As Red Hat slowly loses its open culture under IBM’s ownership, SUSE might be set to finally become an important global open-source player, but only if its board allows the former Red Hatter who will take the helm on May 2 to bring “the open source way” to a secretive and “top-down” corporate culture.
Melissa Di Donato is out as CEO of SUSE, effective immediately, and Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen is in, or will be on May 1. In the meantime, SUSE’s CFO Andy Myers will be holding the reins as he continues with his CFO role. According to a press release from SUSE, Di Donato is leaving to “embark on the next chapter of her career.” My guess is that she was let go, and gently pushed out the door with a generous separation package.
She left quickly and without fanfare. Although a press release was written and posted online last week, the PR people at SUSE didn’t bother to notify many of the tech journalists they typically turn to when they want to get the news out about a new hire or product release. Jonas Persson, chair of SUSE’s board, praised her as she was walking out the door, with something of a “the king is dead; long live the king” statement.
“Her work has strengthened SUSE’s global brand and set it up for success in the coming years. We wish her all the best for her future endeavors,” he said. “The Board is convinced that Dirk-Peter’s outstanding track record and expertise within the enterprise software industry make him the ideal CEO to lead SUSE as it embarks on the next phase of its journey.”
The new king said he’s happy to be taking the throne and is looking forward to his coronation.
“I have admired the organization for many years and am now looking forward to working with the executive team and the entire organization to execute on the various opportunities the market offers and serve our customers and partners,” Van Leeuwen said, also in a statement. “I know that SUSE’s people are some of the best in the industry and I am excited to see what we can achieve together.”
The outgoing queen wants everybody to know that it’s all good.
“After four wonderful years, it is now time to pass the reins to the future leadership team and I wish everyone at SUSE the very best,” she said.
I suspect this change has little to do with the person who’s leaving, however, and has everything to do with who’s coming on board — or at least with his knowledge of how Red Hat performed its magic back in the days before IBM took over.
Di Donato’s Tenure
Di Donato came on board as SUSE’s CEO in June 2019, not long after SUSE returned to being an independent Linux and open-source company after about 15 years of being owned by Novell, Attachmate, and Micro Focus, and also about the time that Red Hat’s sale to IBM was being finalized.
She appears to have been hand-picked for the job by Blitz 18-679 GmbH, a subsidiary of Germany-based EQT Partners, which purchased the company from Micro Focus for $2.53 billion in 2018. It’s likely that she was chosen primarily because of her association with the German business software vendor SAP, which was SUSE’s most important customer at the time and probably still is. Before SUSE, Di Donato spent more than 2 1/2 years at SAP, as the chief revenue officer for the company’s ERP Cloud, and as the chief operating officer of its digital core.
Her performance as SUSE’s driver has been steady. Most notably, under her leadership the company successfully negotiated the acquisition of Rancher, a top US-based startup in the Kubernetes/cloud-native arena. During her time at the helm, the company’s revenues increased by more than 60%, and its profits increased by an even greater amount. Despite these successes, the company has failed to excite the investment community, however. Its 2021 IPO was considered lackluster at best, and its stocks have been trending downward since.
Van Leeuwen at Bat
When looking at the backside of Van Leeuwen’s baseball card as he goes to bat, he seems to bring a lot of strengths to the plate that team SUSE needs, most of them revolving around the nearly two decades he spent at Red Hat, which is SUSE’s largest rival. Although he does have a background in computer science, basically he’s an executive suite sales guy who arrived at Red Hat after a stint as the European sales director for Planetweb.
During his 18 years at Red Hat, he held vice president roles, most recently spending 1 1/2 years as SVP and general manager of Red Hat North America. Before that, he spent nearly 11 years as the company’s SVP and GM of Red Hat Asia, Pacific, and Japan, after serving over a year as VP of sales in the same region.
At Red Hat, he’s been credited with taking the company from being an also-ran to becoming a significant player in Asia, and he did it in part by advocating for openness as a business virtue and pushing the notion of “success through openness,” which had been Red Hat’s rallying cry under Jim Whitehurst’s leadership.
“I felt it was important for the region to cooperate as one and create connections between all the different people and organizations,” Van Leeuwen told CEO Magazine in 2020.
“With a common vision for everybody, we could also make people feel part of something unique, which really is the Red Hat culture. I wanted the organization to outperform any other in the region because we were collaborating and working together across borders and across cultures. That’s a super powerful way of achieving goals.”
How Van Leeuwen Can Help SUSE
Although the SUSE that van Leeuwen inherits has a rich history in Linux and open source that predates Red Hat, it comes across as just another technology vendor. That perception might change for the better under van Leeuwen’s leadership, but only if the board allows him to incorporate “the open source way” philosophy that Red Hat once practiced into SUSE’s corporate structure.
The ability to sell openness as the key component in open source technology and to do so by setting an example, something Red Hat was very good at under Whitehurst, is something that has been lacking from SUSE’s corporate culture since it was purchased by Novell in 2003. While the company is quick to use the phrase “open source” as a sales tool, it does so without effectively explaining the advantages that come with the terminology, both as a way of describing the technology and as an essential ingredient to the culture of companies advocating its use.
In addition, van Leeuwen can help SUSE gain traction on this side of the Atlantic by leveraging his knowledge of tech markets in the U.S., which is another thing that appears to be in short supply at SUSE.
Can he be successful? Maybe. When Jim Whitehurst took over as CEO at Red Hat, the company wasn’t very well known outside of open-source circles. By the time he left 12 years later it was an internationally known innovator in data centers and in the cloud.
Whether van Leeuwen will be successful will depend on whether he can work the same magic at SUSE that Whitehurst worked at Red Hat.