Red Hat’s Chief People Officer DeLisa Alexander blends creativity and technology

 In January 2019

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By Page Leggett

As chief people officer, DeLisa (rhymes with Melissa) Alexander is responsible for recruiting, training and developing “Red Hatters” at the Raleigh-based software company. There are more than 12,000 of them, a number that’s grown from 1,100 in the 12 years since Alexander joined the “people team.” An attorney by training, she came to Red Hat in 2001 from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP and worked in the legal department until 2006. She assumed her current post in 2011.

Given her tenure, Alexander, 53, could claim responsibility for the company’s inclusive culture. Red Hat’s benefits include parental leave for adoptive parents in same-sex relationships and health care covering gender confirmation surgery. But Alexander will tell you she didn’t create the company’s values — it happened organically.

She’ll soon be challenged to maintain that culture at Red Hat, where more than 50% of new hires originate from employee referrals. In October, tech giant IBM said it will buy Red Hat for $33.4 billion, or $190 per share. Founded in 1993, Red Hat is known for its expertise in open-source, cloud-based solutions using the Linux operating system. The deal, expected to close in the second half of 2019, will be the largest software acquisition ever.

It’s too soon to speculate how the companies will mesh, and legal restrictions prevent Alexander from speaking on the topic. But one subject she’s passionate about is women in technology.

While women are underrepresented in the field, she’s doing her part to change that. Alexander works with other Red Hatters on the CO.LAB program, which pairs middle-school girls with tech professionals to introduce them to coding and technology. The girls use cameras they make from Raspberry Pi microcomputers to capture images that illustrate a stanza of a selected poem, blending creativity and technology.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Is a chief people officer different from a chief human resources officer?

Red Hat’s version of an HR team is a “people team.” We’ve learned some things from traditional HR departments — benchmarking, for example — that we marry with best practices of our own. Being known as the people team sends a signal: We’re here for people and with people. We’re not separate. We’re agile and accessible.

What makes Red Hat a place people want to work?

First, we’re transparent. We share with recruits what’s good about Red Hat and what can be challenging about it. The market is constantly evolving, and so must our products. We have to evolve, too.

People who thrive at Red Hat are extremely agile. Someone who needs a documented, never-changing handbook and procedures manual may not find us a good fit. We have an open culture and believe in helping our people unlock their potential.

It seems creativity is essential.

I was practicing law at Red Hat when I was given a new opportunity. And I was supported by my leader on the legal side, as well as then-CEO Matthew Szulik, to pursue it. There was a time I was sitting at my desk reviewing securities law, and I thought: I’ve ruined my life. I should be in [organizational development] instead.

All of us here are encouraged to learn new things. We’re always saying: Fail early, and fail fast. That’s how we build our creative muscle.

How attractive do your recruits find the Triangle? Is it a selling feature when wooing top talent?

More than half of our workforce lives and works outside the U.S., but the Triangle does help us bring people here when we need a particular position to be based in Raleigh. … The Triangle is growing and dynamic and, because of that, it’s made it an easier sell for us. When people get here, they tend to stick around.

What do you plan to focus on as chair of the Raleigh Chamber in 2020?

The Chamber has defined specific initiatives in two new areas: Innovation and entrepreneurship through the Innovate Raleigh partnership, and diversity, equity and inclusion through the equitable economic-development partnership with the local government. My hope is that we can leverage these resources to continue to make Wake County a great place to live, work and play by creating opportunities for everyone.

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Ollie Mulligan