Regional chief of Red Hat is on a mission to democratise software and make it work for everyone.
Most young graduates expect that when they enter the job market, they will be able to find positions in the field they've spent four years studying. Ben Henshall was one of them.
Armed with a freshly minted degree in information technology, the native of Western Australia interviewed for a tech position but didn't get it. Instead he took a detour into sales and marketing, which has turned out to be a very fulfilling journey.
Two decades after that initial change in career direction, he leads the Southeast Asian operations of Red Hat, the open-source software multinational that has been going from strength to strength in recent years.
That culminated last year with the acquisition of the company by IBM for US$34 billion, a record for Big Blue, which is counting on its new subsidiary to help it compete in cloud services with the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
When Mr Henshall looks back on his early days, he says he saw how computers were changing everything, which was why he wanted to work in the technical field. When he got rejected, the managing director suggested he apply for a sales and marketing role instead. If he was disappointed, it was very short-lived. "I was happy. I just wanted a job," he tells Asia Focus.
"Are you still happy?" he is asked.
"I'm still doing it," he replies.
As it turned out, his career path led him into increasingly challenging sales and marketing roles with IT companies in Australia, including a four-year stint with Oracle, before he arrived at Red Hat in 2007. After distinguishing himself in Australia and later at the Southeast Asia headquarters in Singapore, he was named general manager for the region in October last year.
His success is rooted not only in an understanding of software products and services and how they are used, but also in cultural understanding, which he sees as the foundation for how he interacts with people and does business.
He attributes his approach to his Christian upbringing, which imbued in him a love of religious and philosophical teachings. The Bible in particular has had a profound impact on the way he sees the world, not only because it is the basis of his belief system, but also because the influence Christian values have had in shaping modern Western civilisation.
"The ideals and principles of freedom and democracy and free enterprise and the individual have helped drive what the West is today," he says.
And even though his studies focused on business information systems, Mr Henshall has a more reflective side that is very fond of philosophy. "I really have been very interested in politics, governments, culture and philosophy, because it is foundational to the civilisations and societies."
Philosophy and social science, he says, help him understand how to do business better. This is important for succeeding in a role that requires him to deal with many markets whose cultures are different from the one he grew up in.
Appreciating how different cultures operate and the various nuances of culture and politics is crucial, he says, adding that lessons learned from history can also be applied to business insights.
"My other objective is to never be afraid to ask questions and to be asked questions of myself," he writes on his LinkedIn profile. "I am not the smartest guy in the room, but through open collaboration and in the 'marketplace of ideas' the best one will rise to the surface -- everyone benefits."
Based on his 20 years of experience in information and communication technology sales and marketing, Mr Henshall observes that the industry has changed dramatically. Traditional sales has been transformed into core value selling or solution selling, and into transformational selling.
"It's more sophisticated and complex," he says. "Selling now is about helping organisations identify the problem areas they have and then applying what we have to help them make better decisions and execute their business strategies faster, with lower risk and less capital investment.
"When I'm having a discussion with a client's leadership team, I have to have some understanding of their business, their metrics, that I certainly have to have an idea of this strategy and benchmark them against their competitors, because that's what they all do. And then I have to have enough insight to offer them the solution they need."
Digitisation, Mr Henshall says, is a critical capability that organisations need in order to compete, as they seek to transform the way they deliver products and services to market.
"If you don't have those competencies, architectures and capabilities, then you're not going to be able to compete, reduce cost, maintain compliance and be agile," he says.
Red Hat offers open-source architecture and software delivery practices to help customers achieve those capabilities.
Essentially, open source is the democratisation of content and ideas in the form of software, according to Mr Henshall. Everybody has access to it, as opposed to a closed-loop proprietary innovation lab.
"It's a model by which communities and individuals contribute ideas in the form of code to create a particular function that will solve a particular problem in the world of software. Anyone can contribute code, software and ideas to that open-source project."
Open source is a central part of supporting digital transformation. The arrival of cloud computing has led to exponential growth in the field, with a mass of digital transformation services now available.
"It's like standing on the shoulders of giants," he says, alluding to the famous quotation of Bernard of Chartres. "Ideas upon ideas upon ideas. New code constantly gets contributed. And they're addressing problems and functions that a limited number of people in a proprietary software or technology company could never address in the space and time necessary."
Businesses, he says, can harness the power of open-source software to maintain competitiveness and embrace change, securing digital transformation capability, in a low-cost way.
Mr Henshall joined Red Hat in 2007 back when there were about about 250,000 open-source projects in the world. That number has since grown to millions, spanning from accounting to medical systems, he says.
Red Hat has thrived on the development and marketing of subscription-based software solutions to some of the biggest corporate names in the world. For the 2019 fiscal year that ended on Feb 28, 2019, it reported a net profit of $434 million, up from $262 million a year earlier, on revenue of $3.4 billion, which was up 15%. The company employs about 13,400 people worldwide.
"Essentially Red Hat is a product company that employs an open-source model for R&D and then we provide professional services, consulting people to come and help our customers and our partners use the software the right way," says Mr Henshall.
The products Red Hat offers originate in different open-source projects. The company evaluates them, packages them together, certifies, secures, provides documentation and support and a certified ecosystem of hardware, software and cloud providers, to deploy in data centres or in the cloud.
"If you can't deliver software fast, reliably, and with fast feedback cycles about how that software is being used to perform a business function or provide a service, then that is a major obstacle," he says.
In his view, the open-source innovation model is the best way to meet increasingly ambitious goals of customers. "We take some of these projects, we wrap them up as a product to make it stable, secure, supported and reliable.
"We have an ecosystem around that -- hardware, software and cloud providers. Customers put it in. It's architected beautifully. And then we help those companies start to apply modern, agile software delivery and operational practices."
Apart from the value of open source in promoting agility and scalability in business, software architecture is crucial, says Mr Henshall. "If you don't design software well and have it architected well, then you set yourself up for delivering poor experiences or processes to your end-users, which is customer partners, employees, business partners, governments." he says.
"Poorly architected software is a constraint on a business's ability to do two things: execute business strategies and reduce cost in the way they deliver.
"Red Hat software is essentially incubated and developed in the open-source world by design. It's generally architected in a much more superior way than would be done in a proprietary model. And that is because it's built in the cloud, by the cloud and essentially to run for the cloud."
FUTURE OF COMMUNICATIONS
Much of Mr Henshall's focus these days is on two business fields -- telecommunications and financial services -- that he maintains are foundational elements in the journey toward prosperity for businesses and countries alike.
"Total telecommunications is the foundational fabric to help countries transform through digitisation," he says, "5G is a really exciting space that accelerates the adoption of digitisation in ways that we haven't been able to do before.
"5G and telecommunications providers are trying to address this problem by modernising their networks, because they need to have it on a big scale, and it needs to be low cost."
For network equipment providers, open source is beginning to change the way the business is carried out.
"Network equipment providers previously had proprietary software and hardware that was built into their product, which was not agile and not scalable, and very costly," he says. "Now with Red Hat products they are able to utilise what is called network function virtualisation (NFV) which provides agility, cost-effectiveness and scalability."
Traditionally, he explains, a network equipment provider would come to a telecommunication provider, and would build a new network service, put in its own hardware and software which become inextricably tied to all the systems and services that start to emerge.
"With NFV, what's happened is that those network services are being virtualised, meaning that instead of it being 'baked in' or created by one provider, there is a common operating system."
With Red Hat OpenStack and Red Hat OpenShift, for example, a telecommunication provider can go to a commodity hardware provider such as Dell or HP, then install Red Hat software as an operating system to support all network functions.
"5G opens up further opportunities for use cases to address issues that we haven't thought of such as the Internet of Things, autonomous driving and remote medical services," he continues. "But it needs really high-fidelity bandwidth to be able to diagnose triage [in medical services], or for total quality management and automation in manufacturing."
Mr Henshall's passion is offering his services to help organisations that have already developed digital capabilities to become high-performing software delivery companies. Red Hat has been working with the telecommunication sector for over 20 years, as well as other big names in various industries, with customers in the league of SoftBank and NTT, Telstra and Optus.
"We're doing a lot of work to engineer our software and build an ecosystem to help telecommunications providers implement these new architectures, to work in the field that is agile, fast-paced and constantly being challenged."
Mr Henshall acknowledges that after 13 years with Red Hat, he continues to face new challenges that keep him "constantly on edge", but in a positive and motivating way.
"I am challenged with keeping up with the fast pace of innovation, trying to make sense of it, and then articulating how that applies to customers in the market across various segments," he says. "Technology changes so rapidly. It's super exciting and entertaining.
"I'm constantly learning and just trying to stay on top of things. And that's where consistent accountability comes from, because you're always being pushed to make sense of this fast-moving train of innovation."