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Does Open Source Experience Help in Today’s Job Market?

Everyone is saying recessions benefit open source. Is the same true for job seekers?

I’m old enough to remember a couple of recessions. I can recall when my dad was laid off in 1982 and struggled to find work as a welder for nearly a year. I largely missed the recession of the early 90s since I was in college but was smack dab in the middle of the 2000-2001 Internet bubble. Still, none of these seem to compare to what we’re seeing now: More than 6 million US workers are drawing unemployment benefits, 600,000 laid off last month alone. Tech wasn’t necessarily at the heart of this crisis but it’s feeling it’s share of the pain with layoffs at Novell, Sun, IBM, Microsoft and a slew of others.

It goes without saying that being laid off is a horrible experience. But if you’re new to really bad job markets or are just now trying to enter the work force it’s doubly shocking. Probably the best thing that you can know is that you’re not alone. Quite a few people have gone through or are going through a similar situation and it’s good to know that even though it’s dark — and possibly getting darker1 — these cycles do happen and we will come out of it.

There’s a lot of chatter going around that open source excels in recession environments. I’m a little on the fence about that claim — I remember watching Red Hat’s stock price following their IPO and the 2001 stock crash; it was a good 2+ years before it recovered. Things may be vastly different today then they were in 2001 — and I hope they are — but what I’m interested in talking about today is whether open source benefits anyone looking for a job right now. In theory, if open source companies grow in a recession, they should also be hiring.

I suppose I could whip up a list of ways to beef up your resume with open source, but I’m not all that good at that sort of thing (hopefully something like that will appear in the comments). Rather, I thought I’d share my own tale of recession, jobs, and how open source figured in.



In 2000-2001, when the Internet bubble started to collapse, not only were companies laying people off in droves but a huge number of companies were simply disappearing overnight. As quickly as everything had been built, it came crashing down doubly fast, and the result was, for the most part, employment chaos. I was working as a software developer at the time and in the span of a year I changed jobs three times, moving to a new position generally just before the previous company failed.2 I was actually pretty fortunate and able to find work until about late-2001 when I was laid off the day before Thanksgiving (Happy Holidays!). I spent the next year more or less freelancing and not being paid until I landed a job… writing Active Server Pages (ASP).

This was a pretty low point in my career. Writing ASP isn’t exactly a ton of fun but when you pair it with the most boring work in the world (Intranets that never launch! Meetings — so many meetings, a management ban on COM objects, &c.), it starts to grate on you. I used to invent excuses to go play with the HP3000 just for a change of pace. It was a paycheck, but something had to change.

Eventually, I decided that open source would be the best outlet for my frustrations and tried to spend as much time with it as I could. I started by talking the head sys admin into allowing my Linux laptop onto the network (the only Linux machine box on a network of something like 750 machines). I introduced the guy in the cubicle next to mine to Cygwin, and the two hit it off instantly. Somehow convinced management that we needed a Linux server just to run cron jobs since *.bat files were prone to error (still not sure how I managed this one). And generally threw myself at Python.

I learned the language (it “fits your brain“) and wrote it every chance I could. I made some (very small) contributions to open source projects, wrote Python documentation and started a short-lived magazine. Eventually, I caught the attention of the crew at Linux Magazine and by late-2002 I was running a PHP conference for the company. I’ve been hanging around ever since.

So, that’s my (extremely linear and abbreviated) tale, from nearly 10 years ago. It leaves out a lot of the long nights spent hunched over a laptop, the bone-shaking worry about the crumbling job market, and downright luck that I fell into the position that I did. But it was a path that followed a trail of open source crumbs. And, in the end, it worked for me.

Now, I’d like to hear what you think. Is open source the best path to a job in today’s market? And, if so, how should someone go about it? Are you out of work and looking for advice? Drop a note in the comments; maybe someone can help.

1 Probably. Maybe. There are optimists among us.

2 On one memorable Tuesday morning, I got an IM from a friend still working at the job I had left a week before saying they couldn’t print anything over the network. “Why?” I asked. Because the printers were too busy printing everyone’s checks. The company was evicted from the building later that day.

Comments on "Does Open Source Experience Help in Today’s Job Market?"

goldharv

I was laid off last May and landed a great job in July. I’ve volunteered on an open source Linux distribution. Since my job duties were to be the local Linux guru during a Linux port, my experience helped a lot in landing the job.

don

My experience in New Zealand – which is so influential – is that yes it would help, if you also know Windows.

judging by most of the ads I come across, and from talking to people, most MS shops are more interested in people who *also* have Linux skill.

Unfortunately the last time I did any real MS support it was Small Business Server on NT4 :-(

here2serve

OSS helped me land my first IT job. I was laid off and helped fix some computer problems at the dept of Labor. I had no degree/certs. The DOL told me a position was open that I did NOT qualify for so they couldn’t send to the Company. Then they told me the address. I was hired because of my OSS background. During the recent round of lay offs I was let go. I should have been documenting how much money I was saving the company and making sure the bean counters knew it. Get the quotes from the vendors!!! Bean counters and HR don’t know much about OSS but can juggle the numbers.

kgish

Getting laid off is never easy, look at me, it’s the third time in my long and unpredictable career. This time however it’s seems much worse than the other times, and I’m bracing myself for a long haul. No matter what happens, I’m confident that things will eventually pick up at some point in the future. It always has. So I just need to hang in there until that happens, busying myself in a productive and useful way.

So let’s take something negative and transform it into something positive, alright? Just like a snake that must shed it’s skin every once in awhile in order to grow, this is an opportunity to shed the past, move forward and re-energize myself with something new. Look at all those computer books I’ve collected and never had time to learn. Pick a subject, any subject and dive in. Play around with the new technology, explore the many possibilities and become an expert.

I’ve decided to hone my Java skills and become a J2EE expert, and on the side maybe even learn some Python. It will take some time, but if there’s one thing I have alot of lately, then that’s time. Get involved in an open source project, attend various seminars and congresses, and even volunteer to help out at some stands passing out folders and talking to people.

Then when the future comes I will be better prepared. Who knows, maybe by doing all this learning stuff I will somehow influence the future, subconsciously attracting the perfect job with the perfect kind of work. Hey, I can’t wait.

Getting laid off is never easy, but let’s make the best of it. It might even end of being kind of fun.

mxyzplk

Hi, I’m a hiring manager in the Web operations space. I’m not sure it’s any different “right now” that it is usually, but I always see open source experience as a plus.

Ironically, we don’t run a huge amount of open source in production (depending on how you define it – there’s pure FOSS, sold open source, but even many “proprietary” packages use plenty of open source in ‘em). But we know that someone with open source experience is likely, in our experience, to have a “deeper” knowledge of technology. We use FAST search and Vignette content management, but even if we could find people with those exact skill sets (which is hard), someone with Lucene and Drupal experience knows all the same concepts and potentially has more real hands-on. You get a lot of people with “point and click” experience with various technologies that get put on their resumes, and that’s not what we need. It’s no guarantee, you have to interview hard on it, but on the average I would say applicants with open source experience have more deep/hardcore technical chops.

cm1967

I’m not laid off but definitely having a hard time in the current job market. A couple of years ago, I decided to resign my extremely stressful Information Security position of 6 years and go out on my own. I started an Open Source IT Consulting company and the first year I was, surprisingly, very busy. This past year, however, has been tough. I think the problem is that small companies just don’t have the money to spend on IT projects right now. Looking back, was it a mistake to leave my well paying job? Yes and no. It was very stressful, I was working 80 hours a week, and I didn’t get to see much of my wife and very young daughter. So, on that side, it was definitely a good idea to leave. Now, on the other side, I sure miss the salary. I’m usually not driven by money but in this economy it would be nice to have a little more than I do right now. This past week, I was able to land a pretty good 90-day contract position doing Information Security work. I still have the Open Source consulting business and I’m hoping the work will pick up once this economy picks up because I really do enjoy working for myself.

xjlittle

I thoroughly enjoyed your article and the comments. It’s nice to see comments with substance.

I left my job in December. I have since worked one 2.5 week contract that was a rush job and netted about 60 hours a week. I haven’t worked since although there are some promising things going on.

Does open source experience help? To answer this I could probably touch on every previous comment as they all touched on my experience.

For a long while I too saw the ads “Linux experience would be nice”. This seems to be shifting to either a good mix of windows and open source and in some cases specific to open source.

It has been a long while since I did any serious Windows admin work so that part of it doesn’t help. I do appreciate the comments of the hiring mangager above though about open source people seem to have a deeper technical understanding how to work on a system. As I interview and talk with [Windows] it seems as though I am starting to see this realization come about as well.

Yes, being laid of is hard mentally, emotionally and physically. Some days are diamonds and others are pure stone. Like the commenter above I try to make good use of my time learning something new. I have studied and passed test 1 of the LPIC exam and need to get started on studying for the 2nd test. While sometimes it is hard to follow my own advice the best any of us can do is to make ourselves more proficient at our jobs or learn something new as he mentioned.

For what it’s worth to anyone I have had much better luck using CareerBuilder for job searches with open source. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a hit from Monster that went anywhere.

cm1967

I, too, have had some pretty good experiences with CareerBuilder. Have had good experience with Dice, too. Monster just seems to be a place to input your information and then get spammed to death. Personally, I’m thinking the current economy could be good for Open Source. Not just Linux but some of the really good Open Source office applications. The current company that I am doing the 90-day Info Security work for is getting ready to upgrade to the latest version of MS Office. Not knowing much about Microsoft software and, especially, Office, I don’t even know what version that would be. It’s a shame, really, that businesses appear to be “stuck” to Microsoft. Schools, too, for that matter. From my experience as a consultant, a lot of companies either don’t know about Open Source or want nothing to do with it. I think it’s all due to a lack of understanding of what Open Source is and what it stands for. I’m working with a couple of fellow geeks here in the Indy area on getting the word out about Open Source. We’ll see where it goes.

mchirico

As a contractor, I’m in a constant state of finding the next job. In between gigs, I spend a lot of time reading about open source and programming.

There seems to be two very large benefits.

1. It keeps your passion up for technology. I loose sleep dreaming about thread programming, changing SELinux configuration, playing with Project Euler problems in several languages etc. It’s a passionate loss of sleep.

2. Sometimes I loose it on interviews by getting extremely excited about a topic – the setting changes from an interview process to a common passion about computers and software. There’s the rapid exchange of information. You’ll be in for a 1 hour interview, and before you know it the white-board is covered with code, and the cleaning people want to get into the room to vacuum.

I guess in reality you work because you have to; but, open source can really help bring meaning to everything – because you can dig down into the code, modify and create. When you think about it, maybe you want to work with passionate people. Maybe employers want passionate employees.

lelnet

I’d be careful about drawing conclusions about the health of open source from the performance of open source companies like RedHat on the stock market.

Open source experience is always valuable, but I would say it’s probably more valuable in tough times than great ones, all other things being equal. Lots of shops are looking to replace commecial software (and its expensive licensing fees) with open source. And for those who are employed, the unix jockeys at a company are likely to be among those to shut the lights off, rather than being among the first to be dismissed in response to changing fortunes. Without us, after all, the infrastructure to support whatever operations remain online won’t work.

wassuse

Hi xjlittle and Bryan and fellow readers.

I have been a passionate Linux and more recently opensource user/Adminitrator for the last 11 years(Since linux first hit it big in 1998, when i was 20). Alot has changed, but alot has not changed as well.

I do not live in Sydney, Austrlia, I live in the “Capital” Canberra. Sure it is the “Capital” like Washingtton is the Capital of The States. But whereas Washington probably has the best of everything, Canberra does not. Events and Conferences of any kind, but more importatntly anything Opensource,hardly ever come here. Linux is not even on the radar of employers. For a City which has the hioghest per capita population of Linux Developers in OZ(After all most of the PPC Linuxc p-ort5 was done in the Austarlian National University), Canberra is totally Linux agnostic. Not just from employers, but users as well.

I have refined my job serches to seek.com.au, and careerone.com.au In IT-> Networks and Systems-> Linux , Unix Open source etc. When looking under any of these categories last year and only a handfull of years before, have I ever come across pure Linux or Hybrid Linux or Unix or for that matter Linux and Windows hybrid jobs. 90% of them only want Solaris, and /or Windows XP, but more likely Windows server 2002,(whatever it was around 200) and now 2003.

Especially in canberra this is true. i spend 2 hours every 2nd day on these websites for anything remotely Linux or FOSS. I have found probably what I can count on 1 hand ever being general FOSS(and then not the areas I am trained in), or on two hands Linux jobs in all this time.

Before 2-3 years ago, there wasn’t any Linux/Unix jobs available in Canberra. I have been looking for Linux Sys Admin jobs for almost the entire last 8 years. Mostly, thses have beeen as thin on the ground as thin ice, and now there is absolutely nothing. So yes, I too am having a VERY tough time.

I have had 6 jobs in the last 8 years(mostly in the last 2), and if you have been Unemployed for ANY period of time, or have had some tough times as i have, 97% of employers don’t want to look at you. Although I have spruced up my resume with a table layout for all my credentials(which has at least piqued the interest of 1 hardware shop).

So it is not and hopefully will not be all doom and gloom. I sed to be a Linux Zealot. Now , I am mostly a use-open-source-wherever-you-can plus whereever-it-is-practical, kind of guy. I love using Openssue 11 on my Desktop. Got Debian Lenny rc1 + Windows Vista on my laptop. (Gonna switch back to Ubuntu + win though).

I love perl scripting, interested in Python, have built my own Linux media Centre on mythdora, and also love sharing open Source tidbits with my Brother who is also a Linux freak. Linux for me is as much of a social event as a hobby. I have a few old friends who are Linux oldhands as well

I am still wanting to advertise my Linux Media centre or Admin jpobs as a freelancer. I think that will be the only way I will get more permanent work on FOSS.

But, for all you Unemployed linux Lovers like me, hold on there, Linux will be forever here, so it must become a hot career booster 1 day.

So, yeah, thanks, for the great, thoughtful, and generous article, and thanks for caring Bryan. love the mag, and to all the FOSS community, thanks for one of my great loves, and ways out of trouble: OSS.

jvin248

Companies are looking for open source options. However, without a push they fear the ‘retraining’ fud that gets thrown in there and they are worried about moving to a new platform for already overworked (since many were let go already). That’s where people with a passion for open source really come into play.

Get a company to start using Open Office and Firefox first, then Inkscape, Gimp, and Thunderbird; all on Windows and they start to get a comfortable feeling for open source. Then help make the transition to Linux using these same ‘carry over’ applications.

Big advantages start to enter when a company can move to client-server (Ubuntu with LTSP enabled) for their whole office and they transform what were hardware expenditures (upgrading XP or forced into Vista and thus hardware upgrades) into savings. And then find IT management costs can go way down too – allowing IT to be working on real activities that can push the business forward rather than rooting out the latest virus on 15 fat clients.

Having both Windows and Open Source experience is a great advantage for those who know of it (and more are looking and learning).

xjlittle

cm1967 we need to find a way to get in touch. I too am in the Indy area. I’m a little hesitant about putting an email address in a public forum like this though. Any thoughts on how to connect?

xjlittle

rajeevdada12

Somebody in this discussion alluded to point and click people. After 12 years of experience in the industry where I have usually been successful at my job, I find myself to be “one of those” kinds of people.I have spend the last 12 years working for software shops, consulting firms and even had a stint as a indepandant contractor doing technical work. Everybody I work with thinks I am a technical guy.My experience gets my resume noticed with top brand companies.I however usually falter during the technical round with these companies because I have allways had to work within boundries of a specific technical/solution architecture. This has limited my ability to truly be technical especially in J2EE and related technologies. I know I understand the framework well and I know I can be a successful architect/lead but when I interview with the really good compaines I allways falter in the technical rounds because I have never got the opportunity to truly build something from ground up and hence allways find that I know the answer to a technical question after I look something up in Google.
In my opinion Open source changes all that. I can now truly “know” things and to me it is the advantage I have struggled to get with all my previous jobs. I know that if I lose my current consulting gig , I will be spending the next few months not just working with OSS but use my industry experience to create new solutions. I have allways had a ton of ideas for things. OSS now gives me a platform to implement those. As a by product I also think that it will help me become more technical and less the point and click person that I seem to be coming off as.

lewisjen

Generally, knowing an open source technology is very helpful, but you still need to know the commercial technologies (ex: Microsoft) to get the job (Java programming is one of the exceptions).

Most companies are still gun-shy about choosing open source solutions because they don’t really understand them. The biggest misconceptions that I see with the decision makers and open source is: “there’s no ‘proper’ support for the product like there is with commercial products”, “the product is not really popular in the market so it will be difficult for me to find IT people to support it”, “IT people who specialize in the open-source product are much more expensive than IT people who specialize in commercial products because the product is such a niche”, and “Most of my hardware won’t work with an open source solution”.

Like others have mentioned, the best way to introduce open-source to companies is from the inside. You have to show how the product will benefit the business. The decision makers don’t care if the technology is cool – they care about cost and benefit to the business.
- What are the short and long term cost savings for going open source? Even though the product is free, is it going to cost a lot of money for product support, and is it going to cost a lot of money to purchase hardware that will support the product?
- What are the industry standard salaries for IT professionals who specialize in the open source technology?
- Are there enough IT professionals in the job market to fill a position, or is it such a niche product that one would have to wait for six months before filling an empty position?
- How much will productivity increase if the company switches to the open source product?
- How much labor cost will be reduced if the company switches to the open source product?
- What is the security strategy for the open source technology?
Show proof of your findings as well. If you can, set up a pilot program with the open source technology so you can gather statistics for the decision makers.

xjlittle

cm1967 or anyone else who wants to join me on linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/in/johnslittle

theejoey

My first real tech job was in a govt position tending to a suite of PC’s. After numerous tech issues, impromptu conferences (it was a tech college), and altering some of the landscape, my contract ended and I found myself busy as a freelance. I resolved problems quite quickly and so my name spread a little. Mac, Unix, and windows featured on my verbal resume, and I had word of mouth as a reference.

After some time things dried up – I had fixed problems properly, taught everyone quite well, and so the turn around was quick and repeat business was near zero. I entered uni soon after and completed the first year or two of an engineering degree before finding myself needing something else.

I then left uni, wrote an unpublished book on a scientific phenomena, looked for something concrete on the job market, but unfortunately I am classified as a point-n-click, to use a term I see for the first time here. That’s despite my ability to find and solve problems in generally a small fraction of the time of a so-called professional, and the ability to learn something properly, and very quickly. I thought stuff it, if they want second rate they’re welcome to it – I’m giving my time instead of accepting money.

I now work in an office that’s digitizing records on a shoe-string. You know wots coming next – with a constraint on purchasing power there is a need to search for alternatives. That is specifically why I was taken on. Open source has been a major inspiration in our search for what we need.

The teams machines were donated from other departments. They’re well and truly out of date, however they are all loaded with the latest XP and the team were able to work peripherals into the workflow quite well before I arrived.

I became a part of this team quite recently, and began searching for the tools that were required to put this project together.

There are enormously expensive solutions to the problems that were faced. This was hugely impractical. After searching through a great number of packages, we found that we could achieve close to “worlds best practice” using software that was quite cheap, and hardware that was yesterday. In fact, much of the expensive stuff didn’t come close. Apparently many projects around the world have spent tens of thousands of dollars to do what we are achieving for a very small fraction of the cost. And our work is pretty much as effective as the best of them.

Open source is not a favourite of the people on our team, since they are used to windows machines. However Gimp has become a hero for its “free”dom, simplicity, and power, and various other software, open-source and/or shareware at nominal prices, have become a necessity.

It amazed all on our team that a small investment of time and minimal resources could match the best on an international level. Open source has featured prominently in our success.

For myself, linux and J2EE are my next projects. My limitations include a ppc mac that is just now complaining to me of its age. Despite this, I’ve got netbeans running and am planning my first homepage, complete with all the tricky bits.

Here in Adelaide we don’t have much in the way of employment for techies. Sydney is better, but I’ve found that word of mouth, for permanent and other work, is almost the only way to go. That means you gotta push a little, and keep a good outlook while also gently probing for job opportunities. I’m also hoping that I find my investment of time and energy a good “timewaster”, so to speak.

I hope this adds something useful to a quite intelligent pool of comments, and thankyou all for writing what you did – I appreciated reading it enormously.

theejoey

You know how it is – you write something and then notice that you missed something important.

I am not the only tech savvy one on our team. There are a couple of others like me, but they wanted a fresh perspective, and while I have contributed a fair bit, it would not be fair to take all the credit. It may have seemed like I did. It was unintended. The whole team are amazingly clever, able to learn, and come to this project with many years of experience in IT.

thatblackguy

I was a Network Operations Manager for Ameritech Long Distance Industry services in from 1993-1996, and just when the internet was becoming a must-have, we were training our main-framers how to get around Unix with Slackware Linux. Then Redhat came out with it’s distribution’s famous redhat package manager and changed the way we (at Ameritech) thought about Linux. We ended up setting up almost every Unix service we could like NIS, DNS, BOOTP, and others using linux. This gave us a an expensive option, and made more sense than using or purchasing our pricey Sun SparcStations, HPs, and RS/6000s. Since then I have been using Linux and all the softwares and servers it comes with, I have been fortunate to be exposed to probably every major distribution, and many of the smaller special distro’s which makes me comfortable with Linux and open source software capabilities..

Because of this experience, I have been able to provide businesses with viable alternatives that save them money, and are just as feature rich as their proprietary counterparts. You can read more about this at http://intelliginix.com.

Businesses want software that works without spending an arm and a leg. Just think if you bought server 2008 today with 25 user license, and the purpose was just to house a few databases, some file/print servers, some network services, and an application or two, right off you’re spending $3000-$4000 for the OS, $6000 for the database, and just keep tacking on more, and more for the applications (let’s say ERP/CRM which would be scary). When I could have a lot of the same features for free!

Thatblackguy

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