation About Innovation, Collaboration, and Joining the Open-Source Movement
Stefanie Chiras, who was recently promoted to Senior Vice President and General Manager, currently leads the Red Hat Enterprise Linux business unit at Red Hat. Chiras joined the organization in 2018 — transitioning from the business side of IBM Systems — excited to move fully into the open-source world that Red Hat is so committed to, building off her experience in hardware space.
Her background includes studying mechanical engineering with a specialty in combustion engines for her undergraduate degree at Harvard, pursuing her master’s degree and PhD in materials engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and completing postdoc work in aerospace engineering at Princeton University. Following her studies, as well as a summer internship working for NASA, Chiras chose a career in the technology industry instead of becoming a college professor as she originally intended.
Chiras began her career at IBM Research in 2001, and then transitioned through the engineering and development side of the business, where she worked in everything from chip design to system architecture, system design, and testing. In 2012, she moved to the business side of IBM Systems, where her first corporate role involved creating a business in the Linux space. Through that exposure to the open-source ecosystem, Chiras gained familiarity and interest in Red Hat, which she worked closely with as a trusted partner before eventually joining the organization.
SAPinsider recently spoke with Chiras to learn more about her journey in the technology industry and in the SAP space in particular. In this Q&A, she discusses the path that led to her current role, how key mentors have influenced her life, and the relationship that Red Hat and SAP have forged to offer joint customers value today and into the future.
Q: Was there anything specific about your upbringing or education that helped lead you to a career in technology?
While I was growing up, both of my parents were public school teachers. And my dad felt he could fix anything that could be taken apart, no matter what it was — he just had to try. For example, he once wanted me to help him fix a transmission that had gone out on an old car. When I told him that I couldn’t do it, he said, “People do this every day. You can certainly do it once.” That was his line, and he gave me a fearless attitude toward tackling things, such as auto mechanics, that I didn’t know much about. Very few of the things I have done in my life were things I knew everything about before I got started. That exposure early on to going ahead anyway helped shape a worth-a-shot, can-do view that helps guide everything I do, and continually urges me to move to the next step and take on anything.
During my high-school education, I was very lucky to have a physics professor who was an unbelievable mentor. His teaching style was very pragmatic — he followed a this-is-how-the-world-works approach rather than a textbook approach — which opened my eyes to a different view of science and changed how I’ve looked at things throughout my life.
When I went to college, I loved physics and had grown up working with tools, so a mechanical engineering major seemed like the perfect solution. In my senior year, another professor who was an amazing mentor suggested I go to graduate school and encouraged me to pursue teaching at the college level. But first, I took a summer internship at NASA in the materials program in Langley, Virginia, working in a huge airplane hangar that was converted into a lab, breaking sample materials apart, and studying how they fractured. It was the first time I saw the passion of people working together in a field like that. It was a magnificent environment, with everyone so happy to be there every day, sharing ideas and fueling one another’s innovation. I absolutely loved it.
In grad school, I went into materials engineering and pursued my PhD in that space with the full intention to teach. I started teaching at the college level during my postdoc work and then decided to change over to the commercial side of the industry. While I loved the teaching aspect of academia, the lure of collaborative and unified research being done in the industry was very appealing to tackle real-world problems. I joined IBM Research and ended up working in processor chips. I slowly worked my way up the stack and gained a background in everything from metalization to chip design, system architecture, system design, testing, and characterization. Then, around 2012, I moved from the engineering development side over to the business side, which was a big shift.
Q: You’ve had quite a journey throughout your schooling and your career. Are there any particular skills you developed that you feel helped your progression?
I learned early on how important it is to surround yourself with subject matter experts in other areas and be willing to learn from them. For example, when you get a PhD, you know a whole lot about a very focused topic. Then, when you look to apply all that knowledge, it only works if it is complemented by other people’s expertise in other areas. Knowing your area is only part of it — it is far more important to know the boundaries of your knowledge and how it interacts with everything around it.
It’s a choice to be open to learning. It’s okay to lack knowledge about something, and it’s a gift to find an expert in that area and work with them. Looking for new places to learn from is something that has kept me motivated throughout my career, and it’s one of the reasons I joined Red Hat.
Q: What spurred your move from the hardware side of the technology industry to enterprise software, and what do you love most about your current role at Red Hat?
Coming from the business side in the systems division at IBM, and working in the Linux space, I had a great appreciation for the value of the ecosystem. I had an opportunity to absorb Red Hat from the outside in, and I was very intrigued by its approach, culture, and the open-source aspect. The collaborative nature of the environment was very appealing to me. I believe in the vision of open source and the innovation it builds on, and so it felt very natural and comfortable to me. Having come from the hardware side, I was eager to engage in a space with a much broader ecosystem and upstream communities of everything from chip manufacturers to architecture suppliers, cloud providers, and independent software vendors.
There are jobs and careers, and then there are movements that you want to be a part of. I joined Red Hat to participate in a movement to understand open source and how to bring that value forward to customers. The beauty of my role is that it sits in the middle of that. It gives me the opportunity to work with Red Hat Enterprise Linux customers and understand their needs, what problems they need to solve, what’s coming down the pipeline, and where they want to move their business next. And it lets me take what we do with Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system, which serves as the technology underpinning of all our other products, and helps connect that to the rest of the portfolio. It also gives me the ability to still touch the engineering and technology side, which feels like a core part of me.
It’s so rewarding to listen to customers and act as that liaison to bring what they need upstream. For example, customers that run their business on SAP software ask what we can do to help ensure they can move forward, and that, in turn, feeds our ecosystem decisions — whether that is a choice of processor, public cloud, or SAP application. I find that three-dimensional arrangement so exciting because it’s like an engine of innovation with many requirements from different areas, and it’s never stagnant.
Q: What are your current priorities and plans for helping to bring SAP customers into the future?
Our core principles — of listening to customers first, ensuring we deliver what they need today, focusing on what they need tomorrow, and giving them flexibility going forward — are very similar to what SAP is delivering to its customers as it works to help them modernize. There’s good alignment between our focus areas, and the technologies we deliver are extremely complementary. With all the innovation that’s coming down the pipeline, customers want flexible environments that are resilient, reliable, and secure, and they are looking for partners that stand behind the commitment to ensure all that while keeping up with the technology. And that’s where we come in. Red Hat is very focused on what we call “the open hybrid cloud,” which is a platform that provides customers with the flexibility they want to deliver today and allows them to more easily consume innovation and change as they move forward, but without compromising their security, stability, and resiliency.
Customers’ strategies and needs are forever changing and are very diverse. Some companies might want to run their systems on premise for a long time, and others might decide to run multiple public clouds. In response to these changing needs, we have evolved our offerings beyond Linux to become a portfolio company that responds to developing trends in the open-source space and keeps the ecosystem relevant and future-ready.
Today, lots of customers want to use as-a-service offerings and managed services, and this open-hybrid-cloud world is expanding. Without knowing exactly what will come down the pipeline, we give customers a foundational platform that allows them to build on everything they’ve already done, to leverage that next thing, and to simply and easily take their SAP workloads where they want to take them — and we do that with an ecosystem. We have a trusted partnership with SAP, as evidenced by our collaborative testing efforts, which has only grown as our platform has expanded. For example, we introduced capabilities such as our Kubernetes platform, OpenShift, and our automation management platform, Ansible, which we can deliver with the SAP portfolio. In that way, our offerings are well aligned both in how we view our customers and how we want to bring them value today and deliver what they need tomorrow.
Q: In terms of what you want to deliver to customers today, what strategic priorities and key decisions are they seeking to address with your help?
With all the change and opportunity that innovation offers today, and everything affecting and accelerating business strategies, such as the COVID-19 crisis, the most critical questions that customers raise with us revolve around which migration approach is right for them, and how to prioritize what step to take first — or next — on their journey.
Our focus is all about helping customers understand where to build a consistent and sustainable infrastructure. Do they want to run it on premise or on a public cloud? There are so many choices, and prioritizing those decisions is a challenge. The open hybrid cloud is different for everybody. But the biggest question is what to do first and how to start tackling that in a way that makes strategic sense for the business and allows the flexibility to move forward.
Q: Did you have many female peers throughout your education and career? And do you see the tech industry as becoming more inclusive of women?
There were very few women in my undergraduate program, and I can remember only two women during my summer internship, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that most of my peers were male, and I felt a little out of place as a woman. That led me to internalize doubts about raising my hand or worries about saying the wrong thing. For me, that was the first time being different felt tied to my gender rather than something else that was easier for me to rationalize.
In grad school, I had a great professor who would consistently call me out — in a room where I was the only woman among 300 men eager to answer every question — and encourage me to answer. I was very quiet and never felt compelled to be the first one to speak up, even if I knew the answer. This professor told me, “You need to find your voice.” That was a very good lesson, and of everything I learned in grad school, that is quite honestly what has stuck with me the most throughout my life.
I have definitely seen an improved focus on achieving gender balance, but there is more work to be done, and I think this needs to start at a young age. Having an experience early on that strengthens your confidence and emboldens you to take risks is important. There are many outreach programs, such as Girls Who Code, which Red Hat is very active with, where the intent is to provide all girls with the opportunity for choice. They can try out coding, and they can decide whether or not to do it again — no one is making that choice for them. As they go through their careers, this is an important point to remember. Someone might do something to make them feel uncomfortable or feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. That part is out of their control. But they can decide how they react and what they will do next — they own that choice.
When I look at diversity in the tech industry overall, the attention and progress I see in some areas is wonderful, but it’s important for everyone in the industry as a group to continue to focus on three key areas. First, there’s the hiring aspect, where we need to ensure we start with a very diverse population from which to pick the best candidate. We all have a responsibility to build the pipeline and engage early on to ensure everyone feels comfortable making the choice to apply. The second piece is ensuring we have the right leadership training. It’s important for leaders to feel their feet are firmly on the ground, especially if a leader is one woman in a team of 20 men, for example. These first two areas — the hiring aspect and leadership training — have metrics that people can track to see if progress is being made. The third area, however, is probably the most important and hardest to measure: creating an inclusive view so that everyone is heard and asked for their point of view, which takes real consistency and effort to build. It matters, and we need to solicit feedback from everyone to participate in making that culture.
I find there is a lot more awareness and dialogue around diversity happening today, and there is much more of a willingness and openness to feedback or corrections, which is the way to change. And this gives me hope that the industry — and society as a whole— will work to achieve that. It’s great to already see a focus on ensuring there’s no bias in job descriptions. That is a very important step.
Because of all the innovation happening today, it’s never been so important to have more diverse views at the table. With customers themselves being so diverse, companies must be able to look at their varied needs through different perspectives so they can come up with ideas and solutions that are equally diverse.
Q: How is Red Hat focusing on diversity and inclusion efforts?
Open source starts with the premise that the best ideas can come from anywhere. It’s the purest form of collaboration. There are coders across the globe all contributing to make something that is greater than its parts. What’s interesting is everyone is viewed anonymously, with their identity based on the ID they use. Their code speaks for them, which serves to obscure any unconscious biases. Our goal at Red Hat is to mirror that magic of the open-source world and bring it to the next level, where people can bring their whole selves to work. We do that by building on layers of what we call “the open culture.”
We have open management practices for our leadership, which were created with collective input, pulling ideas from everyone on how best to build an open and collaborative environment. We have a set of core priorities and multipliers that are all about communication and how to treat each other with respect. By ensuring that these principles are consistent and cohesive across the company, both at a leadership level and at an individual level, we keep it foremost in people’s minds that what we do is important, but how we do it is equally important.
To create that culture, you absolutely need the right hiring practices and leadership programs, but what matters most is the day-to-day inclusion practice. That’s where a company either differentiates itself or not, and Red Hat has done a great job. There is still more we can do, and we work at it every day.
Our diversity and inclusion efforts are very visible and often discussed, which gives us a platform to reinforce those practices all the time, and we certainly have groups dedicated to diversity and inclusion. When I first joined Red Hat, I was lucky enough to participate in a two-day summit with a small group of women dedicated to discussing ways to create a more inclusive culture at Red Hat. It was the most grounding and amazing experience to come into a new company and, right away, spend two days with about 12 senior women at Red Hat — all with very diverse backgrounds — and focus on how to make the company a better place for women. It was a great bonding experience and gave me a network that I still rely on when I need to call on a mentor.
Q: As mentorship seems to be a big part of your career growth, is that something you try to reciprocate to others?
It is very important to me. I’ve had a number of mentors external and internal to Red Hat who I have learned so much from just by listening to other perspectives and different points of view. That’s something all of us need. No one wants to feel isolated. And we can try to make a difference by helping each other make a difference. So it’s my opportunity to give back and reinforce to someone else that it’s important to be yourself, express yourself, and have people you can talk to. Being a mentor to someone is rewarding for me because I hopefully can help someone move forward and I inherently learn a lot in the relationship as well.
Q: What specific advice or encouragement would you give to other women to help them move forward?
At the end of the day, we all want to add value and make an impact. But value is relative to what is needed at one point in time — for that team, in that space, in that moment. We are trained, particularly in science, that we are either right or wrong and that value is brought to the table by the person who is “the best.” But being valuable and being the best are not synonymous. Seeking to be valuable is a much more fruitful goal, and understanding that even if you aren’t the best at something (such as coding a kernel), you can bring value by finding someone to work with who is.
There’s only one best, but everyone can bring value. Looking at the world that way helps level the playing field and brings different perspectives to the table, which brings value. It is the responsibility of all today’s leaders to help the next generation of leaders figure out their own way to bring value, because they will create the next wave of great innovations. We are all in this together.