Paul Cormier may not have realized it at the time, but his long and successful career in the software business began when he was still in high school.
The Leominster native’s father was facilities manager at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), and the young Cormier got a job at the plant while he was a junior at Leominster High. “I was going to do maintenance,” he recalled. “One day I met somebody on the floor who said, ‘You like math? You want to take a test?’ I took the test, and they said, ‘What about if instead of sweeping the floors, we train you in electrical engineering and computer technology?’”
He took them up on the offer and continued working at DEC after graduating. The company supported him through his studies in management at Fitchburg State. “I was a very non-traditional student,” Cormier recalled. “I worked part-time and went to school part-time.”
Cormier credits that hands-on component as critical to his career success. “I think getting some hands-on experience is the most important thing,” he said. “What college gives you is the theoretical foundation, and the practical application of that is so important. My advice to students is to look for internships as early as possible.”
His business studies were complemented by courses in the evolving field of computer science. As his career progressed, DEC paid Cormier’s way to a master’s degree at Rochester Institute of Technology, where software engineering was his focus.
Cormier’s career advanced with work in start-ups as well as large, established companies, where his engineering and technical skills also continued to evolve. He was recruited to join Red Hat, a major open source software firm, in 2001. Early on at Red Hat he showed a willingness to take risks and bet on himself, telling one skeptical CEO supervisor that if the product he was working on didn’t reach the company’s sales goals, he would tender his resignation. Instead, the project met the goals four times over.
I think one of the most important things for executives to know is: don't be afraid to fail, and be open to the best idea, which can come from anywhere.
When he joined Red Hat, Cormier was one of the first 200 employees. As the company’s fortunes rose and its open source software solutions were adopted across a range of industries, its ranks grew to more than 21,000. Cormier himself was elevated to President and CEO of the firm, and he helped broker the company’s acquisition by IBM for $34 billion in 2019. Today, Cormier considers himself semi-retired, though he remains chairman of Red Hat’s board and is also a partner in a private equity firm.
The IBM acquisition of Red Hat has been a success, he said, grateful that his insistence on preserving his firm’s culture of innovation was honored.
“The software industry is very creative and abstract work, and you have to know how to foster that culture,” he said. “If you’re too easy, you’re going to get run over. I was known for telling it like it is and being true to myself, honest and up-front and open to new ideas.”
Cormier credits his roots in Leominster for keeping him grounded. His wife, Karen, is a Fitchburg native, and they raised their now-grown children in Massachusetts despite opportunities to live elsewhere.
“One of the best compliments I’ve ever had was from the ex-CIO of a major movie production studio, who is now a Red Hat employee,” Cormier recalled. “He said, ‘I used to be a customer of Paul’s when I was at the studio, and one of the things I realized as an employee is Paul’s the same thing, whether you’re a customer or an employee.’ I always cite my Leominster roots for that. You’ve just got to be yourself.”
On the wall of Red Hat’s headquarters is one of Cormier’s favorite quotes: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."
Looking at the arc of his career, Cormier is appreciative of its winding path.
“I was comfortable at DEC and could have stayed there forever,” he said. “But I went to a start-up, then back to a bigger company, then back to a 100-person company. It was always about the mission and the problems to be solved. I was too busy trying to make the company successful. If you do the other stuff right, success comes.
“I think one of the most important things for executives is don't be afraid to fail, and be open to the best idea, which can come from anywhere,” Cormier continued. “Having the title doesn’t mean you have the best ideas or you’re the smartest person in the room. Always be open to new ideas and to bring them to the forefront.”