From counterculture flag to corporate player

Is there such a thing as a Linux person?

In 2006, then Massachusetts' CIO Peter Quinn described the open-source community as the "sandal and ponytail set," and claimed that image and appearance made open source a harder sell for use in his state government. While those are some pretty powerful words, it begs the question: is there such a thing as a "Linux person?"

According to Anil Uberoi, chief marketing officer at Linux data centre automation solution provider Levanta, the stereotypical Linux mindset can clash with some IT managers. "When Linux was new and immature, the open-source mindset was quite different from that of proprietary operating systems, resulting in cultural clashes," says Uberoi. "As Linux has matured, this has lessened for the most part."

In today's IT environment, new applications and platforms are transitioning to Linux, and there is an underlying concern that this means new people have to go with the platform.

About five years ago, Mindbridge Software, an open-source software developer based in Norristown, Pennsylvania, migrated away from Microsoft production server platforms to Linux production server platforms.

"Our experience may be fairly unique with regards to the environments we deal with," says David Christian, CTO of Mindbridge Software. "While we have chosen Linux as our primary server platform, overwhelmingly our clients have chosen Windows as their primary server platform. This has meant that we need to understand a litany of Windows technologies as well as, or better than, our clients."

Windows by day, Linux by night?

According to Christian, when a client's operating system platform is to change from Windows to Linux, one of the main issues that concern them is whether their staffs have the ability to support Linux. However, surprisingly, he finds that many are already familiar with Linux.

"The interesting thing that I have experienced is that a significant percentage of the technicians are Windows administrators by day and Linux administrators by night, adds Christian. "That is, a significant percentage of their staffs are paid by their firms to administer Windows, but at night, they go home to a network that includes one or more Linux boxes. Often, their immediate supervisors are vaguely aware of this, while the C-levels are completely unaware of the multi-platform expertise that exists within their organisations."

Christian states that he does not really know "Linux people". He says that people, who work well with Linux, excel at breaking problems into their component parts and are not hesitant to seek help from their peers. Such workers are very valuable. It is not just the technical skill that is desirable, but also their approach obstacles and challenges that organisation's face.

"Linux thinking isn't uncommon in today's IT organisations, and neither are IT employees who are focused on Linux in their organisations," says Elizabeth Ziph, President and CEO of Michigan based Linux Box Corporation, an open-source software development practice and consultancy.

"I spoke to one large customer today that is migrating their base from proprietary Unix to Linux and is comfortable that their staff can handle it well. The staff is not 'think Linux' but 'think what's best for the organisation' type of people."

Linux users as IT problem solvers

What is best for the organisation is often a third eye for solving problems. Organisations that see this and harness such ability are in good shape.

"Linux people are creative solution providers that aim to come up with open and innovative ways of solving problems. There are organisations that prefer to opt out of the opportunity that Linux and Linux-savvy employees offer them. This has historically been due to the complexity associated with the flexibility of the platform, and the lack of human resources that can harness that potential," says Paul Pietkiewicz, a Linux developer for Trusted Computer Solutions.

According to Jeff Nielsen, a senior product manager at Symark Software the wide variety of Linux software provides the ability to integrate programs into a larger systems which fosters a "let's monkey around with this and see what we can create" mentality. This, he believes, is a valuable skill that can be dangerous if uncontrolled. Like Pietkiewicz, Nielsen believes that people who are successful at Linux, have a certain knack for creative problem solving.

Nielson believes that such workers have a certain discipline in their thinking that enables them to solve problems. He cites an anecdote from an earlier period in his career where a summer intern worked in his organisation. The intern was the son of a co-worker came to work in his organisation.

"This was his first real experience in corporate IT, but he had a good background in Linux from working on computers at home and at school," explains Nielsen. "As I worked with him, I was impressed that he had an incredible knack for looking at a computer issue, methodically determining where a problem was and figuring out a solution. I found that I could give him a problem, he would go off and work on it for a while and then come back with a solution, all with minimal supervision. The troubleshooting skills he had developed playing with his Linux computers had given him a problem solving discipline similar to my other guys that had been in IT for 20 years."

Nielsen cautions that Linux enthusiasts are not always well received when they propose migrating systems to Linux. Such a proposal may make the messenger not so popular.

"Migrating systems from one platform to another inevitably causes a lot of disturbance to the business operations of a company, as well as additional costs," says Nielsen. "It is not simply a matter of buying a new server, installing Linux and you're good to go. There are always issues to be handled during a platform migration, impacts to the network and user workstations, and lost productivity in business operations due to data migration, employee training, etcetera"

The problem solving skills and their creative nature are not enough to sell the merits of the open-source technology they seek to promote. Nielsen stresses the importance of Linux people being mindful that business needs drive applications, and applications drive operating system choices. If they are mindful of this, they will fit in well.

"If they see Linux as a religion or just better than everything else and try to reverse this hierarchy, they'll be a problem," he says. "The ideal Linux person is a combination of someone who has good technical skills and a solid understanding that business needs drive IT and also the choice to use Linux. Linux itself is not the business driver."

Making clients comfortable with "makeshift" solutions

Technical expertise obviously count. In fact technology solutions intended to be run on a Linux system sometimes get scrapped because there are no staffers well versed in Linux technology.

"We had a client who was looking for a backup solution but didn't want to invest the money in a fancy Network Attached Storage (NAS) device which were very expensive at the time," says Michael Weisel, CTO of Gold Lasso, an email service provider servicing the middle and enterprise marketplaces. "We came up with the idea of using an inexpensive older PC with a large hard drive in it to solve the budgetary problem. The system was in place and working well unmanaged but as soon as someone on staff had to touch it, they got frustrated.

"Since there was no one on their internal staff who had the Linux knowledge, the makeshift NAS went by the wayside and was replaced with another more expensive solution. That same scenario worked fine in other situations where it was either managed or someone had a better concept of how the system worked."

When there is support for a Linux solution, David Christian believes that the onus is on management to document the solutions and ideas that Linux workers provide. This is to preserve their knowledge for the benefit of others in the extended organisation.

"When systems are not documented, the results are the same; a network of computers whose operation is a mystery, explains Christian. "This is simply an unacceptable condition. That being said, it is management's role to continually reinforce the need for documentation and to reward those who go out of their way to educate their less knowledgeable peers.

"At the end of the day, this is a management problem, not a technology problem."

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