There but for fortune go you or go I

by Jon «maddog» Hall, president of non-profit organisation Linux International and global GNU/Linux pioneer. The article is reproduced with consent of mr Hall as well as LPI director of communications, Scott Lamberton.

Earlier this month an old acquaintance of mine, Hal Miller, wrote an open letter to SAGE, an organization that is part of USENIX and which specializes in systems administration. You can read his letter here.  I can vouch for the fact that when Hal said he was “at the top of his field”, he was there.

From his letter you can see that Hal has the same problem as a lot of people are having in this very bad economy. In the fast-paced and changing world of present-day IT it is easy to get “out of the mainstream”, and difficult to get back into it. The same thing happened years ago, where people might program with a particular programming language, or on a particular system, and as that system became obsolete, the people did not “migrate”. In time they found that they too were “obsolete”. However, in those days it was a matter of learning a new language and (perhaps) a new operating system–relatively simple compared to what is needed today.

These days, for a person like Hal to re-enter the generalized technical area it requires learning a LOT about security, virtual machines, many different operating systems, storage, and a variety of other things. Unless you have been doing this work all along, or have the luxury of having the time to “go back to school”, you may “get stuck” in the funnel that Hal is experiencing. The number of young people who have learned either through school or self-study (or both) and have “everything pat”, and are willing to work for entry-level wages is too great for hiring managers to hire someone like Hal. And Hal is correct in the fact that fewer and fewer companies are willing to send people to courses while they “learn on the job”–particularly while paying them top wages.

Yet Hal brings a lot to the table that these younger people do not have, which is years of practical and managerial experience. Unfortunately for every five or six positions there is typically only one managerial position, and this puts a crunch in a stagnant or shrinking job market.

It is interesting that Hal did end up in a management position, but recognized that he still needed to reconstruct some of his technical background. Here is where Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) shines, and if that management position is one of managing systems administrators, then LPI can definitely help. As I have said before in my blogs, the beauty of FOSS is that you can become as good (or in some ways even better) than the person who wrote the code. They may be able to swiftly change it and improve it, but you may be better able to explain to a less technical person exactly how to use the code.

I would recommend to Hal that he take a look at the LPI objectives for each level. This will give him a list of areas to study created by systems administrators in the marketplace today. Then Hal can either get books to read about these technologies or search for the information on the Web. As a manager Hal would not have to know every option to every command, but you should know what is possible with the code and what is not. Hal could aim for one of the specialty areas of LPIC-3: Mixed Environments, Security or Virtualization and High Availability. It is hard these days for someone to be an “expert” in all of those areas. By the time a systems administrator gets to that level, they start to specialize.

Also, Hal should be looking for the “next up and coming”. Facebook is the thing of today, but the “next up and coming” will be soon, and Hal can concentrate part of his expertise in that new technology.

Funny thing about the word “expert”. When I was a college student I considered a career in forestry. I visited the head forester for the state of Maryland. He was a relatively young person, only a few years out of college, and I was impressed that he bore the title of “Head Forester”. I asked him if he was an expert in forestry, and how much you had to know to be an “expert”. He smiled a little and said that he did not know how much you had to know to be an “expert”, but on the wall behind him was all the books on forestry that he had studied while he was in college. I turned to expect a wall of books, but instead was greeted by only a shelf that contained six or seven books, one each on “ecology”, “trees”, “shrubs”, “soil”, “insects”, “fauna” and a couple of others. While experience in college tells me that he also read many magazines, talked with a lot of people and did field work, it stuck with me that reading only six books went a long way to making him what most people might regard as an “expert” in forestry. How many books and how much study would make you an “expert” in security or database administration? How long would it take you to read six or eight books, absorb the information, and practice on a few inexpensive Linux PCs, or even a “group” of virtual machines?

Given an avid reader, with an hour a night in reading and another hour in “practicing”, you could probably read twenty-six books during the course of a year (one every two weeks). Yes, that would mean not watching the latest reality show on TV, or telling your family that you need a couple hours’ “quiet time” at night while they are studying for school or working on their own projects. Or it means that you quickly eat lunch at work and spend the rest of your lunch hour “practicing” (a great thing about virtual machines is that they “start up” right where you left them), but at the end of that year you probably would be considered an «expert» again.

Finally, when you feel you are ready, you can go to your boss and say that you are ready for that boost in career path, to take you back “to the top”. Of course part of this readiness might be an LPI certification that tested your knowledge, which shows your current (or future) boss that you did pick up some useful knowledge along the way.

For all the “Hal”s out there, good luck!