Engineering leadership theme of new Rice speaker series

Jim Whitehurst ’89 inaugural guest in fireside chat hosted by Rice Center for Engineering Leadership.

Open to innovation speaker series graphic

A new speaker series, by and for engineers, is coming to Rice University.

The Rice Engineering Leader Speaker Series hosted by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) will feature world-class engineering executives and other leaders of technology organizations who rely heavily on the work of engineers. The inaugural speaker will be Jim Whitehurst ’89, who is both the former president and CEO of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open-source software solutions and the former COO of Delta Airlines.

“We are in the midst of a new industrial revolution in which technology is not only the chief driver of advancement and innovation, but data, AI, minds and machines are entering every aspect of our lives at an accelerating pace,” said Fred Higgs, faculty director of RCEL. “It is crucial for the Rice community to hear from technology leaders how products and services built on data, AI, minds and machines will transform how engineers will be expected to lead in this fourth industrial revolution — Industry 4.0.” 

Whitehurst will speak on “Open to Innovation: How Engineers Can Lead in Disruptive Change” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12 in McMurtry Auditorium, Duncan Hall. He earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and economics from Rice. He attended Erlangen Nuremberg University in Germany, holds a general course degree from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Whitehurst will trace his journey from Rice engineering student to chief operating officer of Delta Airlines, president and chief executive officer of Red Hat and president of IBM. He will discuss how rapid technological change is transforming the skills required for successful leadership, and how engineers can prepare themselves to lead.

Whitehurst joined Delta on Sept. 11, 2001 and steered the company through the shock of 9/11, financial restructuring and hostile takeover attempts by rival airlines. At Red Hat, Whitehurst grew the Linux software firm into the world’s first billion-dollar open source company, increasing revenue eightfold and engineering Red Hat’s $34 billion acquisition by IBM. He is now an independent director of several companies and a speaker and writer on organizational leadership.

In 2015, Whitehurst published The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance.

“I have known Jim since we were students together at Rice,” said George Webb ’88, ’91, RCEL’s industry relations director and organizer of the speaker series. “One of the most impressive things about Jim is his combination of thoughtfulness and down-to-earth approachability. He communicates his experience in an understandable way.” 

Whitehurst serves on the Rice Board of Trustees and is the father of a senior at Rice. 

The second speaker in the Rice Engineering Leader Speaker series, in February, will be Antonio Neri, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

“Every company must become a technology company in order to thrive in Industry 4.0,” Higgs said. “This means that engineers must increasingly be brought to the leadership table for companies to remain competitive. This speaker series is dedicated to bringing in engineering executives and the leaders of technology organizations that rely on engineers to drive their pace of innovation. While we want our Rice engineering students to become the most talented and responsible engineers at their jobs first, many of them should also aspire to become future vice presidents of engineering, chief technology officers, and founder-CEOs as well. This series aims to bring our students face to face with people who have achieved this.”