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Subject: [hangout] GNU/Linux Skills become more valuable
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Linux Unchained Linux use is growing faster than the talent pool needed
to support it. Here's how IT managers see the problem and what they're
doing about it.
Video: Decreasing the time, cost, risk associated with business
integration - Gartner analysts describe the benefits and the pitfalls
of application integration
News Story by Mary K. Pratt
NOVEMBER 22, 2004 (COMPUTERWORLD) - Customers of GAF3 Solutions tell the
technology services provider that they want to use Linux because they
hear it's reliable, robust and relatively inexpensive. But a customer
recently balked at the one-month delay to install a Linux server. Why
such a long wait? GAF3's Linux expert was overextended, says George
A. Fitch III, president and CEO of the Dover, N.H.-based company.
High demand has Fitch wondering if he should charge extra for
Linux-related work. If he does, he wouldn't be alone.
Linux is gaining ground so quickly that some companies are having
a hard time finding enough people to handle Linux-related work. And
those they do find charge a premium, according to The Yankee Group,
a market research firm in Boston. Skilled Linux administrators in major
metropolitan markets command 20% to 30% salary premiums over their Unix
and Windows counterpartsa fact that could diminish the cost savings that
many companies bank on when they switch to Linux.
"It's really hard to find good, qualified help that doesn't charge you
so much," says Laura DiDio, an analyst at Yankee Group.
Not all IT managers concur with that assessment, but they do agree that
the growth of Linux requires a retooling of tech workers. They can't throw
their Windows people into Linux projects without additional training,
and though Unix staffers can pick up Linux more quickly, even they need
time to get up to speed.
Linux experts and enthusiasts cite a litany of skills that companies need
for Linux systems work. Experience with programming and documentation
is key. The ability to edit files and modify source code is important,
too. Management experience is another plus.
Linux Unchained Image Credit: Michael Miller Those skills aren't
overly difficult to find, says Michael J. Ciaraldi, a computer science
professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. But other
skillsnamely expertise in networking and graphicsaren't so easy to locate.
"Another skill in Linux is you have to be willing to ask other people
for help," Ciaraldi adds. For those who do seek help, there are Web sites
and user groups that share information on how to use and modify Linux.
DiDio compares the skills needed for Linux today to those sought for
network administrators 15 or 20 years ago. "What you're basically looking
for is that eclectic network administrator or software developer from
circa 1988someone who knows lots of different things," she says.
While some say the lack of personnel with Linux expertise affects the
rate at which companies adopt the open-source system, others say IT
departments are finding the skills they need without much extra effort
or additional pay.
"If you have someone who has experience with other operating systems, I
don't think it's all that difficult switching over to Linux," Ciaraldi
says. "Conceptually, the commands are the same, the structure is
similar. It's just learning what the exact commands are to accomplishing
Tom Pratt, IT manager at Coastal Transportation Inc., a shipping company
in Seattle, agrees. He oversees a mixed environment that includes seven
Linux servers and two Linux desktops. Pratt says he had no problem
learning Linux, and he wouldn't expect to encounter any problems finding
skilled help if necessary. A Unix administrator could easily evolve into
a Linux administrator with self-directed training, Pratt says. "If you
can read, that's the primary skill you need," he adds.
Not So Fast
Not all companies are comfortable moving ahead with Linux without skilled
workers, however. Ciaraldi remembers one New Jersey company, which was
working with Worcester Polytech students, that decided against a Linux
server when it realized it didn't have in-house Linux expertise.
And for companies that like flexible IT staffs, Linux can present a
problem. "The hardest thing I'm finding is someone who is very good
in Linux and can support Windows," says Dan Agronow, vice president
of technology at The Weather Channel Interactive Inc., or Weather.com,
Agronow says he hasn't had any trouble finding staffers with Linux skills,
but those with both Linux expertise and Windows skills are rare. "Most
people aren't as broad as that," he says.
Like others, Agronow says he believes someone with Unix experience can
easily make the transition to Linux, but he suggests that the significant
differences between Windows and Unix/Linux could keep some companies
from adopting Linux. "If you were an all-Windows shop, maybe you don't
have the contacts to hire a Linux person," he says.
Besides, companies want more than Linux skills, experts say. They want
business experience, too. "It's certainly possible to hire junior systems
administrators who have great knowledge in Linux," says Mark Mellis,
a consultant at SystemExperts Corp., a Sudbury, Mass.-based provider of
network security consulting services.
"The place where you run into trouble is typically they know the
technical bits, but they don't understand the business," he says. "They
understand the details of the implementation, but they don't understand
the greater architectural details or the big picture. That's why they're
Even companies that rely on their senior Unix workers for help with Linux
systems are encountering problems, DiDio says. "There's a presumption
that if these guys could do Unix, then Linux should not be that much
of a stretch for them. So they're throwing them into the trenches,"
but they're not always prepared to handle all the tinkering that needs
to be done, she says.
The famously collaborative Linux community tries to pooh-pooh this,
according to DiDio. "They'll say, 'We have thousands of developers who
will jump in and help out' " via Linux chat rooms and Web sites, she
says. "While that sounds very nice, that's not going to take the place
of skilled in-house staff."
While Unix people may be able to make the transition to Linux over time,
the shortage of skilled Linux personnel today is forcing some companies to
look to vendors for help. But DiDio says even the big Linux distributors
like Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc. "don't have thousands of tech support
people" to meet growing demand for Linux-related services.
DiDio cites the case of a major stock exchange that switched from
Unix to Linux. The organization had to default to its hardware vendor,
Hewlett-Packard Co., for installation help and service. "This is how
people are going to make their money on Linuxselling the premium technical
service and support," she says.
And while that window of opportunity won't last forever, it may exist
for the foreseeable future.
"I think there will be more demand as deployment continues," says Dick
Mackey, principal at SystemExperts. "And I think the demand will increase
before the supply of skilled people will be available. It will be a good
market for those people."
Meanwhile, companies are trying to close the Linux skills gap by sending
staffers for training and hiring new people specifically for their Linux
experience. "And some of the smaller companies are asking employees to
go out and teach themselves," says Ciaraldi.
Peter Childers, vice president of global learning services at Raleigh,
N.C.-based Red Hat, says he has seen demand for the company's Linux
training and certification courses increase dramatically. Today, there are
more than 12,800 Red Hat Certified Engineers and 5,900 Red Hat Certified
Technicians, a designation launched in January 2003. And 97% of people
attending training are sponsored by their companies, Childers says.
As manager of technical support at Boscov's Department Store LLC in
Reading, Pa., Joe Poole oversees about 85 IT staffers, five of whom
maintain the company's Linux system. He sent two staffers to a one-week
Linux training course run by IBM, paying about $5,000 for both to
attend. Those two workers now train colleagues in Linux.
"There's a scarcity of people who are absolutely trained in Linux, and
that's all they do," Poole says. "But there's no scarcity of people who
can pick it up."
Even so, Linux personnel seem increasingly valuable. Regardless of how
you increase the level of Linux expertise in your IT shop, beware of
companies that might try to raid your staff, particularly competitors
in your industry, DiDio says. "Make [workers] sign on the dotted line
if you train them that they'll stay with you for a year or two," she says.
Pratt is a freelance writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at
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