Lessons from a brief career in open source

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I don't think many people answer the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "I want to work in open source."

In my experience, working in the open source community is something that happens as a result of something else. I worked in open source for a short time—in fact, the mission statement of the company I worked for included the words "open source." But my path to that job was not direct and not as laser-focused as one might think.

Big decisions

I had worked my entire life in graphic design, then later in life, I began to think about my career options. Should I continue in graphics or try something else? I have a bachelor's degree in Communications, and getting a Master's degree in the same field seemed redundant, so after much thought, I decided on pursuing a Master's degree in Cybersecurity and Computer Forensics. I chose to earn my degree at Utica College.

At this point, I had no thoughts on open source and didn't even know what it was. I wasn't exposed to open source software and open source intelligence until we got into the "meat" of the program. I was intrigued by this open source thing. We had to create virtual machines with Linux to do our coursework and "compile" stuff and become a "superuser." I had purchased a cheap Asus laptop with Windows 7, thinking that would be enough. It was for some things, but I later wiped Windows out of existence and installed Linux. Much better.

One of the cool things about open source is that once you get into it you get hooked on it. You just want more of it, and you want to explore all that open source offers. This is quite unlike working with Windows or Macs, where you just curse at them. Open source creates a special bond between the software and the user.

The search begins

Once I earned my degree, I began looking for jobs. It was a bit frustrating. I did not have security clearance, and I was not a kid anymore. These seemed to be some big stumbling blocks.

I explored opportunities primarily on Indeed.com, and used other job sites, like CareerBuilder.com, Monster.com, HigherEdJobs.com, ZipRecruiter.com, and others. LinkedIn.com is also a good source for job postings, learning about a company's work in open source, and learning about a company's employees.

I wasn't making much headway in the cybersecurity field or in computer forensics. However, I did notice that many postings used words like "Linux" and "open source." I thought that might be a better path to take. So, I enrolled in several free, online courses to improve my skills and to build my credentials. You can find free courses at Cybrary.it, edX.org, and others. I have since been certified in Linux, Java, HTML, e-marketing, Google Analytics, and even FEMA emergency response.

All online and all free.

Does all that matter? Who knows? However, you can add these to a resume, and your work does show that you are making the effort to learn the craft before taking a job in it.

Local candidates only

I saw a job posting on Indeed.com for an entry-level Linux administrator. I read the job description and knew I was totally unqualified for it. In addition, the company specified it wanted local candidates only. I lived about 1,000 miles away. Of course, I applied.

Shortly after applying, I received a call from the company. I didn't have the skills and I didn't live anywhere near them. Neither of those were a problem for them as I could learn the skills and move closer. Since I had no applicable skills I would have to take a test. The test involved using certain open source programs, GitHub, Linux, and documentation. I had no idea what the guy was talking about, but I accepted the challenge and got down to the task.

I did some research, downloaded what I needed, created a GitHub account, and performed the required task. Apparently, I completed it correctly. I was offered the job. I was now working in the open source community and using some of the skills I learned in my Master's program.

Unfortunately, my job was eliminated four months later and outsourced overseas. Disappointing, of course. I have since returned to graphics, but I continue to be intrigued by open source and continue my research and writing on the subject.

Keeping it real

My advice to anyone seeking employment in open source is to embrace all that open source has to offer. Take advantage of all the free training and certifications available. Try different specialties in the open source world: graphics, business, databases, education, and so much more.

Look for positions that may seem only to touch on open source. Go ahead and apply to positions you know you'd be good at even though the job description may seem beyond you.

Keep your eyes open to the realities of the job market. Technology trends can change. Companies move or go out of business. Be flexible, be aware, and never stop learning.

I found that job descriptions and expectations change as employers and candidates get to know each other's strengths. This pretty much epitomizes what open source is all about: open, collaborative, and flexible.

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Jeff Macharyas is the Director of Marketing at Corning Community College in New York. He is a writer, graphic designer and communications director who has worked in publishing, higher education and project management for many years.


Oh I have done my fair share of cursing at Linux and open source applications as well. Dependencies, drivers, lack of documentation and why-wont-you-compile-gnarrrf. The nice thing Linux though is that you can mostly fix the problem or find an alternative. In Windows and Mac OSX I find this much harder.

I have found myself in a similar situation, but I was introduced to Linux and open source through a coworker in 2009. It has been my home OS ever since. Three years ago I retired from the Marine Corps, where I worked in the communication field, and I finished my Bachelors degree last year. Looking at the job market some jobs do seem out of reach based on job description and a lot of jobs I have found require multiple certifications from Microsoft or CompTIA, but your article has provided a new prospective on the job market. Thank you for sharing your open source work experience.

Thank you. The funny thing about job descriptions is that they really don't describe the job. For the job I described, I just found keywords that seemed to apply and disregarded the rest of it. I have found job postings in the graphics field to be similar. I think many of them are just picked up over and over again. All too often I see references to QuarkXPress (not a useful skill nowadays) or Macromedia FreeHand (not a thing anymore). So, I would advise people to not take these descriptions at face value. There might be some hook between your skills and their perceived needs that don't get addressed through these automated job systems.

PS: My son just started in the USMC and is a PFC at Camp Pendleton. Thank you.

I kinda want a Linux job but not full time. Work at my leisure so to speak.

Open source, as far as I can tell, is one of the very few highly-skilled and well-paid career paths that requires no initial monetary investment. You can learn everything you need to get started with time and dedication, but $0. Even once you get started, there are no enforced expenses; your tool chain doesn't stop being free, hidden licensing fees don't surface. It's all based on what you choose to learn and get good at.

I started my path in Linux world since 2004, and it is the best inversion I made. I am from Cuba, I moved out to USA looking for better opportunity for my career and personal life. Now I am looking for an open source job, in my country I was working as network administrator using Debian, I have been using those web sites you mentioned in this post, and I had been feeling the same as you about the skills they ask for, and now that I can see what you experienced with them no matter where you are or your current skill, I get courageous to keep trying, because I am going to be honest, I was feeling disappointed. Thanks for your story.

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